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With unemployment soaring, many EU countries want the migrant workers they once courted to return home as soon as possible
Chultem Choijusuren was watching television in Ulan Bator when he decided to climb aboard the globalization bandwagon. According to an ad he had seen, companies in the Czech Republic were paying young mechanics "??1,000 a month." Most people in the Mongolian steppes were already familiar with the small Eastern European country. After all, many young people from here had studied in Prague during the two countries' Socialist pasts.
Choijusuren borrowed the equivalent of ??3,000 ($3,900) from local banks. Part of the money was to pay the ??1,500 fee that the Mongolian employment agency was charging for securing him a job. He would also need some money to start life abroad, and the one-way train ticket from the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator to Prague, via Moscow, cost ??700 ($910). His wife and eight-year-old daughter waved goodbye as the train left the station.
The Mongolian planned to stay in Europe for perhaps half a year, save a few thousand euros, and return home to open his own car repair shop.
Choijusuren is part of the army of migrants that has moved westward from developing countries in recent years, with one in three chosing Europe as their destination. After the European Union's eastward expansion in 2004, tens of thousands of Asians found jobs in Polish, Czech and Slovak factories, where they were welcomed with open arms to fill the jobs that one million Poles and hundreds of thousands of Czechs, Balts, Slovaks and Hungarians had left behind when they in turn migrated to the wealthier EU countries. Ireland, Great Britain and Sweden, unlike Germany and Austria, had immediately opened their borders to citizens of the new member states, and Spain followed suit two years later.
Construction companies and restaurants in these countries were only too pleased to employ the cheap labor from the East. More and more families hired Polish women to clean their houses or nannies with Slavic accents to put their children to bed. The migrants' wages were modest, and yet in some cases three times as high as they were at home. The newcomers sent as much of their earnings home as possible, injecting capital that helped their hometowns gain unprecedented prosperity.
Once the global economic crisis erupted those days were over. Unemployment has risen twice as fast in Great Britain and Spain as elsewhere in Europe. Now the citizens of Western European countries need the jobs themselves, and their governments are resorting to all kinds of tricks and incentives to get rid of the wiling hands they once needed so badly.
Globalization has turned 200 million people into migrant workers in the last few decades. One fifth of them are Europeans, less than one tenth are Africans and 3 percent are from Latin America. Now the trend is reversing itself, a shift that generally affects those who came from Europe's poorest regions and from emerging and developing nations. Officials at the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) fear that 30 million people around the globe could lose their livelihoods by the end of the year.
No More Promised Land
There is considerable temptation to cope with the crisis by taking protectionist steps. In many places, guest workers are now only perceived as competitors. In Great Britain, domestic labor union members recently prevented Italian and Portuguese mechanics working for a Sicilian company from modernizing an oil refinery. British blue-collar workers also protested against the use of Spanish and Polish workers in the construction of a power plant in Nottinghamshire. In London, the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration announced that restrictions would be necessary "to protect British jobs."
"Great Britain was the Promised Land for me," says Andrzej Wlezinski, a Pole, "but that is now over." The 40-year-old plumber plans to return to Lodz, a city in central Poland, at the end of March. He came to London, he says, immediately after the EU's eastward expansion. The British public, who had had to put up with the shoddy work of expensive local tradesmen for decades, welcomed Wlezinski and others like him with plenty of work and good pay. The then Home Secretary Charles Clarke called men like Wlezinski "jewels of our nation."
That is now history. Since last fall, Wlezinski has been constantly searching the Internet for temporary jobs. He used to earn ??90 (??114 or $148) a day, but now he counts himself lucky to be making half as much??f he can find work at all, that is. But he needs to earn ??200 ($284) a week to pay for his small dark room, his subway tickets and a few hamburgers. Lodz, he says, is cheaper and a city with "less stress." If he travels home now, after five years in England, he will be carrying hardly anything of value in his two suitcases. Saving money was not an option.
Elsewhere in Europe, migrants willing to return to their native countries can qualify for substantial assistance. Spanish aid organizations, for example, pay travel costs and ??450 ($590) in spending money. The country is especially eager to part ways as smoothly as possible with its more than 700,000 Romanians, the largest group of registered immigrants in the country.
The government in Madrid has even taken things a step further by advertising its "Voluntary Return Program" in ads on subway trains and buses. Jos?? Luis Rodr??guez Zapatero, the Socialist prime minister, hopes that the program will help oust 100,000 of the 2.8 million non-Europeans living legally in Spain.
By last December, 240,000 of them had already filed for unemployment benefits, and that number is likely to have increased since then. If migrant workers agree not to return to Spain for three years, they are repaid their contributions to the unemployment insurance system: 40 percent upfront, and the balance upon return to their native countries.
However, the offer has not been very successful so far, with only 2,000 foreigners signing up in the first three months. Most of them were Ecuadorians who, after Moroccans, are the largest non-European immigrant group.
