In search of new opportunities: emigrating from and immigrating to Bulgaria

2008 aspired to become the year of political awareness of migration in Bulgaria. In few months two documents have been launched by the authorities: the Bulgarians abroad and the state politics (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 2007) and the National strategy for migration and integration (Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, 2008). Almost two decades after the democratic transition, one year after the accession to the EU, after the lost of more than ten percents of the population, after the lost of almost a quarter of the young, dynamic and highly qualified, the state realized the weight of the migration phenomenon and the need for an appropriate policy. The promise for a consistent and balanced policy happened to be more a stuffing for a year without big political events. 2007 concentrated the elites’ efforts on the EU accession, the local and the first parliamentary elections. 2009 has come with the challenge of the parliamentary and the first regular european elections. 2008 was the year “between”. If in the western countries migration is one of the hottest issues which win or loose elections, in Bulgaria it is still considered a secondary question[1].

Because of this low political profile, the article will analyse Bulgarian migration phenomenon not from the point of view of policy makers, but of migrants. Migration will be conceived not as a policy issue to be controlled and managed, but as an opportunity for mobile persons who aspire at better opportunities – for jobs, education, retirement…

The main ambition of the study is to emphasize the double profile of the Bulgarian migration phenomenon. Bulgaria is a country of origin, but also a country of destination. Emigration still prevails over immigration, yet immigration is getting momentum.

The article will stress the paradox that the opposite phenomena – emigration and immigration – are partly produced by the same reason. The low salaries and the high unemployment for several years have incited hundreds of thousands Bulgarians to looking for jobs abroad. The other side of the same coin – low prices of real estate, economic niches – have attracted immigrants from UK, Middle East, China, etc.

Emigrating from Bulgaria[2]

From closeness to openness – Bulgaria realized this radical change in a remarkably short period. Post-communist migration became synonym of freedom, of the rising individualism, of the willingness and determination of liberation from the tutelage of the state.

During the communist period the interest of the state always prevails over the interests of the citizen. Migration reverses this relation. It remains asymmetrical, but the roles of winner and looser change radically. Individuals win from the mobility and the new opportunities, the state loses a sizeable part of its population and even more important – of its symbolic capital.

The Bulgarian authorities estimate between 500 000 and 700 000[3] (National strategy 2008) the citizens emigrated after 1990. The expert estimations are higher – 1.2 – 1.5 million. The international surveys also evaluate emigration over 12% of the population. An IOM study of perceptions and attitudes (2006) allows differentiating three groups of countries:

  • Extremely high emigration: one third of the population – Moldova;
  • Very high emigration: one fourth of the population – Romania;
  • High emigration: over one tenth of the population – Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian emigration is structured around four poles:

  • The traditional countries of immigration – US, Canada, Australia;
  • The traditional European countries of immigration – Germany, France;
  • The new immigration countries of Southern Europe – Spain, Greece, Italy;
  • The countries of Central Europe – Hungary, the Check Republic, Slovakia, Austria.

The first pole is important both historically and today; it’s a centre of the diaspora, as well as of new waves of post communist emigration.

Migration is a very dynamic process; it’s also true for the migration map. The relative weight of the different centres varies. It’s worth mentioning that Germany has always been and still is one of the most attractive destinations; UK is fast becoming a salient migration “fashion”.

The third pole is the newest in the migration structure, yet the most dynamic one. It illustrates the most typical post communist tendency of European migration from the new emigration countries to the new immigration countries.

Bulgarian communities have been established in Hungary and other central European countries for more than a century, they are reinforced today by newcomers.

Country Number of emigrants
US 200 000
Greece 120 000
Spain 120 000
UK 80 000
Germany 50 000
Italy 50 000
Canada 45 000
Austria 30 000
South African Republic 15-20 000
Australia 15-20 000
France 15 000
Portugal 12 000
Check Republic 10 000
Hungary 5 000
Belgium 4 000
Sweden 3 000
Slovakia 3 000

Source: data from the National Strategy of Republic of Bulgaria on migration and integration. 2008.

A very important mobile group are the students – about 50 000, mainly in Central and Western Europe, US and Canada (National strategy 2008).


Emigration has been among the most beloved and eagerly consumed freedoms of the transition. Migration is paradoxical phenomenon: when it was much harder to emigrate because of the visa and all other difficulties, hundreds of thousands Bulgarians did so. The conditions are more favourable today – Bulgaria is member of EU, several countries cancel their restrictions to the labour market, the well established Bulgarian communities and the strong networks reduce the price of migration, yet there is a clear tendency of decreasing willingness for emigration. In 2006 the potential migrants have been 50% less numerous than in 2001 (National strategy 2008). The big majority of citizens (80% ) do not have intentions – neither short, no long term – to emigrate (ibid).

The comparative international data lead to the same conclusion: in the past the tendency was upward, in the future it is getting downward.

Dynamics of working abroad

Source: IOM (2006) Human trafficking survey: Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Kyiv.

