Where do Lithuanians emigrate | True Lithuania
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Lithuanian emigration today: the third wave (1990-)

Lithuanians are currently emigrating at a speed is the largest in the history of Lithuania, sending the Lithuanian population on a rapid decline and accelerating it aging.

Considered a societal problem by many, it reached its current epic proportions in 2004 after Lithuania joined the European Union. 1,5% of the total population emigrate every year for 15 years in a row, the population declined from 3,5 million to 2,8 million. Such an emigration impact is unheard of in countries not hit by the war and disasters.

Why do people emigrate from Lithuania?

They emigrate because, since Lithuania became an EU member, emigrating to Western Europe became as easy as moving to another Lithuanian city, while salaries in the West are still significantly higher (often twice as high, although the prices are somewhat higher as well).

The Lithuanian economy has been ravaged by 50 years of occupation and the communist Soviet regime. At the time Lithuania became independent from the Soviet Union, the GNP of Lithuania was merely one-fifth of that of many Western European countries. The salaries were likewise lower. The economy was growing fast but it was widely expected it would take multiple decades (almost the entire generation) to catch up with the West.

However, paradoxically, in that "poorest" era (1990-2004) economic migration was at a fraction of what it is today. That's because emigration was difficult since rich countries did not easily accept Lithuanians at the time. Some "adventurers" have tried illegal emigration, others found various legal exceptions as they went to their relatives or won US green cards, yet the overall numbers of such emigrants were rather small.

All that changed when Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004. Emigration from Lithuania became easier than ever before in history: one did no longer even need a visa or a permit to legally emigrate to richer lands of the EU. Thus, even though the Lithuanian economy had by this time closed some half of its gap from the Western European economy, it was at this time that Lithuanian emigration reached proportions never heard before. The new generation of Lithuanians also increasingly spoke English and was well-versed in knowledge about western European life, rendering emigration even easier for the youth.

Lithuania closing the gap with the West economically. In 1995, Lithuania's GNP per capita made up only 21,69% of the Finnish GNP per capita. It rose to 72,81% by the year 2017

Lithuania closing the gap with the West economically after the liberation from the Soviet Union. In 1995, Lithuania's GNP per capita made up only 21,69% of the Finnish GNP per capita. It rose to 72,81% by the year 2017

While Lithuanians far from the only Central/Eastern Europeans to emigrate, a larger share of the Lithuanian population emigrated than anywhere else in the region. High historic rates of emigration (First wave and Second wave) must have contributed to that as they ensured nearly every Lithuanian had stories of emigration from their own families, putting this option into consideration.

Special case: Soviet settlers Throughout the Soviet occupation (1940-1941, 1944-1990), the Soviet Union sent settlers to live in Lithuania in order to dilute the Lithuanian ethnic majority. The majority of the settlers were Russians but there were also Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others. Most of these settlers did not speak Lithuanian, did not have relatives in Lithuania, and did not consider Lithuania to be their homeland. While the Soviet Union existed, this caused no problems to them (as everyone was obliged to learn Russian and there were no borders or visas hindering intra-Union travel) but as the Union collapsed, they decided to leave, often to their ethnic homelands. In the case of the Soviet settlers, most of them emigrated to other ex-Soviet countries that were not richer than Lithuania: the reasons for emigration were purely to be able to live where their culture and language dominated. Unlike Latvia or Estonia, Lithuania offered its citizenship to all the Soviet settlers who wanted to stay - however, some third still decided to leave immediately after independence. A part of the historic ethnic minorities (especially the Jews) have also left to their "cultural homelands" together with the settlers once the Soviet restrictions for immigration were lifted, as they were still less attached to Lithuania than the Lithuanians were. Some of the Soviet settlers who emigrated were actually the ones responsible for the Soviet Genocide and war crimes; they emigrated in order to hide from justice.

Special case: businessmen Lithuania became one of the best-performing ex-Soviet countries economically and it was the first one to get many Western-style businesses such as shopping malls, cafeterias, fast food restaurants, etc. All that happened in the 1990s already while many other Soviet countries still lacked such institutions in the 2000s. Entrepreneurial Lithuanians used up this moment to emigrate to such "eastern lands" and establish their own businesses there, essentially copying the Lithuanian experience of the 1990s. They had unique qualifications for that as, unlike businessmen of Western Europe, they understood post-Soviet business culture (e.g. corruption) as well as spoke Russian.

