The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting migrant workers’ lives. Whether or not it is really causing them to relocate en masse is yet to be determined. One thing we can be sure of is that they will go where the work is.

In the last days of March, Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland stated that in just ten days, over 100 thousand Ukrainian nationals crossed the border to return to their home country.

According to a quarterly report on Central and Eastern European (CEE) economies from UniCredit, the Romanian press is sharing estimates about 300 thousand emigrants returning from Western Europe, especially from Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Signals of increased numbers of workers both returning to CEE countries from the West and leaving to go home elsewhere can be heard from various sources in the region. This raises several questions. How significant is this trend? What are the specific reasons for which workers are relocating? How will this influence the economies in the region?

Answering the first question is the hardest part. So far, actual data available on migrant workers’ movements in the face of the pandemic is sparse, for several reasons.

“The lockdown makes it impossible to collect data by any means other than by phone, but even such research is hard to come by,” says Marta Jaroszewicz, Assistant Professor at the Centre of Migration Research at Warsaw University. “So our knowledge so far is incomplete”, she adds.

Barbara Jancewicz

Barbara Jancewicz, Head of the Economics of Migration Research Unit at the Centre of Migration Research, notes that data about migrants’ relocation behaviour is usually processed with some delay, but now the work of government offices is much harder not only due to lockdowns but also the constant changes in the law. “There is a lot of uncertainty”, she says.

Who is leaving?

While we do not know how significant the number of migrant workers leaving has been, even on the scale of one country, there are several things to consider when thinking about this phenomenon and trying to gauge its potential consequences.

As the V4 group’s biggest labour market and economy, Poland has the most at stake when it comes to workers from abroad, and therefore watches their movements most carefully. Ukrainians constitute the largest migrant group in Poland, with estimates of even up to 2 million workers living and working here on various terms.

A lot of them are temporary workers, some come on a rotational basis, and many put down their roots here for good.

“According to border officials, 145,000 people left Poland to go to Ukraine between mid-March and 7 April”, states Marta Jaroszweicz.

The timing was important here, and so was communication. After the Polish government, similarly to others in the region, announced travel restrictions in mid-March, many people had only a few moments to decide whether they wanted to stay or leave.

“I think that ineffective communication, mostly from Ukrainian authorities, but probably the Polish government as well to some extent, was part of the reason why so many people left. A lot of them thought they were supposed to leave, or that they would not be able to go back to Ukraine later”, adds Jaroszewicz.

At the same time, the travel restrictions could have just as well been the reason for some Ukrainian workers not to leave Poland if they had been planning a short trip home, as access to the country for foreign citizens was severely limited, and even those who were allowed in had to undergo obligatory quarantine, which could prevent them from working.

By the end of March, the borders were already partly closed, and remain so indefinitely, which means not much movement can happen and the relocation wave, however big it was, mostly ended.

And who is coming back?

Parallel to migrant workers leaving the region, analysts are saying that CEE citizens have been returning from Western Europe. However, the evidence of that leans even more towards the anecdotal side.

Andrzej Kubisiak, Deputy Director of the Polish Economic Institute, a public think tank, thinks that the V4 countries will experience an increase in return migration because of the pandemic.

“This is partly caused by the uncertainty regarding healthcare in other countries or an inadequate response to the crisis, which can cause some migrants to return to their native labour markets”, he says.

Barbara Jancewicz from the Centre for Migration Research indicates that some Poles living in the UK might be returning because of the health crisis, but not as many as people expect.

“Researchers have been surprised that in the past, while many emigrants said they did not know when they would come back to their home country, this changed when a crisis struck, or when Brexit happened. They moved out, but not as numerously as expected. This time might be similar”, she says.

Jancewicz confirms that in most cases, people who came back shortly after the travel restrictions were announced had been planning to return to their home country anyway, and simply sped up the process to avoid potential complications.

As in the case of Ukrainians leaving V4 countries, the period between the pandemic becoming a close reality and governments restricting travel was not very long, so those who had not been considering relocation probably did not decide on it.

Why move?

The possible implications of significant migrant flows for the future of CEE labour markets are closely related to the reasoning behind such moves. And while the perceived quality of healthcare systems is being mentioned as a factor, an even more important and logical one is simply job security.

“In a situation where each country in Europe will most likely experience economic difficulties, I suspect the migrants’ first question will be: where can I secure a job that will let me support my family? Where will I be eligible for an unemployment benefit or some other form of support from the government if I lose my job?”, Jancewicz suggests.

The migrant-powered sectors that are suffering because of lockdowns include most of all services, but also parts of retail and manufacturing. Others, like logistics and food production, are unaffected or even increasing employment.

“Employer unions in agriculture, manufacturing and construction are announcing worker shortages”, says Marta Jaroszewicz from the Centre for Migration Research. “Some employers are even offering to pay workers for their time in quarantine, just so they can secure employees among new migrants or those who left but want to return”, she adds.

What will be the new normal?

When economic downturns finally materialise, the demand for migrant workers will depend on the overall level of unemployment. Luckily for them, even if the sectors of the economy where the majority of migrants tend to work are affected now, they are set to be the first ones to recover.

But if the supply of workers on V4 labour markets turns out not to meet the demand, countries may be tempted to compete against each other within the region. Whether or not that competition will have to happen will be determined by how hard their economies are hit – and which sectors suffer more than others.

If economic forecasts saying that CEE economies will suffer less because of the pandemic than the eurozone, the situation might be favourable both for employees and employers.

“In a worst-case scenario, if unemployment rises to very high levels, governments might consider limiting foreigners’ work rights”, considers Marta Jaroszewicz. “But I think the likelihood of that is currently very low”, she adds.

So far the Polish government has automatically prolonged Ukrainians’ temporary work permits to 30 days after the formal state of the epidemic is lifted. What happens after lockdowns end, both here and in other V4 countries, is still hard to predict.

All in all, while there is not a lot of data that could be used to verify the claims about large waves of migrant workers coming home to and from Central and Eastern Europe because of the pandemic, it is worth considering their situation and possible implications of any significant shifts in numbers.

The travel restrictions, obligatory quarantines and general uncertainty seem like factors that would, in fact, discourage workers from moving, but in the end, one’s health and economic safety will almost always come first.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

Journalist, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Based in Warsaw.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF