This year’s August 20 state holiday was used, on the one hand, to disseminate anti-immigration propaganda and, on the other, to emphasize Hungary’s sacrifices in the defense of Western Christianity. Perhaps the harshest rhetoric against the refugees was that of Csaba Hende, minister of defense, who said that Hungary will not be a thoroughfare for people on the go. But the fact is that Hungary, by virtue of her geographical location, has been a passageway for centuries. And since 2010, I would venture to say, more foreign citizens have used Hungary as a take-off point than at any time in modern history. A great number of Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia, after acquiring Hungarian citizenship, quickly departed for greener pastures. They far outpaced the number of 56-ers who, after reaching retirement age, decided to return to the country of their birth, not necessarily for sentimental reasons but because their dollars or euros were worth a great deal more than in their adopted countries.
And yet, as study after study shows, while the government is worried about immigration to Hungary, demographers, economists, and social workers are much more concerned about emigration from Hungary. I became aware of the concern this past spring when articles began to appear about the alarming rise in emigration with headlines such as: “In six years the number of emigrants rose sixfold,” or “There are so many Hungarians in London that they can fill a whole stadium and they won’t come back,” or “We have become a country of emigrants.”
Blogs, like hataratkelo.blog.hu, publish posts by Hungarian emigrants from all over world. These posts are intended to help Hungarians who are planning to join the exodus. By now there are sizable Hungarian colonies throughout Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States which, according to the newcomers, are most helpful in providing advice and assistance.
Tárki’s latest poll on emigration shows that the number of Hungarians who want to leave permanently and set up a new life has grown especially fast since 2014. These are most likely people who find the current political atmosphere in the country unbearable. The rest are primarily “economic migrants.”
Initially, articles in the Hungarian media talked about the thousands of doctors and nurses who packed up and left for the United Kingdom or Sweden. By now, however, there are shortages in all almost all economic sectors. There aren’t enough computer scientists, truck drivers, engineers, butchers, waiters, chefs, dental technicians–one could continue endlessly. Small businessmen are unable to hire qualified workers. The situation is especially bad close to the Austrian border, but during the summer there were similar problems in the tourist industry at Lake Balaton. As HVG said, “everybody is packing,” including seamstresses because there is a shortage of them in Western Europe. Employment agencies specializing in finding job opportunities for would-be emigrants are swamped with applicants. And for some of these jobs one doesn’t even have to know the language particularly well.
Do you remember the story in El Camino de Balkan of the policeman who explains to a would-be immigrant why he should move on? “Hungary, no money, Orbán Viktor.” One couldn’t say it better. Low wages and no hope that life is going to get much better any time soon. And yes, there are some people who find Viktor Orbán’s regime far too oppressive.
Of course, government officials and politicians try to minimize the problem by emphasizing the usefulness of going abroad for a while, just like in the old days when journeymen packed up and went to foreign lands to gain experience. And that is fine and useful. These journeymen returned, and the modern journeymen will do the same, they argue. I wouldn’t be so sure. The gap between living standards in Hungary and in the countries where the emigrants are heading is huge, and there is no sign of any impending change on that score.
Since the 2008 economic crisis Hungary has created mostly low-paying jobs while other European countries have managed to increase the number of higher-paying jobs as well. We may consider this development unfortunate, but according to economists it actually suits the Orbán government’s ideas about Hungary’s economic future. Orbán makes no secret of his intention to keep wages low. When addressing foreign investors he often talks about what makes Hungary attractive, in addition to its geographic position and well-developed infrastructure: “the relatively low labor costs given the quality of the workforce.” By now wages in Hungary are lower than in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, or Poland. According to HVG, even in certain regions of China wages are higher than in Hungary. But though Hungary may advertise its low wages, it soon won’t be able to tout the quality of its workforce, which is deteriorating, due in part to emigration.
Nowadays even the Central Statistical Office (KSH) considers the situation desperate: high emigration, low birthrate, and low educational attainment of the population. The KSH study that describes the desperate situation recommends immigration which, as we know, the Orbán government refuses to contemplate. According to economists and demographers, the problem has reached crisis proportions. The Orbán government, however, refuses to face facts.