Tag Archives: emigration

Labor shortage, emigration, and the economy

A couple of weeks ago Hungary’s National Association of Employers and Manufacturers (Munkaadók és Gyáriparosok Országos Szövetsége/MGYOSZ) sounded the alarm about the acute labor shortage in the country. If the government, which is currently busy turning the population against “economic migrants,” does nothing, the country’s economy will be in big trouble. Even now, it is almost impossible to find skilled blue-collar workers and qualified white-collar employees.

The Orbán government’s response was indicative of the total confusion that must reign within Fidesz and the administration in general. It seems that politicians like János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, are restrained by the ideological straitjacket imposed by the all-powerful prime minister. The official line is that Hungary doesn’t need immigrants, that the devastating demographic figures can be improved by a higher birthrate. But, as is becoming patently obvious, Hungarian men and women are not in the mood to have larger families. And even if they were, it would not make any difference for another two decades. This attitude of “we are going to deal with the problem ourselves” is now coupled with a vicious anti-refugee campaign. It was inevitable that Lázár would have to toe the party line even though he undoubtedly understands that without immigration the situation will only worsen. Mihály Varga, minister of economics, who is less of a party politician, reacted to MGYOSZ’s cry for help with some sympathy. The result was the confused message typical of this government.

The labor shortage, caused by the low birthrate, is aggravated by the massive exodus of Hungarians, which has been going on for years. According to the latest figures, only last year close to 50,000 people left to find a better life elsewhere.

A recent study by the staff of the International Monetary Fund addresses the economic impact of this emigration. Although the IMF study is titled “Emigration and its Economic Impact on Eastern Europe,” the paper covers Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe (CESEE ). The numbers are staggering. In the last 25 years approximately 20 million people left this region and moved to better-off areas of the European Union. Many of the emigrants are well educated and young, and their exodus accelerates the adverse demographic trends. East Europeans moving westward “benefited the receiving countries in the European Union and, therefore, the EU as a whole.” The study views this “migration … as an indicator of success of the EU project, which sees freedom of movement as necessary for achieving greater economic integration, and ultimately, higher incomes.” But migration had a negative impact on the “sending countries” where it “slowed per capita convergence, reduced competitiveness and increased the size of government.” Apparently, the situation is worst in the Baltic countries and in Southeastern Europe, i.e. the Balkans.

So, Hungary is not in the worst shape, but in comparison to earlier years the current situation is different in two important ways. First of all, the number of people who get on a plane to seek their fortune elsewhere has been growing rapidly. Here are a few numbers. Just in one year, during 2015, the number of Hungarians living in other EU countries grew by 15%. Since 2010 the number of Hungarians living in Norway has tripled, in Germany it has doubled. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom, where the number of Hungarians is very high, didn’t report its statistics to Eurostat. According to Eurostat, in 2015 563,00 Hungarian citizens lived outside of Hungary as opposed to 108,000 in 2010. Add to that the estimated 200-300,000 Hungarians in the U.K. and those in Austria, a country that still hasn’t reported, and the picture is even grimmer.

Another difference between those who are now looking for jobs abroad and those who left a few years ago is that the earlier emigrants, at least initially, were not planning to live outside of Hungary permanently. They were thinking of a temporary stay, just long enough to save some money to start a business, buy an apartment in Hungary, or pay off their Swiss-franc loan or perhaps long enough to perfect their German or English. All that has changed. People today who are seeking jobs abroad plan to become permanent residents.

Several employment agencies in Hungary cater to those looking for jobs abroad. One of them, Euwork, specializes in healthcare but has job opportunities for unskilled workers as well. The agency told HVG back in April that a member of Euwork’s staff will ask applicants at their interview why they want to leave. Nowadays, the most frequent answer is that the Hungarian situation is “hopeless.” It is hopeless not just because their own career seems to be going nowhere but also because they think the country itself is going to the dogs. They don’t believe there will be any change for the better in the near future. These applicants increasingly complain about the general state of affairs and politics. They don’t necessarily limit their complaints to the government or Fidesz but talk about the political situation in general. These people, even if they don’t speak the language well and know relatively little about the country where they are heading, plan to stay there permanently. Apparently western companies welcome these determined immigrants because they are more eager to fit in and will more readily integrate.

Randstad, an American employment agency with an office in Hungary, conducted a survey recently on Hungarian young men’s willingness to go abroad for a good job. The findings were astounding. Eight out of ten men under the age of 34 would pack up and leave for employment opportunities abroad. Instrum Justitia, an organization studying the state of the consumer industry, reported that most young parents (between the ages of 20 and 25) are in serious financial trouble. Only 25% of these families can pay their bills on time. So it is not surprising that 44% of them have already contemplated emigration, which is much higher than the average of 35%.

