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The history of Bulgarian emigration is long and complicated. These descendants of Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians, who themselves arrived in the Balkans about 1,400 years ago, have rarely been afraid to set off in search of a better future elsewhere. At the beginning of the 19th Century whole villages moved to Russia after its unsuccessful wars with the Ottomans. When the Titanic sank in 1912, dozens of Bulgarians from poor mountain villages disappeared with her, indicative of the mass migration to the United States.
Even Communism couldn't stifle emigration completely. Bulgarians worked in the logging industry in the USSR and on engineering and medical care projects in the Third World. There was also the hidden, but constant drip of people trying to escape the system, risking prison or the bullet of some trigger-happy border guard. When the system collapsed in 1989, the drip turned into a flood. Hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians formed long queues for visas in front of Western embassies. The estimated number of Bulgarians who left the country in the first 20 years of democracy topped one million.
Today it is difficult to find a Bulgarian family which does not have relatives abroad, some of them as seasonal workers, others residing permanently in foreign countries. The economic crisis has changed the picture further. Some Bulgarian emigrants have returned in the search for (non-existent) jobs here, while new groups of emigrants are leaving in despair at this nation's grim unemployment situation and the overwhelming feeling of depression.
In 2012, the picture of Bulgarian emigration, however, is almost as undocumented as it was in 1912. Bulgaria is in its fifth year as an EU member, but even in the union the number of Bulgarian emigrants is largely unknown, as are the lives they lead and the problems they experience.
Even after the 2011 census it has proved impossible to establish the exact numbers who have left the country, a source in the National Agency for the Bulgarians Abroad who does not wish to be named told Vagabond. The Bulgarian National Statistics office collects data for people living in Bulgaria only, and the statistical data of other European countries needs to be collected and independently checked, and sometimes the sources contradict one another. There is also an unknown number of illegal migrants working in countries where Bulgarians are still excluded from the labour market.
In 2011 the European Commission announced that about 540,000 Bulgarians work and live in other European countries.
This, combined with other data, presents a vague and hypothetical total, but is still the only available statistic for Bulgarian migration within the EU. The largest Bulgarian community is in Spain where, officially, about 170,000 Bulgarians reside. Next is Greece with a reported 80,000 to 120,000 Bulgarian immigrants. This country is the preferred destination for people seeking menial and seasonal jobs in agriculture and home care, and witnessed a sharp rise of official Bulgarian residents after it opened its labour market in 2009. The estimated number of Bulgarians in the UK, with its restricted labour market, is between 80,000 and 100,000.
In December 2011 Germany decided to open its labour market to qualified Bulgarians, but even before that there was a sizeable community of more than 66,000 people. The unofficial data for Italy, which is likely to be a significant underestimation, records 70,000 resident Bulgarians. A significant community of between 32,000 and 50,000 people exists inCyprus. For Austria the numbers are 35,000 and for France and Portugal about 20,000 and 12,000 respectively. There are about 15,000 Bulgarians in the Netherlands.
The traditional perception is that Bulgarians, as they come from a poor country, are mostly employed in low-skilled jobs. Real life experience tends to bear this out, as you see Bulgarian construction workers in London and chambermaids in luxury Greek hotels. The crime level among these emigrants is also perceived to be higher, with sensationalist media stories about Bulgarians caught pickpocketing on the Tube or the decision of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to expel more that 200 Bulgarian Gypsies living in illegal camps on the outskirts of the capital. Anti-immigrant sentiment reached another peak in early 2012, when Dutch nationalists created a special website for aggrieved Dutch citizens who felt they had been put out of work by migrants from Eastern Europe. Bulgarians, who were among the immigrants mentioned, targeted the site to protest.
The general notion that immigrants are, per se, bad for their host countries is far from the truth, however. An European Commission report in 2011 evaluated highly their role in the development of the economy of the EU. The survey showed that the presence of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants boosted the GDP of the host countries, and did not affect unemployment levels or social security budgets. The wages of local workers were not undermined by immigrants working for peanuts.
The conclusions of the commission were supported by the results of another survey, carried out over of several years by the Open Society Institute-Sofia, a Bulgarian think tank. Concentrating on the impact of Bulgarian immigrants over the whole EU labour market, it showed that many of myths surrounding Bulgarian migrant workers are not sustainable.
Take Gypsies, for example. Ask your average Milanese, Londoner or Sofianite and they will tell you that the Gypsies travel to rich EU countries to pickpocket, beg, sell babies and live on social benefits. The survey, however, showed that more than 84 percent of Gypsies interviewed went to the EU to work, compared with 73 percent of ethnic Bulgarians. The difference in the percentage may be explained by the much greater number of ethnic Bulgarians who study abroad. Some of the major pockets of students are in Germany, where about 11,000 Bulgarians form the second largest academic community aft er the Chinese. Th ere are also many Bulgarian students in the UK, France and the Netherlands.
The logic behind emigration has not changed dramatically over the last 20 years, the OSI survey found. It peaked in the first half of the 1990s, when Bulgaria went bankrupt and hyperinfl ation wiped out the savings of millions of people to the benefit of a handful "credit millionaires," and about a million jobs disappeared.
The growth of the 2000s, however, altered the picture. Bulgarians are still the poorest nation in the EU, but the disparity, measured in terms of purchasing power in Bulgaria compared with Western countries, is not that great anymore. By the end of the 1990s Bulgaria's purchasing power was four times less than that in the West; 10 years later it is only 2.5 times less.
The restrictive measures imposed by EU countries to limit the impact of Bulgarian immigration on local labour markets have proved counterproductive, the survey showed. Bulgarians left the country in droves in the hungry 1990s, cheerfully ignoring the fact that they were completely forbidden to work in the EU. The number dropped when the labour market was opened somewhat and free travel was introduced in the 2000s. The National Statistics Offi ce recorded 218,000 Bulgarians who emigrated in 1991-2001, and 175,000 who did so in 2001-2011. The explanation is simple – when the economy is deteriorating, people are desperate to leave regardless of the obstacles put in place by the host country. This was backed up by another finding. In 2006-2010 Bulgarian immigrants to Spain, with its liberalised labour market, grew by 65 percent. In the same period the Bulgarian diaspora in Germany, with its restricted labour market, grew by 70 percent.