Within a century, European countries have gone from being countries of emigration to countries of immigration, and so have been transformed into host countries. The magnet has been industrial development, which has drawn in workers from poorer countries.

Many migrants ended up going back to where they came from, but in the meanwhile, they were an injection of external labour that covered the shortfall of workers in Europe. The last countries to become hosts were those in southern Europe, the destination of choice notably for Romanians, who now find themselves competing in the labour market with the indigenous unemployed. Faced with this situation, and with new restrictions on employment of foreigners, immigrants from eastern Europe and natives of southern Europe are tending to look for work in northern Europe.

Europe has gone through massive migration flows in the past. Between 1950 and 1970, about ten million Italians, Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese took the open road to the more developed European countries. After 1973, as populations in the Mediterranean area began to decline, the states affected opened their doors to foreign workers.

The inflection point – when immigration overtook emigration – was reached in the 1980s. The flows came from north Africa, then central and eastern Europe, and the process accelerated after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Today Germany, the UK and the Nordic countries could be facing an unprecedented surge of in-migration, because in addition to people with a strong tradition of leaving home (Spain, Italy, Ireland and even Greece), there is now the enormous pressure from the states in eastern Europe, with Romanians in the lead. As for Romania, it will in its turn become a destination country, but probably for workers coming from Asia, the Middle East or Africa.

Crisis more easily bearable abroad

The latest statistics from the UK also point up an unusual dynamic in the relationship with Spain. The number of Spaniards registered with the British social security system rose by 85 percent in the last fiscal year (April 2010-April 2011) over the previous year. For the first time, Spain is among the top five countries of origin of immigrants to the UK – after Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Lithuania and Ireland.

According to the Spanish branch of the temp agency Adecco, about 110,000 people left Spain between 2008 and 2010, as the unemployment rate in Spain climbed past 21 percent; today, more than 4.2 million people in Spain are unemployed. A significant increase was also recorded among Italians: the number of resumes submitted to Eurostat rose from 60,000 in March 2010 to nearly 90,000 by September 2011.

The migration of the "one-way-ticket" kind, which saw Italians and Irish board a ship bound for the United States and stay there until they died, has disappeared. Today the journey has become merely a trip from one country to another, chasing openings in the labour market. Migrants move tacitly about that market based on the acceptability and drudgery of the work.

And here lies a major difference between the Spanish emigrants and the Romanians. The latter are called "strawberry pickers" because they work mostly in agriculture in the host countries and take up the least skilled jobs. As for the Spaniards, says Professor Miguel Pajares, professor at the University of Barcelona, ​​"they go to the countries where they can find specialised work. The difference between Romanians and Spanish is not so much skill as it is the acceptability" of different jobs.

In Ireland, the number of those leaving the country is higher than the number of those arriving at the time when the country was regarded as the "Celtic Tiger". In the last fiscal year, April 2010 – April 2011, over 40,000 Irish left the island, while 36,000 immigrants landed. "The crisis is more easily bearable abroad," explains Romanian Professor Dumitru Sandu, a specialist in migration.

The current migration trend will continue because of the crisis and the recession that have hit Europe, especially now that the countries that joined the EU in 2004 have exceeded the transition period (a maximum of seven years) that a Member State may impose to protect its labour market. That deadline was May 1 this year for Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia.

Small minority of Romanians return

Following the lead of Spain and France, which introduced new restrictions for their labour market against the Romanians, several states have announced they will amend the legislation to cut down on immigration. Under the pretext of safeguarding local jobs, access of immigrants to the labour market is thus blocked, in a pre-campaign atmosphere building towards the elections to be held in several of these countries in 2012.

"It's not so much about economic reasons, but has more to do with infringements on the democratic principles of the Union, which have been ignored," says Catalin Ghinăraru, of the Romanian National Institute for Research on Employment.

Every time the economy of the countries of destination contracts, anti-immigrant attitudes crop up. Inevitably, it’s the largest group of immigrants that takes the brunt of them. And so it’s the Romanians that have become the target of several campaigns. In Spain, for example, the Popular Party this fall has plastered up campaign posters with the slogan "No queremos rumanos" ["We don’t want Romanians"].

Despite it, only a small minority of Romanians are returning home, as revealed by the study The impact of the economic crisis on the migration of Romanian labour, carried out by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Only five percent of those who left the country have come back, and only for short periods. Afterwards, they pack up and head off to other destinations.