Throughout its history, Latvia has experienced both periods of immigration and emigration. The latter has dominated in recent years. At the same time, negative attitudes towards immigration are widespread in the population.
Historical Phases of Immigration to and Emigration from Latvia
Over the last century, Latvia has experienced many waves of emigration and immigration. At the turn of the 19th and 20th century with Latvia as a part of the Russian Empire, immigration was mainly driven by the growth of Latvia’s cities. In addition to economic migrants, significant numbers of Jewish refugees from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland entered Latvia due to growing anti-Semitism and pogroms in the regions they were coming from. At the same time, substantial numbers of Latvians (most notably farmers) moved outside Latvia's territory. Between 1897 and 1913 the size of the Latvian diaspora had reached 220,000, including 45,000 in the West (mostly in the United States) – among them almost 8,000 political refugees and deportees after the 1905 Revolution in Latvia. Still, the migration balance (i.e. the difference between immigration and emigration) during this time was significantly positive.
Latvia experienced its largest population loss during World War I and the Russian civil war. About one million of Latvia's residents moved to other territories (mostly Russia) as refugees, displaced persons, evacuees or after being mobilized into armed forces. In five years Latvia lost 37 percent of its population (Fig. 1): about half of them died outside Latvia, others settled in Soviet Russia, Estonia, Lithuania and Germany. Less than one-third of emigrants returned after the war.
In the decade after the creation of the Latvian state in 1918, about 300,000 persons returned to Latvia (most of them in 1919-1921). At the same time more than 10,000 moved to Soviet Russia or were expelled from Latvia for engaging in ‘anti-state activities’, while about 15,000 moved to Latvia fleeing the Soviet regime. In the later years of the independent Latvia emigration rates were low, as land reform and good economic conditions largely eliminated motivation to emigrate. Nevertheless, due to specific reasons, about 5,000 persons moved to the US, 2,700 to Brazil, and 4,500 to Palestine.
The decade between 1939 and 1949 in Latvia is described as ‘era of displaced persons and refugees’. 51,000 ethnic Germans departed to Germany in 1939-1940 in the framework of a ‘repatriation’ program launched by Hitler's government. Another 10,500 ethnic Germans followed during the winter of 1941 after Latvia's incorporation into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). 15,424 inhabitants of Latvia (0.8 percent of the population) were deported by the Soviet regime on June 14, 1941, about 40 percent of whom died in camps or in exile. In the summer of 1941, fearing the looming Nazi occupation, about 53,000 persons fled Latvia to other regions of USSR. Overall, in 1939-1941 Latvia lost about 6.6 percent of its population as repatriates, deportees and refugees. Additional 242,000 persons (13.4 percent of the population) were lost due to different types of forced migration during 1942-1945, including those mobilized in the Nazi or Red/Soviet Army and refugees fleeing the Soviet regime. Most of these refugees, as well as part of former soldiers of the German army, ended up in displaced persons camps, but in 1947 after the liquidation of these camps moved further to countries which were ready to receive them – mostly to the US (45,000), Australia and Canada (20,000 each), the UK (17,000), Germany (15,000) and others, starting the post-war Latvian diaspora.
The decade after reoccupation by the Soviet Union, Latvia experienced its largest wave of immigration (especially in 1946-1948). First, it saw mass return of refugees and military personnel as well as a (partly centrally managed) inflow of migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union. In the course of three years, Latvia's population grew by more than 323,000, or 21 percent. Return migration and immigration continued in 1949-1950 but it was partially offset by the largest forced deportation of 42,125 persons (2.2 percent of population) to Siberia or Far East of the USSR on March 25-28, 1949, carried out by Soviet forces. Later though (mostly in 1956-1957), about 80 percent of those exiled returned to Latvia.
Under the Soviet regime, between 1951 and 1990 Latvia continued to experience large inflows of migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union, mainly due to centralized decision-making on the allocation of resources, including labor force, and higher standards of living in Latvia than in other Soviet Republics. As a result, the share of ethnic Latvians in Latvia's population fell to 52 percent in 1989. With few exceptions, emigration from Latvia under the Soviet regime was almost impossible.
