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Migration: People on the Move in Armenia

Year/Date: 24/02/2012

ne of thousands of interview during the ETF survey of former and potential migrants in Armenia

Photo: One of hundreds of interviews during the ETF's survey of the former and potential migrants in Armenia

The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts is housed in a modern, stone-coated structure that sits atop a rise in the middle of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. On one of the walls of its main exhibition hall hangs a world map covered with dozens of red dots in different sizes.

The dots point to the origins of the Armenian books and documents on display at the institute. Some of them date from the early middle ages. Predictably, a red swarm hovers south of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas. But then the dots spread to other regions, countries and continents – from Italy to Iran to India.

The red dots are more than a bibliophile’s record. They tell a story of people who travelled, studied and worked far away from their ancestral lands - migration is no new thing for Armenians.

In charge of managing Armenia’s current wave of migration is Gagik Yeganyan, head of the State Migration Service. His thirty five employees occupy an old office building three metro stops from the city centre.

Mr Yeganyan says migration has always been a part of Armenians’ lives. ‘During our long history, and due to our geographical location at the crossroads of the Persian, Byzantine, Roman empires, Armenia has always been somewhere in the middle, and that has led to a lot of forced movements of people. And Armenians like other nations try to follow their interests and try to find better conditions to live.This is what you call push and pull factors’

Seventy five percent of Armenians who leave the country point to job shortages as the reason, says Mr Yeganyan.

‘Journalists or people from civil society organisations often ask me: What do you do to decrease this emigration? What can I say?! To tackle migration you have to go deeper, you have to tackle the reasons. I am not in a position to create job opportunities here. That’s the task of the whole government. I can only try to provide services to people who are moving abroad or coming back.’

And there are many of them. In the early nineties, as many as one million people left Armenia as a result of the collapse of the Soviet economy and the war with Azerbaijan. They joined already sizeable Armenian diaspora in Russia, Ukraine, the USA and Europe. Today some 3.1 million people live in Armenia.

Reliable statistics on migration in Armenia are hard to come by, but several studies suggest that in the past decade this outflow continued, though at a slower pace. According to the Armenian Statistical Service, the balance of border crossings of Armenian citizens has been negative in the recent years. In 2007, some 22,000 more people left than returned; in 2008, the figure exceeded 32,000 before going down to 21,000 in 2009.

An International Labour Office’s study on migration and development in Armenia revealed that on average about 60,000 labour migrants go to seek jobs in Russia. Usually, these migrants return home to visit their families at least once a year.

Aram Asatryan, 73, went to work in Russia for the first time in the summer of 1980. He picked water melons on a farm in the Volgograd oblast. Since then he switched to construction, working for himself or managing other workers, overseeing building sites, and setting up a business with his relatives in Russia. And he has continued to shuttle between the countries.

In December, when I met Mr Asatryan in his apartment in a residential neighbourhood of Jrvezh on the outskirts of Yerevan, he had returned from Moscow a month before.

‘I am an old man and there are no opportunities for me in Armenia.’ He says that in his business—construction—the market in Armenia is heavily monopolised. ‘You never know what will happen to your investment, you don’t want to risk your money.’
His son has a PhD in agricultural sciences and lives in the United States. His daughter lives in Australia.

‘In summer, go to Sarukhan. It’s a small town east of Yerevan,’ says Mr Asatrayan, ‘You will meet women, kids and grandpas. But no men of working age. They are all gone, working in Russia.’

Mr Asatryan says he doesn’t know if he will go to Russia next year. But then again, since 1980 each year he didn’t know. And yet he kept going back for five, six, eight months at a time.

Ruben Yeganyan, an expert in demography who works at the Caucasus Research Resource Centre in Yerevan, says that even among the so called seasonal workers, up to 15,000 leave Armenia for good every year. In the past ten years, Armenia might have lost 150,000 people, mainly men of working age.

‘This is a social, demographic cost,’ says Mr Yeganyan. He cites a decrease in the birth rate, in the number of marriages, the brain drain and capital flight. ‘Children don’t live in normal families. With parents separated, children grow up in feminine environments at home and in schools.’

But is it all gloom? At the State Migration Service, I learn that remittances, which is money that migrants send home, almost equal the national budget and reach two billion dollars in a good year, or 20 percent of GDP. There are also the new skills and knowledge acquired abroad, when migrants return they can transfer new ideas, new culture. Armenia is a mono-ethnic society - fortunately or not – and today not being aware of other societies, culture and traditions, is a handicap.

Square One is a modern, American-style café, right in the middle of Yerevan, just at the entrance to a newly built district, which my guide called “an elite block”. The café is frequented by Yerevan’s expats and young, well-off people. In the evenings the flicker of laptops, tablets, and smart phones illuminate the tables.

There I met Zaruhi Gasparyan, 26, who works at the American Bar Association of Armenia. She studied linguistics at the Yerevan State University and afterwards applied to several universities in the EU. She was accepted by three of them and chose to study EU affairs in Parma in Italy.