The trend will continue and the gaping differences in living standards between East and West will not be narrowed any time soon. Unfortunately, in the last 25 years Hungary’s economy has stagnated. Or, to be more precise, after a few years of economic growth, bad government policies caused a relapse, followed by some improvement, which was soon enough killed by the next administration. The latest such setback occurred after 2010 when the new Fidesz government’s policies tossed the country into recession, wiping out the heroic efforts of the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments, which had succeeded in putting the country’s economic house in order, surviving a worldwide recession, reducing the deficit, and achieving modest economic growth by 2010.

Propaganda is not enough

Current government propaganda may laud its great achievements, but the numbers don’t lie. Under the present circumstances more and more people will pack up and leave for places with greater opportunities. The country where they settle will benefit from their presence and so will the immigrants themselves, who make double or triple what they could in Hungary.

As for Hungary’s labor shortage, for the time being the Hungarian government isn’t worrying about it. But let’s assume the Orbán government changes its mind and recruits workers from, let’s say, the Balkan countries. Will these people stay in Hungary? I’m afraid the future is bleak in this respect.

 July 21, 2016

Hungarian doctors ask public support for improvements to healthcare

I must admit that over the years I have developed a somewhat negative attitude toward what Hungarians call the “orvostársadalom,” that is, the members of the medical profession, especially its leading lights. In the last 25 years they managed to thwart all attempts at reforming the whole rotten system. The hysteria that surrounded the suggestions of the ministry of health under the leadership of Lajos Molnár was outright disgusting. Hospital directors refused to collect minimal co-payments even if the money would have benefited their hospitals. So did the Fidesz-infatuated family doctors, although the money would have helped keep their own chronically underfinanced practices afloat.

I don’t know what these people expected from Viktor Orbán, but what they got must have been a bitter pill to swallow. The state of Hungarian healthcare is worse than ever. The old directors with few exceptions were dismissed and in their stead came doctors who in the past had expressed loyalty to Fidesz. For the most part these people are now quiet. Some of them even try to defend the current situation. At the government level, undersecretaries in charge of healthcare come and go. Gábor Zombor, the great hope, threw in the towel after a year or so, and the new one, Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, seems to be hiding somewhere. Meanwhile, István Éger, president of the Hungarian Medical Association, gives the occasional interview in which he complains that doctors don’t get enough money.

And what are the physicians doing? Emigrating. Between 2003 and 2011, 12% of Hungarian doctors left the country, most of them after 2010. Sixteen percent of MDs simply abandon their profession and work in the pharmaceutical industry or in fields completely unrelated to medicine. According to some calculations, if the salaries of doctors were raised by 40-50%, the outflow of Hungarian doctors could be stopped. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe this optimistic prediction when physicians in Western Europe can earn seven to ten times more than physicians in Hungary. Moreover, the problem is not only financial: there are not enough nurses, many of the buildings are in terrible shape, hospitals don’t have enough money to replace instruments critical to the work of the staff, and often the attitude of superiors toward people of a lower rank in the hierarchy is outrageous. I read about one maniac who writes weekly instructions to his staff demanding, for example, to be greeted first. If not, there is punishment.

Given the miserable working conditions, the amazing thing is that neither the doctors nor the nurses have been speaking out. Yes, Mária Sándor, the nurse in black, has been fighting for her fellow nurses ever since May, but she is unable to gather sizable crowds for her demonstrations. Since she is considered to be a troublemaker, she is unemployed at the moment. Although there is incredible shortage of nurses, she can’t get a job. The doctors don’t rally behind the nurses, who cannot live on their salaries and who often have to take second or third jobs to make ends meet. Mária Sándor asked the Hungarian public to support their cause. But although most Hungarians constantly complain about the state of Hungarian healthcare, no one paid the slightest attention to her.

In the last month or so, however, there are some signs that dissatisfaction is rising to the surface. Doctors are so fed up that they now openly talk about the deplorable situation that exists in Hungarian hospitals. First came the revolt of six anesthesiologists who gave notice to the administration of the Saint Imre Hospital in Budapest. Their complaints were manifold: shortage of nurses, low salaries, too long hours. They no longer felt that they could do a decent job under the circumstances. Sixteen doctors gave an ultimatum to Jenő Rácz, director of the Ferenc Csolnoky Hospital in Veszprém: either the woman doctor under whom they have to work goes or they will. But as Index correctly remarked, in each of these cases the directors defended the correctness of their decisions while the doctors remained quiet.