The last decade of the 20th century saw a massive outflow of the Russian-speaking population from restored (1991) independent Latvia to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. It was triggered by dramatic changes in the political regime, the prevailing historical narrative (that depicted Russians in Latvia as remnants or even active participants of the Soviet occupation), the linguistic environment, the structure of labor demand, and, for many, the loss of citizenship. The same decade (1990s) also saw pioneer emigration to the West, relying on support from post-war Latvian refugees or from less formal social networks among Russian-speaking emigrants from the Soviet Union. Still, by the end of the 20th century, the post-Soviet Latvian diasporas in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries accounted to just 21,000 persons. Notably, some Latvian post-war refugees used the opportunity to return to the independent Latvia.
Recent Phases of Emigration from Latvia
The history of emigration from Latvia during 2000-2016 can be divided into four episodes: (i) the period before Latvia became member of the European Union (pre-accession period, 2000-2003); (ii) the post-accession period of economic growth (2004-2008); (iii) the period of economic crisis (2009-2010); and (iv) the post-crisis period (2011-2016). The pre-accession emigration wave (2000-2003) was characterized by substantial positive selectivity on human capital – many emigrants had higher qualifications than people remaining in Latvia –, over-representation of Russian-speakers, as well as geographical diversification. As emigration was not easy (due to visa requirements, costs, etc.), despite high incentives, net outflow of Latvia's nationals was low (Table).
The free movement of labor within the EU and the high and growing demand for migrant labor in the EU-15 substantially lowered both monetary and non-monetary costs of migration. Thus, the post-accession years (2004-2008) saw an increase in emigration rates, mainly driven by pull factors. Nevertheless, according to data of Latvia's Central Statistical Bureau (CSB), joining the EU in 2004 did not lead to a massive increase in emigration rates from Latvia right away. Post-accession migration was, to a large extent, short-term and/or cyclical.
Latvia was one of the European countries most affected by the Great Recession that triggered a sharp increase in emigration rates. During the years of the Great Recession (2009-2010), both economic and non-economic push factors gained importance. Many Latvian families found themselves facing poverty. Having lost hope that the situation could improve, many chose to leave the country. During the years of the crisis (2009–2010) the Latvian annual net emigration rate more than doubled, and between 2008 and 2011 the stock of Latvian citizens aged 15–64 who had arrived in another EU member state within the previous three years increased by 47 percent. Economic factors – the desire to earn a decent salary, to improve one’s quality of life and to afford an alleged middle class lifestyle – were among the main drivers of emigration. A worrying characteristic of this crisis-driven emigration wave was the increasing number of young people among emigrants, as well as the shift towards the emigration of entire families with a view towards permanent employment and residence abroad. Gross outflows in 2009-2013 accounted for 9.1 percent of the population.
In the post-crisis years, the intensity of emigration has slowed, but emigration rates still remain well above the pre-crisis levels and net migration stays negative. Work abroad has become an integral part of the Latvian national identity and emigration is now ‘the new normal’. Minorities and university graduates remain over-represented among emigrants. Emigration potential is persistently high, and only a small part of emigrants return or plan to return to Latvia.
Net emigration of Latvia's nationals, 2000-2016
Note: Net emigration is the difference between emigration and immigration. Reading aid: In the period 2000-2003, Latvia lost a net 33.5 people per 1,000 inhabitants as a result of emigration exceeding immigration. That corresponded to 1.4 percent of the population at the beginning of the 2000s. This means that Latvia lost an average of 0.35 percent of its population each year due to emigration.
Period of Time
Percent of the population at the beginning of 2000
Effective annual rate of net emigration
Source: Hazans, M (2019). Emigration from Latvia. Brief History and Driving Forces in the Twenty-First Century. In: R. Kaša and I. Mieriņa, The Emigrant Communities of Latvia: National Identity, Transnational Belonging and Diaspora Politics. Springer, pp. 35-68.
Characteristics of Latvia's Current Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Population
Immigration rates in Latvia are much lower than on average in OECD countries, and with annually 0,5 percent of the population even lower than in neighboring Estonia and Lithuania (see Fig. 2). In 2018, 10,909 people immigrated to Latvia.
