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The Population Was “Frozen”: Why Hungarians Started Migrating

By Antal Örkény

Historically, Hungarians were disinclined to leave their country in search of a better life. In the new millennium, however, their mentality started to change, and by now up to half a million Hungarians are studying and working abroad. We spoke with Professor Antal Örkény about the motivations and driving forces of migration, as well as about the possible effects on the emigrants’ home country.

Green European Journal: Following the end of state socialism, the Hungarian economy was completely transformed, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs without the prospect of finding something new in the place where they lived. Were these people capable of changing their location in the hope of finding a new job?

Antal Örkény: During the years of transition, our economy was shaped by privatisation and marketisation, and they have both created huge challenges for workers. The first result of this fast, structural change has been the discontinuation of whole industries, such as mining and metallurgy, while in the meantime, complete cities were left out of the process of marketisation, and found themselves unable to compete in the new economy. Since this structural change was accompanied by a technological change, many of the previously employed workers became useless for the labour market. The situation was made worse by the fact that the years of socialism were characterised by over-employment, but on the free market it was seen as wasteful to employ more people than necessitated by the preferred output. Factories therefore laid off thousands of people, and it was left to the new owners to deal with the question of whether they wanted to provide extra training to those who they had let go, or not. 

Regardless of the huge transformations, which were accompanied by on average 14 per cent unemployment (which was lower in the capital, but much worse in many of the smaller cities), the majority of our population was “frozen”; people didn’t hurry to get new credentials, or to find jobs elsewhere in the country. Instead, the state took care of the situation by allowing many of the older workers to retire already at the age of 50. In the meantime, many of those who were still looking for jobs came from the country’s disenfranchised, poorest segments, and didn’t have the means and the level of education that would have allowed them to get a job at another location – while the government lost out on taxes, due to the high number of unemployed and retirees, and was unable to provide the support the people would have needed. Therefore, we can say that this transition to the market economy has set the ground for the severe inequality that characterised the society of post-socialist Hungary.

So basically, there were no jobs in the country and no opportunity to work abroad legally. Was that the reason why there was no mobility?

When we ask the question why people don’t move to a place where they would find a more dynamic labour market, the answer is usually: because they don’t have the necessary skills. Low-skilled workers were not needed anymore, the market preferred the white-collar workers over the blue-collar ones.

The Hungarian society has always been a closed society, and this meant, among other things, that a large part of the population didn’t speak foreign languages. This is changing now, but only very slowly. And this lack of foreign languages, combined with the deficits of the education system, gives these people a handicap that is almost impossible to overcome. They don’t know what skills would be needed or what requirements they would have to fulfil, and that leaves them unprepared for the labour market. Moreover, they don’t travel, they don’t have encounters with people abroad, and that leaves them without relevant experiences.

And when did we see changes happening?

Regarding cross-border migration, the situation only started changing following the EU-accession of Hungary in 2004, when already some countries, such as the United Kingdom, opened their labour markets to workers from the new Member States; and a few years later all other EU members followed suit. But then again, who is the kind of person who can use those opportunities? There is demand in Western European countries, such as Germany or Austria, for low-skilled workers who do the jobs that the nationals of these countries wouldn’t do. That is well known, and we see that many Hungarians work, for example, in the German construction sector. But many of these jobs were available prior to EU accession, even if often illegally. What really changed was the outflow of well-trained workers and university graduates, who, from now on, saw that they can look for work in an extended labour market which encompasses the whole of the EU.

In the case of Hungary, these new possibilities came in the early 2010s, at the same time as when the political climate also drastically changed. Therefore, the migration of workers might, to a degree, be a result of them not feeling well in their home country. They might have felt a lack of innovation in the economy, and might have been unsatisfied with the governing Fidesz party’s economic policy, which had a rather traditional approach towards growth, and expected economic success from fulfilling foreign investors’ demand for cheap labour. Many of these young people have therefore felt that there is no place for them in this economy.

This has led to a significant increase in the society’s migratory potential – which used to be remarkably low, even 10-15 years ago.

What do you mean by that migratory potential?

This looks at whether particular people have at least thought of leaving the country. This is a number that has to be treated with caution, because if we have studies according to which more than 1/3rd of Hungarian high school students are thinking about studying in a university abroad, that doesn’t necessarily mean that these young people will indeed end up abroad. They might not even take steps to leave a country, look at the application procedure, apply for school, and so on. In the early 2000s, the percentage of those who had got in touch with possible employers or had taken other relevant steps in order to find a job abroad was around 5 per cent, while the number of those who had signalled their readiness to migrate was around 10 per cent – which is a very small proportion.

