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© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

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© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

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Detention camps in Europe, 2005


During communism being able to move and change one’s life was a synonym of happiness. In the 1990s all internal obstacles to travel were removed at once and mass migration began. The sad paradox was that the long-awaited liberation resulted in exploitation by shady employers, deprofessionalization, and lower citizenship standards. The objective of the research that I conducted on Bulgarian migrants between 2004 and 2006 was to document and, if possible, to understand this paradox.

Heisenberg’s Principle

It seems that no one knows the exact number of Bulgarian migrants and you get extremely vague statistics about the number of people actually residing on the country’s territory at a given moment. According to estimates by the Agency for the Bulgarians Abroad, there are between 300,000 and 900,000 young Bulgarians living in Europe and America, which is not a very precise piece of information. Some officials in the municipality of the city of (which is supposed to become the center of one of the six new Euro regions) said there were 60,000 inhabitants while others claim that there were hardly more than 30.000, the first figure taking into account all the persons who have a registered address, the second being a mere estimate based of how many friends are absent. Of course, authorities are interested to have more inhabitants in their cities as funding depends on figures; however, the problem seems to be more serious than that.

How do you define a migrant? How long should he/she have stayed abroad? What about “illegal persons” who appear in surveys only if sent back home? What if these persons have left their child in their home country, if they pay local taxes and telephone bills? And how should you measure their will to return to their home country some day after having earned enough money or after retirement? I want to stress here that classifying the migrant is not a terminological but a structural difficulty. If it is true that the “space of places” has been replaced by the “space of flows” (Castells 1996) a person can no be longer defined by one single spot of territorial belonging but rather by an oscillation between spots, by a trajectory.

The ideal-typical trajectory of the Bulgarian “low” migrant usually falls into four acts. I call “low” migrants those who do not have preliminary contacts or skills for integration in the host society and being thus dependent on intermediaries, they are by far the majority. “High” migrants would be students, experts, professionals who conclude preliminary contracts, etc.

The percentage of the population not speaking any foreign language is usually estimated at 40 to 50 percent but one has to keep in mind that schools are in a very bad shape and that for many older respondents having studied in socialist times the foreign language is Russian which is of no use in the EU. For some 10 percent the second language is Turkish or some other Balkan language. Furthermore, the languages of the main destinations for migration, i.e. Spain, Greece and Italy, are hardly taught anywhere in the country. The result is that mass migrants have to learn the language after their arrival in their host country, going through a period of painful marginal existence.
First, there is the dream. Against the background of notorious Bulgarian negativism, the vague rumors of success abroad produce identification with the lucky ones similar to lottery-winners (where the exception is visible and the rule is not). Thus, instead of rationally weighing his/her capacities and chances, the candidate for emigration keeps vacillating between hope and depression. There is no serious preliminary preparation, and in approximately one hundred interviews I did not meet one single person who had taken the effort to learn the language of the place he or she would find themselves in. This seems quite logical if you keep in mind that learning a language takes years whereas the decision to emigrate is usually taken within a few weeks.
What follows is a period of invisibility. Generally, the migrant spends some time outside the rules, residing illegally in the host country, working without permission, not paying taxes, using false recommendations, etc. One should be extremely careful, they say, as even being caught without a ticket in the subway may result in expulsion. Even those who are beyond reproach still have the shame-faced feeling they might have overlooked or misunderstood some detail and be thrown out. What strengthens this perception of second-order citizenship is the fact that for quite a while the migrant has to communicate with the outside world through his/her intermediary, i. e. a person who finds them lodging and work, who translates the negotiations with the employer or the police. Intermediaries are usually fellow country-persons hoping to receive two monthly salaries as a fee for their services. As the Bulgarian diaspora is a relative newcomer to the European migrant labor market, there is a larger regional identity framework being activated where older Turkish or Serbian immigrants take the role of the near and dear in the alien foreign land. Wages are low, conditions are hard and working for eight hours, five days a week, is a luxury no one even dreams of. The docility of migrants, who in fact undermine the social rights of the locals, triggers working-class xenophobia that makes life even harder.
Then there is the period of ambiguous integration. It does not necessarily start with the regularization of documents. This is rather the stage where the migrants have acquired a certain minimum of competences and contacts that enables them to take care for themselves without intermediaries (and transgress the rule according to the rule, as Bourdieu has it). The improved citizenship results in a gradual backfire of identity: the symbolic wound resulting from having been degraded from one’s former status provokes hatred against the host country, hardening of stereotypes and idealization of the home country. The perspective of “returning one day” turns into a psychological defense against all hardships of migrant life and, even if the person never actually goes back, there is always this door open for retreat that slows down full integration into the local culture.
Finally, there is the triumphant return. For those who decide or are forced to decide to go back, returning home is usually experienced as an existential defeat (“So much effort, so many years of my life for nothing!”). The low wages and poor conditions in Bulgaria are depressing; after several years of absence the migrants lost their jobs, their place in society, their friends and connections. There is one way of acting out the psychological conflict, and that is to prove – both to oneself and to the others - that the time spent abroad has been a success. The instrument used for this purpose is money. This is why savings painfully accumulated abroad by working 14 hours a day and living in a four-person room come to be wasted on ostentatious consumption at home, most often on cars, appliances or at best on apartments. Reintegration proves to be difficult in most cases and, once the money is spent, the migrant leaves the country again.
Fortuna. A striking aspect of the stories that migrants tell about their lives is the role of good luck. As I said, the time elapsing between the triggering event, say, losing one’s job, and the departure is not longer than one month. How can you change your life so radically in such a short time span without any preparation or security? “I set off with a little money and a telephone number in my pocket of the son of my grandma’s cousin whom I didn’t know”, a female migrant to Italy told me. “What saved me”, another one said, “was that in the very bus I got acquainted with a woman who turned out to be the former wife of a friend of my husband”.