This situation is changing, it seems. Sixty-four doctors gathered and organized a Facebook group called “1,001 doctors without gratuity.” For those of you who are not familiar with “hálapénz,” perhaps I should say a few words about it. The habit of slipping a few forints into the pockets of doctors became widespread during the Rákosi regime when doctors became state employees who worked for a pittance. The Kádár regime continued underpaying physicians because the party leaders knew that the gratuity payments were amply supplementing physicians’ salaries. Or at least it was supplementing the salaries of certain doctors, like surgeons and obstetricians. And the tradition continues. The poor anesthesiologists normally receive nothing. So they have to work 300-400 hours a month to have a salary that befits their station in life.

These 64 men and women want to make gratuities illegal, arguing that maintaining the system serves only the interest of the government, which can point to these gratuities as a justification for not raising salaries. The new undersecretary, in one of the few interviews he gave, expressed his hope that with time gratuities will simply disappear from the system, no intervention necessary. Well, that’s unlikely given current salaries. Here is one example. A specialist receives an hourly net wage of 1,000 ft or €3.00.


An earlier demonstration organized by residents

The open letter they wrote to the undersecretary is an indictment of the present state of Hungarian healthcare. The Hungarian text is available online. The reaction from the ministry is not encouraging. Zoltán Balog said that “we pay as much as we can” while Bence Rétvári, the parliamentary undersecretary of the ministry, insisted that doctors make good money.

But there are other problems as well. The doctors claim that there are not enough professors in the medical schools, whose accreditation might be in jeopardy. Nurses who are being humiliated either leave the profession or the country. They talk about the falling plaster, the mildewy walls, and the inedible food in the hospitals. They bring up the inadequacy of medical care in general. For example, among cancer patients Hungary has the highest death rate in the European Union. The number of CT and MRI machines per 100,000 people is half that of Slovakia or the Czech Republic. These doctors want clear answers to their questions and demands from the ministry.

Suddenly the Hungarian Medical Association woke up from its years of slumber and is urging doctors to sign the petition. Moreover, Éger promised to stand behind the doctors’ demands.

What is the reaction in the ministry? Not very promising. The claim is that they have been regularly consulting with the profession, that the government is ready to listen to all opinions and is committed to high standards and the betterment of working conditions. The undersecretary insists that the exodus of doctors has slowed lately. The answer included references to higher wages for 43,000 nurses and 18,000 doctors in addition to extra pay for residents and specialists.

Today the government switched into high gear. MTI reported that the hospital in Siófok received 3 billion forints, the Pécs hospital 20 billion, and the Mohács hospital 1.1 billion. Yesterday Bence Rétvári called attention to the fact that in the last five years the government spent over 500 billion forints on healthcare which sounds terrific until you compare it, for example, to expenditures on sports and specifically on football.

The problems of Hungarian healthcare are so massive that I don’t expect any discernible change in the near future. The government is highly unlikely to embark, two years before the beginning of the election campaign for 2018, on any reform of the healthcare system. They’ll just let the whole thing rot for as many years as the Hungarian public allows it because, as everybody knows by now, touching healthcare can be political suicide.

The homeland needs more babies

I just learned that there is a group of economists who are convinced that opening borders all over the world and thus allowing the free flow of people would have immense benefit to mankind. For instance, Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, claims that such an open-border policy would double the world’s GDP. The website Open Borders offers evidence that immigration for highly developed countries is beneficial, especially if the given country’s birthrate is low. This is certainly the case in Germany where, according to the Statistisches Bundesamt, in order to sustain the present industrial capacity and living standards the country would need about 6 million immigrants between now and 2060. The situation is somewhat similar in the United States where the birthrate has been falling year after year, although it is not as bad as in Germany or for that matter in Hungary. In the United States the current fertility rate is 1.87 per woman and in Canada 1.61. In Germany it is 1.38 and in Hungary 1.34.

Of these four countries it is only Hungary that steadfastly refuses to even consider the possibility of accepting any newcomers. Germany, which at the moment is taking care of almost one million refugees, in the past few years has quietly settled millions of foreigners, among them close to 200,000 Hungarians, more than 500,000 Poles, over 100,000 Syrians, close to 100,000 Iraqis, and 75,000 Afghans. The United States opens its doors to close to a million immigrants every year. As for Canada, papers reported today that Canada is prepared to settle 50,000 Syrians by the end of next year. Germany will take most of the asylum-seekers but wants signs of solidarity from the other member states of the European Union and therefore asks them to accept a relatively small number of refugees. The four Visegrád countries are balking at this request.

