Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

From “You’re free to leave” to “When are you returning?”

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A few years ago, in 2006, the then Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány made a memorable statement that was later understood as  encitement for Hungarians to leave the country if they didn’t like it there. A look at the statistics today reveals that quite a few people have followed his advice. Where is this all leading?

Hungary is a prime example of the brain drain where well-educated people with no opportunities in their home country move abroad for a better life, while the government loses not only skilled workers but also the money it spent on educating them.

In 2006 former prime minister Gyurcsány said, “You may leave, you can leave us here”. The “you” here originally referred to employers who, in response to the planned tax hike, wanted to move headquarters to neighbouring Slovakia. Later the phrase took on a general meaning: if you don’t like it in Hungary, don’t complain, just get out!

And this is exactly what is happening. With the present freedom of movement for workers in the European Union, it is now easier than ever to leave the country and start a new and better life abroad.

Can you come back? – A personal example

I graduated from high school in 2006. Recently our high school class held a reunion to see how we all were faring and we put together some very surprising and alarming data: 

  • Out of the a total of 23 classmates, 18 went to university and have obtained at least a bachelor-level diploma.
  • All of us studied two foreign languages in high school: English and German or French, the most commonly used languages in the European Union. At least seven of us speak more than two foreign languages.
  • At least seven of us have tried life abroad for a minimum of one university semester, for example in an exchange program, and more of us are planning to do so.
  • Currently six of us are living abroad permanently and not planning to move home any time soon. The number of those seriously considering moving abroad fluctuates constantly.

Where to live? (Illustration by the author)

This is definitely not a representive view of Hungarian society as a whole, only the highly educated youth segment (see the statistics) which is the most mobile group of society. To give some general numbers: one in five Hungarian adults plans to find a job abroad or to move there temporarily or for good. (figures up by 50% over 2010.) And it’s 48 percent of the 18-29 age group or nearly every second person.

If an politician tells citizens they “are welcome to leave”, the skilled youth will be the first to react and up tents. The consequences are far-reaching and well-known: an ever more aging society, lack of workers (in fields like medicine), and a shrinking economy, to mention but a few.

On 23 October 2012, prime minister Viktor Orbán said: “This government does not suggest that its citizens leave the country. We are saying, you may return.” In an interview a few months before, he was at pains to emphasize that the problem is not when you leave, but when you don’t return. Nice sentiments but of course not enough.

It’s deeds, not words that we need to convince us to return.


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Anikó Mészáros Twitter: @dusmii

International Relations expert, in love with Central and Northern Europe, security studies and regional cooperation.