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Interview

Return to Eastern Europe

Caroline Hornstein Tomić, Robert Pichler and Sarah Scholl-Schneider about hopes and realities of migrants returning home.

18. December 2018
Magazine > Interview > Return to Eastern Europe

All across Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, returning migrants have become part of post-socialist transformation processes. By playing an active role in politics, the economy, science and education, arts and civil society, they have exerted a crucial influence on state and nation-building processes and on social and cultural transformations.

However, returning home is not merely a story of success, but also of failed integration, marginalisation, lack of participation and lost potential. These stories are often left untold. The volume Remigration to Post-Socialist Europe. Hopes and Realities of Return, jointly published by Caroline Hornstein Tomić, Robert Pichler and Sarah Scholl-Schneider, comprises a range of different accounts, shedding light on return migration and its consequences in several Eastern and South-Eastern European countries from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint. The authors met with Manuel Oberlader to discuss the results of their research project.

You studied the return of migrants to post-socialist Europe. What are the special features of this region?

Robert Pichler: The defining characteristics of this region are inextricably linked to the Second World War, National Socialist aggression and its suppression by the Red Army, the Allies and the resistance groups in the region. It was against this backdrop that the communists were able to seize power after the Second World War. Without this key turning point, it would make no sense to view this region as a whole. The ideological division in Europe played a crucial role in shaping the migratory history of the region on many different levels. Twelve to fourteen million Germans fled, were displaced or were forced to emigrate from territories they had previously settled or occupied, resulting in resettlement and population shifts in the states concerned. All of this made its mark on the demographic map and social and political developments. Local collaborators, sympathisers, opposition activists, non-communist resistance groups and passionate anti-communists were also forced to flee or were displaced. Throughout the period of communist rule, these refugee movements gradually continued in a number of different countries: in the GDR in the wake of the uprising in 1953, in Poland and Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Poland in 1980. The bloody break-up of Yugoslavia sparked large-scale movements of refugees and displacement. The term “ethnic cleansing” dates back to this period.

Remigration to Post-Socialist Europe: Hopes and Realities of Return

Migration is a persistent topic in European discourse, whereas the phenomenon of returning migrants is of little importance in public, political or scientific discourse.

With the publication Remigration to Post-Socialist Europe: Hopes and Realities of Return Caroline Hornstein-Tomić, Robert Pichler und Sarah Scholl-Schneider shed a light on processes of return migration to various Eastern European countries from multidisciplinary perspectives.

After Gendering Post-Socialist Tradition and SEE! Urban Transformation in Southeastern Europe this is the third part of ERSTE Foundation Series.

Info box image: A returnees’ house boat (Fieri, Albania, 2008). Photo: © Robert Pichler

Flight and displacement have had a lasting impact on those directly affected and continue to play an important role in the lives of their descendants. Diaspora groups and associations of displaced people keep the memory of the hardships of displacement alive and often cultivate a romanticized and nostalgic notion of their lost homeland.

The theme of return is always central to this vision, as well as a sense of longing to connect with the time before displacement and a desire to rectify the situation and restore the old order. These groups are naturally very different, ranging from those with a radical, revisionist and revanchist outlook to liberal and democratically minded people.

Decades of communist rule in various authoritarian regimes have left an indelible mark on the economies and societies of the region. Isolation from the West (with the exception of Yugoslavia) and the differing socio-economic developments have had a lasting effect on migration patterns. The migration processes, which happened on a vast scale during the period of upheaval following the fall of the Iron Curtain, can only be understood against this backdrop.

For a long time, researchers (and the public) mainly focussed on the consequences of this emigration for Western societies. Little attention was paid to the process of return, how it happened, what the extent of this phenomenon was, what challenges returning migrants faced and the social, economic and political potential inherent in this process.

What impact has return migration had on the development of Eastern Europe since 1989?

Caroline Hornstein Tomić: Returning comes in as many different shapes and sizes as the migration that preceded it. There are as many types of migrant as there are returnee: political emigrants and dissidents, war refugees, economic migrants and migrants looking to pursue further education or advance their careers. Some return after spending decades in the diaspora, others go back to their starting point or place of origin after just a few years. Returning is also not a linear process. Not all people decide to stay in their new homes: many set off again and go back to where they came from, move on to another place or pursue transnational lifestyles with two or several different places of residence. The fall of communism suddenly made it possible to return, sparking noticeable waves of returnees in the early stages of political transformation. Among the first returnees back then were a fair number of political emigrants, who believed that the time had come to help shape political change.

