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26 March, 2020  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

The fight against the flight

President Zelenskiy’s plans to attract migrants back and establish ties with the diaspora are missing the point

At the beginning of his presidency, Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced two ambitious goals: to return Ukraine’s migrant workers home and to engage Ukrainian community abroad in helping Ukraine grow. Both goals are absolutely right. The fact is that labor migration has reached mass levels: the Ministry of Social Policy has estimated the number of permanently employed migrant workers at 3.2 million. In certain periods, such as seasonal work, this balloons up to 7-9 million. Of course, migrant workers represent a substantial amount of income. According to the NBU, Ukrainians working abroad sent remittances worth US $5.5 billion home, just in the first six months of 2019. However, even this sum does not compensate for the shortage of workers within Ukraine – and the entire bouquet of negative social consequences as a result of this situation.

And so, in order to attract migrant workers back home, at the end of 2019 Zelenskiy launched a government program called “Come back and stay.” However, just what it encompasses has not been made clear to date. All that is known is that the first phase involves providing business loans worth UAH 1.5mn for a five-year period. For instance, for an existing or new business that generates at least two new jobs, the interest on the loan will be capped at 5%.

When it comes to Ukrainian communities abroad, estimates of their size vary greatly. Numbers provided by analysts fluctuate from 10 to 20 million. Back during his inaugural speech, Zelenskiy said that he would “gladly offer Ukrainian citizenship” to all foreigners of Ukrainian origins, inviting them to “bring your know-how, experience and mentality.” For this purpose, he presented Bill #2590, which so far is still being reviewed by the profile committee in the Verkhovna Rada. Its purpose is to effectively institute dual citizenship, which, according to Zelenskiy, is necessary “so that our diaspora can freely return.”

One of the countries that has accumulated considerable experience in countering the emigration of workers is neighboring Poland. Its accession to the EU in 2004 led to a huge wave of labor migration to western Europe. Three years later, in 2007, some 2.3mn Poles were working abroad. At the same time, there was an ongoing reverse process: based on data from the Labor Force Survey, Polish researchers say that 580,000 came back to Poland over 2004-2008. Starting in 2008, this phenomenon picked up pace as a global economic crisis went into full swing. But before and after this period, the process was left to go on its own: the Polish Government did everything it could to attract its citizens back to their homeland.

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The first thing Warsaw did was to carry out an active information policy by setting up an online service offering employment searches in Poland, consultations about investing and doing business in Poland, and so on. One interesting product of this period was a booklet called “The Homecomer,” a guide on returning to Poland that was disseminated among Polish emigrants through consulates and diaspora organizations. A Government campaign called “Are you planning to come back?” had a similar purpose, targeted at Polish communities outside Poland.

Next, economic incentives were offered to those coming back. First among these was avoiding double taxation. Returnees were also offered grants, tax credits and more. Although Poland’s economy is one of the most dynamic in Europe today, this policy has been kept up. Last year, personal income tax on individuals under the age of 26 whose annual income is under €20,000 was dropped altogether. Poland has also been competing actively to attract highly skilled workers. In 2008, the Polish office of HAYES, together with the Polish-British Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy launched a program aimed at searching for and incentivizing Poles who were working in the IT, banking and financial services sectors abroad, to come home. In 2018, a program was launched to attract Polish scientists back to their homeland. Homecomers are offered funding for their research, and positions with universities and research institutes.

Finally, together with government-sponsored measures, a slew of local and non-government initiatives were introduced across the country. For example, in 2007, the London-based Barka Foundation, a Polish NGO, began a program of transferring Polish migrant workers who had run into difficulties abroad – some had lost their housing, others had become addicted, and so on – back home and helping them reintegrate. Also in 2007, the town of Bilgoraj in Liublin Voyevodstvo started its own “Back home again, and now what?” program aimed at encouraging business initiatives among homecomers. It was carried out by a local employment center together with the Regional Development Agency. In 2009, another Polish organization in London launched a program they called “12 Cities. Coming back, but where,” under which 12 Polish cities held open houses on a monthly basis and promoted the opportunities that they could offer homecomers. The 2010 program called “Stay in Poland – be your own boss,” launched by the city of Warsaw together with the Collegium of Management and Finance, offered educational support and grants to homecomers or potential emigrants to develop their own business initiatives.