Potential penetration

(current penetration and plan to work abroad)

Source: IOM (2006) Human trafficking survey: Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Kyiv.

The push factors are predominantly economic: Bulgaria remains the poorest EU country.

Motives to work abroad

Source: IOM (2006) Human trafficking survey: Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Kyiv.

It’s interesting to compare how the reasons change when from the general views of the public opinion one goes to the views of those who consider to emigrate.  The “desire to earn quick money” in the first case gets more concrete dimensions and likely emigrants start thinking of the legality of their stay, of the detailed information about the employer, the type of work and the conditions – both of work and life, even of the time investment in arrangement of the necessary formal papers.

Factors that matter when deciding whether to work abroad

Source: IOM (2006) Human trafficking survey: Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Kyiv.

Kinds of work that one would agree to do abroad

Source: IOM (2006) Human trafficking survey: Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Kyiv.

An important trend is the increasing importance of the wish for qualified work in one’s profession. “Any kind of work” which was important attitude at the beginning of the post communist migration is shared today by less than 20%.

Recent surveys in Bulgaria[4] confirm and further develop this new trend which rearranges the reasons for emigration, giving priority not only to money but to values like carrier, long term prospects and prosperity, self-respect, new opportunities for the children.

The favourite countries of the likely emigrants are Spain, Italy, Germany, US and Canada. There is an interesting discrepancy concerning Greece: Bulgarians prefer Spain, yet go to Greece, the public opinion does not rank it among the top five, but emigrants go namely there (the major second destination after US according to the number of the Bulgarian community).

Countries that are most preferable for working abroad

Source: IOM (2006) Human trafficking survey: Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Kyiv.

The portrait of the likely emigrant changes: it’s getting younger – high school and university students are more motivated to leave the country, according to the National strategy (2008). Let’s have a closer look to this group. “The young Bulgarians up to 30 years old have comparatively low wishes for emigration. A large number of them already have a significant personal experience from travel or temporary work abroad.” Theses are the main findings of the UNDP publication Bulgaria: beyond the facts (2007), confirmed by all quantitative and qualitative studies in the country. Every third in this age group has already travelled abroad. This share grows to every second in the capital and the big cities. Every tenth has already worked outside Bulgaria, mainly as students’ seasonal work in the summer.

In comparison with older generations the youth has a more realistic, based on personal experience, idea about some countries in EU (Bulgaria: beyond… 2007).

Young Bulgarians are mobile, yet not potential permanent emigrants. In 2006 16% declared intentions for emigration, two years later in 2008 they are only 8% and among them no more than one third intend to do this in the next 12 months, i.e. only 3% of the total has relatively firm intentions (Bulgaria: beyond… 2007).

These attitudes can be illustrated also by the actual emigration during the first year of Bulgaria’s membership in EU which did not confirm the alarming prognosis of some countries.

Do you intent to….?
Yes % No % I do not know %
Young Middle class Young Middle class Young Middle class
Study abroad for more than 1 year 8 3 77 81 15 16
Work abroad for more than 1 year 27 15 56 64 18 21
Emigrate constantly abroad 8 4 76 75 16 21
Base. Youth survey – September 2007 – 1000 people

Base: Middle class survey – June 2007  2000 people, age 15 – 70

Source: Survey of the social and economic contrasts after Bulgaria accession to EU (a survey of the middle class) BBSS Callup International, 2007.

Work abroad temporary and return is the prevailing attitude (Bulgaria: beyond 2007). From 2001 to 2006 the intentions for long term migration have decreased from 15% to 11%. In opposition the intentions for short term migration have increased from 5% to 9% (MLSP 2006).

The figure of the migrant changes: from the emigrant to the mobile man, from the one who left Bulgaria to settle in his/her country of choice to the one, who leaves, comes back, being ready for a new mobility in the globalising world.

Sending money home

For most countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States remittances are the second source of external financing after foreign assistance and foreign direct investment. For the poorest countries they are the largest source and have served as a cushion against the economic and political turbulence of the transition (Manssor and Quilling 2006). This diagnosis does perfectly apply to countries like Albania and Armenia where remittances represent more than 10% of GDP. Others like Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina are even more heavily dependent – 20% of GDP. According to this international comparative study, Bulgaria is in the zone of the smallest ratio: less than 1% of GDP (Manssor and Quilling 2006).

Source: Mansoor A. and B. Quilling (eds) (2006) Migration and remittances. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The World Bank.

Bulgaria is among the five countries at the bottom of the remittances ranking list.

Mansoor A. and B. Quilling (eds) (2006) Migration and remittances. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The World Bank.

Manssor and Quilling (2006) describe a second type of situation where the income levels are higher, the income differentials are lower and there is less need for workers living abroad to support their family consumption. Moreover, the improving opportunities at home make people less dependent on this help. This second diagnosis does not apply to Bulgaria either. According to the same survey, Bulgarians are the least generous among Eastern European migrants and 80% of them abstain from sending. The authors explain this is especially the case when the stay in destination countries is short (Manssor and Quilling 2006).

