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Central and Eastern Europe

During the decades in which Eastern and Central Europe were under Communist rule migration was a rare phenomenon. Insofar as it occurred, it concerned people leaving for Western countries. There were some highly publicized cases of dissidents who managed to flee, and others who were forced into exile, but quantitatively much more important were the ethnic Germans who, by the thousands and year after year, left Poland and Romania to resettle in the German Federal Republic. Between 1950 and 1989 this led to the resettlement of, respectively, some 240,000 persons[1]. After the end of the Cold War the former states of the Eastern Bloc were confronted with three challenges. The first was emigration to Western and Southern Europe. Indeed, migration triggered the fall of the Iron Curtain. Almost as soon as the Hungarian government opened its borders to Austria in the summer of 1989 large numbers of East Germans used this opportunity to travel to West Germany. Significant also was that the Hungarian government had signed the Geneva Refugee Convention thus signalling that it would not return fleeing foreigners to their countries of origin (because of the Convention's prohibition against refoulement). The desire to move West did not diminish once all restrictions on departure had been lifted. The nature of the movements did change however. Fewer people settled abroad, and forms of brief mobility and temporary labour migration took on greater importance (Favell 2008). Until the 2004 accession of 10 new member states to the EU, much of this mobility was irregular. Afterwards, it became regular as part of the EU's freedom of movement. Generally speaking, emigration from the new member states poses no policy challenges in countries of origin. The main exceptions are found in the Baltics. Upon independence in 1991, nearly half of Latvia's population was of Russian origin. This fact made development of nationality policies unavoidable. These, in effect, transformed sizeable segments of the population into foreigners, many of whom felt compelled to “return” to Russia or go elsewhere (e.g., Jews could opt for a future in Israel or Germany) (Doomernik 1997). Another consequence of ethnic state-building in the Baltics was considerable governmental concern about emigration of co-ethnics and ensuing attempts to formulate effective and inclusive diaspora policies that would ideally lead to their return once the nation's economy had recovered from its crisis (Lace 2013). In Poland, too, maintaining the diaspora's connection with the fatherland was viewed as a strategic political objective, as was the promotion of employment in the wider EU (Kicinger and Koryś 2011, 367).

Secondly, immigration, be it of refugees or workers, until today has tended to be of minor political concern. In Poland, for instance, refugee numbers have been relatively small (mainly people fleeing Chechnya) whereas most other migrants arrive for work (OECD 2013, 284). Moreover, with the exception of Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics net migration is negative, in Latvia and Lithuania even dramatically so (ibid., 271, 273). Early migration policies were, where needed, fashioned on an ad hoc basis. Such policy responses were required towards the presence of de facto guest workers from (predominantly) Vietnam who had arrived during the Communist era. These were typically granted leave to remain. There was also regional migration to regulate from the Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and the Russian Federation (ibid.), but few attempts at restriction were made. This changed once accession to the EU came into view, as Kicinger and Koryś (2011) show for the Polish case. Regarding third-country nationals, directives such as those on family reunification, long-term residents, and refugees had to be turned into national law. Existing migration patterns (often of a temporary nature) from eastern neighbours were not easily reconciled with the EU logic of border management, especially the Schengen Agreement. But finally border commuting could be exempted from a strict implementation of the Schengen regime (ibid.). For labour migrants from eastern neighbouring states, simplified rules were introduced in 2006 (exempting them from labour market testing) (OECD 2013, 284). Most of these workers were employed in construction and agriculture (ibid.).

According to Čanĕk and Čižinsky (2011), reporting on the Czech experience, this happened somewhat naively and in the expectation that adopting the EU acquis would automatically mean the introduction of a comprehensive migration regime. However, the fact that this was not the case has not attracted much political attention. Since migration issues are not a salient political priority, and political parties lack distinctive positions and clear views about migration, migration policymaking has remained in the hands of specialized civil servants.

Among the Central European countries, first and foremost the Czech Republic became an attractive destination for economic migration from Russia, Ukraine, and Slovakia (Drbohlav 2012, 185). In the Czech case, increasing demand for migrant labour has been documented, especially in booming areas like Prague and Mladá Bolesvav, where some authors report that the social welfare system offers insufficient motivation for unemployed Czechs to seek work (Jíchová 2005 in Čanĕk and Čižinsky 2011). Like most countries in the region, the Czech government has aspired to attract highly skilled migrant workers by means of a special scheme (Doomernik et al. 2009). Success, however, seems to have been limited (Drbohlav n.d.). In 2011, 244 migrants made use of the Czech scheme; 80 % of these were Ukrainian nationals (OECD 2013, 244).

  • [1] Own calculations based on Worbs et al. (2013, Table 2.2).
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