Special case: love and cultural reasons For the first time in Lithuanian history it is now possible to easily meet and fall in love with people from far abroad. This is facilitated by tourism and the internet. Situations, where Lithuanians (usually women) marry off to foreign lands thus became more common. In the 1990s and 2000s, some Lithuanian women sought for relationships with foreigners on purpose, hoping to marry off to richer lands, this essentially being a form of economic migration (such practices withered after Lithuania became richer, and EU membership made it easier to emigrate to even richer lands without marriage). Tourism, foreign TV shows, and the internet also made foreign lands and cultures easily accessible to Lithuanians, making some of them fall in love with specific foreign cultures (e.g. Indian or Japanese), with a few of these lovers ending up in the countries they came to love.

Special case: European bureucrats After Lithuania has joined the European Union, Lithuanians are accepted into various European institutions and in some, a quota has been allocated for each country. In order to work for these institutions, Lithuanians usually have to leave Lithuania (at least while in that job).

Special case: Students Now is the first time when foreign studies may be accessible to most, at least the studies in European Union where it is possible even to study for free. As such, many Lithuanian students opt for foreign studies.

How many people emigrated from Lithuania after 1990?

Up to 1 million or a third of the total population have left Lithuania after 1990, divided into the following groups:

*During the main post-2004 European Union wave - ~700 000 in total until 2020 (~45 000 every year, or ~1,5% of the population every year)
*Ethnic Lithuanians emigrating before the EU membership in 1990-2004 era - ~100 000 (~6 500 per year)
*Ethnic minorities (especially Soviet settlers) emigrating mostly in the early 1990s immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union: ~200 000, including some third of Lithuania's Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and the majority of Lithuania's Jews.

Where do people emigrate to from Lithuania?

Most Lithuanian emigrants emigrate to the countries of the European Economic Area where emigration is free.

By far, the most popular has been the United Kingdom which has attracted ~300 000 Lithuanians, followed by Ireland (~80 000), Norway (~70 000), Germany (~60 000), Spain (~50 000), Denmark (~20 000), Sweden (~15 000). There are considerable variations in these estimates, though, due to undeclared emigration.

Prior to the European Union membership in 2004, the USA, Australia, and Canada were among the most popular destinations. Post-2004, however, it made little sense to emigrate there as one can get a similar salary in Western Europe with much less of a hassle. Some still go there, primarily those with relatives there or career opportunities (between the years 2010 and 2018, 12408 emigrated to the USA, 1873 chose Canada, and 1427 chose Australia).

The emigration to the UK and Ireland began before the EU membership presumably due to the English language prevailing there, which was already the most commonly-spoken Western language in Lithuania.

Soviet settlers typically departed for their own titular homelands, i.e. Russians for Russia, Belarusians for Belarus, Ukrainians for Ukraine, and Jews for Israel. While such emigration peaked in the early 1990s, there are still people among Lithuania's minorities who emigrate to their "cultural homelands". Between the years 2010 and 2018, for example, 12503 have emigrated to Russia, 8769 left for Belarus, 7642 left for Ukraine, 1568 left for Poland, and 751 departed for Israel. Some of the people emigrating eastwards are actually Lithuanian businessmen.

Love/cultural emigration knows no boundaries. Therefore, Lithuanians marry off even into exotic lands such as Latin America, Asia, or Africa but compared to other emigration the numbers are small.

It should be noted that these statistics do not consider personal history: that is, those emigrants who later returned to Lithuania are still counted as emigrants, and those emigrants who immigrated to Lithuania themselves before emigrating again are also counted among emigrants. Both groups are a minority, though.

How do Lithuanians live after emigrating?

The majority of post-1990 Lithuanian emigrants got low-skilled blue-collar jobs, even if some/many had university degrees back in Lithuania. Such blue-collar jobs are some of the lowest-paid in those countries yet still, they are often paid better than qualified work in Lithuania (although the gap has been disappearing) and nearly always paid better than similar jobs in Lithuania.

While prices were significantly higher in countries where Lithuanians emigrate as well, many emigrants got around this by living as tightly as possible and flying back to Lithuania for the most expensive services (e.g. dentistry). This allowed many Lithuanians to earn Western salaries and not pay full Western prices.