These data of the World Bank (2006) are not confirmed by any study in the country. Both  anthropologists and economists in Bulgaria offer a completely different picture. Mintchev and Boshnakov (2006) estimate that the annual amount of remittances for the 2001-2005 period is about 830m euros. They affirm that more than half of returned migrants have transferred remittances. The discrepancy between the World Bank’s data and the scientific ones is explained by the large use of non official channels to transfer remittances like cash transfers and non-bank electronic transfer systems such as Western Union, MoneyGram, etc.

Means for transferring remittances

How did/do you receive funds from abroad? Regularly Once Did not respond
Personally, in cash 56.0% 19.0% 25.0%
Via bank transfers 20.7% 3.3% 76.0%
Via Western Union, MoneyGram or other non-bank transfer 14.5% 4.8% 80.7%
Other methods 8.4% 1.8% 89.8%
Note: The percentages on each row show (i) the relative share of household responses regarding each of means for funds transfer (ii) only for the households receiving transfers.

Source: Mintchev V and V. Boshnakov (2006) The profile and experience of return migrants: empirical evidence from Bulgaria.- South East Europe Review, N 2, 25 – 59.

It’s worth noting that the methods of transfers do not significantly differ from one country to another, therefore this could be only one of the explanations for the data discrepancies.

The use of remittances in Bulgaria is also similar to the one of other Balkan countries: mainly for consumption, purchase of cars, healthcare, savings, education.

Nearly one in five households receiving transfers pursued entrepreneurial activities, while this was the case of only one in ten households not receiving such support. In the case of starting up a new company, the funds are used mainly for investment, and, in the case of maintaining an already existing business, for working capital (Mintchev and Boshnakov 2006).

Usage of funds for the development of own businesses

If there are funds used for own business development, what was the main purpose? Share of those indicating From amongst them:
Investment capital Working capital Both
Establishment of a new firm 6.8% 48.4% 26.7% 25.0%
Supporting an existing form 7.5% 15.1% 54.3% 30.6%
Total 14.3% 30.9% 41.2% 28.0%

Source: Mintchev V and V. Boshnakov (2006) The profile and experience of return migrants: empirical evidence from Bulgaria.- South East Europe Review, N 2, 25 – 59.

Mintchev and Boshnakov (2006) indicate that the business activities concern small and medium enterprises and forms of self-employment such as purchase of a car for use as a taxi, etc. The main activities are transport (taxis), services and trade.

Source: Mintchev V and V. Boshnakov (2006) The profile and experience of return migrants: empirical evidence from Bulgaria.- South East Europe Review, N 2, 25 – 59.

The authors of the study emphasize the positive effect of remittances on improving the economic status: 25.4% of those receiving remittances have improved their status in comparison to only 10.4% of the non receiving. Conversely, the share of those indicating the same or worsen economic status is lower for households receiving funds from abroad (Mintchev and Boshnakov 2006).

International studies indicate the ambiguous impact of remittances. From one side, they reduce poverty, improve consumption, increase investments, finance deficit on trade; from another side, they reduce the domestic work effort (Manssor and Quilling 2006). Bulgarian studies focus predominantly on the positive effects:

  • Have a positive impact on the households’ well-being;
  • Stimulate business activities – one in five households receiving remittances run their own businesses while the share for other families is half that;
  • Cover one fifth of the trade deficit;
  • Play an important role in the macroeconomic stability (Mintchev and Boshnakov 2006).

Immigrating to Bulgaria

Emigration and immigration are quite asymmetrical in terms of numbers, political attention and scholarly analysis. To ration is 10 to 1: one immigrant who arrives in Bulgaria corresponds to 10 Bulgarians who leave  the country. Most publications deal with emigration (Guencheva, kabakchieva and Kolarski 2003, Karamiihova 2004, Maeva 2006). Political attention is concentrated on the recent emigration and the historical Diaspora. This is understandable – emigration is a greater challenge for the national identity and a serious threat to the demographic decline.

This is both understandable and short term thinking. In terms of strategy and national interest immigration and return are more crucial.

The official data of foreigners reported in the National strategy (2008) are 55 684. The methodology of the statistic is not explicated. Other estimates, including the ones of IOM, are higher: 80 000 – 120 000, including also the immigrants with Bulgarian citizenship.

The geographical map of immigration in Bulgaria is very simple: it is almost exclusively urban with the notable exception of the new British migration which prefers the rural areas. The capital accepts more than one third (35%) of all immigrants, the three other biggest cities – one fourth: Plovdiv (9%), Varna – 8%, Bourgas (5%) (National strategy 2008).

The census of 2001 illustrates the diversity of countries and continents of origin.

