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For most of us, 2020 represented a radical change in terms of behaviour, work and everyday lifestyle. The Covid-19 virus which rapidly spread across the world, swept through Europe and forced us all to adapt to a new reality. Traditional ways of doing business were changed, social contacts reduced and trends reversed. Migration across Europe was no exception, but nobody suspected the full extent of the phenomenon.

From ancient times, Europe has been at the crossroads of human mobility and has attracted people or compelled them to move away mostly for social, religious or financial reasons.

Turkish and Morrocan guest workers in the Netherlands in the sixties © Wikimedia

While in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Europe was a continent of net emigration with people leaving, mostly to reach the American continent after World War II, it later became an area of net immigration due to a number of factors and situations that led to this reality. Among these are the decolonisation of Africa and Asia, the refugee crisis after WWII, the ‘guest workers’ policies implemented especially by countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and the rapid economic development of Europe.

Especially in the 20th century, Europe played a crucial role in developing a set of rules and norms regulating human mobility in the region. It also became increasingly important to have accurate, up to date and accessible migration data, essential to inform both authorities and the general public.

The last decades also witnessed a great trend towards migration within Europe. Central and Eastern Europe lost millions of their labour force. Due to the free movement and employment regulations within the European Union and its enlargement that took place in 2004 and 2007, people began to leave their home countries and moved West in search of better jobs and opportunities, hoping for a brighter future for their families and higher living standards. Although there were initially much stricter regulations, bilateral work quotas were established and work permits were among the requirements (until 2011). Labour migration within the EU caused some controversy and changed the political landscape in some countries, especially in those where the influx of people was greater. Derogatory stereotypes such as the ‘Polish plumber’ or the ‘Romanian strawberry picker’ appeared. But despite the original fears and concerns, the movement was proportionally smaller than anticipated and it was generally acknowledged that the benefits were far greater than the setbacks.

A poster from the “Polish Plumber” campaign issued by Poland in 2005 with regard to the negative stereotypes surrounding Polish workers in France. “I’m staying in Poland – do come over“

To a certain degree, the situation was beneficial to all involved. Wealthier western European states suddenly had access to a new, cheaper and in many cases, well-trained and qualified workforce that also helped to rejuvenate some deserted areas, that became populated with younger people, willing to prove themselves and to prosper in their adoptive countries. Eastern Europeans are traditionally well trained, speak foreign languages and are also sometimes eager to do jobs that are probably less sought after and appealing to the westerners. On the other hand, the countries of origin, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, experienced a great talent and brain drain; so much so that the lack of skilled workers made itself felt. Problems began to appear : thousands of jobs were available but there were no applicants.

However, these countries benefited from the massive influx of foreign capital that returned home monthly in the form of remittances for their families by those who worked in the West. Unfortunately, the human cost was high : countless torn families, whole generations of children left in the care of grandparents or other relatives and raised away from their parents. Stories of lives broken in the search for a more prosperous future abounded. Some eventually did return home, built new houses and even started their own businesses, using the knowledge gained over the years spent away from home.

Eastern Europe has been the only region which has recorded a population decrease in three consecutive decades, and has been the worst affected area in terms of population decline in peaceful times. I have read that some countries in Europe have lost more people than Syria has in its war.

Just before the pandemic kicked in, Europe was in the middle of a flourishing economic phase, with a record high employment rate of 73.1% (for people aged 20 to 64, according to Eurostat data). This is the highest recorded figure since 2005 (still 11.7% higher for men than for women).

And then, there came the pandemic… Covid-19 has affected global human mobility and migration not only in Europe but across the globe. It has drastically restricted movement, affected migrants’ lives and their social and economic integration. Legal procedures take longer to deal with, social contacts are severely limited, millions of jobs have been lost and businesses have shut down. In many cases, authorities have been taken by surprise by the complexity and severity of the ‘new normal’. According to the European Commission, there was a low level of irregular border crossings and a 33% decrease in the number of asylum seekers in 2020. Rapid economic deterioration has translated into less or no income for many, with the impossibility of supporting themselves and affording basic everyday living costs, not to mention health insurance which is of the highest importance in these difficult times.

Afghan refugees wait by the buses that will take them back home. © UNHCR/N.Farhad

In the midst of all this, a totally unexpected phenomenon has occurred: a massive reverse migration. This is a trend that began in March 2020 when the first lockdowns across Europe were implemented and it has since only amplified. It is a population movement comparable to a ‘human tsunami’, the extent of which was beyond expectation. In some cases, it is estimated that the total number of returnees is between 4 and 8% of the total working population. Worldwide, it is said that around 450 million people made their way back to their native countries, seeking security and new jobs there. Just as an example, about 2 million Indians or 600,000 Afghans returned home during the pandemic (Source: International Organization for Migration). Also, many expats were forced to leave their exotic job locations such as Qatar or Abu Dhabi, sometimes with not more than 30 days’ notice.

In Europe, the great move happened mainly from West to East. Spain and Italy were some of the countries most affected by the international health crisis. Consequently, their economies suffered, as many businesses collapsed and migrants had to leave, with no jobs available. About 1.3 million Romanians, 500,000 Bulgarians, many from Poland, Lithuania and more generally, people from mainly Central and Eastern Europe have returned home in a matter of months in 2020.