Those who have worked in Spain legally for an extended period of time are not permitted to take more than ??12,000 ($15,600) with them when they leave. This is barely enough to open a small shop or taxi company at home. Dora Aguirre, president of Rumi??ahui, an Ecuadorian association in Madrid, has given advice many of her compatriots. "Those who are leaving now," she says, "wanted to do so anyway. These are people at retirement age."
Men who have lost their construction jobs in recent months are often unable to leave. They have brought their wives and children to Spain and are usually stuck in a credit trap. They have bought cars that no one wants now, and some took out mortgages on condominiums with four or five other people. Because no one is willing to take over their share, they have to continue making their payments. "Most of them believe that this is a better place to sit out the economic crisis than Latin America," says Aguirre.
No European country has attracted as many guest workers in recent years as Spain. Since Madrid joined the EU in 1986, the economy has enjoyed consistently high growth rates, and recently was even above the average of the countries that use the euro as their currency. There was more construction in Spain than anywhere else, and there was plenty to do for the country's 5.3 million foreigners, who now make up more than 10 percent of the population.
The Rise of Xenophobia
When the Socialists came into power in 2004, they introduced an amnesty, giving papers to 700,000 illegal non-Europeans with jobs, so as to collect their contributions to the social security system. In addition, Spanish companies recruited workers in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Mauritania, Poland and Bulgaria to pick fruit and vegetables, or to work in hotels, restaurants or the construction sector.
Now the labor market can no longer absorb any additional immigrants, says Labor Minister Celestino Corbacho. Tens of thousands of Spanish citizens are now applying for seasonal jobs picking olives and strawberries in Andalusian villages, thereby displacing the foreign workers. This has inevitably poisoned the climate for migrant workers.
In the Madrid region, governed by the conservative People's Party of Spain, the police force was instructed to crack down on foreigners during I.D. checks and arrest a predetermined number of foreigners without residency or work permits every week. Xenophobia is also growing in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy, during his election campaign in 2007 had already elevated the "fight against tax and social fraud" to the status of a national responsibility. The deportation quota has been increased considerably since then.
The mood has now shifted to one of overt xenophobia in Italy, which, like Spain, only became a country of immigration in the last decade. Illegal immigrants cannot be "handled with kid gloves," Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said, and the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promptly unveiled a new security law. It calls for a fee for residency permits and proof of a minimum level of income. Under the law, the homeless will be fingerprinted, doctors will be required to report patients without papers and citizens' patrols are to be authorized to pick up illegal immigrants. Anyone working in the country illegally will be deported, and those who refuse to leave can be sent to prison for up to four years.
The EU has long had plans to uniformly regulate immigration. But in light of the economic crisis, some governments are looking for a back door. They want to delay new rules that would allow Romanian and Bulgarian workers free access to the entire Western European labor market this year, and 11 EU countries want to hold on to existing restrictions. This, in turn, aggravates the situation in the EU's poorest countries. Authorities in Bucharest, for example, expect to see at least half of the roughly three million Romanians working abroad return home.
Aneliya, 38, and her husband Georgiy, 40, have already returned from Manta Rota, a sunny vacation spot in Portugal's southern Algarve region, to Dolno Ossenovo in southwestern Bulgaria. The construction company where the Bulgarian had worked for eight years notified workers in the summer that it expected a decline in contracts. At home, in her village in the Rila Mountains, Aneliya plans to pick tobacco for ??150 ($195) a month, assuming she gets the job. Her wages will have to be enough to support the couple's two sons, 12 and 15, and of course her husband, until he can find work again. The only problem is that 300 of the village's 1,500 residents had moved to Portugal, and 200 are now back.
'My Debts Are Growing'
The struggle for the few available jobs will be relentless. A disaster is taking shape in the job market throughout Bulgaria. Investors are staying away. In December alone, 15,000 workers were laid off, mainly in the metal industry, mining and the textile sector. The government hopes to find jobs in construction projects for the unemployed workers now returning home.
Chultem Choijusuren, the Mongolian mechanic, is also packing his bags. There is no doubt that by the time he arrived in Europe, he had already missed the boat. Choijusuren is now sitting in the unheated office of the Czech-Mongolian Society in Plzen, one of 13,000 Mongolians in the country. A hanging on the wall behind him depicts Genghis Khan, and only a few meters away is a portrait of former Czech President V??clav Havel. He never managed to find a job, he says, "but my debts are growing from one day to the next."
When Choijusuren stepped off the train in Prague after a weeklong journey, he was greeted by the Mongolian contact person, but with the news that "there is no more work in the Czech Republic." He found a place to stay with fellow Mongolians, rationed his savings and set out on his own in search of the ??1,000 job he had expected. But his efforts were in vain. "There is nothing for me here anymore," he says.
The Czech government will pay his return ticket. It anticipates that there will be well over 30,000 unemployed foreigners in the country in the coming months. Czech authorities are deeply concerned that some of the Vietnamese, Chinese and Mongolian migrant workers could turn to crime.
Prague prefers to dispose of these victims of globalization before that happens.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan