Western Europe Is Losing Its Immigrants

Eastern Europeans are returning home in droves. Here’s what that means for Eastern Europe’s economies—and the European Union.

An elderly woman waves to a volunteer during Christian Orthodox Easter celebration in Bucharest, Romania, on April 18.
An elderly woman waves to a volunteer during Christian Orthodox Easter celebration in Bucharest, Romania, on April 18. Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Svilengrad is a small Bulgarian city of around 18,000 people on the border with Turkey. It is mostly known for two very profitable endeavors: casinos and customs. And like many other small cities in Central and Eastern Europe, it has been rapidly losing people to migration in recent decades. Yet this spring, something totally unexpected happened: a population boom. “They have been returning from everywhere, mostly Western Europe,” Anastas Karchev, the mayor of Svilengrad, said in a phone conversation in November.

It isn’t that Svilengrad has become Las Vegas overnight, attracting scores of British or French high rollers. Rather, the city is just one of many places affected by COVID-19 migration, a quiet tsunami that has been sweeping the eastern part of the European continent along with the pandemic.

The trend first became noticeable in late March. At that time, a Bulgarian official involved in the pandemic response announced that tens of thousands Bulgarians had already returned that month. By early summer, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians had come home. Similar waves swept the rest of the region.

To get a sense of the real scope of the return, my team at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ office in Sofia, Bulgaria, examined data from Bulgaria between March and May of this year, the dates of the country’s first lockdown. We assumed that anyone who was willing to brave the country’s checkpoints, infrequently available transportation, and 14 days of quarantine in that period was probably less likely to be traveling for leisure, tourism, or business. Government data shows that, in that period, around 550,000 Bulgarian citizens traveled back to the country. Detailed records are available for about 150,000 of those. Excluding crossings via the border with Greece, the main trade and tourism route, the number in our study came to about 121,000 people.

Looking at the data—particularly records on quarantines—it became quite clear why Svilengrad and other cities like it had started feeling crowded. In many places, quarantined returnees were equal to between 4 and 8 percent of the working-age population. Given that only about half of the people who returned to the country were quarantined, and that the data from March was patchy, the real numbers were certainly much higher.

Through social media interviews with available returnees, our study found that by far the most popular reason for return was a “desire to be with one’s family and relatives”—understandable given the scary state of the world. The second most popular reason was “loss of employment.” When asked whether they intend to go back to Western Europe at some point, over 10 percent of the respondents said, “No.” Around 16 percent said they were undecided. Among those who had been living abroad for more than a year, the percentages were 19 for the “no” camp and 47 percent undecided.

Around the world, return migration has boomed: More than 2.1 million Indians, 600,000 Afghans, and scores of others—especially migrant workers—have returned home during the pandemic, according to the International Organization for Migration. In many cases, that effect will disappear in a year or two; as global health and the economy recover, migrants will again make their way from developing to developed countries. But three things make the wave in European Union member states in Eastern Europe stand out.

First, in Eastern Europe, this trend has been long in the making. The region is the world’s worst affected in terms of population decline and outward migration. In fact, it is the only region that has seen a population decline in three consecutive decades. In many ways, that was part of the deal with the EU: You get the money, but you lose the people, as droves migrate westward for better options and lifestyles. The brain drain made divisions within the EU even more stark. It left eastern economies struggling to find the workforce to grow as quickly as needed to catch up with their wealthier western counterparts and keep their talent home. Some regions were more or less deserted, with a whole spectrum of societal and political problems stemming from that.

In the last couple of years, though, thanks to rising living standards in the east and inequality between east and west starting to even out, more and more have decided to come home. Pre-coronavirus internal EU migration data is notoriously hard to find, yet in nine of the 11 post-communist EU members, net emigration has fallen since 2010. Migration to the United Kingdom—a major magnet for Eastern Europeans—slumped sixfold in 2017, compared to previous years.

Second, the economies of Eastern Europe might be able to absorb at least a part of the new wave. Unlike the stagnating economies elsewhere in Latin America, for example, many of Central and Eastern Europe’s countries have been growing steadily. Unlike in Asia, meanwhile, where a labor glut is keeping salaries low and driving migrants abroad, the main pre-pandemic problem among businesses in Eastern Europe was a lack of labor, which in turn raised salaries. Given the trends for the shortening of supply chains, where more and more goods sold in EU will be likely produced or assembled in Europe, the influx of workers will be more than welcome.

Last, but not least, EU membership plays a role. No other labor-sending region is as connected to the labor-receiving regions as Eastern Europe is to Western Europe. Moving within the EU is relatively cheap and frictionless, which will factor in as people plan their near-future and decide whether it is worth staying and trying, even for a while. Migration has been replaced by mobility, with the European Union functioning more and more like the United States in that regard. This means that cities in the east are no longer victims but are active players in a battle for high-level talent as well as low-skilled labor. And many of them have such benefits as lower cost of living, lower unemployment levels, and (especially for their own nationals, as the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated) the allure of emotional support networks.

The question for policymakers is how to deal with the sudden influx of people. For now, local and national authorities must refocus from long-term policies to short-term measures, to try to keep some of that human capital from leaving again. Ideas can be borrowed from the United States and other places that have a long history of attracting talent. Easy access to low or no-interest rate loans; direct subsidies and tax breaks for people with proven interest in staying for longer periods; and administrative help with finding places to live, local schools, and kindergartens are key. Efforts like these do not require massive financial injections. And any initiatives that do could tap into the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the React EU funds, which contain billions of euros for such matters.

In Svilengrad, Karchev said he doesn’t know how many of new returnees will stay. Yet he does know that “salaries have skyrocketed in the past years in our local companies, and I have people telling me it’s now the same to live in Spain or here if you adjust it for purchase power parity.” It took a pandemic to find that out, but the positive effects for the region may last for generations.

Ognyan Georgiev is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.