Continent/ Citizenship Total Age
under 15 15 – 19 20 – 29 30 – 39 40 – 49 50 – 59 60 or more
Total 25572 2614 2098 6463 4966 5017 2182 2232
Europe 19 585
EU-15 2520
Austria 36 5 2 4 10 6 5 4
Belgium 19 2 5 2 7 3
United Kingdom 81 12 6 17 17 19 10
Germany 344 71 14 26 59 58 54 62
Greece 1703 55 87 1162 100 109 77 113
Denmark 13 2 2 3 3 1 2
Ireland 6 1 2 2 1
Spain 24 2 4 8 4 3 3
Italy 155 22 2 12 25 34 36 24
Netherlands 16 2 1 5 2 3 3
Portugal 4 2 1 1
Finland 13 4 1 2 2 2 2
France 86 10 2 14 22 10 15 13
Sweden 20 3 2 2 4 6 3
Iceland 1 1
Norway 5 3 2
Switzerland 21 7 3 3 4 1 3
Central and East Europe 15906
Albania 141 5 28 68 12 15 8 5
Belarus 122 14 6 23 34 35 9 1
Bosnia and Herzegovina 25 4 4 8 7 2
Estonia 6 1 1 1 2 1
Latvia 13 2 2 6 2 1
Lithuania 12 1 1 2 7 1
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 1391 15 351 841 50 52 44 38
Moldova 796 93 164 322 112 81 10 14
Poland 578 47 45 84 59 198 104 41
Croatia 21 1 3 4 4 7 2
Romania 195 12 22 87 32 16 11 15
Russia 9427 809 665 1363 1685 2625 1055 1225
Slovakia 86 3 5 20 17 20 15 6
Slovenia 11 2 2 3 3 1
Ukraine 2283 198 215 575 491 396 183 225
Hungary 95 15 4 12 19 15 11 19
Czech Republic 221 29 10 27 34 42 38 41
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia 483 27 34 150 69 74 52 32
Other European Countries 1159
Cyprus 141 1 33 90 7 7 2 1
Malta 2 1 1
Monaco 1 1
Turkey 1015 152 73 264 210 159 76 81
Asia 5265
Azerbaijan 11 3 3 2 2 1
Армения 1649 404 114 266 358 259 125 123
Afghanistan 303 73 21 78 80 36 5 10
Bangladesh 30 3 5 12 10
Vietnam 473 75 12 56 190 128 9 3
Georgia 105 14 12 20 19 19 14 7
Izrael 79 11 1 22 14 3 12 16
India 223 2 31 159 23 6 1 1
Iraq 234 45 12 29 69 59 15 5
Iran 134 11 6 13 69 25 7 3
Yemen 38 3 8 18 7 2
Jordan 114 5 3 36 41 24 4 1
Kazakhstan 122 20 17 26 27 17 8 7
Cambodia 8 1 2 4 1
Kyrgyzstan 13 1 3 4 1 3 1
China 494 37 28 146 166 94 20 3
Kuwait 12 1 2 4 4 1
Lebanon 363 58 17 82 118 68 15 5
Mongolia 31 8 2 13 4 3 1
Pakistan 31 3 10 14 3 1
South Korea 33 9 3 3 11 3 1 3
Syria 647 82 20 125 300 88 24 8
Tajikistan 7 1 2 2 2
Turkmenistan 10 1 1 1 2 3 1 1
Uzbekistan 33 3 3 6 7 9 3 2
Japan 36 1 1 14 14 2 2 2
Other 32 2 7 14 6 1 2
Africa 358
Algeria 44 7 6 21 6 4
Angola 5 1 3 1 1
Egypt 41 7 6 18 8 1
Ethiopia 35 2 3 25 5
Zimbabwe 6 2 1 2 1
Democratic Republic of Congo 14 4 8 2
Lybia 46 13 1 16 13 3
Marocco 26 1 1 10 9 5
Niger 11 5 1 4 1
Nigeria 42 5 4 24 9
Sudan 16 3 7 1 5
Tanzania 9 1 5 2 1
Tunisia 24 1 7 11 3 1 1
South Africa 12 7 1 2 1 1
Other 27 1 4 9 9 3 1
America 356
Argentina 9 1 2 5 1
Brazil 11 1 9 1
Canada 23 8 2 2 2 3 6
Republic of Cuba 69 3 6 34 18 6 2
Nicaragua 21 2 1 15 3
Peru 9 3 5 1
USA 190 47 5 45 34 24 16 19
Other 24 3 6 10 3 1 1
Oceania 21
Commonwealth of Australia 18 1 2 2 3 3 4 3
Other 3 1 1 1
Not shown 5 2 3

Source: NSI (2004), pp 221 – 222.

Recent sociological surveys (Georgiev 2006) present a more concise picture: the biggest group (28%) originates from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, the two other important communities come from the new European partners and the US (17%), as well as from one of the traditional sending regions – Middle East (16%).

Source: Georgiev 2006

In compliance with the theories of migration systems and the world-system theory, the main sending countries are not the neighboring ones. The migration ties are based not on geography, but on geopolitics. The main migration partners are the crucial geopolitical allies: both old (Russia and other countries from the Community of Independent States) and new ones (EU, US).

