The face of emigration, and the changing labour force in Lithuania
Published in Kauno Diena
An underground train pulls up in North Woolwich, London, spilling a multi-cultural crowd. Amongst them, majority are Lithuanians, whose native tongue is the second most spoken language in the area after English, according to 2011 census.
The ‘brain drain’ – educated, ambitious and young Lithuanians, make their way home in a country which is becoming increasingly foreign, following the spill of xenophobic attacks in Brexit’s wake.
In a nearby park, Lithuanian children run between the trees, youths exercise, and the all-seeing babushkas settle down on benches nearby – not so different from the scenes at home. “This is a good area, you can even get a seat on the morning train,” says a man in his 20s, finishing a pull-up set.
Sporadic police raids, and police sirens remind of the lingering poverty, and with it – drug and gang culture problems within the local British community.
An Indian owner – who preferred not to share his name – runs a ‘corner shop’ for 29 years. “Before, it was hard to survive, even for you. Your white skin would let you in, but as soon as you’d speak – it would be all over,” he notices the eastern European accent. “Before, this was an English Cockney area, full of racists. Now, a lot of eastern Europeans, mainly Lithuanians.”
Young families continue to make up the core of Lithuanians abroad – the number of 25-29 year olds emigrating has grown steadily. This age group continues to diminish in Lithuania – a country more than 2000 kilometers away from the UK. Since joining the EU in 2004, over 15% of its 3.4 million population emigrated, with more than 200,000 settling in Britain.
Eurostat observed that more than 1 in a 100 Lithuanians have emigrated in 2015 alone- making it the highest decrease across the EU.
The effects of emigration are most noticeable in the countryside, particularly in the south-east. Dieveniskes – Town of God, an isolated region enveloped by Belarus on three sides – has witnessed a 14% decrease in population since 2004, according to Lithuanian Statistics Department.
On the way to Dieveniskes, the road winds past the newly-erected double fence between Belarus and Lithuania, the eastern border of EU. Sweeping forests and tranquility greets visitors, who chose to visit this rural enclave. The wooden church in Dieveniskes was built in 1783 – first mentioned in 15th century Grand Duchy of Lithuanian era – drawing some tourism into the area.
In a village near Dieveniskes, the pace of life almost slows to a halt. Men ask not to be photographed – “We drank a little bit on the weekend, and then you’ll show the pictures like everyone here is an alcoholic,” says Jonas, a man in his 50s.
Occasional visitors from surrounding villages stop by in the small shop. Teresa, an employee, says: “There are so many abandoned houses here, because the owners have died out and the kids moved to bigger cities.”
“There are practically no young people here, they have mostly gone to Vilnius,” says Teresa. “Many from other villages have gone abroad to the EU,” adds Jonas. He points at an abandoned house: “She left four years ago; her children brought her to Vilnius. Many others have left the same way.”
Dieveniskes region – 70 kilometers away from capital Vilnius – became even more isolated when fences were put up along the Belarusian border, securing the eastern border of the EU. Locals claim, it has only made it more difficult to reach relatives on the other side.
In Urulei, near the Belarusian border, only three people are left in a village which had 10 families. Houses are now worth €2,000, and a acre of land can be bought for €150. Alexander, grew up here, and now only visits his mother. He has worked as a teacher in Vilnius for the past 30 years.
“Before more youths came to study in Vilnius from the provinces, since it’s nearby, but now only some; they mostly go abroad,” says Alexander.
Gvidas Venckaitis, Press Officer at the Lithuanian Embassy in London, told Kauno Diena over email: “Indeed, we have noticed increased number of Lithuanian students in the UK [in recent times].“
Kaunas – City of Potholes
Following the 2008 economic crisis, Kaunas – second largest city in Lithuania – became dystopian template for the rest of the country. Since 2010, almost 32,000 out of almost 300,000 people left the city, and the emptying streets were not helped by inadequate and corrupt local government – this led to Lithuanians rechristening Kaunas as the City of Potholes. The memory of pseudo-patriotic posters towering on massive billboards along the main roads – “Kaunas citizen, don’t give up!” – lingers in the memory.