Whenever human beings feel helpless it is marvelous coincidences and inexplicable accidents that play a more and more important role. A stranger invites you to his apartment; a passer-by who sees you crying on your suitcase at the bus station proposes to marry you! In several interviews there were variations of the story telling about two friends where one had carefully prepared emigration whereas the other had the fancy to follow him just for company. And imagine, the first had to give up and return while the second one still lives there, in Spain! Such a mythology gives an idea of how unmanageable the migrants’ lives are perceived to be.

Let me also mention the timelessness that migrants are living in: black-market work is, by definition, temporary work and does not entail any social or professional advancement so that the perspective of “returning one day” becomes even more important psychologically. The cherished return to the home country, however, eventually comes to confront the migrants with the sad fact of having wasted their lives as capitalism is making its way to Bulgaria and it is becoming more and more difficult to account for the “holes” in your CV in discussions with potential employers.

Cultural Competence

It would be hard to overestimate the linguistic barrier encountered by Bulgarian migrants who do not have any other serious cultural problems of integration than the language problem. Take this example: Geriatric nurses in Italy are paid around 500 to 700 euros a month whereas Romanian women automatically get 100 euros more than their Bulgarian colleagues, which makes a substantial difference. The reason is simple: As the Latin-based languages are similar to each other, the Romanians can understand the client from the very beginning whereas the Bulgarians start with the finger alphabet. I was also told that up to 50% of the salary may be embezzled by the intermediaries negotiating with the bosses on behalf of the newcomers before they acquire the necessary minimum of cultural competence to negotiate for themselves.

It has been argued that the global mix of people results in more rather than less borders and conflicts (Roth 2004). The hardening of ethnic and national stereotypes among migrants is one of the indicators of this phenomenon. Talking about the others triggers passion and communal feelings among the Bulgarians. Italian women are lazy and Ukrainian women are ready to do anything to round off the end of the month; the English are real gentlemen, like in the jokes cracked about them, as they always pay your bills. The poor Germans are the worst: They fart, they blow their noses, they shamelessly keep pinching young girls. Why would the Germans seem so horrible compared to, say, the Spanish who turn out to be “closest to us”, “southerners”, “fiesta-lovers”? Remember that it was only 60 years ago that Bulgarians proudly considered themselves the Prussians of the Balkans. Countries with liberal migrant legislation like Spain are subject to milder stereotypes whereas stricter rules and/or major greater difficulties in acquiring citizenship intensify negative feelings, of course.

Let me also note the plasticity of identities that underlie the fluidified migrant life. As Bulgaria is absolutely unknown and often raises suspicion, migrants tend to present themselves under different ethnic masks, most often as Russians, Serbs or Greeks. Ethnic Turks naturally fall under the protection of the mighty European Turkish diaspora; so do the Gypsies under the protection of their diaspora. In fact, migration tends to redefine identity resources: On one hand, it fragments the national into ethnic groups. On the other hand, it produces new affinities and belongings on a larger-scale level - Balkan, post-socialist, Moslem.

