Hungary’s ‘silent’ emigration stores up problems

By bne IntelliNews March 19, 2015

Kester Eddy in Budapest -


Hungary's job market was bleak indeed when Andras Kovacs graduated with a degree in business from Budapest's prestigious Corvinus university in 2011. “I was earning HUF50,000 [then about €180] as a part-time sales intern in a sports shop, but it was no good as a full-time job. I had job interviews, but there was nothing else available,” he tells bne IntelliNews.

So Kovacs (not his real name), along with his partner, decided to find work in Germany, moving to Berlin that September. But the cold start, without contacts, meant the going was tough, despite the couple's passable German skills: and efforts to secure interviews with the big name professional service firms met with a depressing lack of replies.

However, a visit to Budapest that Christmas reaffirmed their decision to move abroad: both were appalled at the Fidesz government ramming a new constitution through parliament, and what they saw as blatant cronyism at the top. “[For this government] power is the important thing: 'we do it because we can do it'. They don't care about [ordinary] people at all, the main reason they are there is to make money,” Kovacs says. “We didn't have a job, but this made it absolutely sure we would go back [to Berlin].”

The couple's determination paid off: they soon linked up with the booming Berlin start-up scene, and three years after securing their first jobs, both now have a secure future in marketing and communications positions in expanding companies.

On the surface their story is hardly unique – after all, millions of Poles, Romanians and other east Europeans have upped sticks in the past two decades for a better life in the West. But Magyars, whether due to limited linguistic skills or an immobile nature, had appeared reluctant to relocate even within Hungary, let alone emigrate.

However, the economic downturn of 2008, coupled with the political upheavals which followed the election of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party in 2010 appear to have changed all that.

Who’s gone?

In truth, nobody knows the full extent of emigration: the government points to data from the Hungarian statistical office which estimated some 350,000 Magyars had moved away between 1989 and early 2012. However, a commonly quoted figure of 500,000 gained traction when Gyorgy Matolcsy, then minister of economy, cited this number early in 2013. (In truth, some 100,000 Hungarians living at home, but commuting to work abroad, mostly in Austria, would account for much of the difference between these two estimates.)

What is beyond doubt is that many migrants are well educated. “All my friends abroad went to college or uni,” Zsuzsa (not her real name), who with an MA in business moved from Budapest to London in early 2014 to work in public relations, tells bne IntelliNews.

For Hungary, with a population of barely 10mn, of whom some 4.4mn are of working age, the loss of so many workers – along with the tax and social security contributions – is a “real disaster”, according to Bertalan Toth, co-leader of the opposition Socialist parliamentary group. “These are [in many cases] well-trained, multi-lingual, specialised and creative people who see no chance in their motherland. Hundreds of thousands leaving… has to be damaging to the economy long-term,” Toth tells bne IntelliNews.

The Orban government, while admitting concern for certain hard-hit sectors, such as health and IT – for which it says “individual policies” are needed to address the worker shortfall – is otherwise seemingly nonchalant about the issue. “The government’s standpoint concerning migration is that employment abroad is fundamentally not harmful,” the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) tells bne IntelliNews when asked to comment for this story.

The increasing numbers of migrants is primarily the result of the EU opening its borders, while Magyar numbers remain proportionally well below those of, for example, neighbouring Romania, the PMO asserts. Moreover, it says, no specific labour shortages have developed in Hungary (although this goes against dire warnings of staff shortages by medical associations) and employment abroad is “mostly temporary”.

Indeed, the government says data (not cited) reveal that “between 2013 and 2014 the increase of labour force outflow from Hungary has stopped,” while official German statistics in 2013 showed 58,000 Magyars at work, with 34,000 de-registered. This “clearly shows” a high proportion of returnees, in part due to the government's success in creating jobs in Hungary, the PMO argues.

Permanent residency

Anecdotal evidence certainly indicates that some of this emigration is temporary. Zsuzsa in London says that as many as five of her seven close Magyar friends were planning, or had already returned home.

But equally, people like Kovacs and his partner appear permanent expatriates, at least until a change of government in Budapest. “There is no security in Hungary. They can nationalise the pension system, or your company. If I compare with Germany, for example, there is real discussion and debate about issues there. Reasons and counter arguments are heard. In Hungary, they don't want that: decisions are made without any evaluation [as to the consequences]” he says.

As for the PMO assertion that emigration has ceased, he retorts: “It's great that our government see improvements back home... but for sure, we can see more Hungarians in Berlin day by day.”

The financial statistics also weigh against the government's arguments: net remittances from Hungarians abroad, valued at €622mn in 2010, almost quadrupled to €2.2bn in 2013, reported in February, citing revised data from the National Bank of Hungary.

With salaries in London and Berlin typically five or more times what can be achieved in Budapest, emigration is likely to be an issue for years to come. Perhaps, though, the most insidious result of this story is the reluctance of Hungarians to go on the record. Of the four interviewed for this story, all declined to have their real names published. As “Klara”, an assistant public relations manager living in Glasgow (and who otherwise did not feature in this story) put it: “It's funny, but I have a feeling that just like in the good old communist days, they will find me and hold me responsible for my criticism.”

“Klara”, now 28, was three years old when communism collapsed in Hungary.


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