• 2000-07-27
Benjamin Disraeli said "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics" This was borne out recently with the official announcement that the Lithuanian population has shrunk by 12,000 people since the last census and is now around 3,690,000. The Statistics Department admits this number is possibly flawed. Some senior pundits believe up to 300,000 people have left Lithuania to work, most of them illegally, in Europe, Australia and North America in the last few years.

The majority can be classified as economic immigrants. There isn't much in Lithuania to keep an educated young person from fleeing West. An entry-level position at a large corporation for an MBA pays 3,000 to 4,000 litas a month before taxes ($750 to $1,000). A dental assistant, fresh out of school, earns 5 litas an hour ($1.25). Living expenses are lower here, especially food and lodging, but gas and most durable consumer goods cost what they would abroad - sometimes even more, owing to import duties and low sales volume. Survival in Lithuania is possible, but prospering is another story.

Young, educated Lithuanians who go abroad often end up working at low-paying service sector jobs, especially in their first years, because they can earn up to 10 times what they earn at home. It is not uncommon for illegal men to pay local women with legitimate passports to marry for legal status, only to divorce a few years later.

Lithuanian women flock to nightclubs hoping to bag a husband from the many visiting businessmen. Marriage Web sites are also a popular vehicle out of the country. Some desperate middle-aged Lithuanian women scour the obituaries of the émigré Lithuanian press looking for recent widowers. The more scrupulous simply go on "holiday" to visit relatives and end up working as under-the-table caregivers to the elderly.

The Lithuanian press documents many cases of women answering job ads to work as housekeepers in foreign hotels where their documents are taken, and they end up as sex slaves. A few connect with local law enforcement and escape. Many simply disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.

Lithuanian newspaper classifieds show ads from immigration consultants promising to ease the way to a legitimate work visa in the United States by charging $100 to fill out a form free to anyone at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius.

The EU policy to require a five-year transition and investment period prior to accession is wise. If EU were to open the doors to Lithuanian workers today, the country would see such a flood of young people leaving that there would be virtually no work force left. Let's hope the budding recovery in Lithuania's economic fortunes will be sustained. And let's hope that some of those who have left get home sick and come back.