SOFIA, Bulgaria—When Nicko Aleksiev left this city for France, in 2011, he didn’t expect he would ever live in Bulgaria again.
But after the pandemic hit, Mr. Aleksiev was laid off, and—like tens of thousands of other foreign workers in Western Europe—he headed home in June 2020. Now, after more than a year here, he has a job in Sofia and no intention of going abroad again.
After decades of mass migration from former Eastern Bloc countries to more lucrative opportunities in the West, the flow of people in Europe is showing signs of reversing.
In Estonia, returnees to the country have outpaced emigrants since 2017. Net migration to Poland has been in the black since 2016. And the trend has accelerated during the pandemic. Lithuania, which has lost a quarter of its citizens since 1990, saw a slight uptick in population last year, as Covid-19 halted the waves of emigration that had long drained the country of young people.
Nowhere has the turnaround been more dramatic than in Bulgaria.
Before the pandemic, Bulgaria was projected to be the second fastest-shrinking country in the world behind Lithuania, according to United Nations projections. Its population has fallen from nearly 9 million in the late 1980s to roughly 7 million today.
Last year, however, net migration to the country was positive for the first time in more than a decade. Some 30,000 more people moved to Bulgaria than left the country in 2020, the vast majority of them Bulgarian citizens.
Now, the question is whether those returnees will stay. The answer will have major implications for both sides of the continent. Western European countries are confronting record labor shortages, with many jobs that are usually filled by foreign workers sitting empty. And in countries like Bulgaria, return migrants would be a boon to economies that have bled skilled workers and young people for a generation.
“The wave of people leaving Central and Eastern Europe and going west has crested,” said Ognyan Georgiev, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Last year, he conducted a study that found tens of thousands of Bulgarians who had been living abroad long-term had come home during the pandemic.
“A significant percentage of them might stay,” he said of the returnees. “That’s really an economic boost—not just for Bulgaria, but for countries like Romania and Poland. There’s been a realization that you can have a good quality of life back in Eastern Europe.”
When Mr. Aleksiev, 29 years old, got back to Sofia last year, he thought the move might be temporary. But he quickly decided not to move abroad again.
Though he makes about half of what he did working at the airport in Nice, France, he said the money goes much further here. He lives in the city center by a well-tended, verdant park. He goes out to restaurants more often than he could afford in France, and still manages to save money.
His office at Telus International, an outsourcing company where he supervises a French-speaking team, has a private gym with 360-degree views of the city. Many of his friends from high school—a French immersion school that typically sends many graduates abroad—have also come home.
“Sofia surprised me,” Mr. Aleksiev said. “It gives a lot of opportunities, even better than some Western cities, in terms of quality of life.”
Overall, however, quality of life in Bulgaria lags far behind most of Europe. It is the poorest country in the European Union, and distrust of government institutions is rampant. Less than 30% of citizens are vaccinated against Covid-19, the lowest rate in the bloc. A study from Transparency International found that a fifth of residents said they paid a bribe to access healthcare in the previous year, the second highest rate in the EU, trailing only neighboring Romania.
In April, after months of anticorruption protests, the prime minister failed to win enough seats to form a government, and he resigned from parliament. A caretaker government took over until a new one was seated earlier this month, following elections in November and months of political turbulence.
Magdalena Kostova, a demographer at Bulgaria’s National Statistical Institute, said she was skeptical that many of the returnees would stay long-term. Economic opportunities, education and access to basic services remained far better elsewhere in Europe, she said.
“There have been improvements to living conditions in recent years, but these are mainly in Sofia,” Ms. Kostova said. “That’s not the case elsewhere in the country.”
In northwestern Bulgaria, the most depopulated region, villages have become ghost towns. In hopes of enticing businesses to the area, the EU has funded new roads, bridges and rail lines. But even in factories that have taken root, many of the jobs have been automated. Rows of suburban houses, built with money sent home by emigrants, are dark.
Working abroad as a pastry chef on cruise liners, Ivaylo Ivanov was part of the mass exodus from Vratsa Province, in Bulgaria’s northwest, which has lost nearly 40% of its population over the last two decades. Since 2005, he usually spent only a few months at home every year.
But when the cruise industry shut down in the spring of 2020, Mr. Ivanov was stranded in Vratsa. He found work as a courier, but it paid less than a quarter of what he made on the boats. Debts began to pile up.
In March, he left the country again, and is now working at a hotel in Germany. Though he said he would rather stay in Bulgaria—where he and his wife own a home and he can spend time with his two sons—he said he had no choice, economically.
“The salaries in Bulgaria are a disaster,” he said. “The owners of any successful business treat people like slaves.”
Until the last several weeks, opportunities in Western Europe had been calling louder to workers in the East, as the continent’s largest economies clamored for more workers. Germany has more than a million open jobs after a sharp drop in net immigration, and officials say they want to attract some 400,000 skilled workers from abroad each year. Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and the United Kingdom all broke job vacancy records this year.
In Lithuania, one of the few Eastern European countries to release monthly migration statistics, emigration numbers began spiking in August. But the emergence of the Omicron variant has stalled international travel for now.
Atanas Pekanov, who served as the deputy prime minister for the management of EU funds under Bulgaria’s caretaker government, said the pandemic has given the country an opportunity. The longer people stay in Bulgaria, he said, the more likely they are to stay permanently: “They’re getting more and more used to being here.”
He called Bulgaria’s dwindling population “the main challenge in the long term” and the exodus of young people “pretty depressing.”
Mr. Pekanov himself returned to Bulgaria during the pandemic. After the prime minister stepped down in April, Mr. Pekanov returned from Austria, where he was working on a Ph.D., to join the caretaker government that took charge.
He said people who study abroad should come back to Bulgaria. Still, now that a new government has taken over, he said he would likely return to Vienna.
Write to Ian Lovett at email@example.com
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