The return of the prodigal son, Rembrandt, ca 1662, Hermitage Museum, St Petersbourg
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Emigration has presented a serious challenge for Bulgaria”s demography ever since the democratic changes in the early 1990s. Now that Bulgaria has become a member of the European Union (EU), the expectations for the further development of migration tendencies are twofold: either improved economic conditions will encourage emigrants to come back, or the removal of barriers to travel or acquiring residence rights will exacerbate even more the “brain drain” towards the West.
When I graduated from my secondary school specialized in intensive learning of foreign languages, more than two thirds of my class left to study in Germany, or, to a lesser extent, the United States. I can hardly think of a person I know in Bulgaria, who hasn”t friends or family members living, working or studying abroad. Not only the young and well educated join the cohorts of emigrants every year, even though they are naturally the most likely to do so, but also blue collar workers, people from the small towns and rural areas with high unemployment as well as Roma often choose to seek their fortune abroad.
Emigration has been among the primary causes for the negative demographic development of Bulgaria, next to low fertility rates and high death rates. Since 1990 the population has shrunk by some 900 000 people. After two decades of economic transition and despite some positive developments in recent years (decrease of unemployment, rise of foreign investment), the state doesn”t yet seem to have provided sufficiently favorable living and working conditions in order to stimulate young and promising professionals to choose to make a career in Bulgaria. After all, who could blame them for wanting to receive double and triple the amount of money for the same type of work, or even one below the level their qualification? A PhD working for the state funded Bulgarian academy of sciences might as well not think twice to work on a plant in Spain, than barely make ends meet on his research grant. Shocking as it may be, unfortunately this is still the case for many Bulgarians.
Emigration is traditionally blamed for “draining” the intellectual potential of the nation. The economic consequences of the decrease of available workforce, coupled with rising numbers of pensioners, are obviously significant. The increase in labor supply that would result from an eventual return of emigrants is also likely to drive wage levels down, currently increasing above the level of increase in labor productivity. On the other hand, the economic transfers by the emigrants in the form of savings, real estate purchases or money transfers to their families are an important source of investment in the country economy. The government strategies for migration and demography have emphasized on the need to bring these people back to Bulgaria. However, in addition to being ideologically objectionable, this strategy is likely to have ambiguous economic effects, if it impairs the liberalization of labor markets and increases bureaucracy even more.
Assuming that emigration and immigration, including both return and reintegration of nationals, go hand in hand, how will the balance between the two look like after Bulgaria”s EU accession? This is an interesting question to ask and the answer to it is not necessarily straightforward. Fears prior to accession (in 2005) that around 2 million people were likely to leave the country once the travel restrictions had been lifted, were refuted by a later study by Gallup International revealing that only 46,000 Bulgarians had serious intentions to work in another EU country, of whom only around 36,000 people intended to work there for more than a year. The opposite trend has also been anticipated and registered after the EU accession – thanks to improved economic climate more and more emigrants decide to return and other EU and third-country nationals choose Bulgaria as a country of immigration. What consequences this might have for the economic, social and political life, remains to be seen.
Find out more:
Study: Bulgarian emigration fears ‘unfounded’ in Euractiv, 15 September 2006,
William T. Bagatelas and Jana Kubicová, Bulgarian emigration – a closer look, SEER SouthEast Europe Review for Labour and Social Affairs (SEER SouthEast Europe Review for Labour and Social Affairs), issue: 04 / 2003, pages: 2735, on www.ceeol.com.
Vesselin Mintchev, Venelin Boshnakov, Iordan Kaltchev, Valentin Goev: “Who is leaving? Potential emigration from Bulgaria in the beginningof the XXI century“