By Giedrė Peseckytė
DUBLIN, IRELAND - Although it was a Saturday the school was teeming with noise. Families gathered in the entrance hall for the first day of the Lithuanian Saturday school “4 vėjai” in Blanchardstown, an outlying district of Dublin. A teacher walked through the corridors with a handbell children rushed to their classrooms. One family stayed in the hallway because the school was overcrowded and their children could not get a spot. Assistant Headmaster Arūnas Teišerskis was trying to figure out if there still might be a place for them.
Meanwhile, the exact opposite is happening in Lithuania, the ex-Soviet Baltic country with a population of 2.8 million. Schools are being shut down due to a lack of pupils. “When I finished high school there were six schools in Ukmergė,” said Edgaras Valavičius, a 25-year-old Civil Engineer living in Dublin, about his hometown, a town of 21 thousand inhabitants in Central Lithuania. “Now there are much fewer schools, all those outside the town were closed. That means emigration is doing its job,” he said.
Lithuania has a serious problem; people have been emigrating from the Baltic Country with a population of 2.8 million for years. Politicians vow to bring them back but emigrants are skeptical about their initiatives.
Lithuania‘s demographic situation is tough. Emigration outpaces immigration. Eurostat predicts that the population will shrink by more than one third (37.4%) from 2014 to 2080. This is the biggest percentage within the European Union. That means that from 2.8 million people living in the country at the moment, only 1.8 million will remain in 2080. In addition, emigration in recent years grew, reaching over 5 thousand last year. Half of all emigrants are young people aged between 14 and 29.
Lithuanian politicians have promised to lure the emigrants back. Before the last year’s general election parties, left and right, vowed to bring emigrants home. Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, the second strongest party,in their program has a plan called “Economical Breakthrough”, which says: “Over 80 000 working age people will return and will be attracted to come back to Lithuania.” Another party, the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania committed themselves to make and perform a systematic program for returning a “meaningful part” of the Lithuanian diaspora in working age to the country.
Social Democrats party member Vytenis Andriukaitis stated, that even though the plan to bring people back to Lithuania was added to the program, he cannot name the necessary steps of how it should be done. Andriukaitis underlined that the main focus should be on helping those, whose return is not influenced by any programs. During the previous election campaign, which took place in 2012, the Social Democrats were blaming conservatives for the increased emigration numbers. After becoming the leading party they were not able to handle this problem either. Later on, in their 2016 program, they had no one left to blame, as the situation had not improved. Andriukaitis said that politicians should not be accused for the high emigration rates and puts the blame on the market: “Where companies pay good salaries for employees, people are not leaving.”
“It feels like filling water into a bathtub with holes. We will fill the leaked water back in. So what? It will leak out again,” - said Teišerskis, the president of the Lithuanian Community in Ireland, while driving to another Lithuanian Saturday school. Teišerskis has been living in Ireland for 13 years now. He left Lithuania in 2004 after getting a job offer at the Trinity College. ”I am not saying that I didn’t get enough money to live in Lithuania, working at Vilnius University,” he said. “But it’s one thing when one who has a PhD counts money in the grocery store and another when you can allow yourself to have a car and living standards that you were expecting to have with this certain education.”
While Teišerskis emigrated over a higher salary and better work conditions, for some people from rural areas in Lithuania leaving the country is the only way to find a job in the first place. People who lost their jobs are forced to move from their homes, either to bigger cities or, more often, abroad. „What can you do in Ukmergė? There is nothing,” said Valavičius whose mother left for Dublin when he was 13 years old because she was unemployed.
Valavičius moved to Dublin after finishing high school. His family encouraged him to enroll at the Dublin Institute of Technology when he was accepted 6 years ago. At first he planned to return to Lithuania after finishing his studies but now he sees more opportunities in Ireland. “What future can you have in VGTU (Vilnius Gediminas Technical University) dormitories? None. I have classmates who finished the same studies as I would have, if I had stayed. Those four years didn’t give and didn’t take away anything from them.”
“I know families who came back to Lithuania and moved again after 3-4 months to Sweden or Norway,“ says Valavičius. “When people get used to a better life and then suddenly they have to live in a ‘saving mode’ in Lithuania - this is the biggest challenge“. Vytis Čiubrinskas, Head of the Centre of Social Anthropology in Vytautas Magnus University, is sure that those who return might move again, as most people are simply looking for a better life: “This is just a part of the globalization and modernization process. If we have urbanization, why we should not have migration?“
Čiubrinskas is sure that the main object is not to get people back, but rather to keep the connections between Lithuania and emigrants as strong as possible. He adds that new businesses and working places for mobile people should be created followed by an improvement of the educational system, rather than trying to keep people in the country.
For Teišerskis, the political initiatives are misguided. He said that they should not focus on luring people back but on making people stay. “Take care of those who are still living there,” he said. “When people stop leaving the country, then they will ask their relatives who have emigrated to return by saying: `hey, listen, it will be all good here now`.”