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Current Trends of Migration in Lithuania

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Current Trends of Migration in Lithuania

Giedrė Blažytė

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Throughout its recent history, Lithuania has been a country of emigration. Migration and integration policies are selective as they favour return migration of Lithuanian citizens and immigration of highly skilled migrants from particular third countries.

Market in Visaginas/Lithuania, a town heavily populated by ethnic Russians. Most Foreigners in Lithania come from Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. (© picture-alliance/AP, Mindaugas Kulbis)

In its history, Lithuania has experienced various phases of emigration and immigration. In the summer of 1940, as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Lithuania was annexed by the USSR, only to be occupied by the German Wehrmacht one year later. During German occupation, about 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were deported and killed – almost the entire Jewish population of the country. At the same time, Germans were called upon to settle in the occupied territories. In fall 1944, the Red Army reoccupied Lithuania. Hundreds of thousands fled Soviet occupation. During the post-war period, Russians and other population groups from regions belonging to the Soviet Union were resettled in Lithuania in order to tie the previously independent republic to Moscow. However, starting in the 1980s, Lithuanians increasingly called for independence. When Lithuania finally declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, almost ten per cent of its population were Interner Link: people born outside the territory of the now independent state.

Trends of migration in Lithuania since independence in 1991

Migration trends in Lithuania 1990 – 2019 (Interner Link: Download figure) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

In the three decades since the formal restoration of independence in 1991 , emigration has been the dominant migration pattern in Lithuania. Since 1990 the number of residents living in Lithuania has dropped by 899,500 people – about 24 per cent of the entire population – mainly because emigration highly exceeded immigration. This trend began to change in recent years. The number of emigrants decreased while that of immigrants was on the rise. According to provisional data provided by Statistics Lithuania, for the first time in 28 years, Lithuania's resident population slightly increased in 2019. This was mainly due to positive net migration of foreign citizens. In 2019, about 29,000 residents emigrated from Lithuania – nine per cent less than in 2018.

Emigration as dominant migration pattern

The first decade after Lithuania's restored independence was marked by extensive emigration. At the beginning, emigration to the countries of the former USSR sharply increased, reaching its highest level in 1992. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and citizens of other countries of the former USSR left Lithuania and returned to their countries of origin. After 1992 migration patterns and directions began to change – ever since, migration directed towards Western countries has been twice as high as migration to the East. In the period 1993-2003 these movements were dominated by Lithuanian citizens in search of better economic prospects.

On 1 May 2004, Lithuania became member of the European Union (EU). In 2007 the country joined the Schengen area. Since then, Lithuanian citizens can freely travel, work and settle (almost) all over Europe. The EU integration process and the interlinked integration of Lithuania into the European labour market led to increasing emigration of Lithuanian citizens to other EU Member States. Their outflows from Lithuania peaked in the period 2009 to 2010 due to the global financial crisis with its negative impact on Lithuania's economy. The high point of emigration was recorded in 2010, when 79.315 Lithuanian citizens left the country. High unemployment rates and economic changes triggered their emigration. However, the 2010 record number of emigrated Lithuanian citizens was also caused by the introduction of compulsory health insurance in April 2009. Subsequently, people who had already been living abroad started to declare their departure from the country in order to avoid this fee.

Countries that attract the highest numbers of migrants from Lithuania have been changing over time. Prior to Lithuania's accession to the EU countries of the former USSR and those with a significant Lithuanian diaspora (Poland, Germany, the United States) were the preferred destination of Lithuanian migrants. After accession, migration flows from Lithuania shifted towards EU member states.

Emigration of Lithuanian citizens 2005 – 2018 (Interner Link: Download figure) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The first countries that opened their borders for Lithuanian citizens were the United Kingdom (UK), Ireland and Sweden. Together with Germany and Norway the first two countries have been among the most popular destination countries for Lithuanian citizens for more than a decade. 44 per cent of Lithuanian citizens living abroad reside in the UK, twelve per cent in Germany, 10 per cent in Norway, and eight per cent in Ireland.

The main reason for emigration is dissatisfaction with the economic situation in Lithuania and the hope for better economic perspectives abroad. A study, which involved 1,500 Lithuanian citizens residing abroad, revealed that the majority of them left Lithuania in order to work abroad (56 per cent). Yet, employment is not the only reason for emigration. According to the cited study 20.7 per cent of Lithuanian emigrants stated that they left for self-realisation, another 20.3 per cent emigrated because they were dissatisfied with governance in Lithuania, 25.9 per cent of the respondents indicated that they emigrated due to family reasons.

In 2019, about 73 per cent of all emigrants were between 15 and 44 years old. It is feared that the emigration of young people of working age will increase demographic challenges such as decreasing birth rates, and the lack of (skilled) workforce. In order to tackle the mentioned problems, the government has initiated various measures aimed at encouraging Lithuanian citizens to return to Lithuania and at facilitating their (re-)integration (e.g., Kurk Lietuvai / Create Lithuania; Renkuosi Lietuvą / I choose Lithuania ). On 20 September 2018, the government adopted the “Strategy for Demography, Migration and Integration 2018-2030”. It is the first strategy to encompass demographic challenges, migration management, diaspora polices and (re)integration in a single document to stress existing links.

Immigration to Lithuania: returning Lithuanian citizens and increasing labour migration

On the 1st of January 2020, 78.081 foreign citizens resided in Lithuania, which constitutes 2.79 per cent of the population. Immigration to Lithuania has increased since its accession to the EU. Compared to 2004, the number of foreigners residing in Lithuania has more than doubled, their share in the population has tripled. It was only during the recession in 2009 and 2010 as well as in 2015 that immigration numbers dipped.

