While Viktor Orbán is fighting tooth and nail against accepting any asylum seekers and potential immigrants into the country, demographers are painting a dire picture of the next decade or two if current trends continue.
A couple of months ago 444.hu came out with the following headline: “One thing we have learned since the regime change: One can leave.” This quip brought to mind my first few months in Ottawa when on March 15 the mostly 1945 Hungarian immigrants enthusiastically sang Hungary’s “second” national anthem, in which the poet declares “here you must live and die.” Of course, not in Canada but in Hungary. And if you think about it, our romantic poet, Mihály Vörösmarty, wrote his lines in 1836 when the borders throughout Europe were pretty open and a lot of Hungarian artisans picked up their tools and left. Some returned, others didn’t.
Lately several studies have appeared on the history of Hungarian emigration in the last 25 years. In April the Demographic Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences published a lengthy study by several authors. Irén Gödri wrote on “international migration”–that is, immigration into and emigration out of Hungary. From this study we learn that emigration in the 1990s was negligible despite harsh economic conditions and high unemployment early in the decade. Only 1.5% of the population contemplated working and living abroad. According to the author, one reason for the low emigration figures was the fairly generous social benefits package at the time.
After Hungary joined the European Union in 2004 emigration quickened, but it was only in 2007 that there was a real jump in the statistics. The Hungarian economic situation began to deteriorate even before the 2008 financial crisis, and by 2012 unemployment among those between the ages of 15 and 24 was 28%. By that time one-third of Hungarians between the ages of 18 and 40 contemplated leaving the country and trying their luck elsewhere. Ten years ago the favorite target countries were Austria and Germany. By now the United Kingdom and Ireland have been added to the list. Gödri estimates that there are at least 330,000 Hungarians who work abroad. In Germany, 124,000; in Great Britain, 74,000; in Austria, 46,000; even in the tiny Netherlands over 10,000. The total is based on adjusted figures from the 2011 census.
The profile of Hungarian emigrants is quite similar to that of the asylum-seekers arriving in Europe today. There are relatively few women, and the men are young. They are what Mária Schmidt, adviser to Viktor Orbán and a vocal critic of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, the other day called “muscled men with a high testosterone level.” In the target countries 53% of Hungarian immigrants are in their twenties and thirties, although in Hungary they constitute only 28% of the population. From this last figure we can begin to see the deleterious effect of this surge of emigration on Hungarian demographic trends.
Moreover, the educational attainment of Hungarians who have left the country is higher than that of the population as a whole. Apparently, that is also the case with the Syrian refugees. Among the target countries, it is in Great Britain that the educational attainment of Hungarian immigrants is the highest: 36% of them have post-secondary education. In Germany and Austria skilled workers are over-represented.
In April 2015 Tárki, the polling company that has been specializing in migratory trends, found that the desire to leave Hungary and head to Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom had grown considerably over the previous year. And the number of those who are planning to leave the country permanently went from 5% to 10%. About a month ago a poll was taken to measure the attitude of high school students toward emigration. One-third of them are ready to continue their education abroad while another third are thinking about such an opportunity. Only 15% said that they would never leave the country.
Just last year 31,500 people left the country, a 50% growth over the year before and six times higher than in 2009. So, by now the number of Hungarians working abroad has most likely reached or exceeded 400,000.
A few weeks ago the Központi Statisztikai Hivatal (KSH/Central Statistical Office) came out with a new figure that reveals a lot about the reasons for the accelerating emigration figures. In 2014 920 billion forints worth of foreign currency was transferred by Hungarians working abroad. This figure surpasses the 2013 figures by 47 billion and the 2012 figures by 236 billion. If we estimate the number of Hungarians working abroad to be 300,000-400,000, each emigrant would be putting away 200-250,000 forints each month. This figure, however, seems too high, so the number of Hungarian emigrants is most likely greater than the estimated figures. I might add that this close to a trillion forints is 3% of the Hungarian GDP.
A couple of governmental decisions over the past five years probably stimulated emigration. One is the government’s decision to cut social benefits to a bare minimum. Someone who loses his job is entitled to only 90 days of unemployment benefits. Since Hungarian salaries are very low, few people are able to put any money aside for a rainy day. According to studies, finding a job under the best of circumstances may take months if not years. One possible solution? Pack up and leave in the hope of earning some income, even if it comes from menial work at the beginning.
As for the students, the introduction of steep tuition fees often makes foreign study more affordable than study at a Hungarian university. Moreover, students are increasingly aware of the fact that most Hungarian universities are inferior to those in western European or Great Britain. The combined effect: students enrolling in droves at German, Austrian, and British universities.
Naturally, low Hungarian salaries are a powerful incentive to seek jobs elsewhere. This is especially true about doctors and nurses who can easily find employment abroad. In fact, medical personnel are actively being recruited in Sweden and Great Britain. Every year at least 1,000 doctors leave the country. Currently there are 3,000 fewer doctors in Hungary than there were a few years ago. Some years the number of medical students who graduate is lower than the number of doctors who leave. Yet the government doesn’t seem to be making a serious effort to raise the salaries of state employees.
In brief, Viktor Orbán’s transformation of Hungary into a “work-based society” (which doesn’t even seem to value work) is largely responsible for this situation, which in the long run will have a disastrous effect on the Hungarian population mix. An aging population with a low birthrate and high emigration figures. And, of course, no immigration.