The quality of life, however, was often worse than in Lithuania due to such frugality. Many third-wave emigrants came in terms with that by expecting to return to Lithuania someday and using the money they saved to buy a better life (e.g. a nice private home) there. In reality, most never returned, becoming too used to live abroad. Many actually did buy homes in Lithuania, to be used for holidays, or as an investment, or saved for the day they would retire.

Many emigrants would send remittances back to Lithuania for their parents and children (it is relatively common to leave children behind when emigrating expecting to return). They regularly visit Lithuania, which is easy from most countries with modern-day Lithuanian diaspora due to low-cost flights.

As the time of return to Lithuania is dashed further and further on, Lithuanian emigrants slowly take more permanent solutions, such as improving their living conditions "there", bringing the kids (if they were left in Lithuania), cutting down on remittances, and visiting Lithuania less and less frequently. Sometimes, it takes about a decade before they fully recognize they won't be returning, although perhaps still hoping to retire to Lithuania.

At that point, they face an important decision on what to do with their citizenship. Naturalization in their "new homelands" means losing Lithuanian citizenship as Lithuania does not permit dual citizenship to most people and, despite the diaspora activism, that article of the Lithuanian constitution is essentially impossible to change due to some of the strictest referendum laws in the democratic world. Some Lithuanians opt for naturalization, others remain citizens of Lithuania. Significant numbers keep both citizenships illegally by not notifying Lithuania about getting another citizenship.

Lithuanians (just like other Central/Eastern Europeans) tend to face discrimination in many countries they immigrate to. That's because Central/Eastern Europeans are not locals but still they are whites and Christians. In many countries where Lithuanians emigrated, various anti-discrimination measures are only effectively applied to discrimination against other races and religions but the discrimination against Eastern/Central Europeans is considered more acceptable. Stereotypes, jokes, and cliches that would be considered grossly racist if mentioning Blacks or anti-Semitic if mentioning the Jews are widely tolerated if they target Eastern/Central European immigrants. Still, the form of discrimination that has arguably attracted the most attention in the Lithuanian press has been linguistic/cultural one where various countries (especially Norway and the UK) preclude Lithuanians from bringing up their children the Lithuanian way, there being cases of Lithuanians actually having their children taken away for parents putting an "undue educational load" on them by trying to make them learn their native language.

The majority of recent Lithuanian emigrants went to countries with no historic Lithuanian communities. Compared to the previous waves, they do surprisingly little to cooperate with other Lithuanians. For example, 300 000 Lithuanians who emigrated to the UK is a number comparable to Lithuanians who left for the USA before 1914. And while Lithuanian-Americans built ~80 Lithuanian churches, ~40 Lithuanian cemeteries, many clubs back then, nothing similar happened in the UK. Lithuanian institutions typically consist of a few shops, restaurants and newspapers, aimed at quenching the nostalgia for Lithuanian food and information about fellow Lithuanians. There may be Lithuanian festivals attended by some but regular activities are rarer.

A small Lituanica store under a railroad in Birmingham. 'Lituanica' is the largest chain of Lithuanian stores in the UK, though even it has just 9 locations, all of them small and also selling other Eastern European goods to have a wider appeal. Google Street View.

One reason for such lack of cooperation may be that with the internet, cheap flights, and the Soviet occupation already ended, Lithuania itself is not that far away psychologically for there to be a reason to build a "tiny Lithuania" abroad. Another reason, especially for the most recent emigrants, is that they typically speak the local language (often English) well and thus they are able to read the local media and make friends with non-Lithuanians. Also, as people emigrate from Lithuania purely for economic reasons, there is no longer that mindset of being an "emigrant against your will" that prevailed in the previous waves.

Still, a minority of Lithuanian emigrants do actually try to "keep the Lithuanian flag waving" by creating Lithuanian language schools for their children. This is typically the case with those who emigrated after marrying in Lithuania and/or seek to return. The Republic of Lithuania, now independent, tries to support Lithuanian activities abroad through various funding programs.

In the countries where historic Lithuanian clubs, schools, and parishes were strong, however, such as the USA, Canada, the UK or Australia numerous recent Lithuanian emigrants have integrated into the Second-Wave (DP) Lithuanian clubs and even took the helm of such institutions as the DP generation is dying off. With all the work and investments already done, keeping such institutions going require less work and provides bigger benefits than trying to launch a new organization, so even for smaller Lithuania-minded third-wave groups this option is accessible. Such integration into pre-WW2 communities was more common from 1990-2004 as, at the time, Lithuanian emigrants often did not speak English well, and many were invited by their relatives who were already part of such organizations.

