Migration and political (non-)participation in origin countries: Romanians and Poles in Oslo and Barcelona
Recent decades have seen an increase in the number of European states which allow their citizens abroad to vote in national elections. External voting – that is, voting in origin country elections from abroad – has become an important feature of contemporary democratic politics. Despite this and the large amount of research on migrant political participation in countries of residence, we still know markedly little about migrants’ motivations to vote (or not) in elections in their origin of country, and whether migration impacts voting habits and preferences.
From January to May 2020, the DIASPOlitic team conducted over 80 interviews with Poles and Romanians in Oslo and Barcelona to research external voting practices of intra-European migrants. Poland and Romania are among the largest senders of migrants to other European countries, and large Polish and Romanian populations reside in Norway and Spain. For intra-European migrants, external voting rights are almost universal, and thus the legal barriers for migrants to vote in their country of origin elections are low, allowing us to take a deeper look at the personal choices of migrants in their voting habits.
Through the analysis of the interviews, we discovered a pool of fascinating insights, including migrants’ personal desires to vote and even hopes to ‘change’ their homeland through voting, as well as the impact of political campaigns on their mobilisation.
While some respondents simply had no interest in either voting or politics at large, others said that their interest in homeland politics was ‘pushed down somewhere to a lower priority’ after migrating (Michał, Polish migrant in Oslo, 34). Interestingly, some interviewees expressed concerns about the very idea of external voting, resulting in them not participating. Przemek in Barcelona told us,
‘I think that people that don’t live in their country anymore should not have voting rights. […] It’s sick that a person that doesn’t live there should decide who becomes the next president. The people that live there will have to put up with this.’ (Przemek, Polish migrant in Barcelona, 42)
For some of those who participate in external voting, this is an affirmation of democracy and civic rights: ‘It is our responsibility to vote. Others are fighting to have this right’ (Elena, Romanian migrant in Oslo, 35). Some participants who vote regularly emphasised that they perceive this act as a way to change their homeland for the better, and they try to inform their loved ones of different perspectives and influence their election choices. Through our interviews, we saw that many migrants were concerned with the future of their friends and families in Romania and Poland. Julia told us:
‘It’s always the number one topic. With family and with friends. I try to make them aware of the perspective from abroad. I know better what’s going on in Poland than they do. [...] I often insist that they should get involved, that they have to go to a demonstration. They must think about the future [...] I try to make them aware. I think I’ve made them aware of many things.’ (Julia, Polish migrant in Oslo, 29)
Some of the interviewees told us of their plans to return to their countries of origin one day, which also might explain why they continue to participate politically: the desire to impact things that may one day affect them in the future. Zuzanna, a mother of two living in Norway since 2013, explained:
‘I vote […] because I could eventually return, or if my children want to go back to a country which is being governed sensibly.’ (Zuzanna, Polish migrant in Oslo, 43)
Another reason why migrants may or may not vote is the mobilisation of their governments or political parties in their countries of origin. Both the Romanian and the Polish states have recently launched campaigns focusing on émigré voter turnout, sometimes as part of broader identity-building actions among diasporas. Whether these efforts have affected migrants and whether they are increasing voter turnout is uncertain, but our research suggests a negligible impact. As Jan told us,
‘I feel kind of left behind by the government and irrelevant. […] There is absolutely nothing going on here […] I didn’t notice even when there were elections now, I didn’t feel [any] push from the Left or from the Right or from the opposition […] Even though I’m a bit interested in politics, I didn’t feel anything like that.’ (Jan, Polish migrant in Oslo, 35)
This sense of marginalisation actually had a motivating effect for some migrants, who felt that they needed to express their disappointment by taking part in elections and supporting a political alternative that might give them a platform in the future:
‘One of the reasons why the diaspora politically mobilised itself was the fact that [politicians have] begun talking about the diaspora [which had been] non-existent in the Romanian political discourse.’ (Maria, Romanian migrant in Barcelona, 41)
Others said that migration distanced them too much from the political scene in their origin countries and thus their vote might be different:
‘I think that if I had lived in Romania, I would have known a lot more about what everyone did, and I could have made another choice. Maybe it would be the same or maybe not, but I would certainly have known a lot more…’ (Lipa, Romanian migrant in Barcelona, 26).
Some believe that migration opened their eyes to different ways of living, allowing them to have a more nuanced opinion on the situation in their country of origin:
‘There’s also an influence from my being in Norway, [...] I see what functions well in Norway and I’d like to see it function like that in Poland.’ (Zuzanna, Polish migrant in Oslo, 43)
Socio-economic levels attained after migration may also influence political views and habits. Jakub told us that his vote could have been different had he been in Poland:
‘It depends on what economic group I would be in. Would my income allow me for a carefree life? Would I have time for personal development? Would I have time to deepen my knowledge about the world? Or would I rather have to focus on survival? To pay rent, bank loans, if I worked overtime and was under constant stress. Then I would definitely vote differently. Then populist parties, or those that talk about measurable financial benefits would have a bigger chance of getting power.’ (Jakub, Polish migrant in Oslo, 35)
Several interviewees told us that migration has not changed their views at all, or has possibly even reinforced their prior views. Michał told us that because of his migration experience, ‘I’m more likely to be faithful to my ideas’. Zuzanna said that her vote would not change if she were currently in Poland,
‘Because it doesn’t matter where I live. I always think about how… from the perspective of if I lived there, what would be good for me, right? What kind of political programme does the party present that would be compatible with what I think.’