‘Studying was just a way to see the world, see how it is to live in another country, to live somewhere else. I didn’t go abroad to earn money. I was bored in Armenia and wanted to experience something different,’ says Ms Gasparyan.
At first, when she came back to Armenia after a year abroad, her foreign experience didn’t help much in getting a job. What made a difference was a traineeship she did later at the European Commission in Brussels. Only then the employers noticed her. She received thirteen job offers from private companies and government agencies in Yerevan. She chose the Bar Association, an NGO that helps to implement legal reforms in the country.

‘It’s not jobs or money that attracted me to the EU,’ says Ms Gasparyan. ‘It’s the freedom - personal freedom, political, economic. If I ever move abroad this will be the reason.’

Yet freedom is probably not the first reason to move for the men in Arevashogh, a village in the northern, mountainous region of Lori, ten kilometres from the epicentre of a deadly earthquake that struck the area in December 1988.

Arthur Magoyan, 43, married with two teenage children, worked to rebuild the place after the disaster. Then, in 1995, he started travelling to Russia to work. How do these journeys work in practice?

‘At the end of October I came back after five months of laying tarmac on roads in Moscow. In May I’ll go back again. I’ll pay some 100,000 Armenian drams [€200] for the ticket and take a plane to Moscow. I take this bag,’ he shows a mid-sized knock-off Reebok bag, ‘and I fill good part of it with bottles of local brandy and semisweet wine for my Armenian relatives who sort out a job.’ That’s how easy it is.

Hrahat Kostumyan, who is in charge of the finances of the 3,244 people-strong village, says 90% of men of working age from Arevashogh go abroad regularly to work.

‘The only stable jobs here are at the local elementary school and the village health centre. There are some occasional public works too,’ says Mr Kostumyan.

‘A worker in the Lori region in Armenia, can earn 200 dollars a month, in Russia he will get 1000 dollars. And Russia is the only realistic destination for these men: they know the language, they don’t need a visa, and they usually know someone there. The best people leave, highly-skilled workers, masters, it’s difficult to do anything here at home without these people.’

Mr Kostumyan admits that some men leave their families and don’t return. ‘Most of them keep sending money for a while, but they have a second family over there. That men have parallel family lives – one in Armenia another in Russia - is an open secret in many Armenian families.’

Back in Yerevan, at a local NGO, the International Centre for Human Development, ICHD, I meet Vahan Asatryan, an expert specialising in migration. ‘Take whatever problem in Armenia, economic, financial, demographic, political, and indeed you’ll have migration as a dominant factor,’ says Mr Asatryan. He says well over half of the Armenians declare they would leave the country if presented with an opportunity.

‘Eighty percent of Armenian migrants go to work in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. But you’ll hardly find a migrant who is properly registered, with the access to health care, social insurance, etc,’ says Mr Asatryan. ‘The fact is that in Russia most migrants get low-skilled jobs and that doesn’t benefit the Armenian economy in the long-run.’

In December, the European Training Foundation, ETF, an EU agency based in Turin, Italy, started a survey of former and potential migrants in Armenia. The interviews carried out with the help of the Caucasus Research Resource Centre, focus on skills and qualifications of migrants. Ummuhan Bardak, who works as a labour market specialist at the ETF, says skills make a big difference in the outcomes of migration.

‘Depending on the conditions of jobs and skills of migrants, migration provides more or less benefits. It brings challenges rather than opportunities, if this dimension is not taken into account properly,’ says Ms Bardak. ‘Skills can facilitate mobility and they can also improve its outcomes, bringing more benefits for the sending countries, for the receiving countries and for the migrants themselves.’

The EU and Armenia established a mobility partnership in October this year, with the purpose of ‘better managing legal and labour migration, including circular and temporary migration’. Similar agreements exist with Georgia and the Republic of Moldova. The partnership is a political declaration, which has yet to be filled with concrete action.

 At the ICHD, Mr Asatryan says the authorities don’t want to completely change the destination of emigration in Armenia. ‘But we would like to shift the flow of migrants from Russia to the EU a little,’ says Mr Asatryan. ‘In Russia the working conditions are usually poor and people often don’t get paid. So the new Mobility Partnership with the EU can help by opening possibilities for more regulated labour migration with proper safeguards, social rights, visa facilitation, and better working conditions.’

Ms Bardak says that it is possible to get more benefits from migration by introducing policy measures that target strategic stages in the migration process in sending and receiving countries.

The measure should target people before they go by helping them search for jobs and find ones that better match their skills. This pre-departure stage can include vocational training as well as a general orientation and language courses. Then the host countries can take specific measures to better match skills and jobs, and provide better protection of migrant’s rights.

Finally, there is the need for the support to emigrants who return. This may include reintegration into the domestic labour market or support to set up a business. Surveys show that many migrants are willing to become entrepreneurs, because they have the necessary savings and experience. This kind of support can help them start a new life when they return.

By the time I finished the tour of the exhibition at the Mesrop Mashtots Institute, and the guide showed and told us the story of most of the collected artefacts – from early medieval bibles to nineteenth-century legal documents – I learnt the story of nation that developed its culture and economy, preserved its traditions, and enriched the lives of their foreign neighbours, while being on the move. It was a tale of suffering and longing, but also a tale of accomplishment and national rebirth. As Armenians continue to move, this story goes on.

Text and photos: Marcin Mońko

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