The Russians form the biggest community. It is also one of the oldest, composed of several quite diverse waves. The first one is connected with the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878 and is composed by solders and officers who took part in the Russian-Turkish war and civilians who contributed to the construction of the new state. Refugees from the White army who looked for asylum after the Revolution in 1917 composed the second more numerous wave. The soviet bloc after SWW facilitated the mobility among the Eastern European countries. After 1989 Russia is not any more the Big Brother, immigration has decreased and its profile has changed. The Whites are a typical case of political migration. During the communist period the close links between Bulgaria and Soviet Union are political, yet the migration was of completely different –family – type – several Russians married Bulgarians during their studies, internships or work in USSR and later settled in Bulgaria. No politics any more, less love – the post 1989 period is more pragmatic and the new comers are led mainly by business purposes.

Chinese illustrate the opposite example: no historical links – neither pre-communist nor communist, they are the newest community; the first Chinese arrived after 1989.

The immigrants from Middle East and Africa have a common beginning and different development. Most of them arrived as students in the 60-80ies. During the post1989 period several Arabs, Afghans, Iraqi reinforced the respective communities, while the number of Africans dramatically decreased. The profile of the first period was quite similar – students in medicine, economics, engineering, etc.; it evolved however in different directions during the post-communist transition. Several Africans today look for asylum; the same is true for numerous Afghans, Iraqi, Palestinians. Other nationals of the same countries arrive for business purposes taking advantage of the new opportunities of the transition to the market economy.

EU and US are also bright new partners. As a rule, the stay in Bulgaria does not exceed the duration of the work contract.

The pull factors can be summarized in four groups: business and employment, education, marriage, retirement. The economic reasons are of three main types: self-employment, own business, investment and consultancy.

Love is without frontiers: from Africa to America, Bulgarians choose their partners in the global world[5]. With one notable exception. Muslim men marry Bulgarian Christian ladies, the Palestinians being the “champions” of intercultural openness; Muslim women do not marry Christian men.

Having a quite life after retirement combined with an easier access to real estate are the main reasons for this new form of migration – very limited in numbers, yet symbolically important. Bulgarians are pleased that if several of their co-nationals go to UK for studying and working, a few British citizens are attracted by Bulgaria.

The following data specify the pull factors in regard to the type of permit issued: The main reasons for the long term permits[6] are:

  • Tertiary education – 5 650 ;
  • Trade – 3 428;
  • Marriage – 2 224;
  • Members of family of a foreigner with long term permit – 1 506;
  • Foreign experts employed within international contracts – 739 (National strategy 2008).

The resident permits are claimed on the ground of a slightly different gamut of reasons[7]:

  • Marriage with a Bulgarian citizen – 1180;
  • Persons with Bulgarian ethnic origin – 699;
  • Persons born on the territory of Bulgaria who have later lost their citizenship – 570;
  • Children of Bulgarian citizens or of foreigners with permanent permit – 387;
  • People who have legally resided in the country the last 5 years – 316 (National strategy 2008).

The geographical distribution of the last group – persons with resident status – is quite varied: it is lead by Turkey, followed by the leading countries of origin of immigration in Bulgaria – CIS. Macedonia is the leader in the group of origin for the persons asking Bulgarian citizenship and also in the top five of the sending resident immigrants. Chinese community used to be more expanding during the 90ies, yet still remains an important country of origin.

Biggest groups of immigrants

with resident status according to the country they come from

( 2006)

Turkey 903
Russia 455
Ukraine 228
Macedonia 213
China 165

Source: National Strategic Document about migration and integration

Each group has its own dynamics. The Chinese asking for permanent status have decreased twice in 2006 in comparison to the previous year. At the same time other communities are growing (National strategy 2008). A new and interesting trend is the increased immigration from the European Union countries. The most visible illustration is the British community, during the last three years every year the number of long term permits issued for British citizens increases by 30-40% (National strategy 2008).

An important factor for the transformation of the country from emigration to immigration is the increasing attractiveness of Bulgarian citizenship. During the first decade of the democratic transition the number of demands varies[8]: 1990 – 1039; 1991 – 2600; 1992 – 3259; 1993 – 2386; 1994 – 2785; 1995 – 3310; 1996 – 3233; 1997 – 2930; 1998 – 3729; 1999 – 2747; 2000 – 3334; 2001 – 5495. Approaching the EU accentuates these trends:

Demands for bulgarian citizenship Persons awarded

bulgarian citizenship

Persons awarded bulgarian citizenship from bulgarian origin
2002 7 438 3 371 3 210
2003 14 306 4 257 4 170
2004 29 493 5 817 5 713
2005 23 200 5 848 5 720
2006 14 468 6 632 6 517
2007 12 870 5 938 5 837
Total 101 775 31 863 31 167


The data illustrate two trends:

  • A steady increase of the demands from 1 039 in 1990  to 29 493 in 2004 and stabilization of the annual figure about 13 000 the last years;
  • A very high proportion of persons from Bulgarian origin. The Bulgarian Diaspora is getting more attracted by the historic motherland in the eve and beginning of the European accession.