In the last few days Hungarian papers were full of stories about László Kövér’s speech at the Fidesz Congress on the duty of women to produce grandchildren for him and others of his generation. Soon enough came the outrageous remarks of the pop singer Ákos, who is a faithful promoter of Viktor Orbán’s regime. Ákos in an interview pretty well repeated what Kövér had to say about women. Their primary role is to produce babies. For good measure he added that it is not “their task to make as much money as men do.”

Kövér’s speech and Ákos’s interview were ill-conceived first stabs at introducing the Hungarian government’s new nationwide propaganda campaign that hopes to boost the country’s miserably low fertility rate. The underlying message is: “We’ve saved you from these Muslim hordes but you, for your part, must have many more children.” According to Katalin Novák, undersecretary in charge of family affairs in the ministry of human resources, the demographic problems of Hungary could be solved if every Hungarian family would produce just one additional child.

The government realizes that, given the low wages, the general housing shortage, the high price of apartments and the small sizes of the existing units, few families will embark on having two or three children. In the last few days all sorts of vague promises were made about lowering the VAT on housing construction from 27% to 5%, but details are missing. No one knows what part of the construction would benefit from the drastic lowering of the tax. In addition, the government promised to give 10 million forints gratis to families who commit to having three children within ten years. These people would also receive a loan of up to 10 million forints with a low interest rate to buy an apartment in a newly constructed building. Although we know few details, critics point out that 10 million for a brand new apartment is peanuts and thus only the better-off families would benefit from the government largess, most likely the ones who don’t really need it.

An ideal Hungarian family

An ideal Hungarian family

Sometime in May we learned that Hungary’s population was continuing to shrink. The equivalent of a smaller town had disappeared within one year. In today’s papers one can find new data on the subject. It is true that 0.5% more children were born between January and October, but the number of deaths rose by 5.5% during the same period. Thus, another middle-sized town disappeared. To be precise, 33,291 people.

How effective the new government measures will be only time will tell, but I’m not optimistic. In fact, I have the feeling that even if there are some small demographic improvements, they will not be nearly enough to replenish the population, which has been decreasing steadily ever since the 1970s. I also predict that emigration will accelerate for at least two reasons: David Cameron’s threats of discriminatory measures against immigrants from other EU countries and the Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan immigration to Germany. Would-be emigrants heading to the United Kingdom may think that they should go now since no one knows what kinds of new restrictions Cameron’s government will come out with in the next few months. As for Germany, at the moment job opportunities, especially for blue collar workers and unskilled labor, are plentiful, but who knows what will happen once the newcomers are ready to join the workforce. Mind you, it is possible that the Syrian refugees are better educated than the East Europeans working in Western Europe. According to one poll, 86% of Syrian refugees attended high school or university. Of these people 16% are students and 4-5% of them are doctors or pharmacists.

Viktor Orbán’s work-based society and accelerated emigration

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.

Hungarian public opinion on the government’s handling of the refugee crisis

Along the Croatian-Hungarian border not much has changed since yesterday or the day before yesterday, and therefore we can turn to Hungarian sentiment, which has been poisoned by the massive government anti-refugee propaganda. Anita Köműves of Népszabadság, who just returned to Hungary after a year as a journalist intern at the University of Maryland, was astounded by the general lack of knowledge about the causes of the refugee crisis and by the xenophobia that Viktor Orbán is generating. As she said, “take it from a Hungarian journalist: Orbán is playing a dangerous game.”

Just today Tamás Ungár, also a reporter for Népszabadság covering the region of southern Transdanubia, came up with a long list of opinions he gathered from Hungarians in a number of cities and towns from Pécs to Kaposvár. A young fellow from Pécs, a Jobbik sympathizer, is convinced that the current flow of refugees is financed by Israel. Where did he get this idea? He was told by others and that seems to be enough. Some Hungarians are convinced that the United States is behind the emigration of Syrians, Iraqis, and others. It wants to weaken the European Union. There is a widespread fear that terrorists are hidden among the refugees and therefore not one of the refugees should be accepted in Hungary. Most of the people Ungár talked to believe that these immigrants cannot be integrated into European society. Those with such decided opinions often refer to state radio or television as their source of information.