Does migration change the lens through which migrants view their country of origin and how they participate in political processes there? Instead of searching for monocausal explanations for why migrants vote or not, and why they vote the way they do, our exploratory analysis maps the factors of external voting and points to a range of possible explanations. Through our data, we have seen that political participation both increases and decreases among migrants depending on a variety of factors such as personal interest, mobilisation campaigns, and perceived influence over their country of origin from abroad. The results of this study also show different effects of migration on political views, with some participants saying that they have completely changed their views on certain topics, that their views have not changed at all, or that their former views have been reinforced.
Overall, our research suggests that the impact of the migration experience on political participation and migrant views remains a fragmented area. Better understanding these processes would cast light on important migration-related dynamics across Europe. The variety of postures and responses we found underscores the complex nature of these phenomena, and urges to refrain from stereotyping migrants as either ‘long-distance nationalists’ or ‘liberal cosmopolites’. In fact, both and neither are, at times, true.
Notes and references
 ‘DIASPOlitic: Understanding the Political Dynamics of Émigré Communities in an Era of European Democratic Backsliding’ is a joint project run by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and the University of Oslo (UiO). The project is funded under the EUROPA/UTENRIKS scheme of the Research Council of Norway 2019-2020
 The names of participants have been changed to pseudonyms to protect the identity of participants.
 On Romanian migration, see Remus Anghel et al. 2016. International migration, return migration, and their effects. A comprehensive review on the Romanian case. MPRA Paper No. 75528; and Ruxandra Oana Ciobanu. 2015. Multiple migration flows of Romanians. Mobilities 10(3): 466-485. For the Polish case, see Jakub M. Godzimirski et al. 2015. New European diasporas and migration governance: Poles in Norway. GoodGov Report – Polski Instytut Spraw Międzynarodowych; and Marta Bivand Erdal and Lewicki. 2016. Polish migration within Europe: mobility, transnationalism and integration. Social identities 22(1): 1-9.
Gabriella is a freelance migration and communications specialist, currently working on strategic communications and design projects for migration and intercultural contexts. She holds a BA in Journalism from the School of Communications at DePaul University in Chicago, IL and an MA in Migration and Intercultural Relations from the Erasmus Mundus programme, EMMIR. For DIASPOlitic, she conducted interviews with Polish migrants in Oslo. www.gabriellamikiewicz.blog
Anatolie is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. His doctoral research on transnational trade with second-hand goods imported from Western Europe to Romania by Romanian migrants is supervised by Thomas Faist (University of Bielefeld) and Alejandro Portes (Princeton University). For DIASPOlitic, he conducted interviews with Romanian migrants in Oslo.
Kacper is a senior researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of Oslo and a research professor at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs. He is a political sociologist specializing in transnational and European politics, currently the principal investigator in the DIASPOlitic project financed by the Research Council of Norway. He coordinates the DIASPOlitic project and leads Work Packages 1 and 4.
Davide holds an MA in Human Geography from the University of Oslo. He is currently a PhD research fellow in Theology and Religious Studies at VID Specialized University. His doctoral thesis is about belonging and spirituality among queer religious migrants in Oslo and London. He worked as a research assistant at PRIO between June 2019 and September 2020. He contributed to the publication of the 2019 GOVCIT report Citizenship, Participation and Belonging in Scandinavia. For DIASPOlitic, he coordinated the gathering and conducted the coding of the qualitative data in Work Package 3. https://www.vid.no/ansatte/davide-bertelli/
Marta Bivand Erdal
Marta is Research Director and Research Professor in Migration Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). As a human geographer, she is interested in the impacts of migration and transnationalism in both emigration and immigration contexts. Marta’s work draws on interview, focus group, and survey data, paying critical attention to the use of categories. She has published extensively in migration studies and regularly engages with governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. For DIASPOlitic, she leads Work Package 3.
Corina is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. She has written on displacement and migration in Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Tunisia, Germany, and about frozen conflicts (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Kosovo). Corina holds a PhD from the University of Barcelona. For DIASPOlitic, she conducted interviews with Romanian migrants in Barcelona.
Angelina is a predoctoral researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where she writes her doctoral thesis on Romanian domestic workers in Spain, and junior researcher at notus-asr applied social research center. As an economic anthropologist, she works on gender, labour, care, social reproduction, and transnational social protection. Currently, she forms part of different research projects; on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on care work in Spain (CUMADE), on gender equality in science and higher education (Target), and on transnational political participation (DIASPOlitic). For DIASPOlitic, she interviewed Polish migrants in Barcelona. Twitter: @angelinakussy