This is not a complete listing, of course, but it’s very demonstrative. At a certain point, the battle for migrant workers became one of Poland’s national priorities and the scale of the effort put into this is hard to exaggerate. Of course, these programs were variously effective, but the number of Poles who were working abroad temporarily by 2010 went down to about the numbers that had been seen in 2004, according to the Labor Force Survey.

One interesting example of a country working with its own diaspora is Ireland. Today, the country has a population of around 5 million, but according to historians, some 10 million emigrated from there starting in the 18thcentury. So, it’s not surprising that the number of individuals with Irish roots around the world at the beginning of the 21stcentury numbers an estimated 80 million. In the US alone, the 2008 census showed that there were 36 million Americans who primarily considered their ethnicity Irish. And this dispersal of the Irish continues to this day. In 2015, Eurostat reported that 17% of those born on the Emerald Isle were living outside their country. But labor migration is nowhere near the scales it once reached in the past.

In fact, Ireland has become an attractive destination country for migrant workers, especially from Central and Eastern Europe. An estimated 220,000 Poles came to Ireland d over 2004-2007 to work in Ireland. In 2015, the Polish Embassy in Dublin says that some 150,000 Poles were still living in Ireland, most of them hoping to stay permanently.

For Ireland, the priority is to maintain ties with its colossal diaspora, 57% of which lives in the UK, 15% in the US and 11% in Australia, and a slew of other countries, according to UN data from 2015. In a Government document called “Global Irish. Ireland’s diaspora policy” laid out the basic approach in 2015. The cornerstone was the support of the diaspora and emigrants wherever they resided. Ireland has, in fact used this approach for a very long time now.

For example over 2004-2014, Ireland’s Emigrant Support Program supported some than 470 organizations in more than 30 countries with grant money worth €126mn. Of this funding, 65% went for welfare, that is, to support members of the Irish community who had found themselves in a difficult position due to age, illness and other life circumstances. Ireland also funds projects and events directed at developing the Irish diaspora communities, strengthening Irish identity, supporting the well-being of Irish emigrants and so on. This is, in fact, a permanent spending item in the national budget. I 2017 alone, 398 projects and events organized by 260 Irish organizations and communities received funding worth a total of €12.5mn. 

Ireland works to maintain relations with the diaspora not just horizontally, based on personal and organizational ties, but to ensure that there is an extensive system of two-way communication with the country. In any case, this kind of disbursal of funds and, more importantly, this scale of international communication are impossible without the necessary institutions in place. In this sense, working with the diaspora is a key area for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), as well as the ministries of the Prime Minister of Ireland. At the same time, there is a separate position called the minister of state for the diaspora and international development, which is currently filled by Ciarán Cannon.

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Compared to the accomplishments of Poland and Ireland, President Zelenskiy’s initiatives regarding migrant workers and the diaspora look fairly small apples for now. Lending to small businesses is definitely a good instrument to combat labor migration, but it’s just one of many. Transforming all current and potential migrant workers into successful SMEs is not so much overly ambitious as it is naïve – not the least because only 26% of Ukrainians have expressed a clear desire to engage in commercial activity and another 22% are willing to consider such a possibility, according to a Rating survey in 2018.

When it comes to the Ukrainian diaspora, the main problem is not the lack of passports but the absence of effective communication. In 2018, the Groisman Government approved a Program for Cooperation with Ukrainians Abroad through 2020 and gave it a budget of over UAH 100mn. In practice, the program proved not to be viable. The problem was not a lack of money, but the superficiality and inconsistency of the Ukrainian officials running it, and the lack of systematic communication. And so, Ukraine’s ties to its own diaspora are primarily based on horizontal links that depend on interactions with the third sector, religious institutions and so on. In short, the Zelenskiy project remains fairly raw at this point.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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