Interview with Claire Wallace on Development of Migration Researches in Central and Eastern Europe
Claire Wallace, Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, helped during the early 1990s to set up the Sociology Department at the Central European University, Prague. In the interview, she talks about the development of migration researches in Central and Eastern Europe since the 1990s and about the new borderlands of the European Union.
How did you become interested in the issues of migration in CEE?
Do you want to hear the real story? I was sitting in Prague in the Central European University office because I was organising the Sociology Department there back at that time before it moved to Warsaw. My research wasn´t at all about migration, my main areas of research were and still are about labour markets, families and youth. One day someone from the delegation of the International Organisation for Migration came and knocked on my door. Prague was a strange place at that time. New things were happening and interesting people were turning up. It was a nice time and surprising things were happening. So, they came and said „we want a study on transit migration in the Czech Republic and we need someone to do a kind of a sociological study to find out about this migration“. Some time in the early nineties the Czech Republic was becoming a transit zone with people trying to come accross the soft border and go elsewhere. And I said “I can´t do it I´ve never done a study on migration and anyway I don´t have the time”. And then they came back. They didn´t find anyone. There weren´t really migration experts in the Czech Republic at that time. There was one demographer but he was more concerned with migration inside the Czech Republic. And later we found Dušan Drbohlav but he also did more on migration inside the Czech Republic. International migration wasn´t a topic for anybody in the Czech Republic because it had not really been a problem. We did a sort of short fast study together with my students. I was really pleased they persuaded me because when we started doing the study I realised that it was a really fascinating topic. I had the students of all different nationalities and we knew roughly what sort of nationalities were coming into the Czech Republic. We just didn´t know how many and why they were there. We knew there were lots of people at that time from former Yugoslavia, from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and we knew there was a lot migrants coming from Romania for example. We realised that Ukrainians were arriving as well as the Ukrainian migration was starting. So, I had these students and they went off and did interviews about migrants´ life histories. They were very inventive. They stood in queues, they sat in trains, they found those migrants all over the place. We had a quota for each nationality and it was mostly students of that nationality who would interview people in the language of that person they were interviewing. That was quite an advantage because how would you interview an illegal migrant from Bosnia in English or in Czech? They wouldn´t have spoken to you. At that time the Czech Republic was formulating a migration policy and we had quite a good access to the various ministries. We got a lot of help, a lot of information which they may be wouldn´t provide now. They may be more secretive now. So, we did the study. I was completely riveted. The material was so interesting and only then I started to read more about migration theories. I realised that a lot of the stuff we were finding did not really fit to the standard migration theories.
It was already at that time that you had difficulties combining the existing theory with what you saw?
Well, we started doing the study without looking at the existing theory. You might call it inductive. We did the study and then we looked at the theories. As a result of the study I started to read some books and articles. I became intellectually interested in this topic of the research. I had two more studies with the IOM, I moved then to Austria and continued with this work. So, it just grew.
Migration still remains only one of many research fields that you are interested in. There is a huge amount of research on migration carried out in Austria and Germany. Is the existence of the “migration research industry”, as you mentioned in the book “Patterns of Migration in Central Europe”, one of the reasons you have not become more involved in this topic?
I´m not really part of that of industry because that´s mainly Austrian and German researchers. I don´t really contribute to that industry very much because “it´s there”. There´s nothing new I can say. For me it´s more interesting to look to across national comparisions, to look at the East-West migration in a kind of postnational way.
When describing the East-West migration and the role of Central Europe you employed the term “buffer zone”. Could you say more about this concept? Was it your invention?
Yes, it was my invention. It seemed to me an appropriate description at the time when we were doing the studies in the early nineties or mid-1990s and before Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics became fully incorporated into the EU. They were independent countries in between the European Union and the former Soviet Union and had a rather interesting status. They were a place where people could meet. People were coming there from the East and from the West with a business or a romantic interest (laugh) and could meet there. It was easier for people from the East to get vouchers to go to the Central European countries than it was for them to go to Germany and Austria. That was the first thing. The second thing was that because of these bilateral arrangements that allowed for sending people back to the last country they crossed lots of migrants who crossed illegally to Austria or Germany were sent back to Poland or the Czech Republic. In addition to that you had a lot of asylum seekers who claimed asylum in places like the Czech Republic or Poland but actually had no intention of staying there. They wanted to carry on to the West. So, what happened was that the countries like the Czech Republic became like waiting rooms. However, sometimes these people either decided to stay there or they wanted to go on further. These countries became sort of dumping grounds. The migrants that were illegal and caught were sent back to these places. But then the countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Poland started signing bilateral agreements with the countries further east. They pushed the migrants further east. So, for a while they were a “buffer zone” a kind of a waiting room for migrants, a place to which migrants were pushed into because they were expelled from other countries or because it was easier to claim asylum there. Sometimes they were just dumped there. We interviewed people smuggled by mafia-type organisations which organise illegal migration from Africa, from Sierra Leona for example. They paid to some organisation and the organisation brought them to Europe but quite often they just left them in the Czech Republic. We interviewed those people from Africa and they had no idea where the Czech Republic was. They thought it was part of Europe but they weren´t too sure. They had never heard of the Czech Republic. It was a strange situation. Lots of migrants ended up in the Central European countries, either willingly or unwillingly. It became like a transit lounge in the airport for these people either going somewhere else and sometimes they decided to stay there. That is the buffer zone concept.