Second-generation migrants and descendants of emigrants from earlier generations also used this transition period as an opportunity to try their luck back in the homelands of their parents or their ancestors. However, this early wave of returnees was short-lived and relatively low in number. Accession to the EU and funding programmes aimed at supporting citizens of non-EU countries migrating for further education or career advancement – in the western Balkans or the Eastern Partnership, for example – then sparked major and ongoing surges of migration in the later stages of transition after the millennium, above all among young people and skilled workers. The impact of this migration on the processes of transformation is becoming ever more apparent, since these groups of people have, by and large, not returned. The brain drain and the current work-related migration – which is leaving many already ageing communities in Eastern Europe to fend for themselves, above all in rural areas – means that the numbers of young people, who are generally dynamic and who welcome change, are declining. This means even less changeover in the elite and makes it less likely that the younger generation will take over the reins.

© Dejan Petrović
The longing for home plays a crucial role in the return of many migrants. However, the return experience often goes hand in hand with a demythologization of the homeland. Photo: © Dejan Petrović

The accounts in our volume examine specific places or social fields where returnees have had a noticeable impact. Their perspective as local stakeholders is a good viewpoint from which to illustrate the dynamics of transformation. In some places, returnees turn their experience as migrants to their economic advantage by offering services to other migrants, thus facilitating transnational mobility, including return migration. Experiences of migration can boost the status of returning migrants in the local community, either individually or as a group. This can be the case for migrant minorities, for example, who receive increased social recognition in society after their return and stake their claim for participation with greater confidence.

“There was little recognition of the potential of returning emigrants to provide impetus and help shape transformation processes.”

Our research revealed that returning emigrants (from the diaspora) rarely received strategic or long-term support and there was barely any recognition of their potential to provide impetus and help shape transformation processes. In isolated cases, new institutions were established, which created jobs for returning migrants, or returnees were appointed to political posts. Competing interests, institutional obstacles and defensive reactions are, however, more common, as are reservations about returnees, who are stereotyped just as they stereotype their place of origin and its inhabitants.

You describe a sense of longing for home as a “paradigmatic contrast to the experience of migration”. Is this longing the main reason for returning? Or do economic motivations or family also play a role?

Robert Pichler: A sense of longing for home undoubtedly plays a central role in the decision of many migrants to return. This age-old motif has deep cultural roots and is particularly common in cases of forced migration. People who were forced to leave their homes, who were displaced or fled and do not have the option of returning, develop an especially pronounced longing for their lost home. Living in exile, they often romanticise their homeland, have a stronger belief in national myths than if they still lived in their country of origin itself, and block out or categorically refuse to acknowledge changes at home. Historical references guide their mindset and actions. This state of being is aptly expressed by the word “homesick”, which embodies a deeply rooted longing to connect to one’s lost past. This is also one of the reasons why “lingering in the haze of one’s homeland” mainly encourages backward-looking ideas and beliefs.

Irrespective of the traumatic experience of fleeing or being displaced, a sense of longing for home plays an important role in migrants’ lives. This continues to be the case for economic migrants who return to their countries of origin at the weekends and for holidays. The cultural practices which have evolved around engagements, weddings and burials evoke a feeling of community and a connection to home, as does the construction of new houses or the renovation of old ones in the place of origin. Even if, in most cases, there is no realistic chance of returning, migrants maintain these refuges as a kind of second pillar or safety net in case “project emigration” does not work out. However, the ambiguities of attachment to one’s home are ever-present, creating fragile affiliations which determine the everyday life of many families.

“The experience of returning often goes hand in hand with the demythologization of home.”

However, there are significant gaps between this sense of longing, rhetoric and practice. Very few people return to their country of origin due to a sense of idealism or attachment to their roots. There are social and economic reasons for this: the extreme income disparities, the lack of social security and the social ties that above all the children and grandchildren develop in the country of destination prevent migrants from returning. The experience of returning often goes hand in hand with the demythologization of home. Although political rhetoric would suggest otherwise and governments strive to motivate their countrymen and women to return, the necessary measures mostly fail to materialise or are not possible for macroeconomic reasons. The idealistic notion of returning was long ago replaced by a sense of pragmatism. This is mainly due to first-hand experiences, as well as information accessed via social media. However, returning not only means replanting one’s roots in the country of origin. Temporary return is also a form of remigration, as is the reorientation of people’s thoughts and actions towards returning. Forms of temporary migration are practised in numerous sectors (nursing, construction, agriculture, catering).

© Martin Valentin Fuchs
The cityscape of Pristina is characterized by rapid growth and illegal construction activities. Although the government strives to motivate their countrymen and women to return, the necessary measures mostly fail to materialise. Photo: © Martin Valentin Fuchs

What kinds of ideas and projections do people take back with them to their societies of origin and what are they ultimately confronted with when they return?

