How many Bulgarians live in Europe? And what are the trends in their mobility?

Bulgaria is experiencing massive flows of emigration. Yet, not everyone goes away for the same reason, or moves to another EU country with the same life plans. The phenomenon is much more complicated.

Published On: September 10th, 2019
How many Bulgarians live in Europe? And what are the trends in their mobility?_62ccad6d26ea9.jpeg
How many Bulgarians live in Europe? And what are the trends in their mobility?_62ccad6d26ea9.jpeg

Girls in traditional Bulgarian costumes (photo: © trammy/Shutterstock )

How many Bulgarians live in Europe? And what are the trends in their mobility?

Bulgaria is experiencing massive flows of emigration. Yet, not everyone goes away for the same reason, or moves to another EU country with the same life plans. The phenomenon is much more complicated.

Girls in traditional Bulgarian costumes (photo: © trammy/Shutterstock )

Bulgarians abroad – the great pain of the Bulgarian economy, for which the lack of people is already becoming a chronic problem. And the great hope for everyone else here – at all elections, we look at once how many Bulgarians from outside the country voted and how they voted, with the expectation that change will come out of their will. Of course, in the modern way of life between here and there, there are no longer insurmountable obstacles, and everyone chooses either to call his choice emigration or just mobility. However, how many Bulgarians are in Europe at the moment and what are their mobility trends?

The short answer is – about 900,000. This is the number quoted by the Eurostat director Mariana Kotseva in an interview with bTV a week ago. She specified that these are registered Bulgarians living in other EU countries.

A Eurostat report on work mobility in Europe , published in July this year, reveals more details. In the last ten years, since Bulgarians have the right to move freely in the EU, the percentage of citizens who have benefited from living and working in another country has doubled. Hence, in 2018 about 13.3 per cent of the working age population of our country (20-64 years) is mobile. By comparison, Romanian citizens are the most mobile in the EU as about one fifth of the country’s total population lives somewhere else in Europe.

The data also show that many more low-skilled Bulgarian citizens have benefited from the opportunity of migration. The number of mobile Bulgarians with primary education migrating to other countries increased by 10.4 per cent over the 2008-2018 period. At the same time, employment rates in Bulgaria are higher than for those of our mobile citizens in other countries. According to Eurostat, this means that migration from countries such as Bulgaria is motivated by reasons other than job search (for example, family reunification, education or early retirement).

The picture is also interesting by looking at different countries. Germany is the most favored country for migration, with about 340,000 Bulgarians living there by 2019. This number is growing by an impressive 30-40,000 people per year. If Bulgarians in Germany continue to increase at this rate, the entire population of a city like Varna (the third largest city in Bulgaria) will soon live there. And the average age of Bulgarians living in Germany is 32.4 years, according to the German NSI.

Belgium, on the other hand, is a top destination for work among Bulgarians at present, according to Eurostat, with a total number of 37,000 people in 2019. Most of them are employed in the construction, hotel and restaurant sector and cosmetic services according to the observations of our compatriots.

A traditional country for Bulgarian guest workers, such as Spain, reports a serious outflow since 2009 (the peak year for Bulgarians living in the country – about 151,000 people). So far, the number of Bulgarians have decreased by almost 29,000 people. This is the result of the long recession of the Spanish economy and the collapse of the construction sector, where a large proportion of Bulgarian citizens were employed. Some of them returned to Bulgaria and others went to other European countries.

According to a migration researcher, professor Anna Krasteva, more and more Bulgarians are “settling into mobility”. Their migration projects are not final and are often transformed – for example, educational mobility can grow into family migration, temporary working abroad can lead to permanent establishment, or else successful realisation abroad can be continued with successful realisation in the homeland. 

How people look at their mobility

Is the definition of “emigrant” outdated? And to what extent is Bulgaria present in the plans for the future of the people who moved abroad? To answer these questions, we interviewed a palette of Bulgarians scattered throughout Europe. Here are their opinions.

Tihomir Genev, 33, English teacher, Spain

“I have been living in Spain for 13 years. My parents already lived there and it was the most natural solution. There are prospects for development and promotion here if you study or work hard. I define myself as a Bulgarian Spaniard or a Spanish Bulgarian. Bulgaria is mainly present in my memories. I do not see my future in Bulgaria, not because I do not love my country, but because it will be difficult to live among rumpled people. And a country that identifies itself more with vices than with virtues. 