In the last few years, cautious optimism has been emerging within the city, stemming from creative and skilled work industries. Darius Sciuka – photographer from Kaunas – finished studies in Portsmouth, UK, and has often visited London. After university, he came back to Kaunas- “I didn’t see myself living in England. I never really abandoned Lithuania, and always kept coming back for projects.”
“I saw many perspectives in Kaunas, maybe it was an easier route just to go home. Whilst living in foreign countries, you’re always ‘different’, and it takes a while to get assimilated.”
Darius agrees that there are many opportunities in Lithuania for people with education and the right qualifications. “All people are attracted to go abroad, where simple jobs – like warehouse work, for example – are well paid, and so you can afford a better standard of living.”
“It’s nice to come back to Lithuania, because there are a lot of talented people here with whom you can achieve great results; it is convenient to work in the creative industry. The world has become smaller due to internet – you can plan projects in every corner in the world, and take on jobs from abroad,” explains Darius. Just recently, he came back from a work trip in Los Angeles.
“I think everything comes down how much work you put in. I know a lot of people who work in various industries and live well. They’re innovative and hard working people,” thinks Darius
Neringa Kirijenkaite, who worked in PR and marketing departments in major Lithuanian universities, says: “The amount of students applying to Lithuanian universities has dropped drastically.”
Neringa believes not enough action is taken by the government, adding that “Universities are now targeting sixth to eighth graders to dissuade emigrating – rather than 17-18 year olds.”
11% less young people chose to study in Lithuania, in comparison to the previous years. 82 study programmes were also canceled, according to Lithuanian Higher Education Association.
“Lithuania has a lot of opportunities and needs high quality professionals,” she says.
Left behind in the periphery
Those in the countryside without professional qualifications are left to maintain a living farming land, or getting by on welfare payments and pensions.
27 year old Agne from Varena, receives €168 a month disability benefits – the minimum monthly wage in Lithuania is €380. She is constrained to work on the side to maintain a living, collecting berries/mushrooms to sell and working for farmers in black.
“The people i know who went to work in the UK and came back, said they felt the local British people were against them. I haven’t heard anyone talk about Brexit, but it wouldn’t change anything“ – she says.
As for herself: “Of course i would emigrate to find some work, probably in England, but who would employ me with my disability.”
A farmer from a southern Lithuanian village, Zeronys, who preferred not to be named, says: “I have work up to here. There are plenty of things to do here – I have 2 hectares of land, I work for other farmers and also receive subsidies from government and the EU. “
“But of course I’m getting old. Before there used to be many children in each family, now only one or two and that’s it. I have a daughter and a son, who both moved to Vilnius. My son came back to help once, but that’s it,” he smiles.
Three 16-year-old boys in Dieveniskes are worry-free: “What happen will happen, need to see in a few years.” Whether they’d like to emigrate, they’re certain: “No, we rather stay close to home.”
Lithuania turns away from its emigrants
However, popular culture degrades emigrants – particularly through Lithuanian medi – complicating already difficult relations with those who decided to return. So far, pre-election promises amounted to vague populism for reducing emigration ; it’s too soon to predict what the new government will accomplish.
Milda Dargužaitė, previous director of Barclays technology center in Lithuania, told reporters in June 2015, that the first step towards bringing emigrants back is to stop degrading them – ”This attitude is the biggest obstacle […] I heard questions, whether those who came back received a ‘red carpet’. Not one of us need it.”
The red-carpet in Kaunas amounts to a manic rush to repair roads and sidewalks. And even though it’s not the only initiative in the city, it is best summarised by theatre director Arunas Areima – “I hope the local government will fix their roads, that they’re so proud of. But truthfully said, it is a very provincial view, that young people can be retained by building roads, but not investing in culture.”