According to the results of a recent census, the population of Latvia plunged 13 per cent during the first decade of the 21st century due to a low birth rate and emigration. The authorities, however, have now decided to address the country's demographic problem, and hope to attract as many as 100,000 Latvians back to their native country.
A new start
In November 2005, Valentina Indane left her home in Preili, Latvia. She was fed up with the lack of professional opportunities, and the low and late wages she was getting paid. After a previous experience in the UK during the same year, however, Valentina packed her belongings and didn't hesitate to look for a better future for herself and her two children in England.
“I've always had a job in Latvia, but most of the times my wages were not paid on time. Most of the time, my wages were only about 100 lats [143 euros],” Valentina says. Preili, one of the oldest settlements in Latvia, is located in the south-eastern region of Latgale, an area of the country which attracted many workers from neighbouring Russia and Belarus back in the Soviet era, but which in the last few years has suffered from the lack of economic development and high rate of unemployment. “Living in a small town with low paid jobs also meant that we got into loans that were hard to repay,” 39-year-old Valentina adds.
However, the adventure of moving abroad was far from idyllic at the beginning. Valentina, who took her two sons (aged 11 and 5 at the time), got in touch with a woman who promised her a good job for an unspecified amount of money. When Valentina’s family arrived in England, the woman was nowhere to be found and they ended up in Doncaster. Luckily, she found a job within two weeks of landing in England.
Valentina now compares her life now in England and what she used to have back in Latvia, and says that “everything has become easier. I work set hours, always have money in my bank account and I have achieved a much desired stability for me and my children.I don't regret having moved to England. My eldest son has just started university and the other one will do so in the future. Everything is easier here.”
There are hundreds, if not thousands of similar stories like Valentina's among Latvian expats who have left their homeland during the last few years. According to results of the census carried out by the government in March last year, Latvia’s population plunged 13 per cent during the first decade of the 21st century. The province of Latgale, where Valentina comes from, has seen the greatest population decline during that period: minus 21.1 per cent.
A low birth rate and, in particular, emigration are the main causes behind such phenomena, with the data showing that the loss of 119,000 of the population is due to the birth rate, while emigration is responsible for 190,000.
Come home, all is forgiven
The Latvian authorities have become greatly aware of such demographic problems in the last few years, as well as the forecast drawn up by experts, who foresee that Latvia’s population will further decline to around 1.6 million people by 2030 if such demographic trends don't change. The government of Latvia, led by its Minister of Economics, Daniels Pavluts, is already working towards the implementation of a nation wide plan, which according to Mr Pavluts’ plans aims to attract as many as 100,000 Latvians living abroad back to their native country. A figure that many people consider far too optimistic.
The authorities have also started to promote a broader debate about the types of measures which should be implemented to bring Latvians back, and have set up a working group which is in charge of developing drafting measures to support the so-called re-emigration plan. Some 30 social researchers, members of NGOs, employment confederations, civil organisations and municipalities, among others, make up this team of professionals.
Dace Akule, a social researcher at the Centre for Public Policy PROVIDUS specialising in migration issues, is one of the leading voices of the working group. “The key elements in this entire process are to boost the debate on all the levels, while making sure we change people’s mentality both home and abroad,” Akule explains. She believes that communication and understanding between all parts is essential because “there is the risk that those who stayed in the country, even during tough times, might feel like losers, seeing those abroad as the special ones for whom the country is doing … let’s say, a lot to bring them back. All in all, we have to believe that we can build a better future for our country and its people.”
In fact, economic incentives and job opportunities have been at the centre of the public debate; many Latvians abroad don't want to give up their comfortable economic lives somewhere else to come back to Latvia, where the labour market is slowly recovering (the unemployment rate stood at 15.9 per cent in June this year) and the minimum wage is around 200 lats (285 euros) before taxes. “I would love to go back to Latvia, but what will I do there?” Valentina says. She has a good job in Doncaster which allows her to pay all the monthly rent and utilities, plus support her son with his newly started university life. “I won't have a well paid job, [back in Latvia] I won't be able to support myself and my family … so that is not the life that I desire. Perhaps in the future, when I retire, but right now, no,” this 39-year-old woman adds.
The current repatriation law stipulates economic support of as much as 500 lats (715 Euros) to cover travel expenses for those who left Latvia prior May 4th 1990, as well as any under 18 year-old person. Partners and children of those who apply for the status are also included. Possible amendments to the law are highly considered within the working group, who believes that the Act and the application process to acquire the repatriated status need a face-lift.
The working group is weighing up several measures that could be introduced in the repatriation law; unemployment benefits for a certain period of time, support to learn the Latvian language, and a flexible tax and legal framework for those starting up their businesses, among others.
Akule explains that the main mission of the working group is to come up with “specific measures for a specific group that is formed by very diverse people. For that reason, we need to promote a wide debate on all the levels.”
“We need to attract back talent, while keeping in mind that not all the ones that might come back share this entrepreneurial spirit nor speak Latvian. Many Latvians married foreigners and they might return along with their partners and children; we have to be ready to offer them the tools to learn Latvian, something the government has failed to offer for the immigrant communities in the country up until now,” Dace adds.
According to estimations worked out by experts, the cost of such a package of measures within the Repatriation law could be around 1,600 lats (2,300 Euros) per person requiring unemployment benefit, travel expenses and language learning support.
Currently, around 2,000 people are coming back to Latvia every year, according to data from the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia. Dace Akule is optimistic about the plans to repatriate as many as 100,000 people and believes that if the country can raise the average number of returnees to 5,000 yearly, while making sure that people don't leave Latvia in such large number as they have in recent years, they can achieve such an ambitious goal.
However, according to Mihails Hazans, an economist at the University of Latvia, around 80,000 people left Latvia for somewhere else between 2008 and 2010. Hazans believes that the figure of 100,000 is “unrealistic”, taking into account the real economic situation of the country. In an article for the Latvian national daily newspaper Diena, Hazans recently stated that “current trends do not show any sharp drop in people’s interest in working abroad, and Latvians still feel the lack of employment opportunities and social security benefits. Therefore, we should consider ourselves very lucky if we managed to repatriate 50,000 people.”
For now, the government is trying to reach the large Latvian diaspora by engaging with them in a broad debate on the repatriation plan, and trying to boost the exchange of information between all parties. Meanwhile, Valentina wishes that the situation in Latvia would be better for her to come home. She misses Preili, Latvian summers, the countryside, and having her family closer. “I think the government shouldn't focus on us, but people who are currently in Latvia to ensure free healthcare, increase the minimum wage, remove unnecessary bureaucracy, and facilitate the creation of employment opportunities. Only then, would people consider settling back in Latvia,” Valentina says.
Ruben Martinez is a freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia and has collaborated with different international media in both Spanish and English.