The statistics on the country of origin of immigrants is not very telling. In 2018, 41 percent of immigrants entering Latvia previously resided in another EU member state (37 percent of them in the EU-15), two percent in European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries, 37 percent in a CIS country, and 20 percent in some other country. However, approximately half (48.2 percent) of all immigrants were actually Latvian nationals. 7.5 percent were citizens of other EU countries, and 44.1 percent citizens of non-EU countries. Thus, return migrants account for a significant proportion of immigrants in Latvia; their migration is motivated not just by pragmatic, but also emotional benefits.
Overall, 12.7 percent of the Latvian population consist of non-nationals; almost all of them (218 thousand out of 246 thousand) are citizens of non-member countries. The majority of non-national immigrants have come from CIS countries, mostly Russia (50 percent of the foreign-born population) but also Ukraine and Belarus. Their motivation to immigrate to Latvia is fuelled by the widespread use of the Russian language in various sectors of the economy in combination with more competitive wages as compared to the migrants’ home country.
A survey conducted by the European Statistical Office (Eurostat) in 2014 reveals that a large majority of first-generation immigrants to Latvia arrived due to family reasons (see Fig.3). Among them are spouses of return migrants. Labor migrants are currently a small proportion of all immigrants.
Statistics on issued first time residence permits show that the number of permits issued both to labor migrants and international students is low (about 2,000 a year each) but has been slowly rising. Up to 2014, most residence permits were issued for investment in property or business (about 5,000 in 2014), yet this has now changed due to changes in legislation. The total number of first time residence permits issued in 2016 was round about 6,500.
The number of refugees accepted by Latvia is very small. From 1998 till 2018 a total of 180 persons have been granted refugee status and 538 persons have been granted subsidiary protection status. In 2018, 176 people requested international protection in Latvia, and 23 refugee statuses and 24 alternative statuses were granted. Seven persons were resettled under the EU Resettlement Program. Main countries of origin of asylum seekers were Russia, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Vietnam.
Due to history, the ethnic composition of Latvia is very diverse – 62 percent of the county's population consider themselves Latvian, 25 percent are ethnic Russians, two to three percent Belarusian, Ukrainian, or Polish, in addition to smaller ethnic minority groups.
Latvian Immigration, Integration and Naturalization Policy
The development of immigration, integration and naturalization policy in Latvia has been impacted by negative attitudes towards immigrants in Latvia. People overwhelmingly do not recognize the contribution of immigrants to the country’s economic growth and are not eager to welcome them. Eurobarometer data shows that 49 percent of respondents would feel uncomfortable with an immigrant as their neighbor, just 54 percent agree that fostering integration of immigrants is a necessary investment in the long run for the country, and overall a large majority of the population perceive immigration of third country nationals negatively or very negatively. A spike in very negative attitudes could be observed in 2015 with the migration crisis in Europe – and it has not substantially decreased since.
While neighboring Estonia has purposefully been aiming at attracting foreign workers, changing regulations and working on the attractiveness of Estonia as a country of destination, in Latvia the realization of the importance of immigration for economic growth has been slow, particularly against the backdrop of negative attitudes of the population. Latvia has been dominated by a bureaucratic regulatory approach aimed at restricting and controlling migration, while immigration policy is based on a selective approach and protection of the internal labor market. Instead, there has been a clear preference for facilitating return migration of Latvians instead. Still, the Sustainable Development Strategy of Latvia until 2030 indicates that demographic and labor market changes will require targeted policies to maximize support for return migration, but also through controlled labor immigration policies. At the moment, though, prejudice and xenophobia in combination with restrictive immigration and citizenship policies, as well as insufficient understanding of anti-discrimination practices and intercultural communication at the workplace further inhibit the potential to attract foreign workers. The government has compiled a list of professions that suffer from labor shortages, and where workers from third countries can be invited to work. This list is constantly updated and contested by unions and employers. The emphasis is on attracting skilled workers, and the invited workers have to be paid at least an amount equal to the average gross salary in Latvia in the year previous to their immigration. However, the attractiveness of Latvia as a country of destination for migrants is hindered not just by comparatively low wages, but also inefficient integration policies.
