Executive summary

The first portrait of the Romanian diaspora in OECD countries

This review provides the first comprehensive portrait of the Romanian diaspora in OECD countries, where almost all Romanian emigrants reside. It thus offers a detailed and current picture of the diaspora and its dynamics.

Romanian emigration was tightly controlled between 1950 and 1989. Exit visas made it difficult for Romanians to leave the country, and emigration was very low. The Romanian Revolution of 1989 led to the lifting of emigration restrictions and a subsequent increase in emigration in the early 1990s. Main destination countries were Germany, Hungary and Israel. Students and business people also sought new opportunities abroad. During the late 1990s, the United States and Canada became prominent destinations for Romanian emigrants as overall Romanian emigration decelerated.

There have been significant changes to Romanian emigration patterns since the early 2000s. Romanians had increasing access to mobility opportunities as Romania sought closer ties with the European Union. The accession of Romania to the European Union in 2007 represented a turning point. While some restrictions on free mobility remained in place as late as 2014, Romanians have increasingly migrated to other EU countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom. Emigration has become a major social and economic phenomenon for Romania, the population of which has fallen from 22.4 million in 2000 to 19.5 million in 2018, with outward migration responsible for more than 75% of this decline.

The Romanian diaspora is the fifth largest in the world and is growing

In 2015/16, around 3.6 million people born in Romania were living in OECD countries, of which 54% were women. Between 2000/01 and 2015/16, the number of Romanian emigrants rose by 2.3 million, with most of the increase occurring between 2005/06 and 2010/11. The number of Romanian emigrants also appears large in relation to the domestic population of Romania. In 2015/16, 17% of all people born in Romania were living in OECD countries. While Romania ranked fifth in total emigrant population, it had the highest emigration rate among the ten main origin countries of emigrants living in OECD countries.

A comparable number of migrants in OECD countries originated from Germany or the United Kingdom (both around 3.4 million emigrants). Excluding OECD origin countries (Mexico and Poland), the Romanian diaspora was the third largest after China and India. Romania’s emigrant population is much larger than that of neighbouring countries (Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine). Romanian emigrants alone accounted for almost half of the 7.8 million emigrants from this region in 2015/16.

According to available published estimates, more than 97% of Romanian emigrants worldwide live in OECD countries. Fewer than 70 000 Romanian emigrants live in non-OECD countries and about two-thirds of this group resides in non-OECD countries of the European Union.

Around 90% of Romanian emigrants in OECD countries live in Europe, primarily in Italy

The vast majority of the Romanian emigrants (93%) living in OECD countries in 2015/16 were based in just ten countries and 90% lived in a European country. Italy, with almost one third of the Romanian emigrant population (over 1 million), was the leading host country, followed by Germany (680 000) and Spain (573 000). Most of the other emigrants lived in the United Kingdom, the United States, Hungary, France or Canada.

Between 2000/01 and 2015/16, the population of Romanian origin in the United Kingdom increased by a factor of 33, while the numbers of Romanian emigrants in Italy and Spain increased 13-fold and tenfold, respectively. The high growth in these countries largely explains the expansion of the Romanian diaspora as a whole over the period. Israel is the only OECD country where the number of Romanian emigrants decreased in the last 15 years, due to the ageing of the Romanian community and extremely limited inflows.

Growing flows of emigrants from Romania to OECD countries…

Annual legal migration flows from Romania to OECD countries peaked at 560 000 in 2007, but nonetheless quintupled from about 88 000 in 2000 to 415 000 in 2016. In 2016, Romania ranked second among all countries of origin in magnitude of immigration flows to OECD countries and Romanian emigrants represented 6% of all entries. The peak in Romanian emigration in 2007 coincided with Romania’s accession to the European Union, opening access to free mobility for Romanian nationals. After rising steadily between 2000 and 2006, Romanian emigration more than doubled from 2006 to 2007. This surge proved temporary, as legal migration flows from Romania fell by 40% in 2008. Evidence points to the onset and persistence of the global economic crisis as the cause of the sharp decrease in Romanian emigration after 2007, although the impact was uneven across destination countries. Migration flows from Romania to OECD countries recently resumed a gradual upward trend, rising by nearly 60% between 2009 and 2016.

