The withering of job opportunities in Spain, Italy and Ireland have not triggered massive return migration to Romania. On the contrary, according to government statistics, almost half a million Romanians filed applications and 140,000 secured labor contracts in Western Europe through the government employment agency. While Italy and Spain were the standard destinations during the past decade, in 2011 most of those who left entered the British and German labor markets, with agriculture taking most of the inflow.
Why haven’t the unemployed and underemployed immigrants returned? First, most Romanian migrants departed from rural regions where they faced the ills of subsistence agriculture, extremely low and short term unemployment benefits, poor access to public services and extreme scarcity of waged employment. As difficult as life is in immigrant tenements in Barcelona or Dublin can be, at least there are recent memories of economic success immigrants can draw upon to maintain their resilience through the crisis. Moreover, in Western Europe immigrants can navigate the crisis through a combination of decent levels of unemployment benefits and excellent access to healthcare, none of which are adequate in Romania. Also, tens of thousands of immigrant families have children who were either born in their destination countries or have gone to school there. For these children the Romanian language is the language they speak at home with their parents and siblings, perhaps in sub-dialect, rather than the language of most of their daily activities. With no exposure to the Romanian school system where standard Romanian in taught, these children would most likely run into difficulties at school if they were to be taken “back” to the Romanian education system.
In contrast, village life in Romania offers little in terms of hope. During the past decade, the typical interaction between labor migrants and their home communities would take place in August and late December, when villages and small towns literally come back to life as migrants fill local pubs, work on their large houses and parade their new-ish cars. Returning to the same place in mid November or early February is a different affair. As Tabara Marin, a sacked truck driver who spent five months on unemployment in Spain joked, “[m]e and my wife lived in a cramped tenement in Almeria [Spain], working crazy hours and so on; then we both lost our jobs and found nothing no matter how hard we tried; we thought we would weather the hard times by cashing in our benefits and live back in our native village but I got almost suicidal after a month of braving the deep mud in the street and living in a place where the average age is around sixty and the best job one can find is farm work for a local thug that pays six euro a day.”
Since the beginning of Romania’s economic modernization in the 19th century industry and services could count on a large reserve army of cheap labor in the villages. This was especially the case during Romania’s experience with (neo)Stalinist economic development, when even breakneck growth in industry left almost half of the population in the countryside. During the past ten years it was the Southern European and Irish real estate booms that benefited from the influx of almost two million young Romanians, most of them coming from villages but willing to work for low wages and equipped with at least ten years of education and some exposure to vocational training skills.
Now that the real estate bubble has burst and their home country offers them little beyond very low wages and an a systemic dismantlement of workers’ rights, the most dynamic of Romania’s rural youth face a long and disheartening slog towards even more uncertainty and precariousness.
For the sociology of Romanian migration see