In the last couple of months the Hungarian media has been full not only of stories about the immigrants arriving in Hungary from the south but also about the ever-growing number of Hungarians who are packing up and leaving the country to find a better life elsewhere. Tárki, a polling company, has been following the emigration trends for a number of years, and every time they release their latest findings the headline invariably reads: “Never before have so many people considered emigration.” Tárki’s most recent results were published in May.
How many Hungarians live and work abroad? According to the last official statistics of the Central Statistical Office (KSH), their number in 2012 was 230,000. By 2013 KSH and SEEMIG (Managing Migration and Its Effects in South-East Europe) upped this number to close to 420,000. We still have no figures for 2015, but given recent trends the number of Hungarian emigrants at the moment is estimated to be somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000. In six years the rate of emigration has increased sixfold.
Tárki published a telling chart about would-be emigrants’ plans between 1993 and 2015. The chart shows that after 2010 and again after 2014 the number of people contemplating a move grew rapidly. I can’t believe that it is a coincidence that after an Fidesz victory there is a spike in the contemplated emigration rate. People could indicate several emigration plans simultaneously: short- (blue) or long-term (orange) employment, emigration on a permanent basis (grey), or all the above (yellow). In the last case the final decision would depend on the circumstances. Perhaps the most striking change happened after 2014 when those considering permanent emigration grew from 5% to 10%. In a single year. I’m almost certain that most of these people wanted to leave for political reasons, while the others are most likely “economic emigrants,” to use Viktor Orbán’s phrase.
One of the frightening aspects of Hungarian emigration statistics is the educational background of the emigrants. While only 19% of the population at home has a college or university degree, 32% of those who packed up and left were college or university educated. The reverse is true of those with only an eight-grade education. They make up 24% of the Hungarian population but only 6% of the emigrants.
Where did these 500,000-800,000 people go? Earlier most of them went to the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria, but Hungarians are starting to discover equally inviting destinations: Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
The Hungarian colony in London is especially large, so one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences conducted a survey among them about their reasons for leaving, their satisfaction with their decision to settle in London, and finally whether they are considering returning to the country of their birth. Seventy-three percent of them said that “they have no intention of ever returning to Hungary.” Twenty-one percent answered that “perhaps within a few years” they might go back, and only 6% said that they will definitely return within a year.
János Lázár, in one of his honest moments, admitted that Hungary cannot compete with other western countries in terms of living standards and that since most of the people left Hungary for financial reasons, it is unlikely that they will abandon their well-paid jobs and return to Hungary for a great deal less money. It was therefore surprising that on April 22 the ministry of national economy launched a new program called “Come back home, young Hungarian!” The failure of this program is guaranteed. First of all, the ministry allocated only 100 million forints ($355,000), which Népszava called “laughable,” considering what the government spends on stadiums and giant posters inciting people against immigrants.
Apparently, this year the government is offering a job and a monthly stipend of 100,000 Ft for one year to 50 people. Well, at this rate, even if the program is successful, it will take a very long time to reverse the immigration trend. The government opened a website and is waiting for applicants. The problem is that government officials in charge of the program can’t agree on how many interested young, highly educated people with an excellent knowledge of English the Hungarian government is expecting. Right after launching the program, Undersecretary Sándor Czomba proudly announced that 40,000 Hungarians living abroad had registered on Facebook. Of course, this number was incorrect. Soon enough we heard that 581 people had registered for the program, and a little later it was triumphantly announced that the number had grown to 800. But this figure is misleading because the website is set up in such a way that practically no information is available without first registering.
444.hu discovered that between April 22 and June 29 only 21 people actually filled out the forms and had an interview with the organization that handles the repatriation. Today I checked the site and under “Success stories” I found a grand total of four names!
Perhaps the Hungarian government is not as eager as it pretends to be to get these expats back. A lot of people suspect that Orbán and his friends find these enterprising young men and women who are brave enough to start a new life elsewhere not especially desirable. They have lived for a number of years abroad, have learned new ways, and have most likely become critical of the oppressive presence of the Hungarian government in all facets of life.
And there might be an even more important reason why the Hungarian government doesn’t mind the large exodus that is taking place. It is the incredible amount of money that these “economic immigrants” send back home. According to a recent study, 20 million East- and Central-Europeans work in other EU countries. These migrants in 2014 sent home $28.5 billion, 10% higher than in 2013 and 31% higher than in 2012. While the average East-European migrant sent $1,700, the average Hungarian sent $5,500. This indicates to me that Hungarian expats, on the whole, have higher-paying jobs than those from other countries in the region. And if that is the case, it is unlikely that there will be great interest in the Hungarian government’s meager enticements.
BBC published a short article, “Hungary: Government seeks to lure young expats back home.” In it they report on a “counter poster” that was an answer to the government’s billboard, “If you come to Hungary you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs.” It read: “You may safely come to Hungary, we are already working in England.”
Although the Orbán government is doing its best to turn Hungarians against the refugees who are passing through Hungary on their way to the west, Hungarians, according to the latest survey, still consider emigration a greater problem than the practically non-existent immigration.