The Bulgarian population in Spain is declining because one of the main pillars of the Spanish economy before the 2008 crisis were construction and infrastructure projects. After the collapse, many people in the construction and auxiliary units lost their jobs. A considerable part of the Bulgarian emigrants was employed in this sector. On the other hand, the aforementioned crisis had the effect of lowering incomes, which caused some part of the Bulgarian emigrants to find themselves with reduced incomes and, in a leap of faith they made the logical choice to return to Bulgaria.”

Dimitar Gamizov, 28, architect, Austria

“I have been living in Austria for just over eight years. I made the decision to come here after not being accepted to study architecture at UACEG (University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy) in Sofia. I decided to go to Vienna and have recently graduated from the Technical University. I am currently working as an architect at a small Austrian office. The living conditions in Austria can be described as peaceful, and Vienna accidentally leads the charts for “the best City to live in”. Everything just works here and one feels that the state takes care of this. 

I have a great desire to return to Bulgaria and to contribute to the development of architecture, but for the moment, there are some obstacles. First, I think I have more to learn here. In particular, the environment with regards to architecture in Bulgaria does not predispose young architects do develop. However, I have a great desire to implement projects in Bulgaria in the near future. I hope to see more architectural design contests because they are one of the main methods by which young people can express themselves. I also hope for a more active civil society. This change is what most of us want, most of all. I follow everything that is happening in Bulgaria and it is definitely present in my plans for the future.”

Boris, 21, forklift driver, United Kingdom

“I went to Germany at the age of 16 without a high school diploma. I studied until the tenth grade. The reason why I left was that I wanted to make decent money. In Bulgaria, most people wonder how to make the ends meet and I didn’t want to be one of them. I’ve changed a lot of jobs. In Germany, I worked in a gambling establishment, and here in Scotland I worked in the food, alcohol, and butcher industry. I am currently driving a forklift for IKEA. 

I like it a lot more here, where healthcare is at a higher level, and wages are better. I think to live here or in some other country. I would not return to Bulgaria because most of my friends no longer live there and it is difficult to live on my own, especially since I have spent so much time abroad. I don’t see why I have to come back – neither can I have a good salary, nor there is a tidy and clean environment.”

Radina Kraeva, 33, on maternity leave, Belgium

“I have been living in Belgium for 13 years. I have been on maternity leave for 3 years, but in September, I started working at Zaventem Airport in Brussels. Maybe at the beginning I defined myself as an immigrant. But this is no longer the case, since I live, work and raise my children here. At the same time, I tried to integrate. But Bulgaria is present in my plans – always. I hope that in a few more years I will return to my country permanently. So far, I have no opportunity because my children go to school here (but of course, each of my three children speaks Bulgarian as a first language). 

For several years, Belgium has become one of the most populous countries in Europe. I think the reason is that many Bulgarians like me, who have lived for many years and have raised families here, are somehow trying to help their loved ones – parents, brothers, sisters. And because here in Belgium there are far greater opportunities for personal development than Bulgaria, they are slowly being pulled over, as I did with my brother seven years ago, and now his family is already here.”

Radina Ralcheva, PR expert, Germany

“I moved to Germany in May 2017. My decision is the fruit of long thoughts. The environment in Bulgaria has become completely unbearable for me. Given the many years I had invested in public service and the desperate direction the country was moving into, I decided I had no more personal time for fruitless efforts. I do the same thing I used to do in Bulgaria, but on another level. I am currently at EMEA Communications Manager in Corning – a huge B2B company being part of the Fortune 500. I am very pleased both in terms of professional interest and in terms of the fact that we are talking about a global international environment, and I like it very much.

Bulgaria remains my homeland. I follow and am excited about what’s going on there. But for now, I have no plans related to Bulgaria, except to return from time to time to see my family and friends. And why is that so? My personal answer is simple. I cannot stand what is happening in Bulgaria.”

Christian Georgiev, 21, barman and student, United Kingdom

“I have been living in the United Kingdom for 3 years. I came here to study cinema, and for the time being I have no plan to return, but I think that in Bulgaria the film industry is in a flourishing period and this might be a good reason to return. As early as the first year I came, I started working as a barman, so I could support myself. My salary is minimal, but enough for me to live well. I would like to go home some day, but it depends mostly on my career development. With the advent of Brexit, the flow of migrants will certainly be reduced and private business may be affected.”

For 30-40 years old migration is a second professional start

Professor Anna Krasteva is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the New Bulgarian University. Her main research interests are in the area of migration and refugee policy, policy for Bulgarians abroad and others. Her latest book, From Migration to Mobility, deals with how we think about migration and how we manage it. She holds a BA in Philosophy from Saint Kliment Ohridski University and a Master’s Degree Program in Specialized Information from Claude Bernard University, Lyon, France.

What general trends do you see in Bulgarian migrants?

