Photo: Charles Kelley.

Emigration – Not Everybody Leaves for Money

The mass emigration that Latvia has experienced in this millennium has alarmed not only Latvian authorities, who in their efforts to reverse it, last year adopted a Reemigration plan. The scale of emigration also distresses the Latvian people, which, according to public polls, is seen as the biggest demographic threat to Latvia. According to University of Latvia professor Mihails Hazans, more than 250 thousand people have left Latvia since 2000 and between 20 to 30 percent have the intention to emigrate in the near future. Is emigration good or bad? Can it be reversed? And from a global perspective, what can we learn from other countries who have experienced mass migration at some point of their history?

These are some of the questions brought up at a discussion with Hans Storhaug, the President of the European Association of Migration Institutions (AEMI) and Maddalena Tirabassi, the AEMI Vice-President when they were visiting Latvia last month in preparation for the 12th AEMI conference which will take place in Riga from September 25 to 27, 2014.

Between 20 to 50 percent return

The AEMI Vice-President, Italian scholar Maddalena Tirabassi, who is also the Director of Altreitalie Centre on Italian migration, when describing recent Italian migration patterns, cites conclusions from a recently published book by her research center „The best of Italy is leaving. Italian migration in the XXI Century“ (La meglio Italia. Le mobilita’ italiane nel XXI secolo.). She says that the majority of people leaving Italy in the thousands today from every region of Italy, but mostly from the Nothern areas, are highly educated. „This phenomenon does not affect just Italians and citizens of Italy, but also migrants from other countries are starting to leave the country too,“ says Tirabassi, adding that it is a big issue, for which Italy has not found a solution yet.

When it comes to Norway, the AEMI President Hans Storhaug, who is also the Director of the Norwegian Emigration Center, explains that the problem of emigration has not existed in Norway since a century ago, when around 900 000 persons left the country between 1825 and 1925 due to a bad economy and unemployment. „Today this wave has changed. Norway is now experiencing huge immigration not only from the Third World countries, but also from the EU countries,“ says Storhaug. He states that most migratory movements depend on the economy of each country, and says it is difficult to give advice, when or how each country can improve their economic provisions to stop the human outflow. „There is a natural flow of migrants out of a country, when the economy is down, and there is a natural inflow, when the economy is improving,“ says Storhaug.

Asked whether Norway ever adopted some kind of a Reemigration plan at the peak of or following the mass emigration, Storhaug explains that initially emigration was not on the public or government agenda, since the majority of emigrants were not highly skilled, but mainly poor people striving for better lives abroad. However, when the government decided that they want those people back, they created programs offering land to returnees for re-establishing themselves, which, as Storhaug describes, did not have much success. „Totally speaking in regards to these hundred years of emigration, around 20 to 25 % of those who left came back. So, around one quarter of the emigrants in the time span of 100 years returned,“ says Storhaug, adding that the return rate in other countries like South and Eastern European countries has been higher. Maddalena Tirabassi confirms it, by saying that in Italy’s case it has been one third to a half.

Both migration experts agree that reemigration is a big and controversial issue. Is it success to go back home? Or is it a sign that you have failed abroad? When addressing this controversy, Tirabassi states that in her opinion the big distinction is the choice of staying abroad or going back. „In Italy, we saw that it is very tricky. Five, ten years ago, people felt free to go back and forth. Now there is a feeling that it isn’t a choice anymore, but they are compelled to stay abroad, because they don’t see any solution to their survival in Italy, not in terms of starvation, but in terms of the quality of their lives,“ says Tirabassi. For instance, minority rights are better preserved in some other countries. Some say that women are treated better in Scandinavia or Germany, there is a better legislation there, more maternity leave and welfare in other countries, which stimulates a kind of welfare migration, adds the Italian scholar.

Migration – a safety valve

„The question of welfare is a big issue in Norway, in regards to the newcomers, particularly from Poland,“ says Hans Storhaug. According to official statistics around 84 000 immigrants from Poland have arrived in Norway, but as the Norwegian migration expert points out the number could be much higher due to the fact that many of them are part of the gray economy. Since the Norwegian welfare model allows foreign nationals to collect their pensions even after returning to their homeland, which many of the immigrants from other countries do, it has created a heated discussion in Norway, fueling criticism especially among the conservative and right wing parties, elaborates Storhaug. From the sending countries‘ perspective, he describes emigration as a kind of a safety valve for sending countries as it lowers the cost of social security payments and reduces the unemployment rate. Many people from the Baltics have chosen this path. As an example, Storhaug mentions Lithuanian immigrants in Norway, who by January this year, numbering an estimated 30 000, constitute the third largest immigrant group in the country . „Many of them – perhaps a majority – are working in the fishing industry in small villages along the west cost. Many bring their families, settling down, taking jobs Norwegians do not find attractive anymore, giving new life to isolated places that otherwise probably would have been depopulated,“ explains the Director of the Norwegian Emigration Center, adding: „They are keeping our long coast alive!“

However, as Maddalena Tirabassi points out, the mass migration in many European countries has happened not only because of a poor economy and high unemployment. „The question is much more complex,“ says Tirabassi, explaining that today there is a new kind of mobility in Europe, where people move around freely for work and study. Recent research in Italy indicates that not everybody leaves to earn higher salaries and to receive more welfare benefits. Tirabassi specifically cites a survey of 1100 emigrants that her center launched recently, which indicated that many people also move in a quest for a different kind of lifestyle. „Otherwise they would not have gone to places like Brazil or Latin America,“ says Tirabassi. She also points out a new phenomenon: „For the first time people are not going abroad to send money home, that is a feature that distinguishes Italian migration now.“ Tirabassi elaborates that in some instances the families would even send money to support the emigrant’s life abroad. She also mentions a recent trend of retired people moving to cheaper countries. Among other factors that influence people’s decisions about emigration and reemigration are such things as weather, climate and language, which may influence a person’s decision whether and where to emigrate. „The weather and the difficulties of the language are not compensated by the welfare state,“ points out Tirabassi.

In addition to promoting migration studies and preservation of the cultural heritage of European migration, AEMI under Tirabassi’s initiative has started compiling migration histories of all 42 AEMI member countries. Tirabassi says that she got involved in such an undertaking, because people don’t know much about migration in their own country, let alone about other countries. She also says that it is important to show how Europe has been made up of migrants and how European culture is a result of the intermingling of so many cultures. „We have seen a lot of cultural influences and an intermingling of people within Europe in the past. So to study Europe from this cultural approach – bottom-up – from the lower mixing of population, may help to create a more unified Europe,“ concludes Tirabassi.


Ilze Garoza is a diaspora researcher. She has a Master's degree in Education Leadership and Administration from the University of Minnesota. She has received scholarships from the American Latvian Association and the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies.

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