…with different evolutions over time across destination countries

Between 2000 and 2007, emigration flows from Romania to Spain were multiplied by 10, from 17 500 to almost 200 000 per year. Over the same period, flows to Italy increased 14 fold, rising from 19 000 in 2000 to 270 000 in 2007. Flows to Italy and Spain together in 2007 accounted for almost 85% of total flows of Romanian nationals to OECD countries, with flows to Italy alone making up almost half the total. Just as striking was the rapidity of the decline in the following years. Emigration to Spain decreased by 70% in 2008 to 61 000, or about the same level as in 2003. About 175 000 Romanian citizens emigrated to Italy in 2008, a 35% decrease from the 2007 peak. The economic crisis and its impact on the construction sector increased unemployment rates of Romanian emigrants in Spain and Italy and contributed to the sharp decline in flows to these two countries.

While increasing and subsequently declining flows to Italy and Spain drove the overall trend in Romanian emigration to OECD countries between 2006 and 2009, increasing flows to Germany and the United Kingdom between 2010 and 2016 offset further decreases in flows to the Southern European countries. The sharp rise in emigration flows to Germany has made it the main destination country in recent years. Emigration to Germany increased after 2007 by an average of about 20% per year to reach over 220 000 in 2016. The economic crisis may have played a role in diverting Romanian emigration flows from Southern Europe to Germany, where job prospects did not erode as much. Thanks to an upsurge in flows between 2012 and 2016, the United Kingdom has recently become the second destination for Romanian emigrants.

High emigration intentions in Romania, especially among young people

These recent flows from Romania to other European countries and beyond are driven by high emigration intentions. Between 2009 and 2018, more than a fourth (26%) of Romanians living in Romania expressed a desire to permanently settle abroad if they had the opportunity. This percentage is one of the highest recorded in the region, with only Moldova having a higher percentage. Emigration intentions are particularly high among young people: nearly half of 15-24 year olds in Romania said they intended to emigrate. These high percentages are likely related to poor job prospects for young people, especially those with high education. The employment situation in Romania is thus one of the main causes of the high level of emigration intentions observable in the population. Among those intending to emigrate, few respondents are satisfied with their current job (11%), the availability of good quality jobs (4%) or their income (4%).

About one-in-four Romanian emigrants say they intend to return home…

Once they live abroad, a significant share of Romanian emigrants say they may return home. Between 2009 and 2018, about 26% of Romanian emigrants said they intended to leave their current country of residence to return to Romania or move to another country. Return intentions, however, vary across countries and over time. In Spain, in a 2006 survey, fewer than 10% of Romanian respondents indicated that they planned to return to Romania within the next five years, while more than three-quarters said they intended to remain in Spain. In Italy, one-third of Romanian respondents to a 2011 survey said they wanted to return to their origin country.

… and a significant number of them do return to Romania each year

While the accession of Romania to the European Union in 2007 facilitated the emigration of Romanian nationals and their ability to live and work in other EU countries, it has also made it easier for them to circulate in Europe, return to Romania and leave again. Repeat migration and more complex mobility patterns across several EU countries are therefore likely to have become more common in recent years, making it more difficult to identify and enumerate return migrants with standard data sources.

The most recent available estimate of the number of return migrants in Romania comes from the 2014 EU Labour Force Survey. According to this survey, about 390 000 Romanians aged 15-64 had worked and lived abroad in the previous 10 years before returning to Romania. This figure may be, however, lower than the actual number of return migrants, because it does not include people who have lived abroad without being employed. One earlier estimate indicates that there was a total of 900 000 return migrants aged 25-64 in Romania in 2008.

Using data on outflows of Romanian emigrants from Italy, Germany and Spain, it can be estimated that, on average between 2015 and 2017, approximately 135 000 Romanian emigrants returned to Romania each year from these countries. On this basis, one can estimate that the total yearly number of Romanian emigrants returning from European OECD countries has ranged between at least 160 000 and 200 000 in recent years.

Migration for employment is dominant, while the number of internationally mobile students is slowly growing

Almost two thirds of Romanian emigrants in Europe said that they emigrated for employment reasons, including a high proportion in the United Kingdom (75%), Italy (67%) and Spain (63%). The second most important motive for emigration was family, accounting for 31% across the European Union.

While employment was the main reason for emigration, only one in seven Romanian emigrants across the EU declared having a job offer prior to departure. More than a quarter of Romanian emigrants in the United Kingdom migrated for employment and had already found a job in the United Kingdom before arrival, while smaller shares of Romanian migrants in Italy (13%) and Spain (11%) had a job prior to departure.

Across the European Union, less than 2% of Romanian emigrants reported studies as their main motive for migration, with somewhat higher shares in the United Kingdom (6%) and Belgium (5%). As a result, the number of internationally mobile Romanian students is relatively small, with just above 32 000 in 2016, up 3% from the level of 2013. Top countries of tertiary enrolment for Romanian students include Italy, the United Kingdom and France. Internationally mobile Romanian students in OECD countries accounted for less than 6% of total Romanian tertiary enrolments in 2016.

