Svilengrad is a small Bulgarian city of around 18,000 people on the border with Turkey. It is mostly known for two very profitable endeavors: casinos and customs. And like many other small cities in Central and Eastern Europe, it has been rapidly losing people to migration in recent decades. Yet this spring, something totally unexpected happened: a population boom. “They have been returning from everywhere, mostly Western Europe,” Anastas Karchev, the mayor of Svilengrad, said in a phone conversation in November.
It isn’t that Svilengrad has become Las Vegas overnight, attracting scores of British or French high rollers. Rather, the city is just one of many places affected by COVID-19 migration, a quiet tsunami that has been sweeping the eastern part of the European continent along with the pandemic.
The trend first became noticeable in late March. At that time, a Bulgarian official involved in the pandemic response announced that tens of thousands of Bulgarians had already returned that month. By early summer, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians had come home. Similar waves swept the rest of the region.
To get a sense of the real scope of the return, my team at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ office in Sofia, Bulgaria, examined data from Bulgaria between March and May of this year, the dates of the country’s first lockdown. We assumed that anyone who was willing to brave the country’s checkpoints, infrequently available transportation, and 14 days of quarantine in that period was probably less likely to be traveling for leisure, tourism, or business. Government data shows that, in that period, around 550,000 Bulgarian citizens traveled back to the country. Detailed records are available for about 150,000 of those. Excluding crossings via the border with Greece, the main trade and tourism route, the number in our study came to about 121,000 people.
Looking at the data—particularly records on quarantines—it became quite clear why Svilengrad and other cities like it had started feeling crowded. In many places, quarantined returnees were equal to between 4 and 8 percent of the working-age population. Given that only about half of the people who returned to the country were quarantined, and that the data from March was patchy, the real numbers were certainly much higher.
Through social media interviews with available returnees, our study found that by far the most popular reason for return was a “desire to be with one’s family and relatives”—understandable given the scary state of the world. The second most popular reason was “loss of employment.” When asked whether they intend to go back to Western Europe at some point, over 10 percent of the respondents said, “No.” Around 16 percent said they were undecided. Among those who had been living abroad for more than a year, the percentages were 19 for the “no” camp and 47 percent undecided.
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