However, there is still a great cultural gap between the modern third-wave emigrants and the earlier waves of Lithuanian emigration - a lot of it is because of the third-waver's experience of the Soviet occupation. Only some have managed to overcome this. To some of the DPs who were forced to leave Lithuania to avoid the Soviet Genocide, the mere fact that the recent immigrants leave *independent Lithuania* en-masse for bigger money seems sacrilegious, while the lack of patriotism among the new migrants undaunting. To some recent migrants, though, the older Lithuanian diaspora members do not seem to be Lithuanians at all, as they speak Lithuanian with a strong accent (if at all) and know little about contemporary Lithuania, "naively loving some long-destroyed ideal".

Even bigger is the attitude divide. Soviet occupation has introduced (or expanded) issues such as corruption, bribery, and binge-drinking into the Lithuanian culture. While Catholic faith and parishes are the foundation of many pre-occupation Lithuanian communities abroad, after decades of the Soviet atheism, most recent migrants are not religious. They see the tacit DP expectation that they would join weekly religious services to be a hindrance. The levels of criminality and deceitful behavior are also higher among the recent immigrants whereas charitable behavior is less common (possibly because of the poorness experienced by the recent immigrants, making them cling to money much more). All that made the earlier generations of Lithuanians wary of accepting newcomers into managerial positions of their clubs. Not being easily accepted, newcomers sometimes see such clubs as a clique that is set to die off.

Then there is a generational divide: by the time the mostly-young Lithuanian emigrants started arriving en-masse from Lithuania, the pre-WW2 Lithuanian organizations mostly had a significantly older membership. Paradoxically, though, such a generational divide is smaller than it was between youth and old in 1990s-2000s Lithuania itself. Having spent their lives in a free society, even the old DPs had experience with activities that were considered "domain of the young" in Lithuania (traveling, driving cars daily, fast food, marketing, investing, etc.). Likewise, after living in a socially conservative Soviet Union, the third wave migrants were far more conservative than most Westerners of their age, this appealing to the elderly DPs. For example, an average Lithuanian who grew up in Soviet-occupied Lithuania of 1980s is likely to have similar opinions on issues such as same-sex marriages or high number of sexual partners as somebody who grew up in America in the 1940s.

Still, often the recent Lithuanian immigrants felt there were more differences between them and DPs than there were similarities and, to the horror of the older immigrants, some of them fraternize more with the Russian or other ex-Soviet immigrants who have the same experiences and collective memory of the Soviet Union and post-Soviet times.

Special case: career emigrants (expats) Some Lithuanian third wave emigrants managed to get qualified work in the West. Often these were some of the best in their field (e.g. doctors). Instead of emigrating “into the unknown”, they either emigrated already having a work proposal that could be regarded as a career step up, or emigrated for university studies and then remained in the country of emigration afterward. Such people typically integrated into society swifter (without a period of "being poor" by the Western standards).

Special case: criminals A significant number of Lithuanian criminals emigrated as well with the third wave, attracted by vast opportunities to get wealth illegally in countries where what was a great wealth in Lithuania was something-not-even-the-police-cares-about. This emigration slashed the crime rates in Lithuania but also created a negative image of Lithuanians in some Western countries.

Special case: Soviet settlers The Soviet settlers and the other ethnic minorities who emigrated in the 1990s generally integrated into the local societies and ceased associating themselves with Lithuania. For many of them, Lithuania was simply a temporary location where they spent some part of their lives, rather than a part of their culture or essence.

Special case: businessmen Lithuanians who went to do business in the less developed ex-Soviet countries typically enjoyed a situation reversal from that of their fellow Lithuanians who emigrated westwards. While the westwards migrants were considered "low class" locally and looked down at by many locals in their "new homelands", the eastwards-emigrating businessmen often became a part of the local high society to some extent, respected by the locals there as "advanced westerners". Due to the problems with democracy in many of these countries, though, such a position may be temporary and there were cases when Lithuanian businessmen were forced to leave their new country due to the changes in political winds; as such, few of them feel as rooted in their "new homelands" as Lithuanians of the West are.

