Prague, Czech Republic – In 2004, frustrated by “the old corrupt ways” and meager salaries, newly graduated Blanka Kaše jumped at the chance to flee to London.
Fourteen years later, she returned to the Czech Republic as a wife, mother and businesswoman, settling with her family on a large farm in the hills of southern central Bohemia.
“I said to my sister, ‘I’ve gone mad! I’m thinking of going back to the Czech Republic, ”the 41-year-old told Al Jazeera, speaking of her kitchen, where the walls feature colorful designs of her six and seven-year-old sons.
Kaše, who now runs a language school from his home near the town of Sedlčany, 60 km south of Prague, said that while that was not the only reason to leave the UK, Brexit was an incentive factor.
And like many others, she found that her home country had changed almost as much as it had in the past 15 years.
With the Czech Republic joining the European Union 17 years ago, the opportunity seemed abundant in the UK, as the central European country was still extricating itself from the remnants of the communist system. .
Its migratory flow peaked at 33,000 in 2006.
The departure of graduates like Blanka was so rapid that it raised fears of a “brain drain” which the government was almost unable to combat.
But Brexit could be kind of a silver bullet.
“I had decided to stay in the UK for good, but Brexit changed everything,” said Eva Pavelkova, who moved from Prague to Manchester after graduating as a veterinarian in 2006, fondly.
“Britain no longer felt like the same country I had chosen as my home.”
The 39-year-old returned to Prague, along with her British husband, in December.
Exact data on returned numbers is not available.
However, of the roughly 100,000 inhabitants estimated by the Czech Foreign Office living in the UK, fewer than 60,000 had applied to stay by the end of 2020.
The others have until July to do so.
Brexit is not the only problem pushing Czechs home.
Most returnees also express a desire for their children to attend Czech schools and a desire to be closer to their aging parents.
But the UK’s divorce from the bloc is a key factor for most. And upon landing, many say they were pleasantly surprised at how the country has changed for the better.
Underlying this progress is an economy that has grown rapidly over the past 15 years.
The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is now close to the EU average; unemployment is the lowest in the bloc for several years.
The OECD Better Life Index shows that disposable income increased by 12% between 2005 and 2017, even though Czechs are working significantly fewer hours.
“Leaving our UK career we were worried about money and jobs before we arrived, but it has been great so far,” said Pavelkova, who is starting her own business as a cardiologist for animals.
Blanka Kaše’s husband Miroslav had similar concerns and took some persuasion to leave the UK.
However, he agreed when he realized the family could swap their cramped home near London for a wide variety which he hopes will soon be home to a boys’ pool, alongside the cow collection. , sheep and chickens patrolling around the old farm.
He runs a thriving equipment rental business in the old barns, and the family lives mortgage-free.
This makes it “every Britons dream,” Kaše said wryly.
But the changes go beyond economics. The OECD index shows that housing conditions have improved significantly and that life expectancy has increased by two and a half years.
In other rankings, the country leads the UK in many categories including personal safety, healthcare and basic education.
“The quality of life has definitely improved for someone who has been away for more than a decade,” Christian Kvorning Lassen, deputy director of the Prague-based think tank Europeum, told Al Jazeera.
“The Czech Republic scores well on basic human needs indicators, and well above average on most other indicators as well.”
Returnees told Al Jazeera of other changes they have welcomed with optimism, advances that are harder to capture in numbers and illustrate how the brain drain is being reversed.
Finding his career blocked by the ‘old regime guys’ who still dominated the Czech healthcare system in 2005, Dr Zdeněk Klezl spent the next 15 years working in the UK as a spine surgeon.
He did not encounter such obstacles on his return in November and is currently training a new cohort of surgeons at the largest Czech hospital, Motol, in Prague.
He said the healthcare system he returned to is now significantly better than that of the UK.
The 63-year-old said he was “pleasantly surprised by the efficiency and friendliness of public services and institutions”.
Pavelkova also noted with amazement that even the Czech bureaucracy, which inspired Franz Kafka’s nightmarish novels, is not to be feared these days.
After so many years of absence, she now feels at home.
“I know the Czech Republic is not perfect. There are still many issues to be resolved. But I think I’m better here now, ”she said.
Those who watch the disturbing demographics across central Europe will hopefully listen to these stories.
However, the threat of a brain drain is never far away in this part of Europe, which analysts like Lassen note has still work to do on quality of life indicators such as discrimination, civic engagement or the environment.
“I think I’m back for good; I am happy here to take care of our cow and our sheep, ”laughs Kaše. “But the Czech Republic is very homogeneous and very small. I will definitely encourage children to go out and explore the world when the time comes. “