At the airport in Vilnius.

“Good life does not come easily in Lithuania”

In a time of crisis with high unemployment, young Lithuanians are following in the footsteps of their emigrant ancestors. Tens of thousands have left the country in search of a better life, mainly in the British Isles and Scandinavia. The weekly Veidas reports:

Published on 10 February 2012 at 16:39
At the airport in Vilnius.

Between 1990 and 2011, approximately 670,000 Lithuanians emigrated, while 110,000 returned to the country. In the space of two decades, Lithuania, a country with a population of 3.5 million, has lost half a million people — and that is only according to official figures. All of this has made the Lithuanians one of most migratory peoples in Europe. And in fact, mass emigration is nothing new in the country where waves of migrants have been leaving for centuries.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Lithuanians, most of whom were subsistence farmers, packed the bare minimum into two suitcases and headed off to the United States. Today, once they have rented out their houses, they head for the United Kingdom, Ireland or Norway, sometimes with their families and sometime without, now that the Internet has done so much to reduce distances.

Certainly times have changed, but one constant has remained: today Lithuanians from all kinds of backgrounds, just like their forbears a century ago, are still succumbing to the temptation to move to places where living and working conditions are better.

One-way tickets

Ignas and Rimante Mockai, both in their thirties, were also intent on packing the strict minimum. They brought their dog back to the village, distributed their house plants to friends, and took their two children out of nursery school before embarking on a one-way trip to London. That was 18 months ago.

Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday

At the time, Rimante tells us, her electrical engineer husband had spent two years searching for a job that paid more than the minimum wage. “Like everyone else, we were completely crushed by our mortgage payments. When my husband got the offer of a job in London, we did not take long to make up our minds. We already had family and plenty of friends in England.” The young woman explains that she did not even think of leaving the children with their grandparents while they were settling in abroad: the matter was already decided, even before some friends found them places in a nursery school.

The only glitch turned out to be finding a second job. For several long months, only one of the couple was working. Unemployment is now at 8.4% in the United Kingdom, a level not seen since 1996. For four months, Rimante spent her days doing the rounds of the employment agencies and passing interviews, before she finally found work as a packer in a factory.

In spite of everything, the couple have few regrets about their decision to emigrate. Over the last 18 months, the Mockais have been able to pay back all of their debts and to buy a secondhand car while enjoying decent living conditions. The only disappointment for Rimante is the fact that she has been unable to take advantage of her college degree which is gathering dust in a drawer. She put a lot of effort into her geography studies and now she finds herself putting sweets in boxes.

If we were to describe the typical Lithuanian emigrant who leaves for England or Ireland in just a few words: we would say that he or she is a young (aged less than 34) graduate or professionally qualified worker, but one that has been unemployed in Lithuania for several years: and one who is either single or accompanied by his or her family in the destination country.

A chance to earn 8 to 12 times the minimum wage

Not leaving the children in Lithuania is a trend that has gained ground in recent years, particularly among emigrants leaving for Ireland or the UK. Norway is now the third most popular destination for Lithuanian emigrants. And there is no mystery as to why: “It offers some of the highest salaries,” explains recruitment agency manager I. Malkinas.

Over there Lithuanians can earn between 8,000 and 12,000 litas per month (between 2,300 and 3,500 euros, or approximately 8 to 12 times the Lithuanian minimum wage). That is why Norwegian employers try to avoid recruiting young foreign workers. With so much pocket money, the youngest ones lose their self control let themselves go and end up adding to the Norwegian prison population.

Lithuanians have always emigrated in large numbers and the flow of migrants was only reduced when authorities introduced radical measures to restrict freedom of movement, which they did during the Soviet occupation. According to data provided by Alfonsas Eidintas, a diplomat and historian specialising in migration, between the end of the 19th century and the First World War, 400,000 Lithuanians emigrated to the United States, Russia and England. Of that number, 13% were Jewish.

For sociologist Vladas Gaidys, emigration will continue to be a fact of life while its causes, and there are many of these, remain unaddressed. First and foremost the social situation in Lithuania is problematic: there is no work, and no way of reimbursing loans. How can you live normally if you hardly have any money left once the heating bill has been paid? asks the sociologist. Creating a small family business is one way of putting down roots in the country, but the process required to do that is complex and costly.

“If nothing is done about the reasons for emigration, it will continue to increase. The good life does not come easily in Lithuania,” he concludes.


Reversal of migration flow is cause for concern

“Emigrants are coming home: should we be delighted?” wonders Veidas, which reports on a recent reversal of the migration flow that has marked the last two decades. In 2011, 14,000 Lithuanians returned home, three times more than in 2010. If we factor in the thousand foreigners residing in Lithuania, “the country’s demographic future does not seem as grim as has been claimed,” notes the magazine.

Veidas believes that the phenomenon is largely due to the “wise economic policy adopted by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, who currently governs a country with the fastest growing economy in the EU.” But that is not to say that the government is delighted remarks Veidas, rather it is wondering if “the 14,000 people will boost the Lithuanian economy, or if, on the contrary, they will add to the burden weighing on a weak social services system.”

For Lithuania, emigration has been “a gift from God and the European Union,” points out Veidas. In 2010 alone, Lithuanians living abroad sent home one billion euros, the equivalent of 4% of GDP. And that figure does not take into account all of the unemployment and welfare benefits that emigrants do not claim. The ones who return home are certainly hardworking, but they are far from enterprising — a quality, which Veidas remarks, is sorely needed in the Lithuanian economy.

Was this article useful? If so we are delighted! It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans. Discover our membership offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Join our community!

On the same topic