26 October 2017

Many European states have spent the past several years debating the impact from the thousands of migrants that have crossed their borders. But on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, incoming foreigners are lower on the list with reasons for concern. As thousands of Latvians and Lithuanians continue to leave their homelands, their governments are trying to curb a long emigration wave that has contributed to a deepening demographic decline.

Job opportunities, higher wages and an improved living standard lure students and workers from some of Europe’s poorest countries to move to the western part of the continent. For many of them, this move comes with a one-way ticket.

Since transitioning from Soviet republics in the early 1990s, Latvia and Lithuania have suffered significantly from this trend, experiencing some of the fastest population declines in the world. According to data gathered by World Population Review, Latvia has seen more than a 25 percent plunge while the Lithuanian population has shrunk by a fifth.

Much of the worsening demographic situation is attributed to emigration, which spiked after the two Baltic nations joined the European Union in 2004.

“The only way to seriously curb [emigration]… would be by achieving faster income growth here than in Europe. So, if our growth is the same as Europe’s people will keep leaving,” Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis from the Certus economic policy center said in a recent television interview, cited by the Baltic Course. He added:

“If we are to stop emigration and promote re-migration, we need a growth rate that would be significantly higher than Europe’s average.”

For most Latvians, emigration is the most pressing demographic issue, according to a Baltic International Bank study published on Tuesday by the Baltic Times. Over 80 percent of those surveyed said higher salaries would be the most effective way to draw expats back to Latvia. Last summer, the Latvian government launched a large scheme to encourage re-migration with the slogan “I want you back.”

Neighboring Lithuania, where more than 50,000 people emigrated in 2016 alone, has also seen a rise in initiatives with the same objective. Employers there claim they face difficulties finding qualified workers, with 9,000 vacancies currently available across the country, Emerging Europe writes. A program developed by the Lithuanian Investment Promotion Agency seeks to bring back emigrants by convincing them to pursue a career in their homeland.

  • Unlike Latvia and Lithuania, another Baltic state, Estonia, has been less hurt by emigration since independence – its population has since shrunk by a comparatively moderate 16 percent. The country had a positive net migration in 2016, according to Statistics Estonia, cited by the Baltic Course.
  • Reversing the brain drain has also been a major challenge for Eastern European countries such as Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. In August, The Economist reported on a positive trend of permanent homecomings in the region