Was the term discussed by migration experts? Was it critisized?
I think a lot of people found it quite a useful concept at least for a while. As I said I don´t think it exists anymore. It´s not anymore relevant to talk about the buffer zone. It´s history. At a certain period of time it was relevant. I think people from Poland or the Czech Republic somehow felt that it had too many military connotations because they remembered of the military buffer zone and they didn´t want to be a buffer zone anymore. So, it wasn´t a very happy kind of association.
Do you think that it doesn´t make sense to talk about buffer zone since the entry to the EU or even before with the introduction of the visas for Ukrainians in the Czech Republic?
I think even before. It stopped being relevant when the Czech Republic and Poland started to have effective migration policies and started to sign those bilateral agreements with their own neighbours. They pushed the asylum seekers and unwanted migrants further over the border and they started to develop more of a migration strategy. It´s no longer an easy place for migrants to go to. In the early of nineties it was very easy to go to these countries because there was law, no regulations really. Now there´re regulations. I think from about 1995 onwards that migration started to be more and more strongly controlled and certainly now that these countries are European Union countries now. It was a part of a whole strategy of the European Union to develop migration policies in Czech Republic and other buffer zone countries. They knew they had to strengthen that border because it´s also a Schengen border.
Do you understand these restrictions? There is a demand for migrants and at the same time there are these restrictions for migrants from the East.
Yes. There are important contradictions between the demand for migrant labour and the way in which migration is restricted. There is high unemployment on one hand, particularly in certain regions I mean is relatively low in the Czech Republic but still in certain regions in the Czech Republic it´s very high, the same is in Hungary and Poland. And people don´t tend to move from most areas to places where there is employment. I think it is partly due to housing. People have their houses and the apartments and it´s not so easy for them to move. So, the unemployed workers stay unemployed and at the same time incoming migrants come in and do the jobs where there is a demand for the jobs. Because in some places there´s demand for jobs and in other places there´s unemployment. In the big cities like Prague or Warsaw there is demand for migrant workers and there is not much unemployment. You see, you have increasing polarization between different regions in the new member states. You have increasingly prosperous regions which are attracting migrants and not just from Eastern Europe but also from Western Europe, from the USA, England (people like me). It´s not only East-West migration but there´s also West-East migration. „Poles of attraction“ - I called them in one of my articles - places like Prague, Warsaw or Western Hungary - are atracting people and then you have very depressed regions and an increasing contrast between those and the very depressed regions. So, you have these very depressed areas where there´s high unemployment. These don’t necessarily balance out. You have a demand for migrants in the poles of attraction in the big metropolises in those expanding areas which is not fulfilled by the unemployed from elsewhere. There´s also the usual problem with the post-industrial economies that you have a post-industrial workforce. So, people who are unemployed, the old industrial workforce, the people worked in factories and steel mills and coal mines, they aren´t going to become computer programmers. The jobs that are expanding aren´t necessarily the jobs that those unemployed can fill. Therefore there´s still a demand for migrants even in countries where there´s high unemployment because there´re new kinds of jobs for which migrants are better suited. For example take the casual work in service industries, in restaurants and cafés that are expanding. There´s a demand for those sort of jobs and an increasingly less demand for the type of old industrial jobs. These kinds of flexible jobs in service industries are often done by migrants. There is a similar situation in Germany. They had also lot of migrant workers at the same time as having high unemployment and the people from East Germany didn´t go and take the jobs that were available. Migrant workers came instead.
In your articles you were saying that one of the main migration patterns in the Central Europe is that it is temporary and circular, coming and going. Do you think that this may be changing now? Or do you see that this as a pattern that may continue even with the growing restrictions and the implementation of migration policies?
I don´t see any sign so far that it turned into permanent migration. I think that is the case for both the workers coming from places like Poland and with the people coming to places like the former “buffer zone” countries. I haven´t done original research in recent years but I talked to many people who have done research and they say that people come for a certain period of time. But they go further afield. The Ukrainian workers no longer only go to the Czech Republic. They go to Portugal, to Italy. They also seem as temporary workers. They´re not aiming to permanently migrate. They maintain strong links with their homes. It´s still a different migration situation. They still have their homes and families usually back in their own country. They´re earning money and trying to support their families back home. It´s not migration in the usual sense. I think until now it´s still temporary migration. May be it will change in the future. It depends upon economic and political factors.
Will you be in your future research continuing with looking at Central and Eastern Europe? Are you interested in this region as a kind of migration space?
