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On their way - Hungarian worker migration threats

Hungarian potential migration hit an all-time record when a recent poll showed that almost every fifth adult wants to try and find a life somewhere else. Where do they want to go, and what will happen to those who stay?

A survey conducted by research company TÁRKI in May drew a worrisome picture about Hungarians’ willingness to leave the country in the hope of a better future. Hungarian migration potential hit an all-time high at 19%, meaning that almost every fifth Hungarian adult plans to leave the country and work abroad for a period of time. It is equally noteworthy that 7% of them are not even planning to return.

Although this obviously does not mean that all those people will actually go, the tendency is still clear. The proportion of those planning to leave has been continuously expanding since the beginning of the ’90s: in 1993, three years after the change of regime in Hungary, it was at around 6% only.

This intensification comes not only from the increasing number of those speaking foreign languages and easier access to Western countries, but is also a result of so-called chain migration. “If several members of a community have emigrated to Sweden, then chain migration appears, meaning that their family members might follow them and, if things turn out well, they will also recommend it to their friends,” Attila Juhász, political and migration analyst at Political Capital told the Budapest Business Journal.

Indeed, if there is already someone in the new country who can help in the first months and, for example, can offer at least a sofa to sleep on, the challenges a new start entails might seem easier to handle. “That way, people can wait even a few months to find a nice job,” Csaba Greguss from the Hungarian branch of recruitment agency Grafton International pointed out, adding that this might also be a reason why it is less typical now than it was three or five years ago for people to go West and start from scratch taking up a job in a new field. “People are more likely to go for something secure or at least, if they have some time, to wait for something worthy,” he said.

Where to go?

While the UK and Ireland had been the main target countries for those leaving Hungary for almost a decade, primarily due to their flexible labor market and the low administrative burdens on foreign workers, this tendency is expected to change, which is only partly due to Ireland’s economic situation. As all Western European countries, most importantly Germany, opened their borders in May 2011 to those coming from the CEE states that joined the European Union in 2004, Germany might take the lead.

With the UK still retaining some of its appeal and the recent addition of Germany and Austria as valid destinations, migration experts expect a big boom in coming years that has the potential affect Hungary badly. According to German migration records, an average 1,400 Hungarians have registered every month since last May, which translates to almost 24,000 people by now. Hungary’s Central Statistic Office (KSH) estimates that no less than 160,000 Hungarians might go to Germany by 2030. This might be of no surprise, seeing as salaries are at least 50% higher there than in Hungary – and can be three or four times higher in fields that are short on trained professionals. Germany’s hunger for skilled workers is not likely to ease soon as, according to the estimation of Nuremberg’s Institute for Employment Research, by 2015 the country will lack three million skilled workers as a result of its decreasing population.

As such, Germany awaits skilled workers in the tourism and hotel fields as well as in industrial sectors such as machinery manufacturing, construction and processing. Indeed, qualified workers are equally eagerly wanted in most Western countries, including the UK. Good IT specialists or engineers are welcome almost everywhere, not to mention Hungarian-educated health care workers, who have a traditionally good reputation worldwide.

Meanwhile, the TÁRKI survey showed a whopping increase in the willingness of Hungarians to migrate in the past two years, rising from 13% in 2010 to its current 19%, probably one of the spectacular results of Hungarians’ weak belief in any imminent economic upturn in their country. “Hungary has been in crisis for more than five years,” Political Capital’s Juhász said, adding that people either go simply to make a living, or in order to find better working conditions, which incidentally also comes with a higher salary. That is supported by the TÁRKI survey, which showed the weakest migration potential in the middle of the salary scale, while those who earn much less or much more than the average were reportedly more ready to go.

Left alone

Such a high migration potential as currently exists in Hungary poses several threats to society. The evident fact that those who leave will not pay taxes here is just one of the negative effects, and one that is expected to be compensated only to a very small degree by money sent home. The empty hole left in the Hungarian skilled labor force, often working in precisely the fields that should participate in kick-starting the economy, might be an even bigger problem. The long-term demographic effects are also not something to cheer up those who stay behind: migration willingness was highest among young Hungarians, with 48% of those under 30 saying they planned to leave the country. It is easy to imagine what the loss of almost half the young population would mean to an already aging society. Hungary’s migration rate, an indicator that shows the differential between immigrants and emigrants, has always been positive thus far, but experts warn this might change soon. “We have reached a risky turning point,” Juhász noted.

Decision-makers seem to have realized the problem and are trying to balance or prevent the negative effects. More than 250,000 ethnic Hungarians from surrounding countries, non-Hungarian citizens as a result of the Trianon Treaty that redefined Hungary’s borders at the end of World War I, have already come to the motherland in the past two decades since the democratic transition. After the government put into force a regulation in January 2011 that practically eliminates the administrative burdens of applying for citizenship for those who can prove they had Hungarian nationals among their ancestors, the Diaspora probably feel even more welcome now. The most logical way of replacing the missing workforce is to attract people who can culturally integrate into society very easily.

Another recent step aims to prevent the young and well-educated workforce from leaving in the first place. Those who entered higher education this year as freshmen in a fully or partly state-financed scheme had to sign a contract which obliges them to work in Hungary for a period that is at least twice as long as their state-financed studies. The regulation inspired numerous outraged comments from civil organizations and also provoked demonstrations, but was finally approved by Parliament and signed by the vast majority of students.

Time will tell if relocated cross-border Hungarians also decide to go West in the hope of a better life; and also if those young people in higher education are made only angrier by a restriction that seriously limits their freedom and finally decide to just pay the price and run away.