Demographers urge to not celebrate positive emigration indicators too much: new threats emerge

Ryanair is expanding its base at Vilnius airport
At the airport. DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Talks about a looming new wave of emigration are facing a mixed reception. So far, the indicators are good – last year, emigration fell. This was influenced not only by the epidemiological circumstances but also by Brexit. It has become harder to settle in the United Kingdom and so, Lithuanians looking to emigrate are not looking to other destinations. Nevertheless, specialists urge to heed new threats, which stem not from emigration, but immigration, Viltė Norvydaitė wrote in

Emigration fell in 2020

The science chief of the Demographic Research and Expertise Centre professor Dr Domantas Jasilionis says that in the context of lockdown restriction and Brexit, fundamental migration changes were expected, but emigration figures, while decreased, remain high.

“In the context of all these restrictions, we expect greater fundamental changes, but as we see, these, the numbers remain fairly high,” the demographer said on January 14. According to D. Jasilionis, emigration was also influenced by the uncertainty related to Brexit.

According to data from the Department of Statistics, last year, 43.1 thousand immigrants arrived in Lithuania, which is 7.5% more than in 2019. 20.8 thousand Lithuanian citizens returned to live in the country – 2% more than the prior year.

Also, 22.3 thousand foreigners immigrated, which is 13.2% more than in 2019. The number of Belarussian citizens immigrating to Lithuania rose by around 10%, Ukrainians – 5%, while immigrants from Russia decreased by 3.2%.

Meanwhile, emigration fell. Last year, 23.1 thousand permanent residents departed the country, which is 21.2% less than in 2019. 6 thousand (26.2%) emigrated to the UK, 3.8 thousand (16.6%) – to Ukraine, 2.1 thousand (9.1%) – Belarus, 1.8 thousand (7.7%) – Germany, 1.7 thousand (7.3%) – Norway.

Sceptical of talks about a new wave of emigration

Vlada Stankūnienė, the head of the Demographic Studies Institute, is sceptical of talks about a new wave of emigration after the pandemic.

“Some emphasise that there will be a wave of emigration – but why should there be? Because the pandemic will impact the economic situation? We are not the only ones who will be faced with the pandemic’s consequences. I do not see an intensive wave of emigration looming in the future,” the demographer spoke on predictions of a spike in emigration.

According to her, the decrease in emigration is related to the potential of young individuals who could emigrate – it vastly decreases year by year.

“It is citizens aged 20-30 who are emigrating the most intensively. This is the generation, which was born in independent Lithuania and of whom there aren’t many. I believe that in absolute terms,” there should be a decrease in emigrants.

Economist Žygimantas Mauricas says that there exist migration-related risks, but last year’s trends are surprisingly good.

“Despite the pandemic and crisis, for the first time in thirty years, even the international migration balance of Lithuanian citizens was positive. Last March, I predicted far more modest growth levels – 2-4 thousand, but it turned out that the growth reached 5.5 thousand residents. As such, we have a situation where, for the first time since 1991, we have seen a slight increase in Lithuania’s population,” Ž. Mauricas says.

“What is most surprising is that practically all the municipalities are recording positive balances – we have not had this in Lithuanian history. People are returning not only to the large cities in Lithuania but also smaller towns,” Ž. Mauricas spoke about migration trends.

Most appealing destinations due to change

While murmurs of a new wave of emigration are faced with a mixed reception, the destinations of those departing Lithuania will likely change nonetheless. After Brexit, the UK will no longer be the most popular choice for emigrants.

According to data from the Department of Statistics, last year, the number of emigrants departing for the UK, compared to 2019, fell by 4.1 thousand (40.3%). Emigration to Ukraine increased by 1.6 thousand (1.7 fold), Belarus – 1 thousand (1.9 fold).

According to demographer V. Stankūnienė, after Brexit, emigrants’ eyes could be particularly drawn by the Northern countries, firstly Norway. Also, a certain number could emigrate to Germany, but these flows cannot be particularly large because the labour market’s receptivity is far lesser there than in the UK.

“Norway is a relatively small country compared to the UK. Look at the population counts of the two countries, Norway has a labour market some ten times smaller than the UK,” the demographer notes.

Ž. Mauricas agrees that despite language barriers, the Scandinavian countries and Germany will remain the most appealing destinations for emigration.

Hoped for less emigration

Institute of Demographic Research director V. Stankūnienė says that we should take a broader look on emigration.

“If we look at recent years, the volumes of emigration are on the decline. Based on statistic data, last year, 23 thousand people emigrated. Compared to 2017, when almost 48 thousand Lithuanians left the country, this looks like a noticeable shift. But we know that 2020 was a unique year and we should view it differently,” V. Stankūnienė spoke about emigration trends.

According to her, the demographers were expecting for very low emigration rates in 2020, but nonetheless, an entire 23 thousand people left.

“This is still very intensive emigration, even if far lower than before. Nevertheless, this is a consequence of various geopolitical factors, not epidemiological ones,” the demographer says.

As for the future, V. Stankūnienė says this will depend on a number of variables.

“On how the social and economic situations are improving in Lithuania, how factors, which push people out, weaken. These are good indicators, welfare levels remain very uneven, particularly in the regions,” V. Stankūnienė says.

Awaiting an optimistic scenario

According to Ž. Mauricas, this year, everything will depend on how the country fares in handling the economic crisis and reducing unemployment rates.

“Our relative performance compared to other EU countries is crucial. If Lithuania stalls and doesn’t open its economy at the same pace as other Western European countries, we could face a wave of emigration,” Ž. Mauricas says.

The economist describes this scenario as pessimistic. He mostly expects the same scenario we saw last year and believes that a wave of emigration should arise: “Brexit has occurred – it is now much harder to emigrate to the UK, we work more from home, real estate is also far more expensive in other countries. There are far fewer factors, which would push workers out of Lithuania.”

No spike in returns

Another important process currently underway in Lithuania is immigration. In terms of Lithuanians returning from abroad, demographer V. Stankūnienė points out there’s been no vast increase.

“I am somewhat shocked by the emphasis in the public domain on how there’s a massive increase in returnees. Yes, last year, almost 21 thousand citizens returned but compared to 2019, that’s just 400 more,” V. Stankūnienė states.

According to her, even in 2013, the number of returnees was only a little smaller.

While there has been no spike in Lithuanian nationals returning, the number of foreigners immigrating to Lithuania continues to shoot up.

“We know well that mostly these are workers from Ukraine, Belarus and some from Russia. We opened our doors and let them in. 23 thousand of ours emigrated, but almost the same number arrived from the Eastern countries. How do we view this? Is it what we need?” V. Stankūnienė muses.

New threats in the future

Economist Ž. Mauricas says that migration will introduce new risks.

“Lithuania shouldn’t only talk about emigration, but also about brain drain to other countries, which will seek to attract Lithuanian talents. What is most important is for us not to face the same fate as Southern European countries, whose most capable and ambitious citizens, looking to realise their potential in larger markets, can choose the path of emigration so as to fulfil their professional ambitions,” Ž. Mauricas spoke of potential threats.

According to the economist, this way, we could lose numerous capable people, which would slow our economic growth in the future.

Another threat he indicates is the ratio of immigrants from third countries and emigration from Lithuania to Western European countries:

“I see something of a challenge here. If in the construction sector, you can earn a thousand euro after tax, then I think Lithuania is already the most appealing country for most people from Eastern Europe.

According to him, the challenge is transforming from mass emigration into a double challenge – brain drain and the maintenance of a balance in immigration policy.
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