Close to a fourth of Romanian emigrants in OECD countries are highly educated…

In 2015/16, 23% of Romanian emigrants aged 15 years old and over living in OECD countries had high educational attainment, 11 percentage points lower than the overall foreign-born population. Compared to the emigrant populations of neighbouring countries, Romanian emigrants were also relatively less educated, with only Serbia having a less educated emigrant population than Romania.

However, the distribution of educational attainment among Romanian emigrants varies across countries of residence. North American destinations had the highest shares of Romanian emigrants with tertiary education among the main destination countries: 54% in the United States and almost 80% in Canada. Romanian emigrants in France and in the United Kingdom also had, on average, a relatively high level of education: about 35% of them had reached tertiary education in 2015/16 in these two countries. Educational attainment was much lower in Italy, the main destination country, with only 7% of Romanian emigrants there reporting a high level of education.

Germany is the main OECD destination country for highly educated Romanian emigrants, with close to one in five highly educated Romanian emigrants. Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom host respectively 13%, 11% and 10% of the total number of highly educated Romanian emigrants. By contrast, although Italy is the main destination country for Romanian emigrants, only 9% of the total number of highly educated reside in this country.

… and low educated Romanian emigrants are relatively concentrated in Italy and Spain

In 2015/16, 30% of Romanian emigrants aged 15 years old and over living in OECD countries had a low level of education, but this proportion varied widely across countries. About six-in-ten low educated Romanian emigrants lived in Italy or Spain. More than one third of low educated Romanian emigrants lived in Italy, followed by Spain, which hosted about 20% of low educated Romanian emigrants in 2015/16. By contrast, North American countries hosted only a very small share of the low educated Romanian population, with the United States and Canada home to respectively only 2% and 1% of this population.

The education level of Romanian emigrants has been stable over time

Contrary to the overall trend of rising educational attainment among foreign-born living in OECD countries, Romanian emigrants’ education level has remained rather stable over the years, with 30% of Romanian emigrant population having a low level of education in both 2000/01 and 2015/16. Yet, the share of highly educated Romanian emigrants decreased slightly, from 26% in 2000/01 to 23% in 2015/16. During this period, the lifting of Schengen visa requirements for Romanians and the accession of Romania to the European Union may have facilitated the emigration of low-educated Romanians. In European countries, population aging and the shortage of labour in sectors that cannot be delocalised (such as construction, agriculture, health, care of the elderly, or tourism professions) made immigration an essential component of labour supply and offered new opportunities for low-educated Romanians.

Romanian emigrant women now have a higher level of education than men

A fourth of Romanian emigrant women living in OECD countries in 2015/16 were highly educated, whereas this share was slightly lower for men (22%). Over time, gender disparities among Romanian emigrants in terms of education level have reversed in OECD countries. Overall, there are more than 450 000 highly educated Romanian emigrant women in OECD countries whereas their male counterparts number less than 340 000. The differences in the distribution of education levels by gender among Romanian emigrants vary by destination country, and are particularly striking in the United Kingdom and France. In these two countries, Romanian emigrant women are 11 percentage points more likely than men to be highly educated.

Romanian emigrants have relatively high unemployment levels…

Almost 325 000 Romanian emigrants living in OECD countries were unemployed in 2015/16, equal to 13% of the total active Romanian population in these countries. Their unemployment rate was twice that of both the native-born and emigrants from countries neighbouring Romania. However, Romanians perform slightly better than natives in the United States and Canada, mostly due to selective migration policies aimed at attracting the highly skilled. Remarkably, the unemployment gap between Romanian emigrants and native-born in OECD countries was almost non-existent at the beginning of the 2000s, but increased sharply during the 2008-09 economic crisis. In recent years, while migrants from Romania’s neighbouring countries have converged to the same unemployment levels as natives, Romanian emigrants still have higher unemployment rates, in spite of a marginal recovery in 2015/16.

… but those who are highly educated do better

Among Romanian emigrants, employment rates increase with educational attainment: 78% of the highly educated working-age Romanian emigrants were employed in 2015/16, compared to only 56% of the low-educated. Yet, during the period 2000-2015, the employment rate of highly educated Romanian emigrants increased by only 10 percentage points; in contrast, low-educated employment rates rose by 22 percentage points in the same time span. This lower rate of employment growth for the highly qualified is the case only for Romanian emigrants, as the employment rates of low- and high-educated native-born rose by similar amounts over those years.

