Lithuanians returning home for excellent healthcare and affordable housing

At the airport
At the airport. Shutterstock

For several years in a row now, more people have been coming to Lithuania than leaving, and the number of returning Lithuanian citizens has been growing every year. Experts say that the process has been reversed for a number of reasons: salaries abroad no longer seem so unbelievable, as they are rising in Lithuania, people of all incomes have access to quality health services in our country, parental leave is longer in Lithuania, and housing is affordable, Eglė Samoškaitė is writing in the news portal.

“More and more Lithuanians are choosing to return to Lithuania for one reason or another,” says Eitvydas Bingelis, Head of the Vilnius Office of the International Organisation for Migration, assessing the figures.

According to the State Data Agency, 10.2 thousand people returned to Lithuania in 2017. The number of Lithuanian citizens leaving Lithuania is also steadily decreasing, although, for a long time, Lithuania broke all emigration records.

“Lithuanians as a nation, on the one hand, are quite closed. The level of tolerance may be high, but as individuals, we like traditions and are closed to feelings. On the other hand, we see the courage of the movement. That courage may have been developed because of an external aggressor. Lithuanians have been very brave in leaving during various tensions: there were waves of emigration in the 19th century, then in the early 20th century, and so on. I do see an interesting phenomenon that Lithuanians leave the country quite easily. It is a very strong phenomenon, it is unique, and the nation has remained small. In fact, in a free Lithuania, now there was no such political basis, no such oppression, but there was a feeling that people left the country very easily. This is the specificity of Lithuanians,” Boguslavas Gruževskis, the head of the Lithuanian Social Research Centre, told a discussion organised by the International Organisation for Migration.

He said two other unique features of the Lithuanian exodus are that, firstly, a large number of women left.

“In fact, in no nation has it ever been 50/50, with men always making up at least 60%, and even up to 70-80% of those who leave. Lithuanians – no, there were years when more women left than men, and now we have a birth rate problem because of that. Secondly, we have a very high level of labour force”, explained the head of the Lithuanian Social Research Centre.

Edita Urbanovič, head of the project “I Choose Lithuania”, said that people aged 30-40 who are young enough to have achieved their goals abroad, broadened their worldview, and taken courage are more likely to return to Lithuania.

“In many cases, people return later than they planned when they left. But the most important thing is that people come back who miss Lithuania, who love Lithuania and who appreciate more what Lithuania has to offer,” said E. Urbanovič, who herself has returned from Denmark.

Rūta Vainienė, Director of the Association of Lithuanian Trade Enterprises, says that Lithuania has grown very fast in recent years, achieving a relatively high level of income and quality of life and social and cultural development. She says that while people used to leave because of the low salaries in Lithuania and the opportunities to earn money abroad, in recent years, salaries have been rising in Lithuania, too, so the grass does not look so much greener abroad that it would be worth sacrificing the comfort of living among your friends in your own country.

“The former reasons why people used to leave have largely disappeared in economic, social and cultural life. If people used to want to leave to earn more, now in Lithuania, the average income (I’m not talking about the extremes) is closer to the European average, around 80% or more. It is no longer the crucial difference that makes it worth leaving home, leaving relatives, learning a new language, surviving and experiencing all those adjustment costs to make them outweigh the losses and make the benefits greater. The only remaining reason for this is the education system, which is why young people still want to go abroad to study, get a better education and then work in the world. I would not even say whether abroad or in Lithuania,” Vainienė said.

“I wanted to mention one more factor that encourages people to return and raise children. Although it is highly criticised and blamed, the healthcare system here is quite accessible to all segments of the population, roughly equally. Whereas in other countries, such as the US or the UK, the healthcare system is either very standardised, such as paracetamol treatment, or completely inaccessible if you do not have a high income, here, if you are raising children or looking after an older person, or if you have a problem, you can get the highest level of healthcare, even at the two largest clinics in Lithuania, where even organs are transplanted, and this does not require you to be on the top income ladder. And accessibility, no matter how much people say that there is such and such a waiting time to see a cardiologist, but if it is an emergency situation, that green corridor opens up, and the services become accessible,” said the head of the Association of Trading Companies.

In Lithuania, free healthcare services are available to people who are covered by compulsory health insurance: that is, if they pay compulsory health insurance premiums or if these premiums are paid for them.

According to Ms Vainienė, the pandemic and the development of technology have also given a boost, as work has now become global and remote: a person can live anywhere and work anywhere in the world. Mr Gruževskis also agreed that the pandemic had been to Lithuania’s benefit in general and had increased the country’s value, as it had shown many people that it was not necessary to lose friends or family members to participate in the global labour market. According to Mr Gruževskis, Lithuania’s value is also increasing as the global climate warms because the latitudes where our country is located will remain habitable even in the event of climate change, and we have no shortage of clean, fresh water.

Moreover, the professor argues that emigration, in general, is not only linked to economic factors but also to people’s internal dissatisfaction with the situation. According to Gruževskis, Lithuanians were brave enough to leave because they thought that if they changed their environment, the overall situation would change, but you can’t run away from yourself, and it’s not as if it’s raining money abroad either. This is also true for E. Urbanovič, the head of “Renkuosi Lietuvą” (“I Choose Lithuania”).

“People who come back can compare how it is abroad, that it doesn’t rain money, that you have to work hard everywhere if you want to achieve something. They bring ideas, see the niches, and implement them. When they come back from abroad, they see that it is better here to bring up children and that maternity leave is much longer here than in the United States, where it is six weeks, and nobody has to pay you any benefits for it. You come back from London, from Dublin, and you have always dreamed of owning your own home, but you could not do it there because the prices are just cosmic. When you come back to Lithuania, you will see that prices are definitely more friendly, and buying the same property in Vilnius is three times cheaper than in London or any other capital of Western Europe,” said Urbanovič.

Although the situation in the US may vary from state to state, most employers are committed to keep a mum or dad in their job for 12 weeks after the birth of a child, which means that the mum or dad gets 12 weeks unpaid parental leave. Still, most parents cut it short because it is too costly for the family.

In Lithuania, parental leave can last until the child is 12 months old or 24 months old. This leave is paid, but shorter leaves are more generous and longer ones less generous.

For his part, Mr Gruževskis said that although the situation in Lithuania is improving, Lithuanians living abroad should not paint everything too sweetly because Lithuania has unresolved problems. For example, prices have recently risen along with inflation. However, according to the professor, both when leaving and when returning, everything depends on one’s own mood and inner motivation.

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