Ungár’s reporting was, of course, anecdotal. For more statistically significant insight we can turn to the follow-up public opinion poll by Publicus Intézet conducted this month. In mid-July Publicus polled Hungarians on three related subjects: the erection of a fence along the Serb-Hungarian border, the emigration of Hungarians to western Europe, and the possible immigration of refugees coming from the Middle East. At that time 46% of the population were convinced that the fence would not stop the flow of refugees and 21% were doubtful about the efficacy of the fence. As for the questions on emigration and immigration, by July government propaganda had already made inroads. While in May 57% of the people considered emigration a greater problem than immigration and 23% believed the opposite, by July the situation had changed. Only 42% of the people found emigration to be a greater problem and 44% were convinced that immigration was a greater threat.

Publicus’s September poll shows that the Hungarian government didn’t manage to convince the population about the usefulness of the fence. Today not 46% but 56% of those asked said the fence was totally useless and another 22% thought it was pretty useless. But how then do we explain the fact that when the respondents were asked whether, if they had been in the position of deciding whether to erect the fence, in July 56% would have decided against it and only 34% would have gone ahead with it whereas this month fewer respondents (50%) would have discarded the idea and 40% would have decided to build it. In brief, while today more respondents think the fence is useless, more would nonetheless have decided to build it.

Publicus was also interested in people’s attitudes toward the refugees. The participants in the survey had to express their opinion about the following propositions:

  1. It is our duty to help the refugees. The answer was overwhelmingly in the affirmative. 64% to 30%
  2. The refugees should be treated more humanely. 52% to 38%
  3. Hungary, according to her ability, should accept a number of refugees. 37% to 55%
  4. Too many refugees are arriving and Europe will not be able to handle the numbers. 87% to 9%
  5. If necessary, we must defend our borders with weapons in hand. 41% to 42%

I find this last figure especially troubling. I should also mention here that the majority of Jobbik voters (54%) are quite satisfied with the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees, which we know has been quite harsh and unfeeling. In their opinion, it seems, these refugees don’t deserve anything better.

Displaced SyriansPublicus was also interested in what the population thinks of the international reaction to the Hungarian government’s handling of the refugee crisis. Did foreign opinion of Hungary deteriorate or improve? To my surprise, Hungarians do realize that what Viktor Orbán is doing is harmful to the country’s image (66% as opposed to 18%). Why am I surprised? At least for two reasons. One is the oft-repeated claim that the Hungarian government is simply following the prescript of the European Union. In fact, it is only Budapest that observes the letter of the law. All other countries, from Greece to Germany, transgress the rules and regulations, and by their actions they aggravate the crisis. The second reason is that commentators often complain about the Hungarian population’s relative ignorance of the outside world. I read recently that only 12.5% of the population know a foreign language well enough to read a newspaper article or understand television news. Therefore, I must conclude either that the Hungarian opposition media is doing a relatively good job of informing people about the international reaction to the Hungarian government’s actions or perhaps that people extrapolated what this reaction must be from the videos that went viral on YouTube. I should mention though that while on the other questions only a relative small percentage of people had no opinion (2-10%), in this case 16% were unable to give an answer.

The feeling that Viktor Orbán has done harm to the country’s reputation is widespread and uniform. Even Fidesz voters believe that the international community reacted negatively to the policies adopted by the Hungarian government. For example, only 33% of Fidesz voters think that Hungary’s reputation has been enhanced by recent government decisions. And 65% of Jobbik voters realize that the country’s reputation has been seriously damaged in the last few months.

Finally, respondents were asked to grade the performance of the Orbán government in the refugee crisis on a scale of 1 (F) to 5 (A). Only Fidesz voters thought that the government deserved a grade higher than 3 (C ) (3.8). A C average is nothing to brag about.

What kinds of conclusions can we draw on the basis of this survey? There seems to be a growing number of people who feel somewhat ashamed of the government’s harsh treatment of the refugees and the callousness of most leading Fidesz politicians. At the same time very few people, one out of ten, would like to have any of these refugees settle among themselves. The reason, I suspect, is the propaganda about the unbridgeable differences in culture and religion between the refugees and Hungarians.

Most Hungarians seem to be convinced that the refugees cannot be integrated into European society. Yet facts tell a different story. There are already a fair number of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and Jordanians who have been living in Hungary for decades. There is a telling video taken in a village somewhere in the northeast corner of the country where the local doctor is a Syrian. A reporter went around in the village and asked people what they thought of accepting Syrian refugees. They were all dead against the idea. But, said the reporter, Dr. X. is a Syrian. To which the answer was: “Dr. X? But he is different. He is one of us.”

Hungary: A nation of emigrants?

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.”

blue: short-term employment; orange: long-term employment; grey: emigration; yellow: a combination of many factors

blue: short-term employment; orange: long-term employment; grey: emigration; yellow: a combination of many factors

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.

The growing Hungarian emigration

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.

tarki, migracio

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.