This has changed after 2010: we see more and more people actively seeking the opportunity to work in Western countries, in particular the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria, or in the case of some specific jobs (for example for medical doctors), Sweden and Norway.

Here, I have to add that this trend is often accelerated by the existing network of migrants who are already in a given country or city: a person is more likely to migrate to a specific country if there is already a Hungarian diaspora – so once the first Hungarians have secured an existence abroad, many of their peers will follow suit.

And immigration has also a different connotation among the population than decades ago, when one had to break ties with his or her home country.

Definitely, that is visible globally. The improved infrastructure makes it much easier, faster, and cheaper to travel, while the revolution in communications makes it possible to stay in touch with those who remained back home. But this also means that, in terms of their mentality, many migrants don’t really leave their country behind. There were few studies conducted among emigrant populations to see how well they know the situation in their host country, and these have found that they are still much more familiar with what is going on in their country of birth: they still follow the press of their home country, still talk about the situation back home, etc.

The Chinese people are often referred to as transnational migrants, as many of their activities were historically connected to their home country: they are trading or providing services, such as running Chinese restaurants. So, they provide a link between economies. Now we see similar trends amongst other migrants as well, as many industries are created to serve the diaspora.

What impact does migration have on the economy of the home country?

Let me just give one example: it is almost a cliché that the exodus of doctors is leading to huge problems in the public health sector of Hungary. Besides the government’s disinclination to invest in the medical sector, the lack of nurses and doctors is the other factor that led to a severe crisis in public health in Hungary.

Who is going to replace the workers that are missing from the home economy? In the case of Hungary, would it be the Hungarian minority of the neighbouring countries?

That would, of course, be the easiest way to replace them; as in terms of migration, the most important factors that define your success are language skills, cultural capital, and education. For members of the Hungarian minority, it would be much easier to set ground in the Hungarian labour market than for other migrant workers, however, it is not sure whether these days the ethnic Hungarians from the neighbouring countries would necessarily pick Hungary as their migratory goal. Especially if their migration has existential reasons. There are much more attractive places for them, where the wage level is well above that of Hungary – and since many of them are EU members, they can enjoy the same freedoms in regards to travelling as their peers from Hungary. Moreover, fostering the emigration of these minority communities could also lead to political conflicts, as it would mean threats to the Hungarian identity of the original communities.

Now, when we look at the current situation in Hungary, we can see that the population is ageing rapidly, therefore, while the demand of the labour market is smaller than it used to be decades ago, there are still far too many unfilled positions, as the current skills of the working-age population not necessarily fulfil the needs of those large companies that invested in the country. If there is no change in that, those multinational companies might need to relocate in the future. But for now, especially with the government’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, there seems to be no easy solution.

But why would someone come to a country with relatively low wages?

It is not necessarily the difference in wages that drives migration. There are many other components, for example job security. Many migrants do a subconscious cost-benefit analysis in their heads, in order to determine whether it makes sense for them to travel to a given county, and to determine how it is best for them to go there. Should they move together with the family? Or should they first go alone, and set the ground for the family to join them? Or just send the money home so that the family can live a decent life? These seem to be complex problems, but in practice it is something that even the less qualified workers do in their heads before making their decision. But this also entails that workers are willing to take jobs that are paid worse than those of their local peers, and even the well-educated migrants often do jobs that are less prestigious than what they were used to back home.

What do you mean by these less prestigious jobs?

There are, for example, highly skilled medical doctors, who might have had a higher position in a hospital, and who used to do creative work back home; and many of them are now doing routine jobs in a foreign country. It is less interesting, less challenging, but the payment compensates them.

Do we have the numbers of those who have emigrated from Hungary in the last few years?

It is very hard to define who we would count as an emigrant; therefore, it is also hard to make proper statistics. We only have some rough estimations. The most conservative ones say that the percentage of Hungarian emigrants is at 4 per cent. If by 4 per cent they mean 4 per cent of the whole population that would mean 400 000 people. The most extreme number is 1 million – but I find this an exaggeration. I would put their number between 400 000 and 500 000, which is approximately 10 per cent of the active, working-age population of Hungary. This is in par with the numbers in other countries. Now, the research has to try to make a sociological profile of these people, so that we can understand who these people are. If this 10 per cent is mainly made up of educated people, those who are highly motivated, have language skills and speak languages, that will have serious consequences for the Hungarian economy. 

The Population Was “Frozen”: Why Hungarians Started Migrating

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