According to data of the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) 2015, Latvia, along with other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, scores poorly in terms of integration success. Out of 38 European and non-European countries, Latvia is ranked 37th. The biggest challenges are related to permanent residence, family reunion, and labor market mobility. Among other problems that hinder integration of third country nationals in Latvia identified by previous research are insufficient financial support for asylum seekers and refugees for a too short period of time (less than a year), insufficient access to systematic language classes, discrimination (especially regarding job search and employment), and insufficient understanding of the specific needs of specific groups of immigrants. The need to support the integration of immigrants into the labor market is especially emphasized, as 60 percent of third country nationals in Latvia do not work, and 67 percent among those who do receive less than the average wage. Overall, with regard to supporting the integration of migrants into the labor market as well as into the society in general, it needs to be taken into account that integration is a two-way process of mutual accommodation that requires efforts from both sides. Interestingly, return migrants, too, are struggling with various problems upon returning to Latvia such as finding a job (40 percent), getting used to a different work culture (31 percent), lack of clarity regarding taxes (30 percent) or health care (24 percent), and difficulties to integrate into a society with a different mentality (26 percent). Just 15 percent state that they have not had any problems reintegrating.
The Latvian Diaspora
Latvia is one of the countries with the largest net emigration rates in Europe. Even though precise data is lacking, it is estimated that since 2000 Latvia has lost more than 260,000 people (at least 13 percent of its population) to migration. The size of the Latvian diaspora is estimated at 370,000 persons. Importantly, in the case of Latvia emigrants are on average much younger and more educated than people staying in the country. Russian-speakers are over-represented among emigrants, and families with children or those planning to have a child are also more likely to emigrate.
The main countries of destination, as well as shares of different destinations in the total outflow have changed over the years, reflecting both institutional and economic developments. Overall, CSB data shows that a large majority of long-term emigrants move to western European countries, offering much higher living standards and wages: 84 percent of long-term emigrants moved to other EU countries (77 percent of them to the EU-15), seven percent went to CIS countries, seven percent to EFTA countries and three percent to other countries. The major destination countries for Latvian migrants are the UK, Ireland and Germany. Emigration to EFTA countries has increased (see Fig. 4), while emigration to CIS countries decreased.
According to the latest calculations, approximately one-third of Latvian nationals live in the UK, ten percent in Germany, eight percent in Ireland, 13 percent in the USA (mostly those who emigrated before 1991).
Following concerns about the effect of emigration on the sustainability of the social security system in a country with an ageing society, and about the future potential and competitiveness of the country’s economy, since 2013 Latvia pursues targeted diaspora policies aimed at strengthening links with the diaspora, utilizing the diaspora knowledge potential, and facilitating return migration. In the last few years, the awareness of the diaspora's potential has been rising and cooperation with the diaspora has become more intense, rich and diverse. In 2019 a Diaspora law came into force that aims to strengthen the Latvian identity of the diaspora; to provide the diaspora with opportunities to freely establish, maintain and strengthen its ties with Latvia, to facilitate the preservation of the Latvian language and culture in the diaspora, and to develop and implement systematic and permanent diaspora support policies, including ensuring favorable conditions for return migration. Following the Law, the Diaspora Advisory Council was established in 2019 that features representatives of diaspora organizations as well as various governmental and other institutions dealing with diaspora matters (Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture, etc.). In January 2011, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a memorandum of cooperation with the World Federation of Free Latvians (PBLA). Various non-institutionalized events are organized, in order to promote the exchange of ideas and strengthen links with the diaspora, including, for example, the Global Economic and Innovation Forum of Latvians (PLEIF). Representatives of state institutions regularly participate in meetings of diaspora organizations as well as in professional contact building events.
Dr. Inta Mierina is director of the Centre for Diaspora and Migration Research at the University of Latvia and a senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology. The author's work was supported by the Latvian National Research Program Project "Towards sustainable development and inclusive society in Latvia: response to demographic and migration challenges" (grant Nr. VPP-IZM-2018/1-0015).