Macedonia and Moldova are leading the list of the sending countries with about one fourth of the total number of demands, followed by Russia, Ukraine and Serbia.

Main countries of origin

of the persons awarded Bulgarian citizenship

Macedonia 13 925
Moldova 10 613
Russia 1 831
Ukraine 1 443
Serbia 1 275


An interesting paradox can be observed: most migrants who settled in Bulgaria have long term permits while several of the naturalized enjoy the advantages of the Bulgarian citizenship without living in Bulgaria. The Macedonians are a case in point: attracted by the advantages of the European integration they acquire Bulgarian citizenship, yet keep living in Macedonia or migrate to another EU state.

The refugee status is often “consumed” in a similar fashion.

The professional profile of immigrants is correlated mainly with the country of origin and level of education. EU and US citizens come to Bulgaria mainly as experts, consultants, managers, highly qualified personal in foreign companies. Chinese occupy two niches: restaurants and trade. Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqi and other Arabs from the Middle East are small, middle and big entrepreneurs and merchants. In opposition to Chinese, the majority of whom do not have university degree; several Arabs have graduated in Bulgaria: few of them work as doctors, financial experts, etc., most left their professional field for doing business. Africans suffer severe discrimination and despite the fact that, like Arabs, some graduated in Bulgaria in the 90ies, it’s hard for them to find a qualified job. Till recently they worked mainly at the biggest market in Sofia[9] legally or illegally. Foreign companies, for instance Belgian call centers, open new opportunities for this community – Africans are employed for their linguistic francophone competence.

During the communist regime another language was an advantage – the Russian was obligatory in the schools – which offered a lot of jobs for teachers. Now this niche is almost closed and Russians prefer to work in the local branches of Russian companies or in Bulgarian companies oriented to the Russian market. The Russian community is the oldest, the most numerous, the better integrated; therefore the professional profile of this group is close to the one of the Bulgarian citizens. This is the only group which is employed in the administration.

There is one group which is almost irrelevant to the labor market – the British. Most of them are retired and prefer a calm life in small villages. Others are tempted to try a new professional life, mainly in real estate.

The labor profile of the immigrant can be summarized in three characteristics:

  • He/she is younger than the Bulgarian citizen. Two factors explain this discrepancy: the demographic crisis[10] of the Bulgarian population and the novelty of the migration phenomenon;
  • He/she is better educated than the average Bulgarian. According to J. Georgiev (2006), 24% of immigrants have university degree; they are about 20% among the natives;
  • He is more entrepreneurial. Several immigrants are self-employed and entrepreneurs. Even more important, several of them offer jobs to Bulgarians, the opposite is still rather exceptional for the moment.

Being a foreign woman in Bulgaria[11]

The gender aspect is a must when analyzing the Bulgarian case – immigration is predominantly feminine (57.9%, according to IOM). Another reason for the gender approach is the specific profile of foreign woman, many of whom are active and self confident.

In immigrant communities, especially in countries with new migration such as Bulgaria, the ratio men/women is very different from the normal ratio in the population. In our country, three quite different cases are apparent. In the Russian community the women definitely predominate, in the African community the women are an exception. The Arab community is somewhere in between, but there again the men outnumber the women, who are barely one third of the group.

The gender imbalance is striking also in the refugee community: only one woman per five men among the asylum seekers. There are thirty countries without applications for asylum from women. The number of women is almost equivalent to the one of children with the notable exception of the Afghan group where the kids are 2.5 more numerous than women (Krasteva 2006).

The mixed marriages are also unevenly distributed. They are a rule in the Russian community, often referred to as the “Russian daughters-in-law”. There are almost no Arab women married to Bulgarians. The same is to a great extent valid for the Chinese and the Afghan communities.

What makes women leave their homeland and choose Bulgaria – labor opportunities, studies or family? The first reason happens to be romantic – love. Nearly half of the women immigrants in our country come with their husbands. The other reasons are no different from the men’s – 20% come to seek a job or because they have already found one, 10% come to get higher education. Some flee their countries and seek asylum in Bulgaria (8,9%), others, on the contrary, decide to invest in housing – still a small share (5,2%) but with a tendency to grow is the category of immigrants, who have financial resources and invest them in real estate, attracted by the low prices compared to European standards and the good climate.

Like the Bulgarian women, the majority of women immigrants are active: they work in the private businesses – mostly of their community, but also in Bulgarian ones. The latter is very uneven: there are almost no Chinese, Arabs, and Afghans who work in Bulgarian companies[12]. The Russians, Ukrainians and other immigrants from former Soviet Union are very well integrating and present in different professional fields. They are also employed in the administration.

Most women from EU accompany their husbands who work as experts and consultants. Several of them initiate and take part in charitable activities.