Statistics show that during the period from 2004 to 2016 immigration flows to Lithuania consisted mainly of returning Lithuanians (about 80 per cent). This trend started to change in 2017. The most recent provisional data provided by the migration department under the Ministry of the Interior show that Lithuanians accounted for half (51 per cent) of the total number of immigrants in 2019. In the same year, 19,700 foreigners immigrated to Lithuania – 7,300 (or 1.6 times) more than in 2018.

Immigration of non-EU nationals 2005 – 2018 (Interner Link: Download figure) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The majority of foreigners, who immigrate to Lithuania, are third-country nationals (non-EU citizens). Most of them come from Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. In 2019, citizens of the mentioned countries constituted almost half (45 per cent) of the total number of foreign citizens who immigrated to Lithuania that year. The majority of immigrants are single male migrants who are between 20 and 39 years old.

In the last five years, employment has been the main reason for issuing and extending temporary residence permits (68 per cent in 2018), whereas it was family reunification in most of the period from 2005 to 2015 (except in 2008 and 2014). In 2018, the admission of migrant workers, who work in shortage occupations, was facilitated. Subsequently, the share of temporary residence permits issued for employment reasons increased.


Asylum applications in Lithuania 2004 – 2018 (Interner Link: Download figure) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Asylum plays a minor role in Lithuania. With the exception of 2015, in the period 2004 to 2018 the annual number of lodged asylum applications ranged between 400 and 650. In total, 747 asylum seekers have been granted refugee status, and 2,779 the status of subsidiary protection. In recent years the majority of asylum seekers were citizens of Tajikistan (in 2018), Syria (in 2016 and 2017) and Ukraine (in 2015).

In 2015, Lithuania joined the European Commission Emergency Relocation Scheme to take in refugees from Italy and Greece, two EU member states at the EU's external borders that were confronted with a massive arrival of asylum seekers. In the period 2016-2019, 493 persons were relocated to Lithuania. The majority of them (82 per cent) were citizens of Syria.
Since 2015 several relevant legislative developments have taken place regarding refugee reception and integration. First of all, in 2016 and 2017, the Government approved two resolutions directly related to the facilitation of integration of beneficiaries of international protection. In addition, the adopted Action Plan 2018-2020 on the Integration of Foreigners into Society (see below) targets both migrants and beneficiaries of international protection.

Migration and integration policy

Migration policies primarily aim at reducing the number of Lithuanian citizens leaving the country, encouraging the return of Lithuanian emigrants, and maintaining ties with the Lithuanian diaspora.

The Law on the Legal Status of Aliens is the main legal document with regard to the migration of foreign citizens to Lithuania. It establishes procedures for entering and leaving the country, the issuance of residence permits and the granting of asylum, and also covers issues such as integration and naturalisation.

In 2007, the Economic Migration Regulation Strategy was adopted in order to mitigate demographic and economic challenges caused by high emigration. It aimed at reducing emigration and encouraging immigration in order to reach a balanced net migration by 2012. However, migration and integration policies only started to move beyond ad hoc principles in 2014, when the Lithuanian Migration Policy Guidelines entered into force and the Ministry of Social Security and Labour was instructed to draft a policy on the integration of foreign nationals. It was accompanied by an Action Plan 2015-2017 on the Implementation of Foreigners Integration Policy.The subsequent Action Plan 2018-2020 on the Integration of Foreigners into Society seeks to further improve the implementation of integration measures for foreign citizens in Lithuania and to ensure their successful integration into society. It includes measures to foster inter institutional cooperation and improve access to the labour market, the education system as well as to social and health services. It also promotes cooperation between foreigners and local communities in an attempt to reduce discrimination against foreign nationals. Another aim is to improve the integration of female migrants and to establish a system that monitors migrants' integration processes and the implementation of migration-related policies.

Despite relevant developments in the area of migration and migrants’ integration policy during the last decade, there is still a lot to do with regard to the implementation of a comprehensive migration policy that encompasses the long-term integration of foreign citizens. Recent developments show that Lithuania's migration and integration policies remain highly selective as they continue to favour return migration of Lithuanian citizens and immigration of certain groups of migrants (especially highly skilled specialists and their family members) from particular third-countries (especially from developed countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, USA, Canada, and South Korea). Quotas for non-EU migrant workers will be introduced from 2021 in order to regulate the flow of foreigners who come to work in Lithuania.

Instead of conclusions

Since the world is struggling with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, cross-border migration flows to and within Europe have decreased due to the closure of the states’ borders – a measure adopted to contain the pandemic. It is hard to predict how this situation will impact future migration from and to Lithuania. However, migration experts assume that the growth of immigration to Lithuania observed in recent years will slow down for a while. Meanwhile the economic downturn in the follow-up of the pandemic-related lockdown in spring of 2020 might cause an increase in the number of people leaving the country. According to statistics provided by Lithuanian Employment Services unemployment increased more than 21 per cent in April compared to the previous month. Third country nationals residing in Lithuania mostly work in sectors that are severely affected by the lockdown and its repercussions – such as the service industry (e.g. restaurants, barber shops, transport). There are no official statistics yet of how many foreign nationals have already left the country. However, companies stress the continuing demand for cheap foreign labour (e.g. from Belarus and Ukraine) in segments of the labour market in which Lithuanians do not want to work.

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Dr. Giedrė Blažytė is researcher at the Institute for Ethnic Studies of the Lithuanian Social Research Centre and at the NGO “Diversity Development Group”. Her main areas of work include contemporary migration processes, family migration, and public attitudes towards migrants and beneficiaries of international protection.