Romanian emigrants mostly work in low-skilled occupations and sectors, especially in South European countries

Romanian emigrants in OECD countries are on average about three times more likely than their native-born peers to work in elementary occupations, and about half as likely to work in highly skilled jobs, such as managerial and technical professions. Overall, a fourth of Romanians in OECD countries are in low-skilled employment. Yet, the situation varies across countries, with Southern Europe having a relatively greater share of Romanian emigrants in low-skilled jobs. Moreover, gender differences in the distribution of Romanians across occupations are particularly pronounced. In fact, women are almost twice as likely as men to work in elementary occupations.

Consistent with these findings on occupations, many Romanian emigrants work in sectors where the majority of jobs are low skilled. They are, for example, 16 times more likely than natives to work as domestic personnel in private households, and they are also over-represented in manufacturing, accommodation and catering. In addition, Romanian men and women in OECD countries seem to be specialised in different sectors of activity. For instance, 15% of men work in construction and 10% in the manufacture of vehicles and machinery, while most women work in health, residential care activities and retail trade.

Although thousands work in highly-skilled jobs, almost half of tertiary educated Romanian emigrants in OECD countries are over-qualified…

Among those with high levels of education, there is a large number of Romanian emigrants working highly-skilled jobs. For example, in the health sector, over 39 000 Romanian-born nurses and over 20 000 doctors practise in OECD countries in 2015/16.

However, across OECD countries, tertiary-educated Romanians almost have a one in two chance of working in lower skilled occupations compared to only 26% for similar migrants born in neighbouring countries and 31% for natives. What is even more striking is that Romanian emigrants’ over-qualification increased in the past two decades, while that of emigrants from neighbouring countries declined. Almost nine out of ten Romanian emigrants self-perceive that their full potential is not exploited in the host country, and that they have the skills to cope with more demanding duties than those required to perform their current jobs.

… which may constrain their ability to send remittances to Romania

In 2017, Romania received EUR 3.8 billion in remittances sent by Romanian emigrants abroad, corresponding to about 2% of GDP. Compared to neighbouring countries, this a relatively low level: according to World Bank data, remittances represented about 20% of GDP in Moldova, 14% in Ukraine, 9% in Serbia, 3.5% in Bulgaria and 3% in Hungary. These remittances may, however, represent significant financial resources for the origin households of Romanian emigrants. It is likely that the relatively low intensity of remittances is partly due to the concentration of Romanian emigrants in low-skilled jobs in some OECD countries, which is accentuated by the high prevalence of overqualification. In countries, such as Canada and the United States, where Romanian emigrants tend to work in better-paid jobs, they send higher amounts of remittances than in countries, such as Italy and Spain, where they work in low-skilled jobs.

Poor reintegration of some return migrants into the labour market also hinders diaspora contributions to Romania’s development

Beyond remittances, return migration is another key potential channel for the contribution of the diaspora to Romania’s economic development. Although aggregate employment rates are higher for return migrants than for non-migrants, specific categories are at a disadvantage and do not seem to reintegrate very well. The first group is prime-age men, which may have difficulties competing for jobs with non-migrants who have accumulated more experience on the Romanian labour market. This raises the question of the transferability of experience and skills acquired abroad.

Another group of return migrants that has relatively poor reintegration outcomes is the highly educated. They have higher employment rates than low and medium educated returnees, but they do not fare as well as highly educated non-migrants. A potential explanation is the lack of a reliable network to help them find a job or the loss of country-specific knowledge during the stay abroad. It is also possible that those highly educated return migrants are negatively selected on unobserved characteristics.

Many low educated return migrants turn to self-employment, while the highly educated are often overqualified

The share of entrepreneurs or self-employed is significantly higher among return migrants than among non-migrants. This difference is almost entirely due to the self-employment gap between low educated return migrants and their non-migrant counterparts. Self-employment is most likely a fallback option for many recent Romanian return migrants who do not manage to become employees. In addition, the overqualification rate of highly educated return migrants is 44%, almost as high as the one estimated for Romanian emigrants in OECD countries, while it is only 19% for non-migrants.

The prevalence of self-employment among low educated return migrants and the high overqualification rate of highly educated returnees are indicators of poor economic reintegration of many Romanian emigrants upon their return to their country of origin. Added to the lower employment rates of prime-age men and tertiary educated returnees, compared to their non-migrant counterparts, this indicates that there is room for public policies or private initiatives to improve the economic and social prospects of return migrants in Romania.