If several studies in the western countries analyze the difficult access of migrant women to labor, the Bulgarian case looks quite optimistic: very few declare themselves unemployed. Those figures, of course, should be dealt with precaution. First, the survey includes few asylum seekers and refugees and the rate of unemployment is the highest in their group. Second, we observe a high percentage of no reply to this question. Some of the reasons for the reticence are cultural: the social role of women is conceived in a different way in the various groups. Some immigrants devote themselves to the kids and family – this peculiarity is most prominent in the Arab, Afghan, Iranian communities, whereas it is rather an exception in the Chinese and Russian groups.

A more detailed look at the occupations shows that immigrants are both white and blue collars, yet much more concentrated in the former group: among the most qualified are medical doctors, pharmacists, experts in the communication and financial sector. Women immigrant work predominantly in the commerce, services, restaurants, tourism. Relatively few occupy unqualified jobs.

The cultural variables are the most important for understanding the female attitude to labor. Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese are active, very similar to Bulgarian women. Women from EU work as highly qualified professionals. When they accompany their husbands, they take care of the family and take part in cultural and charitable activities.

Arab and Afghan women have a different profile. The majority take care of the kids and the family. Those who work are engaged mainly in the family business. What is a rule for the Russians – having a job different from the husband’s one – is an exception in the muslim communities.

The portrait of the female migrant in Bulgaria is quite positive. This is the striking difference in comparison with most western studies on gender and migration. The role model of Bulgarian women is encouraging: several Muslim ladies confess they admire the Bulgarian women for their freedom and independence and try or aspire to following the example. On the opposite pole we see two different groups – women from (post)communist (Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese) and western states (EU, US). The countries’ profile is contrary, yet the women’s roles are alike – active, independent, self confident.

Managing migration:

more words than deeds

2008 is a key year for the Bulgarian migration policy. From the periphery to the centre – this is the way it passed the last years. From one of the numerous public policies not enjoying till recently specific attention, neither strong institutionalization, during the first half of the year the migration policy was included in the political agenda. Three events illustrate this new tendency – two programs and one forum.

National Migration and Integration Strategy (2008 – 2015) was elaborated by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs:

  • It offers for the first time data concerning both emigration and immigration covering the huge lack of official publicly available statistics;
  • It defines two strategic objectives: attracting people with Bulgarian citizenship leaving in other countries, as well as of people with foreign citizenship from Bulgarian origins for return and permanent settlement in Bulgaria.

The migration policy is described as “contemporary, realistic, balanced and ensuring stability” by the Ministry of labor and social policy experts (Simeonov 2008, p.57). The wishful thinking marks the official approach: “the new Bulgarians are expected to contribute to the development of the bulgarian economy and society as workers, self-employed persons, entrepreneurs, etc., and by paying taxes and investing in Bulgaria they will support the agriculture, tourism, transport, culture, etc” (ibid, p.66). In fact, several of those “new” Bulgarians take profit of the Bulgarian citizenship for continuing their migration trajectories to better developed EU states.

The National Migration and Integration Strategy is connected with the National Employment Strategy, National Strategy for Demographic Development of the Republic of Bulgaria, National Housing Strategy, National Poverty Reduction and Social Exclusion Strategy, National Health Strategy (Simeonov 2008).

The other document is The new Bulgarian politics on the Bulgarians abroad. It was discussed in the spring of 2008 during an interministerial meeting chaired by the prime minister.

The refugees are the most fragile group. It’s logical that they have been the target group for the first document on integration. Three years ago, in 2005 a National program for integration of refugees has been adopted. It includes a large spectrum of measures and responsibilities for several institutions. The paradox is that this document was nice as a program, not as an efficient policy. Its promoters still speak in future not in past tense, in terms of promises, not achievements, of measures to be taken, not of measures already applied. The results are summarized in the following vague way: “The adoption and implementation of the National program for integration of refugees creates conditions for complete integration of refugees in the Bulgarian society. The achieved progress in the sphere of the observation of human rights is confirmed and develops; a tolerant and friendly disposed atmosphere is created” (Filipova and Novakova 2008, p. 74).

Summarizing the migration management we can conclude that we see more words than deeds, more documents than policies. The main deficit is the lack of strategic thinking.


Three different periods can be distinguished in the structure of in and out flows in their relations to the labour market:

The 90-ies have been characterized by:

  • Economic crisis, slow and chaotic restructuring of the economy, high unemployment;
  • High emigration of both unskilled and highly qualified labour force;
  • Change of the immigrant’s profile: from the education to labour and political[13] migration.

The foreign students who graduated during the communist regime became businessmen, new labour migrants arrived for taking profit of the relative lack of competition and the new niches opened by the transition to the market economy. The profile of the first wave of immigrants is rather positive – young, entrepreneurial or self employed, well educated.

