The coronavirus prompted many people to return to Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, which saw a sharp decline in population
After decades of mass migration from former Eastern Bloc countries to more lucrative opportunities in the West, the flow of people to Europe is showing signs of reversing.
In Estonia, returnees to the country have outnumbered migrants since 2017. Net migration in Poland has been in the black since 2016. And the trend has accelerated during the pandemic. Lithuania, which has lost a quarter of its citizens since 1990, saw a slight increase in population last year as Covid-19 halted waves of migration that had long drained the country of young people.
Nowhere has there been a more dramatic change than in Bulgaria.
According to UN estimates, before the pandemic, Bulgaria was estimated to be the second fastest shrinking country in the world after Lithuania. Its population has fallen from about 9 million in the late 1980s to about 7 million today.
Last year, however, net migration in the country was positive for the first time in more than a decade. Some 30,000 more people moved to Bulgaria in 2020 than left the country, most of them Bulgarian citizens.
Now the question is, will the returnees stay? The north will have major implications for both sides of the continent. Western European countries are facing record labor shortages, many jobs that are usually filled by foreign workers sitting vacant. And in countries like Bulgaria, the return of migrants will be a boon to economies that have shed the blood of skilled workers and youth for a generation.
“There has been a wave of people leaving Central and Eastern Europe and moving west,” said Ogan Georgiev, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Last year, he conducted a study that found thousands of Bulgarians who had been living abroad for a long time had come home during the pandemic.
“A significant percentage of them may remain,” he said of the returnees. “It is really an economic boost – not only for Bulgaria, but for countries like Romania and Poland. There is a realization that you can live a good quality of life in Eastern Europe.”
When Mr Alekseev, 29, returned to Sofia last year, he thought the move might be temporary. But he quickly decided not to go abroad again.
Although he earns about half working at the airport in Nice, France, he said the money goes a long way here. He lives near a well-maintained, lush park in the center of the city. He goes to restaurants more often than he could afford in France, and still manages to save money.
His office at Telus International, an outsourcing company where he oversees a French-speaking team, has a private gym with 360-degree views of the city. Many of his high school friends – a French immersion school that usually sends many graduates abroad – have also come home.
“Sofia surprised me,” said Mr. Alekseev. “It offers opportunities even better than some western cities in terms of quality of life.”
Overall, however, the quality of life in Bulgaria lags far behind most of Europe. It is the poorest country in the European Union, and distrust of government institutions is rampant. Less than 30% of citizens are vaccinated against COVID-19, the lowest rate in the block. A study by Transparency International found that a fifth of residents said they paid bribes to access healthcare in the past year, the second highest rate in the European Union, surpassing only neighboring Romania.
In April, after months of anti-corruption protests, the prime minister failed to win enough seats to form a government, and he resigned from parliament. A caretaker government took power earlier this month after elections in November and months of political turmoil.
Magdalena Kostova, a demographer at Bulgaria’s National Statistical Institute, said she doubted many of the returns would last for a long time. Economic opportunities, access to education and basic services are far better in Europe, he said.
“Living conditions have improved in recent years, but these are mainly in Sofia,” said Ms Kostova. “There is nothing like it anywhere else in the country.”
In northwestern Bulgaria, the most populous region, villages have become ghost towns. The European Union has funded new roads, bridges and rail lines, in hopes of wooing businesses to the region. But even in factories that have taken root, many jobs have become automated. The queues for suburban homes built with money sent home by migrants are dark.
Working abroad as a pastry chef on a cruise liner, Ivelo Ivanov was part of a mass exodus from Vratsa province in the northwest of Bulgaria, which has lost nearly 40% of its population over the past two decades. Since 2005, he usually spent only a few months at home each year.
But when the cruise industry shut down in the spring of 2020, Mr Ivanov was stuck in a hurry. He found work as a courier, but paid less than a quarter of what he did on the boats. Debts started piling up.
In March, he left the country again, and is now working in a hotel in Germany. Although he said he would prefer to live in Bulgaria – where he and his wife have a home and can spend time with their two sons – he said he had no choice financially.
“Wages in Bulgaria are a disaster,” he said. “Any successful business owner treats people like slaves.”
For the past several weeks, opportunities in Western Europe were calling for workers in the east, as the continent’s biggest economies struggled for more workers. Germany has more than a million open jobs after a sharp drop in net immigration, and officials say they want to attract some 400,000 skilled workers from abroad each year. Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and the United Kingdom all broke job vacancy records this year.
In Lithuania, one of the few Eastern European countries to release monthly migration figures, emigration numbers began to rise in August. But international travel has come to a standstill due to the arrival of the Omicron variant.
Atanas Pekanov, who served as deputy prime minister for managing EU funds under Bulgaria’s caretaker government, said the pandemic gave the country an opportunity. The longer people live in Bulgaria, the more likely they are to stay permanently, he said: “They are getting more and more used to living here.”
He called Bulgaria’s dwindling population “the main challenge in the long term” and the youth exodus “very disappointing”.
Mr Pekanov himself returned to Bulgaria during the pandemic. After stepping down as prime minister in April, Mr Pekanov returned from Austria, where he was working on his PhD, to join the caretaker government, which took over.
He said that those who study abroad should come back to Bulgaria. Nevertheless, now that a new government had taken power, he said he would likely return to Vienna.
Write [email protected] . on Ian Lovett