Where have all our migrants gone? Eastern Europe wants them back.
VILNIUS, LITHUANIA — Much ado was made in Paris several years ago about the symbolic "Polish plumber" who was coming to steal jobs from les français. Now, it's Eastern Europeans who are lamenting the loss of not only plumbers, but all service workers.
"If you want some repairs in your apartment, you can't find anyone," says Rita Stankeviciute, a sportswriter in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. "It's ridiculous. Lines in the grocery stores are longer. When I used to need a taxi, it was always three minutes. Now it's 'In an hour.'"
As Western Europeans fret about a new wave of Eastern Europeans flooding their countries – this time from Romania and Bulgaria, the EU's newest members – those nations have an opposite concern: how to bring those immigrants home.
For a small country like Lithuania, with a low birthrate but high rates of immigration, alcoholism, and suicide, the situation is particularly urgent. The former communist nation of 4 million has seen at least 400,000 people migrate west, whether to work construction in Dublin, pick strawberries in southern Spain, or conduct research in Scandinavia.
"We must invite them back," says Zilvinas Beliauskas, director of the government- supported Returning Lithuanian Information Center. "We should consider them an integral part of the nation."
Agencies such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have also joined the repatriation movement. IOM's Vilnius branch recently unveiled its Lithuanian-language "Independent Migration Information Center" website to separate fact from fiction for both Lithuanians contemplating migration abroad and those mulling a return home.
It's the first such IOM site among new EU members, says Audra Sipaviciene, who heads the Vilnius office.
"If a migrant's been gone for five years, sometimes they're very pessimistic about the job situation back home, that 'Oh, nothing's changed,' " says Ms. Sipaviciene. "But it is very different. So if there's good information, all in one place, perhaps they'll return."
Deimante Doksaite, a young Lithuanian journalist who recently cofounded Lietuviams.com to keep the diaspora connected with home, had a slightly different goal: show compassion.
"Immigration is the issue everyone here talks about," says Ms. Doksaite. Yet migrants "don't get enough attention from Lithuania, so we wanted to ... let them know someone here cares. And this is the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to do it."
In a region where seemingly everyone has a sibling or neighbor working in the West, similar websites have also sprouted for Poles, Latvians, and Russians.
Economic migration westward, both legal and illegal, has been a constant since the Berlin Wall crumbled 17 years ago. Some politicians in the economically ravaged East have been reluctant to stem the tide. The billions of dollars of remittances sent home annually to the region have been a boon, and the exodus has eased pressure to produce decent-paying jobs quickly. In fact, the migrants have allowed states to project, somewhat misleadingly, the image of having effectively tackled unemployment:In July, the EU said Estonia and Lithuania had recorded the largest drops in unemployment among all EU members.
But it's also become clear that just as the brain drain harms the national interest – as highly educated young professionals flee to fulfill their earning potential in wealthier countries – the disappearing working class is devastating local service industries, with shortages of construction workers, truck drivers, waitresses, and supermarket clerks.
To compensate, some employers in the region are now turning to laborers from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Moldova. In Vilnius, where there's a fear of re-Russification, "Lithuania for Lithuanians" sentiment runs high.
But Poland, by far the largest of the new EU members, couldn't hold off any longer. In August, the Polish Labor Ministry announced it would no longer require work permits for farmworkers from the East arriving for seasonal work.
Some say higher salaries could bring back Poles, but that would also raise costs for employers, making them less competitive in international markets.
"It's my dream to return to Poland, but not for 30 percent of my salary," says economist Jacek Cukrowski, a regional adviser for the UN Development Program in Bratislava, Slovakia. "So many have gone west [that] to return, they might not have to receive equal pay, but certainly more than now."
In Lithuania, pay is only one factor, says Vida Bagdonaviciene, deputy director general of the state Department of Lithuanians Living Abroad. She says that some Lithuanians may be turned off by the bureaucracy, corruption, and crime – the latter two often sensationalized by the media, she says. Or perhaps it's the gloominess. She says that one contented transplant in Dublin told her, "Irish people are always smiling and polite."
Lithuanian officials now study the Irish experience: Long a source of migration, Ireland gradually evolved into the economic "Emerald Tiger" and a destination target for migrants.
Mr. Beliauskas is a member of an interagency task force that the government created earlier this year to propose ways to recover some of the nation's human resources – while also tapping the experiences they've accrued abroad.
The group expects to convene its first meeting this month, proffering concrete ideas: small-business loans and special classes for young Lithuanians to reintegrate into schools – and for young adults, year-long scholarships to study or do research work in an institute.
On Lietuviams.com, much of the content is geared to life in Lithuania, such as tax policies, job prospects, and real-estate prices.
"Everything comes down to quality of life," says Ms. Bagdonaviciene. "Migrants have contact with their family and friends, and they're waiting for the signal that things have really gotten better here."