The beginning of the new decade reversed the tendencies:

  • The economy entered in a period of growth: the investments increased, the unemployment decreased;
  • A new phenomenon emerged – a shortage of labor force – due both to the high emigration and to the expanding economy;
  • The business for the fist time posed the problem of “importing” immigrants for satisfying the demand of labor in manufacturing, tourism, construction, etc. ;
  • The government wrote a strategy for integration, just first shy steps, still, important corner stone of an emerging migration policy.

The global economic crisis inaugurates a third quite different stage. How it’ll impact emigration and migration will be analyzed in the next study.

The biggest danger for scholars and policy makers in a time of crisis is to concentrate on short term aims and to loose the strategic perspective.

GEORGIEV Y. (2008) Immigration in Bulgaria – preconditions and possible developments.-

In:  The implication of EU membership on immigration trends and immigrant integration policies for the Bulgarian labour market. Sofia: Economic Policy Institute,  – 24.

GEORGIEV J. (2006) Public opinion in 2006: emigration is conceived as more threatening

than immigration.- Manfred Worner Foundation. Towards a new immigration policy of Bulgaria, 16 – 25.

GUENCHEVA  R., P.KABAKCHIEVA, Pl. KOLARSKI (2003) Migration trends in selected countries. Vol. 1. Bulgaria – the social impact of seasonal migration. IOM.

DASKALOVA D. and T. LOUIS (2008) Legal dimensions of immigrant access to employment

in Bulgaria: contextual analysis.-In: The implication of EU membership on immigration trends and immigrant integration policies for the Bulgarian labour market. Sofia: Economic Policy Institute, 77 – 100.

FILIPOVA N. and I. NOVAKOVA (2008) Activities of the State Agency for Refugees with

the Council of Ministers.- In: The implication of EU membership on immigration trends and immigrant integration policies for the Bulgarian labour market. Sofia: Economic Policy Institute, 70- 76.

IOM (2006) Human trafficking survey: Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine. Kyiv.

KARMIHOVA M. (2004) American dreams. Guide among the first generation of emigrants. Sofia: Krotal.

KRASTEVA A. (ed) (2006) Figures of refugees. Sofia: NBU,.

KRASTEVA A. (ed) (2005) Immigration in Bulgaria. Sofia: IMIR,. (in bulgarian)

KRASTEVA A. (2008) Immigration, gender, labor.- In: The implication of EU membership

on immigration trends and immigrant integration policies for the Bulgarian labor market. Sofia, , 101 – 113.

MAEVA M. (2006) The Bulgarian Turks – emigrants in the Republic of Turkey. Sofia: IMIR.

MANSOOR A. and B. QUILLING (eds) (2006) Migration and remittances. Eastern Europe and

the former Soviet Union. The World Bank.

MINTCHEV V. and V. BOSHNAKOV (2006) The profile and experience of return

migrants: empirical evidence from Bulgaria.- South East Europe Review, N 2, 25 – 59.

MLSP (2006) Attitudes to emigration. 2006.

MLSP (2008) National strategy for migration and integration.

NSI (2008) Key indicators for Bulgaria (in bulgarian.)

NSI (2004) Census of the population, the housing and the farms. Vol. 1. population. Book 1. Demographic and social characteristics of the population.

SIMEONOV H. (2008) The migration policy of Bulgaria – contemporary, realistic, balanced

and ensuring stability.- In: The implication of EU membership on immigration trends and immigrant integration policies for the Bulgarian labour market. Sofia: Economic Policy Institute, 57 – 69.

UNDP (2007) Bulgaria: beyond the facts. Issue 26, December 2007.

[1] A new political party “The other Bulgaria” has been created in March 2009. It aims to represent the Bulgarian emigrants and the ones who feel emigrants in their own country. The party is still very young to be analyzed in this article.

[2] I’ll analyze mainly the Bulgarian emigration, not so much the diaspora which has a different map, logic and history of migration.

[3] The data are both lacking and unreliable. This deficit will be partly compensated by the comparative approach – the study will use both external and national sources.

[4] By ACCA-M commissioned by the Ministry of labour and social affairs, November 2007.

[5] The globalization of the family market is a relatively new phenomenon for Bulgarians, most of the mixed families do not settle in the country.

[6] The data are for 2006.

[7] The data are for 2006

[8] The total number for the period 1990 – 2001 is 36 754.

[9] Ilientzy.

[10] The population has decreased between the last two censuses, in 1992 and 2001.

[11] The article will summarize some results of the first study on women immigrants in Bulgaria conducted by the author. Fore more details Krasteva 2009.

[12] While the opposite is very often the case: Bulgarians working in immigrants’ companies.

[13] Bulgaria ratified the Geneva Convention in 1993 and started granting refugee status. The political immigration is not object of this study.

Krasteva A. (ed.) Immigration and integration: european experiences. Sofia, 2009, 63 – 88.


3 thoughts on “In search of new opportunities: emigrating from and immigrating to Bulgaria

Вашият коментар

Попълнете полетата по-долу или кликнете върху икона, за да влезете: лого

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Промяна )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Промяна )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Промяна )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Промяна )

Connecting to %s