Sarah Scholl-Schneider: The returnee’s ambition to become actively involved in the society of origin is often undoubtedly connected to a certain desire to be seen, to achieve a particular status and not least to gain recognition and acceptance. Our research revealed that these desires had often played a central role in the life of emigrants over the years and had heavily influenced the period of emigration. However, it is the physical experience of returning that enables migrants to re-establish a real connection to the place they left long ago and provides the space for mutual recognition and interaction. Accounts from returning migrants, describing the first time they (physically) returned after an absence of many years, are particularly illuminating: in most cases their bodies initially had very extreme reactions. This is because their aspiration to (once again) belong often goes unfulfilled. They fail to rediscover the things that were once familiar, because time has not stood still. The old networks are broken, connections which once gave them a foot in the door have been lost. These experiences are particularly tough for those who had to leave their homelands during the socialist era and return in the belief that the new system is free of this old legacy. Many a returning migrant reported that their former adversaries had remained in the same posts and, for example, were now “mercifully” reissuing citizenships that had been revoked many years ago.

“To this day, returning to the East is viewed as a failure.”

It also became clear that the type of emigration often determined whether returning was a success or a failure. The greater the acceptance of the diaspora after the period of upheaval, the greater the chance that returnees would be able to reintegrate or be integrated. Low acceptance, on the other hand, often resulted in a phenomenon which Czech author Milan Kundera referred to as “ignorance”. This manifested itself specifically in accusations from those who had stayed behind, claiming that emigrants had been living it up in far-off countries, leaving their compatriots to suffer at home. However, this ignorance was not only a result of the tightly woven net of the Iron Curtain. To a certain extent, it also reflects the image of the “good life in the West”, which still exists in many post-socialist regions. To this day, for example, remigration to the East – Polish migrants returning from the United Kingdom, for instance – is viewed as a failure.

Do highly qualified returnees face particular problems? Or could returning migration be a solution to the brain drain?

Caroline Hornstein Tomić: Both highly skilled and low-skilled economic migrants or returnees are confronted with the same problems: crumbling social systems, low wages, severe deficiencies in the health system, a lack of flexibility in employment relations, limited opportunities to gain skills and do further training, a poor competitive edge on the international stage, among other factors. A lack of transparency and unfair competition on the labour market and in the academic world also pose particular problems for highly skilled workers: recruiting from within closed networks and clientelism, a polarised and polarising and politicized culture of debate, a lack of objectivity in professional discussions and inadequate facilities in a diverse range of fields.

The many diaspora outreach programmes aimed at supporting migrants returning to universities in the South-Eastern region, for example, are rarely sustainable because they often dismiss or pay too little attention to the contextual parameters. The education system’s lack of practical relevance and the poor communication between business and the educational sector are key issues which encumber the integration of returnees into the world of work. However, there are ways to address this: return migration partnerships with industry, for example, which require contact to be established between highly skilled workers and future employers before the workers return. “Brain circulation” is a much-discussed concept. Programmes aimed at facilitating this circulation need to be implemented early on and at the source, i.e. in the places abroad where feelers are put out and the recruitment of highly skilled workers is set in motion. Migrants who have already returned can undoubtedly also help create incentives for others to follow suit.

Lastly, a very general point: What advice would you give to help people successfully return and reintegrate into Europe’s post-socialist countries?

Sarah Scholl-Schneider: Unfortunately, we don’t have a recipe for success. A few of the people who told us their stories in our volume excellently demonstrate how to return home: with a lot of planning and sufficient financial resources. They returned to countries where there had been a significant changeover in the elite, meaning that they were partly able to draw on networks of old contacts who were now in influential positions. They were also able to find ways, niches and suitable moments to successfully include their families in the process of reintegration. And, not least, they achieved success by using a number of strategies. Not standing out as “foreign”, for example, treading carefully, and deliberately keeping a low profile. Other returning migrants, however, had much more difficult experiences, and some even went so far as to leave their homeland again. Many of the aforementioned obstacles faced by returning migrants are due to structural problems. If one compares recent migratory movements to waves of remigration from the past, such as German post-war remigration, this becomes especially clear. As early as the mid-1940s, the sociologist Alfred Schütz described the classic homecomer, who possesses inherent traits which evoke familiar images from Greek mythology: that not only the homecomers, but also those who stayed behind change during the period of migration, that the homecomers are labelled with unrelenting stereotypes, or that they wish to use the experience they gained abroad for the good of their homeland. Schütz ends his text by pointing out that returning is not an automatic success and appeals to all sides involved to make the necessary provisions to address this.

Numerous NGOs, national diaspora programmes, return migration initiatives and advice centres spread all over post-socialist Eastern Europe are working to make these provisions – to differing degrees and with varying levels of funding. Yet the quietest voices of all in this dialogue are the returning migrants themselves. Their experiences, however, can be a valuable resource for us all.

Original in German. Translated into English by Rebekah Smith.

This text is protected by copyright: © Caroline Hornstein Tomić, Robert Pichler & Sarah Scholl-Schneider (eds.) / LIT Verlag GmbH & Co. KG. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: © Florian Rainer.


Hopes and Realities of Return
Remigration to Post-Socialist Europe