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EUROPE: Recession Invites an Unwanted Homecoming

Pavol Stracansky

KRAKOW, Poland, Apr 13 2009 (IPS) - Thousands of East Europeans who migrated to the West in search of work when the EU expanded in 2004 are returning home as the global financial crisis plunges their adopted countries into recession.

But many are struggling to find work and adapt back into society in their home countries, which have been hit just as hard, if not harder, than the states they have left, migration experts say.

“The situation is very bleak, and for many it does not appear that it will get better any time soon,” Zora Butorova, analyst at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, Slovakia, told IPS.

When the European Union expanded in 2004 to include ten new member states, hundreds of thousands of people from relatively poor eastern European countries left to work in countries like the UK, Ireland and later Spain as they opened their labour markets to the new EU citizens.

There are no accurate figures for the numbers that left. In Britain, media reports suggest that a million Poles arrived between 2004 and 2008 looking for work, with tens of thousands of Slovaks, Latvians, Lithuanians and members of other eastern European countries following.

And with western economies growing healthily at the time, immigrants easily found jobs in a wide range of sectors. But they have returned now to what many economists are predicting will be a 15 percent fall in output in Eastern Europe this year.

In Bulgaria industries are shedding jobs on a huge scale. In December 15,000 jobs were lost in the metal, mining and textile sectors, local media reported. The government has said it plans to find work for returning immigrants in construction projects.

Meanwhile in Romania authorities have said they expect more than a third of the three million Romanians registered as working abroad to return home. Employment experts have predicted there will be a chronic lack of jobs among people coming back.

In Slovakia, where unemployment reached its highest rate for two years at 9.8 percent in February, 1,387 returning immigrants signed on for unemployment benefit in that month alone.

Some of those returning report discrimination at the workplace. Newspaper reports in Poland have quoted returning workers as saying they had been passed over for jobs by employers because they had worked abroad.

Jacek Marcin, 27, from Krakow in Poland, returned home last month from London where he worked as a builder for three years. He says that at one time he was earning more than 2,500 euros a month, but that before he left his income had dried up to about tenth of that.

“I went from having a really comfortable life where I had enough money to live well and still save something at the end of the month to struggling to find enough to feed myself,” he told IPS.

“When the British economy began to slow down I started thinking about coming back to Poland. My friends and relatives all said that there was plenty of work back here because the Polish economy had been growing a lot in the last few years. But the financial crisis has come here as well now and things are no better in Poland than in the UK.”

Marcin added: “There is no work anywhere, and if there is a job there are hundreds of people going for it. And in interviews there are bosses who almost sneer at you because you have worked abroad. It is as if they are jealous or something and want to punish people for the fact they went away and earned more money than them.”

Butorova says many immigrants returning home to central and eastern Europe could decide to migrate again in the face of economic hardship.

“In all these (central and eastern European) countries the situation with unemployment is changing for the worse, and although those people coming back can perhaps offer some experience and skills gained abroad, there is simply no work,” she told IPS.

“This puts an enormous strain on them and could lead some to leave the country again. If they have had the courage to do it once they may certainly do so again.”

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