Remus Gabriel Anghel (2013), Romanians in Western Europe. Migration, Status Dilemmas, and Transnational Connections

Lexington Books

Contemporary immigration in Europe has become increasingly European. Accelerated migration from other European Union countries contrasts sharply with the immigration in the post-war period, when migrants tended to come from outside the European Community and, in some cases, from beyond the European continent. The end of the Cold War, the end of the ban on emigration that all countries behind the Iron Curtain enforced (except former Yugoslavia) and the gradual integration of these countries into the European Union were the main drivers of a profound change in European immigration. When forging this change, a definite and clear role bear the last three European Union enlargements in 2004, 2007 and 2013, when in a relatively short period of time the European Union added 13 new members.

Within Europe, the case of Romania stands out. Romanians have proved the most Euromobile Europeans. Eurostat data indicates that in 2011, there were 2.3 million Romanians and only 1.6 million Poles and 1.3 million Italians living in other EU member states. Italy has a population three times larger than Romania, and Poland has twice its population (59 and 38 million compared to 19 million) (Eurostat 2012). Furthermore, Eurostat estimates that Romanian migrants constitute one of the largest foreign communities in the EU, second only to Turkish and outnumbering the Moroccan one. All this being said, Romanian migration and mobile Romanians remain under-studied. 

Remus Gabriel Anghel’s book takes on a Homeric task of introducing its readers to the less-known and more complex aspects of Romanian migration. With wordsmanship and building on a rich empirical material, Anghel engages in exploring the experiences of mobile Romanians in Western Europe. Anghel finely tunes his analysis to explore the motivations of the Romanians for seeking work abroad, their migration stories, their understanding of a changing status from often unauthorised migrants to legal residents and to European citizens; their relationship with ‘home’ and the ‘new home’; and, their making sense of their changing social status in the new society. The book is comparative in purpose and sophisticated in design, aiming to contrast the experiences of the Romanians who migrated to different destinations in Europe – Italy and Germany – under different legal regimes.

Anghel starts by focusing on Romanian ethnic Germans from the city of Timișoara, a large and multicultural city in Western Romania, and their relocation to Nuremberg, Germany. During the communist dictatorship and after 1989, many ethnic Germans from Romania relocated to Germany as Aussiedlers. The German community had had a long presence in Romania and, in comparison with other national minorities such as the Hungarian and Roma ones, was more respected and affluent than the national average. Ethnic Germans from Timișoara arrived as colonists brought in by the Habsburg rule of Charles VI after the Treaty of Passarowitz of 1718. Following the Union with the Romanian Kingdom in 1918, there was a wave of Romanisation policy during which the exceptional status of the German community was nonetheless maintained by continuing the network of German-speaking schools and allowing for representation in parliament. The community had its own party, Die Deutsche Partei. In addition, religious organisation of the Swabian Catholics and Protestant Saxons continued to be active, despite the support of the newly formed Romanian state for the Orthodox religion and a national orthodox church.

The Communist dictatorship sought to reduce what were regarded as privileges of the German community, which was associated with the losers of the WWII. The new regime nationalised their property, especially the land, confiscated businesses and livestock and deported many. Ethnic Germans were also stripped of the right to vote until 1954. Their emigration was banned in 1950, but in 1977 the Romanian state agreed to let ethnic Germans relocate to (West) Germany in exchange for a sum of money. In fifteen years, the German community shrank from 350,000 to less than 60,000 (Anghel 2013: 5). Relocating ethnic Germans from Romania enjoyed legal status, full citizenship rights and state support to integrate into the German society, including reimbursement of travel expenses, assistance with finding accommodation and work. Additionally, they enjoyed tax facilities to start a business. Yet many of them, Anghel finds, experienced frustration after relocating to Nuremberg.

In 80 qualitative interviews, Anghel explored the sources of contention and achievement of those who emigrated. He shows that at the beginning they were enthusiastic about new opportunities. In the 1990s, the German labour market offered many jobs, salaries 10-15 times higher than in Romania, and a lifestyle that few enjoyed in Romania. Many considered themselves Germans, spoke German as their mother tongue and pursued education in German and had relatives in Germany. They were, however, not recognised as Germans by other Germans. Such misrecognition triggered a shift in their identity, as they started to perceive themselves ethnic Germans from Romania and to socialise with ethnic Romanians and other immigrants.