Populi retail chain in Georgia has been established by Lithuanian businessmen and used Lithuanian symbolics. Not because there would be a large Lithuanian community in Georgia but rather because such symbolics were seen as prestigious by Georgians, for whom Lithuania was 'the West'. Eventually, however, due to changed leadership in Georgia, the owners had to leave the country. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Special case: Students While studying, many of them are unsure on how will their life go on. Many do return to Lithuania after they end their studies though others get a local job and remain, essentially joining the other emigrants.

Special case: European bureucrats The assignments in European Union institutions tend to be temporary. While some of the bureucrats aim to stay within these institutions until they retire, moving from one institution to another if needed, in general, far more of these people know they would return to Lithuania at some time than among many other groups. Depending on the position, European bureucrats may be either working for EU institutions directly, or be representatives of their own countries, with the latter retaining even more connection to Lithuania, their position being more equivalent to that of diplomats rather than to that of emigrants.

Special case: Early 1990s migrants to America. Because they often emigrated without knowing foreign languages or way of life that well, and they emigrated to areas with strong historic Lithuanian communities, they often joined and clinged to these communities. There they were exposed to Lithuanian histories that had been whitewashed in Soviet-occupied Lithuania through first-hand accounts of the Second Wave Lithuanian emigrants. This made some of the early 1990s migrants to America to be the most patriotic and Lithuanian-history-loving people in their generation, while early exposure to leftist Western values often made them especially wary of those.

How do the children of Lithuanian emigrants live?

Given the wide spread of the recent Lithuanian emigrants all over the world, it is difficult to compare the childhoods and youths of their children. The situations range from children who are brought up as Lithuanians to situations where they know little about Lithuania. Due to the influence of the local education system, however, even the most Lithuanian-brought-up children typically are significantly assimilated. In fact, due to the fact that formal education is available to younger children in many countries these years than it used to be decades ago, children are exposed to the local language very early and quite often start speaking that language even to their parents.

Some of the issues that influence children's assimilation:
*Children born in Lithuania or to parents who emigrated together as a family tend to speak Lithuanian at home and know the culture better. Such parents are also more likely to have some formal Lithuanian education for their kids, although even without it the children would likely speak the language.
*Children who are brought for prolonged summer holidays to Lithuania (e.g. to grandparents) also tend to feel more Lithuanian.
*Children whose parents are thinking about returning to Lithuania tend to be brought up as Lithuanians more.
*On the other hand, in mixed-ethnicity families, much less Lithuanian culture survives. While as a nod of respect to the Lithuanian parent some language or cultural traditions may be taught to the child, this happens only in a minority of the families and it is not comparable to the immersive Lithuanian experience of the single-ethnicity-family children. In mixed families, the parents typically speak a local language among themselves and thus to the children, removing a major possibility to learn the language through experience. It is highly unlikely such children would pass on even the few Lithuanian traditions they have learned on to their own children.

Lithuania seeks to keep these children as Lithuanian as possible, allowing them to even have Lithuanian citizenship despite having another citizenship (an option not available to their immigrant parents).

Given the newness of the Third Emigration wave, it is impossible to say so far how will the foreign-born Lithuanian kids live in their later years. The views vary widely:
-Optimists hope that significant numbers of Lithuanians and their children would return to Lithuania after it gets richer or would keep contact with Lithuania through modern means.
-"Realists" believe that Third Wave children completely assimilate into the local societies with the historic pattern of strong Lithuanianness lingering for ~3 generations after emigration not applicable due to higher intermarriage rates.
-Pessimists think that Lithuanian culture will slowly dissipate even in Lithuania itself, as more and more Lithuanian speakers will move out and they will be replaced by immigrants, destroying that millennia-old situation when Lithuania was a location where a clear majority of people were Lithuanians, and putting Lithuanians in the shoes of Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians, a minority in their own country.

What heritage do the Lithuanian emigrants leave after them?

They have built very little so far. Ephemeral businesses in rental premises are typically the only physically Lithuanian institutions in existence. While this emigration wave is larger than any wave before it, so far it had not constructed Lithuanian memorials, buildings, or churches, unlike each emigration wave before them.

In some cases, though, third wave Lithuanian immigrants were instrumental in saving and restoring the heritage sites built by previous Lithuanian diaspora waves, including building new memorials there.

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