I like this region. I´ve lived here many years now so I´m interested in this region. It´s been very interesting I would like to continue. I think it´s interesting place to look now at the new European borderlands. The borders with Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. That´s the interesting thing to look at now. Actually we have a research project now with INTAS looking migration on Europe’s new border lands. Migration from Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia. It has just started. . We have a whole network in the former Soviet countries and we´re designing a project now to look at the East-West migration into the EU coming out of or across those countries. The project is called “Europe´s New Borderlands”. The new borderlands are now forming a new buffer zone.
When you read articles in the newspapers for example, you have the impression that the “old” EU countries are mainly worried about migration from the new member states. But in fact there´s not much migration in these states. It´s declining. It´s not really a big problem. But the politicians in the newspapers think that it is problem especially in Britain, when you read the British newspapers you think it´s a huge crisis. It´s not huge crisis. I think that migration is limited. It´s going to dry up at some point. OK, there´s a wave of people now but it´s not going to continue because as the situation in the new member states gets better there´ll be less and less migrants. There´s only a certain number of people who can migrate. And there´s an ageing population in Czech Republic and other countries. When the young people get older they don´t want to migrate any more. Only when they´re young they´re potential migrants really. As the population ages and as the economic situation stabilises there´s going to be fewer and fewer migrants coming from the new member states. But there´s likely to be more and more migrants coming from further east because the contrast between your country and other countries will get bigger and bigger. There´ll be a growing gap between the living conditions of the people living in the Czech Republic and the people in for example Ukraine. At the moment there´s a gap between the Czech Republic and Ukraine. It´s quite a big gap and it´s wideing because the living conditions are better and better in the Czech Republic and the living conditions for the people in Ukraine is not much better. You have a widening gap along where the eastern border is. In Ukraine the GDP has risen. When I was there last I was told it has risen by thirteen per cent but that thirteen per cent growth isn´t across the whole population. It´s among certain groups. You still have large numbers of very poor people who have great difficulties to make ends meet. You still have a huge migration potential in those countries. There´re people who have not been able to make their living really in their own country and could make a living in the Czech Republic. So, you still have a big demand and as the Czech Republic or Poland or Slovakia become more prosperous. Of course, you have a big demand in certain services you have got more demand for builders, for restaurants, for cafés or domestic services like cleaners, people to care for old people, people to care for children. The demand for personal services starts to increase and who does those jobs? Of course, until now grandmas were called in but after a while it´s Ukrainian workers, Russian workers or Georgians. There has been an increasing migration from Georgia recently. I think that’s the interesting migration situation at the eastern borders. It´s no longer interesting to look at the differences between the Czech Republic and Germany because there´s not much migration anyway and it´s declining. What´s interesting is to look at the contrast between Czech Republic and those countries further east which will be drawing people into the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic doesn´t have a direct Eastern border but you´re nevertheless affected by these eastern migrants because you have a labour demand.
Now there are several very good Czech migration experts. There is not just a migration industry in Germany or Austria there´s migration industry in Czech Republic and Poland too. Lot of researchers are doing research on migration and it is not the same situation as when I first started doing this research because now I think there is plenty of experts. IOM wouldn´t find difficulty finding people to undertake such studies now.
Do you see different solutions to the current Eastern border of the EU in terms of a more open border?
You can´t have an open border because if you have open border not only Ukrainians would cross but you would have people from all over the world. There has to be some control. Also you have crime, drugs, weapons, so, there has to be some border control. Many of those countries people are coming from in the East, they´re failed states, Georgia, for example is more or less a failed state as is Moldova, because they both have regions which the state cannot control. They´re kind of black holes in the European map and in these black holes there´s lots of crime, lots of smuggling, prostitution - things you don´t want. You have to control the kind of things coming out of those places. But how much control? There should be some facility for these migrant workers. Clearly there´s a demand for them in the Union. Not just in the Czech Republic but also in Portugal and Spain, Italy. And there´s going to be an increasing demand because you have aging populations and who´s going to look after these people? There´s a European Union policy that women should work as much as possible in the labour market because that increases productivity and that´s how we get economic growth. But if more women are working in the labour market and there is increasing life expectancy, who will take care of the old people? They´re not all in hospitals, and most of them don´t want to be in a hospital. That´s where the role is for migrant workers in domestic services or gardening. There should be some sort of allowance for people to come in a civilised way and fulfill those kinds of needs in the labour market. Because on the one hand you´ve got people from the East who´d love to have those jobs. For them it´s important, they don´t have any other income. The people in the old EU states as well as those living in the Czech Republic, Poland, or Slovakia will need people to do those jobs. This is especially the case because of the inadequacy or cuts in welfare spending in many old EU countries. These kinds of migrants aren´t criminals or drug smugglers. They´re turned into criminals because they´re not allowed to work legally. There should be decriminalisation of these economic migrants who are contributing to our economy.