The general effort to save every cent possible results in a situation where little is being invested in social life. It is cheaper to drink one’s beer in the park, to wear your old clothes while spending Christmas at home. This is how the vicious (cultural) circle spins: You have few local friends because you are poor, and you remain poor because you have few contacts.

Long-Distance Families

One of the astonishing findings of my research was that the age of migration was rather high: On the average, those mass migrants whom I defined as “low” migrants leave their home country between 30 and 40 after having experienced the first hardships of adult life. Until then, they usually lived at their parents’ expense in a prolonged youth typical of patriarchal Bulgaria. The triggering event is being fired or having a child (the business world is often irresponsible enough to use the combination of these two factors as an excuse to fire pregnant women).

Children are a dead weight for the migrant as they are unproductive, expensive, often not covered by health insurance, time-consuming and make the illegal particularly vulnerable to police checks, etc. This is why children are being left to their grandmother who, in turn, does not only benefit from increased filial affection but also obtains important financial aid under the form of remittances “for the house”. As Mexicans or Filipinos have done before her, the new Bulgarian long-distance mummy uses cheap telephone cards or Skype calls to ask her children every day whether they have had breakfast and done their homeworks she weeps or shows the present she plans to send home for Christmas. The continued virtual presence in her child’s life transforms the mother into some mythical being that can be used as a defense against real life. Traditionally, children remaining without parents were adopted by a relative. Nowadays, the new technological tele-presence maintains them in some ambiguous condition, torn between the real (bad) parent, and the idealized absent (good) one. When or if the mother finally has the chance to “take” the child abroad with her after many years – because all those sacrifices have been done for the child’s benefit in order to enable it to lead a better life! – the reunion often turns out to be a tragic disappointment, as the real flesh–and-blood mother mostly fails to comply with the ideal. A Bulgarian specificity in long-distance kinship are the global grannies who would abandon their work or way of life and go to baby-sit for their children abroad, living in absolute isolation and dependency.

Couples also tend to adopt forms of long-distance marriage as it is difficult to find work for both in the same city or even the same country. Italy seeks to employ women as geriatric nurses whereas in Spain men find work in the construction business. The traditional pattern of labor migration in the Balkan region, the so-called Central Europe, was male and seasonal. What happens nowadays is the feminization of migration, resulting in two thirds of migrants to certain host country  destinations being women. On the other hand, seasonal work has been replaced by much longer working periods as a result of economic growth in the sector, migrant legislation and other factors. A family having lived apart for ten years seems to mutate, developing new ways of perceiving duties, faithfulness or love. Furthermore, there are parallel surrogate couples being formed that may eventually fall apart.

The Double Life

The migrant’s experience illustrates a general trend of what Baumann (1999) called “liquid modernity”. Human life is no longer a stabilized thing based on stable foundations but rather tends to be a trajectory where people at any given point yearn to be elsewhere. The first modernity was also comparatively mobile but in the part, mobility used to have a definite direction: from village to city, from periphery to center, from small to big. The new stage in the uneven development of capitalism has abolished the flesh of progress: salaries are better in Germany but prices are lower at home, so the space of work and the space of consumption have come to be separated. Both technology and the various international political arrangements make it ever easier to choose between different spaces, to have one partner here and another one there, to leave children behind, engage in tax cheating, reinvent one’s biography at will. The price to be paid for fluidity is submission, as all movements through space imply being a stranger at least temporarily, and there has never been any culture where strangers were given the same same rights as locals immediately upon arrival.


Bauman, Z.: Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).

Castells, M.: The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age, in: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. I. (Cambridge, MA/Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

Ditchev, I.: Fluid Citizenship. Utopia of Freedom or Reality of Submission? (Eurozine: 2006)

Kabakchieva, P.: Crossing Borders: Changing Roles, Changing Identities. Temporary Migration as a Form of Socio-Cultural Exchange in the Enlarged EU, Research paper CAS (Sofia: 2006).

Ong, A.: Flexible Citizenship. The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Duhram/London: Duke University Press, 1999).

Roth, K.: Kulturwissenschaften und Interkulturelle Kommunikation. Der Beitrag der Volkskunde zur Untersuchung interkultureller Interaktionen, in: H.-J. Lüsebrink (ed.): Konzepte der Interkulturellen Kommunikation (St. Ingbert: pp. 15-144, 2004).

Ivaylo Ditchev, Professor of cultural anthropology at the “St. Kliment Ohridsky” University in Sofia.

November 2007