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Monday, June 11, 2012

Out-Migration: A National Catastrophe for Hungary? Hardly--At Least Not Yet

One of the current, alarmist themes in the liberal middle of the Hungarian media, and a large part of what I see from FB traffic, is the apparent "departure" of "our youth," ostensibly in search for opportunities of study and work "abroad," (which of course means western Europe and/or north America in that context). All this is because of the bad conditions in Hungary, caused by policies of the current, right-wing government.

I have absolutely no quarrel with the criticisms of the government. I have been doing a fair share of that myself. But I find the alarmism about the "disappearance of 'our' youth because of the current government's policies" frame is far too simple.

For one, a vast majority of the people who say they want to go abroad will not end up going--this is just the nature of migration.

Second, the free movement of labor is, no doubt, the most ambitious of the four "pillars" of the joint market of the European Union. It is participation in this migratory flows that the applicant societies _wanted_. Now, with an unfair delay of seven years, they finally have it--I'm not sure what the point is, at least from a liberal point of view, which is the perspective of most Hungarian critics.

Third, migratory flows are rarely caused by government policies alone. As, by now, a good two generations' worth of scholarly research has shown, (see a more than twenty year old summary here) there are a host of specific macro-stuctural conditions conducive to migrant outflows e.g., size of respective populations, availability of sellable skills among those prone to move, the existence of legal opportunities to enter foreign lands, or, perhaps most significant in the global history of migration: previous penetration by forces of multinational capital as well as foreign states, into the structures of the would-be migrant releasing state. Without such specific history of penetration it is impossible to even begin to address migration as a social phenomenon. This is the state of the literature one generation ago.

In these terms--because of its small economy being so wildly dependent on foreign actors, especially west European capital--Hungary has been quite migration prone since practically the outset of capitalism in central Europe. This--and of course the diligence of a vast network of recruiters--explains why Hungary featured so prominently in late-19th-century migration to north America, for instance. In this sense, the state socialist period, with its only partly permeable borders (and what was perhaps even more difficult, the likelihood that it would not be possible to return after a "stint" abroad without drawing harsh penalties on oneself and one's family) was more of an exception.

Then there is more recent work on migrant transnationalism and a host of complex arrangements that more or less invalidate the entire world view of "nation-state-society" isolates that exist in a tenuous, "thin" relationship to each other. Instead, what we see is that there is an increasing proportion of people who, one way or another, incorporate the experience of working away from their country of citizenship for a while. This is of course always under some kind of a "pressure," but that's just how life under capitalism is: pressures and counter-pressures, until the whole thing boils over.

All this is entirely missing for the Hungarian discourse. The Hungarian elites still exist in a state of national bliss. They still think, in a quintessentially 19th-century way, that a "normal" life course is one where one's employment is within the same district, let alone same town, county or country, where one is born. This is of course politics, and, as such, there is not much to talk about, other than register one's frustration with it.

By way of a little clue, here is a factoid snapshot about out-migration from Hungary. One indirect measure of the degree of the insertedness of a particular state in the global system of labor migration is the share of migrant remittances in the national income. One great thing about this indicator is that the World Bank actually provides fairly exhaustive over-time statistics about it in its World Development Indicators Data set. Here is a little graph, derived from the WDI data.

The graph shows three lines. The one on the bottom is the ratio of all world-wide remittances to the Gross World Product. It shows a very slight increase from ~.3% to .75% over the course of a good thirty years or so. The line on the top part of the graph is the unweighed, country-to-country average of the remittances as percentages of the GDP of the migrant-emitting country. This shows a much more dramatic upswing form 1.3% to 5% during the last forty years.

Data for Hungary are only available in this data set for the last 15 yars or so. This shows a (red) curve that goes from an extreme low -- around .33% of the GDP -- to the middling 1.7-1.8% range by 2004, and stays there.

Two things are clear from this. First, Hungary is not (yet?) among those states of the world's most dependent on migrant remittance flows. This is all the more astonishing, considering how high the "exposure" of the Hungarian economy is to transnational flows of commerce, capital and profits, and given Hungary's earlier history of out-migration.

The second thing is that what there is by way of an upswing happened in 2004--i.e., under the middle-of-the-road liberal government (and the year of Hungary's accession to the EU, although without the right to work in most of the EU, except Britain and Sweden, if my memory is right).

So, even if there is a dramatic upswing this year (that we will know from the WDI data set approximately two years from now) that is unlikely to put Hungary much higher than the world average (around 5% of the GDP). This is not a small thing considering the fact that some of Hungary's fellow-erstwhile-state-socialist states already have significantly higher remittance dependence.

Is all this good or bad? I'm not sure. But it is definitely not a situation that merits crying about a national catastrophe, not by itself, not in the simplistic manner in which it is discussed.

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cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta