Emigration Update

ADVERTISEMENT

Experts estimate that about 1 million people have left Lithuania since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. More than two-thirds of them left after the country joined the European Union in 2004.

“The first two major waves of emigration from Lithuania were largely made up of political emigrés. After the restoration of independence [in 1990] a new period of economic emigration began,” said Eitvydas Bingelis, head of the Vilnius Office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM Lithuania).

By 1994, most Lithuanians started moving to Western Europe and Northern America instead of heading east. The main reason guiding their departure was the economic chaos after independence was declared. “It could be called a survival strategy,” said Laimutė Žilinskienė, a researcher at Vilnius University’s Institute of Sociology and Social Work.

According to statistics from the State Data Agency, more than 744,000 people have left Lithuania since 2004, with the EU members becoming the main destination countries.

“Lithuania’s accession to the EU has opened up its labour market, making it even easier to go abroad to work,” said Bingelis. “For some time, Lithuania has been one of the leading EU countries in terms of emigration rates.”

According to the head of IOM Lithuania, the largest number of nationals left for the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is because the two countries, together with Sweden, did not apply transitional restrictions on labour movement from the new member states. “For a long time, the UK was the most attractive destination for those leaving Lithuania, followed by Ireland,” said Bingelis.

“Emigration to these countries was also encouraged by a liberal economy, relatively high salaries, the emigrés having English language skills and, later, the emergence of social networks that made emigration easier,” added Bingelis. “Even now, the UK, Ireland, Germany and Norway are still the main countries where Lithuanian citizens live. However, emigration flows to the UK have been decreasing since Brexit.”

The biggest spike in emigration was caused by the economic crisis that started 2008.

“The most painful year for Lithuania was 2010, when almost 84,000 citizens left the country in one year. Most of those who emigrated were of working age,” said Bingelis.

Daumantas Stumbrys, a demography researcher at Vytautas Magnus University (VDU), estimates that Lithuania has lost 25 percent of its population in a quarter of a century.

“Most of the working-age population left, and a large part of them took their children with them, while parents and the elderly mostly stayed here. As a result, we have a much smaller population of reproductive age and a low number of children being born,” said Stumbrys.

This has also resulted in a rapidly aging society “due to the departure of young people of working age”, he added.

But migration has also brought benefits, according to the experts. Money sent home has contributed to Lithuania’s economy, Stumbrys said. Meanwhile, fewer people competing for fewer jobs during the recession also helped those who had stayed, according to Edita Urbanovič, Project Manager of the MiCenter Migration Information Centre of IOM Lithuania.

However, the biggest benefit would come in the long term, she added. “Returning migrants have a positive impact not only on the country’s labour market, but also on demographic indicators. Every year, 15,000 to 20,000 migrants return. The most common returnees are young people aged between 30 and 40 [who] bring with them new ideas and capital,” she said.

According to IOM Lithuania, Lithuania in 2022 recorded the highest net positive migration since the country’s independence, with more than 75,000 Lithuanians returning to Lithuania in the last four years – 18,000 more than those who left.

Surveys also showed that the potential was still untapped, with over 70 percent of those living abroad not ruling out returning home. “While economic factors were the main reasons for leaving, psychological reasons are more often mentioned when talking about returning, such as homesickness, longing for relatives, the desire for children to grow up in Lithuania, and the desire to create for Lithuania,” said Urbanovič from the IOM.