One of the biggest questions raised by Lithuanians in the wake of the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union is what will happen to work migrants in the country. Will Brexit cause a wave of emigrants returning to Lithuania, and if so, what awaits them in Lithuania?
Emigrants
© DELFI (R.Achmedovo nuotr.)

Migration specialists Karolis Žibas and Audra Sipavičienė said that it would be not be rational to expect a wave of return emigrants because Lithuanian wages have not yet come near those in the UK.

The minimum wage in Lithuania is €350, with a minimum hourly wage of €2.13. In the UK, the minimum wage is currently €6.56-€8.92 per hour depending on a person's age, meaning that the minimum wage for a 40-hour work week is between €1,049 and €1,427. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that the value of the British Pound has dropped after the Brexit vote.

Experts say that there are only two things that can be expected after the Brexit if London actually begins exit procedures: either a drop in emigration from Lithuania, or a change in the locations to which Lithuanians emigrate. However, they will not deny that some emigrants may decide to return to Lithuania as well.

Sipavičienė said that one of the worst decisions would be for Lithuania's government to invite emigrants to return home without considering the detail of where returning migrants might work and live.

Brexit hasn't actually happened yet

Žibas pointed out that the exit process has not yet begun just because the British people voted for the Brexit in a referendum. The process will only begin when the UK's government activates Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

However, current prime minister David Cameron has said that he will leave this to his successor, who will only be chosen in October at the earliest, when Cameron resigns.

Once Article 50 is activated, the negotiations on the withdrawal process should take no longer than two years, though this window can be increased with the agreement of the European Council. During the negotiations, the withdrawing member state's future relationship with the European Union must be decided upon.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung organisation identified thre potential scenarios in a study on the costs and benefits of the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

In the most favourable scenario, the UK will form agreements with the EU similar to those enjoyed by Norway and Switzerland. In the middle scenario, the UK does not form any trade agreements with the EU and trade barriers emerge similar to those in effect for the United States.

In the least favourable scenario, the UK will be isolated and lose any priority access to the European market. The financial cost of the withdrawal and the changes in migration all depend on these scenarios.

How will this affect migration?

The National Bureau of Statistics in London has calculated that, in 2014, about 2.9 million citizens of other European Union countries lived in the United Kingdom. Of these, 1.242 million were from EU8 countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia).

Immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria form a separate group because these countries joined the EU later and their citizens had certain labour restrictions that ended in 2014. At the end of that year, there were already 235,000 Romanians and Bulgarians. As of the end of 2014, there were also 5.2 million immigrants from non-EU countries in the UK.

Resistance to immigration was one of the main arguments used by supporters of the withdrawal from the European Union. Therefore it is not impossible that the UK may decide to implement immigration restrictions.

In this case, that would mean limitations on immigration from EU countries. The Bertelsmann Stiftung study calculated that a reduction in immigrant numbers of at least 10%, Britain's income per capita would fall by between 0.5% and 1.1%. If the number of immigrants were to fall by 50%, the loss would be even greater at between 2.7% and 6.2% in the long term.

Could Lithuanians move to Norway and Sweden?

The United Kingdom is one of the most popular Lithuanian immigrant meccas. According to the Lithuanian embassy in the United Kingdom, the country may have about 180,000 Lithuanian citizens.

According to Eurostat, about 160,000 Lithuanians lived in the UK in the beginning of 2014. Though the United Kingdom does not belong to the Schengen Area, it was open to free movement of labour.

“If the Brexit is actually completed, I think that conditions may appear during the withdrawal process that would regulate mobility within the European Union. There's a big question of how that will be done. I think that the United Kingdom's politicians understand that immigration to the country contributed to economic growth. This is a fact. Only populist parties who have associated their entire campaign with immigration, and even lied, have denied this,” said Žibas.

He also said that that though immigration to the UK may at some point be limited, the country's withdrawal will probably not affect Lithuanians who currently legally live and work there. This would affect people who have not yet settled down in the UK or those who are still planning to go there.

Žibas believes that, after the UK's withdrawal, a new destination for migrants will be more likely than a return to Lithuania.

As an example, Žibas mentioned the behaviour of migrants during the economic crisis between 2008 and 2010. At the time, it was hoped that migrants would return to their own countries (Lithuania and Poland), but they simply turned to northern countries like Norway and Sweden.

Who might return to Lithuania?

One of the main reasons scientists believe emigrants wouldn't return to Lithuania from the UK is the difference in salaries. Sipavičienė, the head of the Vilnius office of the International Organization for Migration, said that return migration would naturally grow if there was higher demand for labour and wages were higher than they are now. According to her, the attractiveness of salaries in Lithuania depends on the industry.

According to Statistics Lithuania, the largest average wages in 2015 were in the Information and Commnication (€1,229 before taxes) and finance and insurance (€1,341.90 before taxes) sectors. The lowest were in the hospitality and catering (€452.90 before taxes), artistic/recreational organisation (€582.90 before taxes), and other service sectors (€587.50 before taxes).

Sipavičienė said emigrants are not interested in positions that pay minimum wage. However, she did not rule out the possibility that the results of the UK's referendum may cause Lithuanians working in the UK to panic – for them, returning to Lithuania may seem safer than staying in a country in which their future is uncertain.

“However, I think that emigration from Lithuania to the United Kingdom may drop,” said Sipavičienė.

The Vilnius office of the International Organization for Migration said the most popular countries for Lithuanian emigrants in 2005-2015 were the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Norway, Spain, the USA, Russia, Denmark and Sweden.

When asked when the best time would be to lure emigrants home, Sipavičienė said that those returning need specific information and certainty that they will be able to survive while they look for work. She emphasised single parents with children as an especially vulnerable group. She said that some young people were glad to return from emigration to immediately begin mandatory basic military training.

“If you return with nothing, you return like a loser, but if you make it into the military, you became a defender of your homeland, and then you also have certain privileges when entering higher education. However, the very worst thing would be to invite people to return without thinking about the details, about what people will do when they return.

“Employers say that they lack workers, but I don't know if their salaries would satisfy returning emigrants. They need workers but they want to get them cheap. If you want a good worker, however, you have to raise the salary. However, small businesses may not be able to handle these costs,” she said.

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