Migration and Demography: Impact on Latvian Sovereignty?

The Baltic Times ran an interesting article recently on a speech given by Latvian President Andris Berzins. He gave the speech on March 25 at the Freedom Monument in honor of the victims that were deported to Siberia during Soviet rule in 1949. This interesting bit is that the speech itself partially (at least) concerned Latvian emigration from the country, with the President arguing that if emigration wasn’t checked the Latvia’s independence would be in doubt in 10 years.

The article reports that over 40,000 Latvians were deported from the country by the Soviet authorities between March 25th and 29th, about 2.3% of the country’s population at the time.

The deportations are distinct to emigration in a number of ways, one being the forcibly nature of the activity. While deportations are, strictly speaking, “emigration” (out-migration) they are coerced and usually distinguished with the qualifier “forced migration”. Similar processes are also attributed to refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylees. Each of these persons are “migrants” but of a forced, rather than willed nature. Of course, that brings us to a philosophical debate on how much “free will” one has in the first place. There are indirect coercions, in terms of gentrification, being priced out of your neighborhood or home. Should we consider this type of migration a “forced migration”?

Another difference is the temporal nature. As the article shows, forced deportations can happen quickly (especially with governments without independent judiciaries). In Latvia, 40,000 people (the size of a town) disappeared within one week. Typically, migration data is presented over the course of a year (since its a fairly rare occurrence when viewed through the lens of an entire country). If this 40,000 in a week held as the average for the year (which thankfully it didn’t), over 2,000,000 Latvians would have been banished to Siberia. Note that would have been more than the country’s population at the time (it was between 1.7 and 1.8 million persons).

With this in mind, let’s try to evaluate the respective outflows. The Census Bureau estimates a NET migration of just over -5,000 people. This net number is the total of immigrants minus emigrants. So there’s likely to be a few more total emigrants, to account for the overall negative migration total. However, 5,000 emigrants represents less than 1% of Latvia’s total population of over 2 million people (2013 estimates). Since I’ve already noted that Latvia’s population is currently declining, its useful to add that the natural increase (in this case decrease) of the population is a larger magnitude than the emigration. To give you numbers, the 5,000 (or more) emigrants is a smaller loss compared to the (about) 8,000 people lost due to the death rate being higher than the birth rate. In other words, the disparity in birth/death rates is having a larger impact on population decline than the emigration rate.

By 2025, since the Latvian President mentioned a timeframe of 10 years, the Census estimates that the net migration rate will remain the same (about 5,000 people leaving Latvia that year). However, the magnitude of the natural decrease will grow to over -12,000 persons. The Census then predicts a worsening disparity between births and deaths, driven by an aging Latvian population (where births will fall even lower as there are less young people, and deaths increase since there are more elderly). Despite the population decreasing to about 1.9 million persons, the loss of 5,000 (or so emigrants) is still less than 1% of the total population.

Though emigration is an obvious “problem” in the sense that it contributes to population decline, the main driver is the very low birth rate. Since I’m not sure what Latvia’s President was referring to in terms of loss of independence, from a demographic standpoint, the low birth rate would be the prime suspect if Latvia lost its independence.

From an economic geography standpoint, however, emigration can cause at least three potential problems. First, there is the loss of labor and revenue from Latvia to another country. Latvian and multinational businesses in Latvia would lose out on increased productivity and not to mention potential sales in Latvia. Moreover, Latvia also loses individual taxes. Of course, the loss of potential sales and income taxes is offset if the individual is able to remit money back home (remittances). Remittances are the sending of money (often through the wire or informal networks) from an emigrants location to the home country to support a family or community. In this way, the home community still receives some economic benefit from the lost labor and productivity. But this brings about the second potential problem, Latvia may grow to become increasingly dependent on remittances for economic well-being. Although figures for remittances are difficult to come by (primarily because it can be under-reported or not reported at all), some countries (like Bangladesh, some Central American, and Sub-Saharan African states) are heavily dependent on remittances. If remittances disappear, whether by financial collapse in the emigrant’s country or loss of work or network, the home country will suffer. Finally, emigrants are often able, through themselves or their families, to maintain property in their home communities. Given that they typically earn higher wages abroad, these properties can earn the resentment of non-migrating neighbors or family members who are often contracted (or asked) to look after a place, work it,

By the same token, however, emigration can offer future opportunities for Latvia. I’m not a globalization booster, but if the returning migrants are able to find jobs or create their own (both necessitate Latvia having the economic space to accommodate this) they can bring skills and perspective that may not be available, making the Latvian economy dynamic in the long run.

Then there’s the political geography standpoint. As a well-functioning democracy, I assume that Latvia provides opportunity for Latvian emigrants to cast their vote during elections. Under the independence argument, perhaps the Latvian President is referring to a situation in which the numbers of Latvians abroad can significantly influence the outcome of an election, even though they don’t live, work, or play in Latvia. In the United States, we don’t have to address or think about this problem since the country attracts many more immigrants than it sends away. However in countries with significant numbers of citizens abroad, perhaps they can influence an election?

And finally, there’s the social aspect of sovereignty. Moving changes a person. Move from one town to another and you’ll be exposed to new people, new ways of doing things. Now move to another province, perhaps another region, maybe you’ll notice cultural differences (I certainly did moving from Texas to Washington, D.C.). Now think about moving abroad for years. You might not know the language (or have only a rudimentary knowledge) and you certainly won’t be acculturated. Chances are, also, that you’ll end up living in a city in the new country which is full of people, some of whom are native urbanites, some of whom are from more rural areas, some from different provinces or regions, and some (like you) from another country. Yes, moving changes you. And then maybe you’ll go back.

With a country like the United States, where a relatively small (I assume) proportion of Americans live abroad for extended (read: over 5 years) periods of time and then come back to the United States, the “political” and “social” shift is negligible. But imagine a country like Latvia where between 25,000 and 34,000 people emigrated to Ireland and the United Kingdom between 2004 and 2007 (based on a blogspot post). The 59,000 Latvians represent 2.8% of the 2013 population of 2.1 million. Of course, that includes children and the elderly (those least likely to emigrate for work). The U.S. Census estimates there 1.5 million Latvians between the ages of 15 and 64, making the 25,000 emigres almost 4% of the population. As the blogspot post observes, during the 2006 Ireland Census only 62% of the Latvians that had arrived remained. The rest may have gone to another country for work or returned home.

This post presented a meandering discussion of whether emigration in Latvia could, in the near future, impact that country’s “sovereignty”, as prophesied by the country’s President. As always, the answer depends on the meaning behind the terms. Will Latvia be at the mercy of a foreign power ( Russia ) because of emigration? Unlikely. Emigrants aren’t going to Russia, they’re going to western Europe. Latvia isn’t likely to lose its political and economic independence with a relatively small outflow of about 5,000 people a year (which might be undercounting). While Latvia isn’t at risk of being dominated by “foreign” interests, a growing proportion of Latvians living abroad, or influenced by their time abroad, can certainly have a noticeable political, economic, and social impact – at least in the medium term. Perhaps this is what President Berzins foresees? Perhaps he believes there’s a coming internal conflict (not necessarily violent) between “native” Latvians and returning or emigrated Latvians. The sovereignty issue, then, isn’t about foreign domination its about a (necessary) political debate on the future of the country and how its people interpret their experiences. If we were to identify a “real” threat to Latvian sovereignty, in the traditional sense, it would be demographic aging and low birth rates. Coupled with Latvia’s poor economic situation (compared with Western Europe) and we find that emigration from Latvia for higher wages is a safety valve for the country. Rather than degrading sovereignty, emigration might actually be protecting it.


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