The transition from migration to mobility is a significant trend. More and more Bulgarians are “settling into mobility” in a wide variety of mobile projects: they spend summer in a brigade or work abroad (gurbet) while they study or work in their home country during winter time. Another curious form is transnationalism – for six months one drives a taxi in her beloved country and where one is with the family, and for six months one works in greenhouses in Poland, which ensures the standard one strives for. Many 30-40-year-olds use migration for a second professional start – a good job and salary at home, but a desire for a sharper jump in financial and professional terms that only a more developed and dynamic work environment can catalyse.

Migration is both freedom and opportunity to unlock your personal development from your home country. It is a huge resource that migrants own and consume in creative forms. And the most attractive thing is that these decisions may not be final and the migration projects can be transformed – educational mobility grows into family migration, temporary working abroad (gurbet) leads to permanent establishment, successful realisation abroad continues with successful realization in the home country.

Eurostat data shows that most Bulgarians who have left the country in the last 10 years are low-skilled. Why?

Diplomas, languages, qualifications are social capital that facilitates the migration of the highly qualified persons and that is why it has happened earlier and faster, and continues to this day. The low-skilled persons enjoy a different kind of social capital – migrant networks: their relatives, neighbors, friends, acquaintances are already abroad, and help new migrants to choose a destination and allow for a faster access to housing and work. If you can get twice as much for the same job, why not leave it, if you can get more for less skilled work, why not change it (from a kindergarten teacher to a babysitter, from a master-builder to a construction worker). More and more Bulgarians are not reconciling themselves to be among the 30% of their fellow citizens who are not able to go on holidays even once a year. They want a decent pay and want to live to the fullest today and now. 

What effects does this change have on society?

Instead of the national Bulgarian Black Sea coast, young as well as young in spirit Bulgarian people are choosing to work in tourism, agriculture or construction sectors in Greece, Italy, Spain, etc., and on the national Bulgarian Black Sea coast, tourism and construction sectors are increasingly hiring an immigrant workforce from Ukraine, Moldova, etc. Migration is a fluid phenomenon with a huge potential to fill gaps and niches in the labour market.

How does Bulgaria fit into the European migration phenomenon you describe in your book?

Migration and mobility are the most attractive Europeanization because it is done from below by the citizens. Bulgaria participates in the European migration phenomenon in three ways – emigration, immigration and a committed diaspora. Mobile Bulgarians enjoy the right of free movement and access to the labour market and to classic European migration destinations such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and even more to the new Mediterranean migration giants – Spain, Italy, and Greece.

Bulgaria is an attractive destination for European experts, managers and employees in foreign companies. A curious tendency is that after the end of their contract some choose to stay in Bulgaria. More importantly, the relatively small number of immigration in Bulgaria – about 150,000, is very well integrated – either they have their own companies or work in companies of other immigrants. Moreover, they speak Bulgarian and are attached to their second homeland. Bulgaria can be proud of the positive integration of its few immigrants, and it is amazing that it does not.

The third form is the engaged diaspora – many Bulgarian immigrants who are permanently settled abroad also remain permanently connected to their homeland through civil causes and activities, charity events, media presence, etc.

According to your research, is the number of people returning to the country increasing? Why?

Returning to the homeland is sometimes final, more often it is a stage of mobile trajectories and it is the second tendency that is more interesting and characteristic.

Despite having both a good job and a Bulgarian companion in a dynamic European city, a young female lawyer decides to return. Not forever, just until the next professional-existential stage. With the money saved while working abroad (gurbet), the Roma (gypsy) person left the neighborhood and bought a flat in another hometown neighbourhood, turning the return to a fresh start. A retired engineer, after a decade of transatlantic careers, returns to Bulgaria, where his family has long lived – first in the whirlwind of the capital, then in the tranquility of his hometown. A tourism expert loses her job past the crisis and returns until her former employers connect her with her partners in another European country, where she is successfully established after a short stay in Bulgaria. A super saleswoman opens a small fruit vegetable upon her return and all customers enjoy “German” service.

Returning to the homeland has many faces – sometimes it can be definitive in the strongest existential sense of “dying at home”, other times it is the beginning of a new professional project, even more often it is a stop on mobile roads. 

It is also curious that many who do not return would like to do so, but cannot accept to work in an entrenched country marked by corruption and subversiveness because they are accustomed to live by the rules and being meritocratic, according to their achievements. These worthy Bulgarian Europeans are a huge capital. If a reformed Bulgaria manages to attract them one day, their return will be a great recognition that the country has rid itself of the mafia and corruption and was returned to its citizens.

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