The enlargement of the European Union in 2004 opened up the European labour market for the new, mainly Central and Eastern European (CEE), countries. Many people, especially the young, chose to seize the opportunity and seek employment in Western Europe. Patterns of East-West migration have been diverse: some of the migrants settled in the host countries, others stayed abroad for longer periods, while an important part of migration has been temporary or seasonal.
The heterogeneity of migration strategies opens up a number of questions. In our research, we addressed two of them. First, we were interested in how the characteristics of return migrants differ from those who did not return; and second, how well returnees have integrated into the home labour market shortly after their return. These issues are critical from the perspective of home countries for evaluating the benefits and costs of intra-EU mobility. The focus on the years during and following the economic crisis in 2008 reflects the impact of the crisis on the return migration processes.
The analysis focused on two CEE countries – Estonia and Slovakia. We used EU-LFS data from the years 2008 to 2013 that, despite certain dissimilarities, are suitable for a cross-country comparative analysis of young adults aged 15-34 years. While the two small economies are comparable in their migration rates, they differ in other important aspects, including labour market conditions, the severity of the economic crises in 2008-2009, and social protection spending.
The comparison of these two countries enabled us to identify common patterns of return migration and integration into the home labour market, on the one hand, and particularities of these processes, on the other. We were especially attentive to the role of qualification mismatch while working in a host country, and to the role of macroeconomic factors – GDP per capita and unemployment rate – on the specific characteristics of returnees and their short-term labour market outcomes.
Comparing Estonia and Slovakia
In Estonia, the share of returnees was high and rising between 2008 and 2013 and, by the end of the period, the rate of return exceeded the rate of out-migration. In Slovakia, the proportion of returnees to migrants was rather modest, not exceeding 20% in any of the observed years, hence out-migration was never balanced by a sizeable return.
Regarding education, we did not observe a great differences between young returnees and non-migrants or migrants in either of the countries. However, the mismatch between the level of formal education gained in the home country and employment while abroad was an important predictor of return in Estonia. This suggests that the decision to return may have been driven by more optimistic prospects of employment in the home country. On the contrary, the qualification mismatch abroad did not have any influence on Slovak returnees.
In Slovakia, those who were self-employed while working abroad were less likely to become returnees, and those who were out of the labour market a year prior to the interview, especially students and unemployed, were more likely to return.
The effect of macro-economic variables is also different across the two countries. Whereas in Estonia the return of young migrants is associated with decreasing unemployment rates, in Slovakia the opposite seems true.
Do returnees have higher rates of unemployment?
We also observed that returnees had a higher probability of being unemployed following return than the general population; in other words, those without recent migration experience. This is, however, likely to be short-term unemployment because we captured the returnees in a transition period.
Importantly, using complementary analyses based on administrative data and interviews, we found that returnees can afford a longer jobsearch period thanks to accumulated savings from abroad and possibly also the opportunity to transfer unemployment benefits from the host country (Hazans 2008; Zaiceva and Zimmermann 2016).
Overall, this indicates a better match to skills and experience upon return.
From a cross-country comparative perspective, the unemployment rates of returnees were much higher in Slovakia than in Estonia, which we attribute to a worse performing labour market in Slovakia.
In conclusion, we observed different stories of return migration in Slovakia and Estonia. We not only observed different shares of returnees, but also different underlying reasons for return amongst young migrants, in particular.
Policy-wise this implies that there is no single recommendation concerning return migration to CEE countries. Country-specific contexts are important for gaining a thorough understanding of the processes and their individual and macro-economic implications.