I observed that Germans [do not make] this difference, [that I am a Romanian German and not a Romanian]. Then, I stopped denying that I am Romanian. Anyway, I was born [in Romania], I married a Romanian woman, I lived twenty years there, and my ancestors lived for many generations. So, Romania left a trace on me, a sort of blue print on my behaviour, mentality and so on. I don’t want to give it up (Christian in Anghel: 71).

I had a limited vocabulary [in Romanian]. [In Romania] my colleagues, friends, family, everyone, including even the neighbours were 80-90 per cent Deutschstemming [of German origin]. (…) Here [in Germany] I Romanianised myself (Ricky in Anghel: 77).

In the context of migration to Germany, their basis for ethnic identification shifts from traditional identifiers such as the German language and German ancestry upon which they built their identity in Romania. In Germany, where these characteristics were shared by most of the population. Instead, culture, common experiences including the economic and political hardships of the Communist dictatorship, shared childhood experiences in socialist Romania and the common experiences of the hometown gained more significance and became authentic ethnic identifiers for the Romanian Germans. Over time the link with Romania further intensifies because many chose Romanian partners, often from their hometown. They start speaking more Romanian among themselves and initiate regular visits home (as opposed to returning just for vacation). Males, in particular, tend to partner Romanian women as a strategy of deflecting from the more liberal gender norms in Germany.

A Romanian girlfriend] can understand me much better. She understands a part of my history, even though we did not meet in Romania. And we had a similar mentality, we have things in common. A German girl is not interested in knowing [anything] about Romania (Alexandru in Anghel: 75).

Others like Daniel said that he was accustomed to [a family] model from Romania, with women used to cooking and cleaning and being good housewives (idem). I had [German] women. They say: ‘why should I go to Croatia or Bulgaria? Let’s go to the Caribbean Islands. The don’t pay attention to money’. (…)This is why I don’t want a woman like that (idem).

In this first scenario, the migration of Romanians to Germany is a legitimate and state-supported ‘return’ migration for ethnic Germans. By contrast, the second group Anghel focuses on is a typical labour migration of ethnic Romanians from Borșa, a small mining town in North-East Romania, to Milan, Italy. In the second scenario, Romanians emigrated in semi- or undocumented situations and were dependent on informal local networks to cross borders and to find accommodation and employment. Compared with Timișoara, Borșa has a 10 times smaller population, is situated in Maramureș county which is one of the most geographically isolated areas in the country, and the local economy depends on services, traditional agriculture, forestry and mining. You would have to go through great difficulty to find Romanians who know where Borșa is on the map.

During the Communist dictatorship, the town developed along with the opening of new mines which attracted internal migrants from nearby regions. While the town has grown in size considerably, it largely lacked basic urban services (with the exception of a large hospital, a school and local administration). Energy independence was a priority of the dictatorship. Miners in Borșa enjoyed relatively larger salaries than those in other parts of Romania. The fall of the regime and the transition from a regulated to free market led to the gradual closure of the mines in Borșa and the disposal of the miners who worked there. Since all sectors of the Romanian economy were going through similar tough reforms to adapt to free market economy, there were no other industries or other regions in the country that could absorb the workers who lost their jobs. It was in those circumstances that the first labour migrations from Borșa started.

Immigration to Italy initiated in the early 1990s, as Italy was relatively close geographically and easy to reach by land. At its initial stage, emigration was expensive because one could only enter Italy undocumented either helped by carriers who knew the crossings or with a visa for France, Austria or Germany which could be bought on the black market for circa 500-1,500 DM. People from Borșa had the initial needed capital from the generous compensations they received after being laid off (a policy supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and providing the capital to start a business) and from selling timber from the nearby forests.

