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Lithuania: The Emigration Nation

Lithuania is the European capital of emigration. One fifth of the population has left since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. In this feature, one such emigrant, Greta Jankaityte examines the emigration nation. 

The issue of immigration is top of the news agenda. One major question is should the advanced countries just let in immigrants or restrict the flow? However, it bears remembering that every immigrant is also an emigrant. What it is like in a country where emigration rates have for such a long time have been one of the highest in the European Union? Is this situation caused merely by economic factors or are there more complex factors at play?

Last autumn I registered with Lithuanian authorities that I was leaving my country to study in Denmark. This means that, officially, I have become one of hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian emigrants. I joined the one fifth of the population that has emigrated since Lithuania gained independence in 1990.

Part of the culture

Thus it is no surprise that the emigrant status in Lithuania has become a cliché and emigrants as a whole now form a sort of separate social group. Furthermore, the theme of emigration has invaded our culture and discourse. There are TV shows recounting the lives of Lithuanians scattered throughout the world. And news websites have separate sections centred on ‘Lithuanians abroad’.

A couple of years ago a famous Lithuanian playwrite spent three months in London among various Lithuanian emigrants, collecting their stories and turning them into a play. Now it is on its way to becoming the most popular play in Lithuania. As every Lithuanian has at least one relative or friend who has left to seek a better life overseas, the whole nation can relate to it.

But it is not easy to watch this play, as it shows the most unfortunate stories of Lithuanian emigrants. It is about those who left Lithuania full of hope to find something better, but were left deceived, lost and still too proud to come back home defeated. To this day some of them remain stuck between foreign land and home.

When we look at all those unlucky stories, it seems strange; why do Lithuanians emigrate at all? Is it not better to be broke at home than in a foreign country? However, historically Lithuanians have been a emigration-minded nation. In the nineteenth century Lithuanians fled the oppression of the Russian Empire; during Second World War – they wanted to get away from the Soviet Union.

Lithuanians have spent 50 years occupied by the Soviet Union and had very restricted travelling rights. Naturally, after gaining independence many people felt the urge to see what the Western world has to offer. And after joining the EU in 2004, Lithuanians could freely emigrate to countries such the as UK or Ireland. These countries now harbour the biggest share of Lithuanian emigrants.

Leftover children

Nevertheless, economics play a big role. For example, on average a teacher in Lithuania makes around €600. In Denmark you can make this money while working part-time as a cleaner. But why would a person with a higher education be willing to go to a foreign land, to leave family behind and work in a low-qualified job? Well, some are hoping to settle in and work their way up.

But some just emigrate temporarily to make money and send it home, for instance, to pay debts. However, as living costs in UK or Nordic countries are very high, those temporary emigrants, in order to have some money to send home, are forced to share extremely small living spaces and work long hours without any real social life.

The 2008-2009 financial crisis has accelerated economic emigration even further. For example, people were sacked and forced to leave to work in richer countries so that they could pay their loans back home. The money transfers sent back to Lithuania during the crisis made up to 4.6 per cent of total Lithuanian GDP. This helped Lithuania to ease the harsh effects of crisis, caused by job losses or downsized wages. However, such temporary emigration has caused a social problem. Thousands of children have been left behind in the care of their relatives or sometimes even neighbours, while their parents are making money abroad.

Need of more space

However, economics alone do not explain the size of Lithuanian emigration. A portion of the Lithuanian emigrants are young people who go to study abroad and remain there. What’s more, part of emigration is made of young professionals who decide that it would be better to realise their ambitions abroad.

Naturally, Lithuania is a tiny country positioned at the edge of European Union, therefore some talented Lithuanians find it to be too small. But Estonia is more than twice as small as Lithuania and people do not emigrate as much. Actually, while Lithuania’s population is constantly decreasing, Estonians are experiencing population growth.

Estonia has long been better off economically than Lithuania, but there is a cultural and political reasons as well. Young Lithuanians have less space in the creation of the state than Estonians. According to some experts, even Lithuania’s business sector is unwilling to let young professionals in. Since the Soviet Union’s destruction, Estonians have elected governments comprised of young, ‘new’ people. While Lithuanians were too afraid of big changes and have elected a party made of old soviet communists (though they have changed their name to socialists).

Bring them back

To re-attract its population  now is a major issue in Lithuania. It seems that last year there was a breakthrough. There were slightly more people returning than leaving Lithuania. The previous government managed to persuade the most talented young Lithuanians, who had successful careers abroad, by giving them senior positions in government agencies.  A handful of those ex-emigrants contributed in making Lithuania economically stronger. Therefore, it helped to bring back more Lithuanians, who now have bigger possibilities to find a decent job in their home country.

My experience shows that more young people now realise that it is easier to have a successful career in a small country. If older generations do not intentionally stand in younger people’s way, the opportunities to break through, to stand out and to make a difference are much bigger than in ‘megacities’. This is where the competition is much greater and you have to work your way up much further.

Needless to say, after graduation I am determined to come back to Lithuania myself and hopefully join the growing mass of re-emigrants.

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