Smuggling migrants in lorries dismantled in Germany and Romania © Europol

There are many reasons for this sudden human movement : the fear of the pandemic which is something that none of us have experienced in our lifetimes, lack of proper health insurance in foreign countries for some, fear for the well-being of the loved ones back home and the loss of jobs and the impossibility of finding new employment.

Brexit only helped add more pressure to this worldwide crisis and tricky situation. Authorities say that tens of thousands of people have left the UK recently because of Covid-19 and Brexit-related issues combined. At its peak, it was estimated that the total number of European migrants was around 5 million, roughly about 7.5% of the total British population. Emigration to the UK has fallen yearly ever since the first moves towards Brexit began and today, with a contracted market and a difficult economic situation, many have left and will not even consider returning. For some, this particular situation has actually acted as a strong incentive to relocate.

For Western countries, the problem is that they suddenly saw themselves without a much needed additional work force, partly made up of seasonal workers coming from other EU countries just for a few months, but greatly contributing to their economies. In a desperate search to find solutions to bring back at least some of these people, a few countries have organised special flights and convoys with virus testing and strict hygiene protocols in the workplace. Even so, not many have gone back. There have been situations in which outbreaks of infection in various densely populated work areas have increased the distrust of these workers who are reluctant to return to their jobs anytime soon.

Irrespective of the reasons invoked for repatriations, this is undoubtedly a historic moment and an unexpected opportunity for the countries of origin to rethink their social and economic policies. They need to try to attract and convince as many people as possible to remain in their native countries permanently and not seek jobs abroad in the near future.

© Council of Europe

The ‘brain drain’ which is something that Central and Eastern European countries have complained of for many years, has suddenly stopped. Also, the current trends of working from home and remotely, I think will only reinforce the present tendency of returning to home countries for many, since one can theoretically work for any company worldwide from the comfort of one’s own hometown with fewer financial and emotional costs.

Many of these returning people have now declared that they are thinking seriously about remaining home indefinitely. This is also because the living standards have steadily increased in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years and the quality of life is good. Jobs are better paid and the cost of living is, in most cases, far lower than in Western European countries.

Compared to the Western European economies, the developing European countries are still reporting positive rates of economic growth, which makes them more attractive now, not only for their own estranged nationals, but also for others, seeking new and more profitable job opportunities.

But this reverse migration puts stress on the countries of origin which need to act fast and find reliable solutions for real social protection for its newly returned citizens. For countries in the East, it is vital that they succeed in keeping their young work force home. It is important to have clever policies in order to convince these people to look for work in their native countries and thus contribute to both the national GDP and the local pension systems.

Unemployment rates in the European Union averaged 9.13% from 2000 until 2021, reaching an all-time high of 11.5% in January 2013 and a record low of 6.4% in March 2020, before the onset of the pandemic.

In February 2021, the rate was 7.5% (about 16 million people). Euro area unemployment was even higher, at 8.3 %. (Source: Eurostat). Compared to February 2020, unemployment rose by 1.922 million people in the EU. Spain (16.1%), Greece (15.8%) and Italy (10.2%) reported the highest rates in December 2020. (Source: Statistisches Bundesamt). Outside the EU, the most affected European state is Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a 33.68% unemployment rate.

On the other hand, the trend seems dissimilar in the East. Poland (3.1%) and the Czech Republic (3.2%) registered the lowest rates, with most of the Central and Eastern European states registering rates below the European average.

In Europe in general, more than 44 million people are currently unemployed, with the younger generations most affected. It is estimated that about 37% of the youth in Italy and about 20% in Spain are unemployed. It is also even more difficult for young people with African, Asian or Latin American origins to find a job. Germany has currently the lowest unemployment rate in Europe.

The relevance of labour attachés has increased significantly in recent years. There is a great need for correlated work policies across Europe with coordinated measures, protection regulations for workers such as paid sick leave, weekly work hours and pension rights, so that there is a unity in decisions and similar conditions across Europe.

Within the European Union there is a set of common objectives and targets for employment policy, to create more jobs throughout the Union. The European Pillar of Social Rights states 20 key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems.

The EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, said: “The European Pillar of Social Rights has been our reference point for building a strong social Europe. Now we breathe new life into it, turning its principles into actions. Creating jobs is one of our main priorities, and making sure people have the right skills for those jobs.”

Nicolas Schmit © europa.eu/Lukasz Kobus

Also, as a reaction to the difficulties directly related to the Corona pandemic that countries face, two new instruments have been put in place. The Recovery and Resilience Facility is designed to help ease the impact of Covid-19 on EU member states and help them become more resilient and sustainable.

The React Fund represents a 47.5 billion Euro increase in structural funds, a fresh and much needed influx of money for member states which could help better incorporate the work force, create new jobs and help the economies recover after the health crisis.

The success of all these measures also depends on the national programmes, long term strategies and targeted actions for each state. The benefits of reverse migration for the countries of origin will be greater, depending on their ability to convince people to stay for long periods and take advantage of the newly created favourable situation.

Europe needs a young, well trained and mobile work force, capable of supporting the European economy and able to face major international challenges. Only close cooperation between European nations with real understanding and support for individual issues is the key to long-term success. After all, human resource is the most valuable asset there is, and every future action should make citizens’ well-being a priority.

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