A growing population of well-integrated descendants of Romanian emigrants will shape the future of the diaspora

Despite the challenges facing Romanian emigrants, both abroad and after their return home, the children born to these emigrants in OECD countries are well integrated and represent a significant potential resource for the development of Romania. Data limitations make it difficult to estimate with precision their number, but available data indicate a growing population of over 600 000 people. In 2014, there were about 125 000 native-born children of Romanian emigrants aged 15 and above in a selection of European countries for which data are available. Births to Romanians in Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom since 1999 represent an additional 360 000 native-born children of Romanian emigrants. Furthermore, the United States was home to almost 140 000 native-born children of Romanian emigrants in 2016. Overall, this population is likely very young, with upwards of 60% aged less than 15 years old.

Evidence from selected OECD countries shows that the successful linguistic integration of Romanian emigrants enables the second generation to master both Romanian and the language of their country of birth. This represents a significant asset, which can enhance their future labour market integration in OECD countries, as well as their potential contribution to Romania’s economic development if strong ties are maintained.

Evidence points to three key priorities for Romanian diaspora policies

The results of this review point to three key priorities for Romania’s diaspora policies:

  1. i. improving the proper use of the skills possessed by Romanian emigrants in OECD countries to mitigate the high level of overqualification, foster their social and economic integration, and increase their potential contribution to Romania’s economy through remittances and skill transfer.

  2. ii. helping return migrants to find or create better opportunities in Romania, either by improving the matching between their skills and the needs of Romanian firms, or by supporting them in the development of their businesses.

  3. iii. fostering stronger ties with the children of Romanian emigrants born in OECD countries, so that they can contribute to both their country of residence and to Romania, and maintain the possibility of living in Romania, either temporarily or permanently.

Romanian diaspora policies focus heavily on the promotion of Romanian identity…

Some aspects of Romanian diaspora policy already address these proprieties. Romania has recognised the magnitude of Romanian emigration and has responded with policies designed to maintain connection with Romanian emigrants, protect their rights in destination countries, and encourage their eventual return to Romania. Government institutions responsible for designing and implementing diaspora policies have existed since the mid-1990s, and the recent promotion of the main diaspora institution from sub-ministerial level (the Department for Romanians Abroad in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to ministerial level (the Ministry for Romanians Abroad) is an indication of the importance of the diaspora portfolio.

Romania’s diaspora policies have focused heavily on promoting Romanian culture and identity, especially through courses in Romanian language and culture for children born to Romanian emigrant parents. Indeed, preserving and developing Romanian identity within the diaspora is the primary objective of the Ministry’s National Strategy for Romanians Abroad 2017-20. Other policy objectives in the current strategy include strengthening diaspora associations, supporting integration processes, and defending the rights of Romanian emigrants. Romania’s diaspora policies have also included measures to encourage the return of its emigrants but evidence of their effectiveness is mixed.

… but could include a greater emphasis on integration of emigrants and return migrants

While Romania’s current diaspora policy evidently addresses some of the priorities highlighted above, it could do more to promote the economic integration of Romanian emigrants living abroad and of those who have returned home.

The institutional framework of the European Union greatly facilitates the recognition of qualifications and work experience for those who migrate to EU countries. There is, however, an informational and aspirational gap hindering the integration of Romanian emigrants that Romanian diaspora policy could help reduce. Better informing employers in destination countries about the skills and qualifications of Romanian emigrants could help increase the set of occupations to which they have access and improve the matching between emigrants’ skills and the needs of firms. In addition, better informing potential emigrants of the value of their skills and the needs of foreign employers would help increase the aspirations of emigrants and potentially improve their labour market outcomes.

Similarly, measures to encourage return migrants to assess their skills and help them find relevant employment or business opportunities would facilitate their reintegration and limit skill waste. Working in this direction with Romanian employers would also be useful to help them identify return migrants who could satisfy their labour needs.

A need to better understand the dynamics of Romanian migration within the European Union

This review, based on available comparable data from many countries, draws a mostly macroscopic picture of Romanian emigration. It highlights a number of key characteristics of Romanian emigrants and returnees, the challenges they face and their opportunities. Yet, due to the paucity of adequate data, it remains challenging to fully grasp the complex dynamics of Romanian emigration, especially in the context of free mobility within the European Union. Mobility patterns have become more complex and diverse, and the traditional tools used to apprehend return migration are insufficient to capture some of these movements. Better distinguishing between temporary and permanent migration, or studying secondary migration, requires data sources that follow individuals across countries instead of simply providing isolated snapshots of the Romanian diaspora at different times or in different countries.

It is likely that more and more Romanian nationals will engage in complex migration trajectories, both within and outside the European Union. Responding to some of the current and future challenges of the Romanian diaspora therefore requires investing in innovative tools to better measure the dynamics of flows.

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