In 37 qualitative interviews, Anghel shows how, in initiating their migration to Italy and after their arrival in Milan, people from Borșa used, and depended on, the local network with other people from the same town. The pioneers of migration who had little support when they arrived turned themselves into support providers for the ones that followed. Kin relations with the newer migrants, and being from Borșa were the two elements that established trust and shaped obligations among Romanians in Milan. This system of establishing strong relations with the people from Borșa offered them protection and the minimum support needed to initiate their lives abroad. For instance, one family used to house people from Borșa and their relatives free of charge from their first day in Milan until they would find a job. As they were also among the few who had a residence permit, they rented apartments for others who were undocumented and could not do it on their own.

Although Romanians from Borșa faced many difficulties and took on labour-intensive jobs, Anghel shows that they regarded their experience in Milan as positive. The positive evaluation was the result of comparing their situation with their 1) envisaged life in the 1990s in Borșa where it was very difficult to find a job or nowadays since the town has not been redeveloped; 2) an earlier situation in Milan – a period when they lacked documents, accommodation and jobs. Unlike the Romanian Germans in Nuremberg, Romanians in Milan experienced a prestige gain as they regularised, entered better employment and better accommodation.

However, just like the Romanian Germans, the Romanians in Milan used their relations to hometowns to enhance their social standing to a level they perceived they could not reach in Germany or Italy. In their hometowns, mobile Romanians became an upper class easily identifiable in the town because of the large houses they built, the cars they drove and the businesses they created. They built such big houses [to show that they are no longer poor] (Tudor in Anghel: 164). They think that by having bigger houses, [they show] they are richer (Vlad, idem). Periodical return to hometown becomes an opportunity to display new acquisitions. Going home in a BMW X5, or a Jeep, and in a Versace suit (Codrut in Anghel: 169), serves the mobile Romanians to reassert their social standing in their hometown. As one of Anghel interviewees recalls, [they] migrated from remote valleys where they had seen nothing but mud and mountain rocks. Suddenly they find themselves in the position to afford cars, and these cars become their dream like (Radu in Anghel: 170).

While I believe that the built-in comparison of the two most different migration scenarios on which this book builds has its merits, it also unfortunately obscures the role of the very different social conditions of the two groups within Romanian society and the effect of these conditions on migrants’ perceptions. Pre-migration conditions seem indeed crucial in understanding how immigration systems affected their migration as well as their experiences in Italy and in Germany. Middle-class members of a national minority ‘returning’ to their homelands who also originate from one of the largest, most culturally vibrant, multicultural and developed city (Timișoara) will not face the same challenges and opportunities as labour migrants from a former mining area in an isolated and, on average, more deprived small town (Borșa).

Furthermore, the book intimately uncovers the daily lives and contradictions in which Romanians in Western Europe live. My critical point here concerns the fact that, given the rich empirical material, Anghel could have examined these contradictions closer. For example, why do both groups make arrangements to retire in Romania while declaring that their life is better in new destinations; if they experience frustration because of their social and economic position in host societies, why do they reproduce it vis-à-vis people from their own communities in the home country. Such contradictions are often pronounced but seldom explored. Anghel’s book would have been a perfect opportunity to analyse how migrants navigate through these contradictions and solve them. 

My third critical point has to do with the fact that Romanian migration is European, educated (usually high school), white (except for Romanian Roma) and has a religious component. It would perhaps have been worth examining further what role these aspects of Romanian migration play and how they are reinterpreted in the context of their new societies.

Finally, the book was largely concentrated on the initial stages of Romanian migration and it is a pity that it only briefly explores the changes that the accession of Romania to the European Union brought about. The book also only briefly touches on the issue of what a change of the status from a non-EU migrant to a European citizen meant for Romanians in Italy and Germany. Nonetheless, Anghel’s book Romanians in Western Europe is extremely dense in empirical material, rich in insights and elegant in style. Concise and well-built, the book mobilises state-of-the-art ethnographic methodologies – multi-site matched interviews in countries of destination and in the country of origin – to narrate the little-known story of Romanian migration. The book is a must-read for all researchers of contemporary European migration.

Roxana Barbulescu
University of Sheffield