Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Lithuania Moves to Tackle Challenges Posed by Emigration
Lithuania Moves to Tackle Challenges Posed by Emigration

Lithuania Moves to Tackle Challenges Posed by Emigration

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Over 15% of Lithuania’s population has left the country since it joined the European Union in 2004. Persistent high rates of emigration present both economic and social challenges to Lithuania.  Most of the emigrants are young, skilled, and well educated. In 2013, 31.6% of emigrants were 25–34 years old, and 26.3% between ages 15 and 24. Given low fertility rates, Lithuania’s working-age population will decline by at least 14% by 2030. This will negatively affect the country’s economic development and risks creating brain drain, skilled labor shortages, slower GDP growth, budget deficits, and a crisis of the social security system.

Emigration is also perceived as a threat to the identity of the small Lithuanian nation. Children of emigrants often forget the Lithuanian language, and the number who still identify with their country of origin diminishes in each new generation. Some scholars even envision a gloomy scenario of the extinction of Lithuanian language and nation over the next 100 years.

On the other hand, there are good grounds to be less pessimistic. Emigration provides positive benefits, too, helping to reduce unemployment and the need for social benefits. More importantly, a numerous and active diaspora can be a significant resource for Lithuania’s development. Diasporas can help improve access to capital, knowledge and new technologies. In this way, they play an important role in social development and economic growth. There is a precedent for this in history: the Lithuanian diaspora contributed greatly to Lithuania’s development over the course of the twentieth century. Diaspora Lithuanians actively participated in the political movement that led to the declaration of independence of the Republic of Lithuania in 1918 and the international recognition of the new state. Lithuanians living abroad contributed to the country’s economic development, they lobbied Western governments not to recognize its occupation by the Soviet Union, they supported the Lithuanian independence movement, and they helped the country’s transition to a market economy and democratic civil society in 1980s and 1990s. The challenge Lithuania faces is to harness to talents of the diaspora to support the development of Lithuania.

Given this history, the focus of Lithuanian migration policy should be not only to prevent emigration—for example, by creating a social and economic environment that reduces incentives to emigrate. Lithuania also needs to strengthen relationships with its diaspora and create better conditions for the diaspora to contribute to the country’s economic, social, and cultural growth.

Lithuania’s government began formulating a more active migration policy in 2007 when it adopted the Strategy to Regulate Economic Migration, which reflected national security and demographic concerns. The main goal of the strategy was to ensure a sufficient supply of labor during a time of rapid economic growth and to avoid the negative effects of emigration.

More recently, however, the government has launched efforts to take advantage of the many connections that its diaspora can facilitate. The “Global Lithuania” program embodies a shift away from simply trying to discourage emigration and toward engaging the Lithuanian diaspora. The Global Lithuania Program includes the following measures to bolster interaction between Lithuania and its diaspora:

– Supporting the modernization of Lithuanian education abroad, especially via the use of new technology

– Creating an online voting system

– Involving the diaspora in the search for investment and export markets

– Building professional networks

– Preserving cultural heritage, including archives of Lithuanian history abroad

– Encouraging Lithuanians abroad to study in Lithuania

– Supporting Global Lithuania cultural events such as the World Lithuanians’ Unity Day on July 17

– Creating internship and mentorship programs for diaspora youth

– Creating a system of reintegration services

– Expanding the broadcasting of “LTV World” and creating other diaspora-oriented TV and radio programs

– Providing the diaspora and “Friends of Lithuania” with information to support representation of Lithuanian interests abroad

How can these policies focused on tackling emigration issues and diaspora engagement be assessed? The government’s initiatives can be classified into four categories: regulation, infrastructure, finance, and communication. In the first category, regulation, the government is responsible for creating an environment favorable for return migration and for facilitating the diaspora’s involvement into political, economic, cultural, and social life in Lithuania. For example, the government has made some progress in removing dual taxation for those who live abroad. But it should also extend double citizenship rights and facilitate diaspora voting in elections via e-voting, which would increase the extent to which Lithuanian’s living abroad would feel connected to the country and to extend rights of political representation.

A second task for the government is to provide infrastructure for more extensive diaspora engagement. The government has already created agencies that coordinate diaspora affairs within the within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of Education. These agencies provide services for returning emigrants and they facilitate communication and collaboration with the diaspora. They organize conferences, create networks of diaspora professionals, and support diaspora communities, schools, and non-governmental organizations such as the Global Lithuanian Leaders. What is still missing, however, is infrastructure to facilitate diaspora financial investments into Lithuania. For example, the government could target government bond sales to the diaspora, as does Israel. It could also do more to encourage diaspora investment funds that invest in regional or municipal development projects.

A third task for the government is to provide financial resources to support diaspora engagement. The government has already allocated several million euros to the “Global Lithuania” program. This fund supports projects organized by diaspora organizations, for example, schools that teach Lithuanian language and history to second-generation emigres. Similarly, the Research Council of Lithuania funds visits by diaspora scientists to Lithuania. Though many members of diaspora give their time and money voluntarily for activities and causes that benefit Lithuania, the government’s financial support, though small, helps catalyze participation by Lithuanian diaspora communities.

A final important means of engaging the diaspora is by effectively communicating with it. This includes sharing information, training teachers and journalists, and engaging the diaspora in discussions about policy issues. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its embassies around the world, and other government agencies should play an active role in communicating with the diaspora. However, collaboration should not only be the task of the central government but also of Lithuanian society. Municipalities, schools, universities, health care organizations, museums, libraries, associations, and private companies need to realize that this is not only their social responsibility—working with the diaspora is also an opportunity to build relationships and partnerships. There are some good examples of such partnerships, for example, the ‘Business Advisers’ project, or World Lithuanian University. But there is much more room for bottom up collaboration between Lithuanian society and its diaspora.