Reversing the Depopulation of Armenia: People Need Reasons to Stay

Armenia has a people problem. While many Hayastancis may be proud of their country, they’re leaving in droves, having less children, and aren’t hopeful about their futures.

Emigration and a low birthright are existential challenges for Armenia that its leaders are not able to face. Instead of promoting bad policies like paying for families to have children, we could use those resources to make Armenia a country people want to live in.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia has had an emigration problem. The World Bank estimates the peak of Armenia’s population at 3.54 million in 1990. Now there are 3.1 million. During the Soviet Union, Armenia had a growth rate of 1.5%. If Armenia had the same growth rate since 2003, when the population started to increase again, Armenia would have 3.5 million people. We’re missing 400,000 people. Where are those people?

Emigration and a dropping birthrate are the key explanations. The birthrate per woman was 1.74 in 2010, below the approximately 2.1 children needed to sustain a population. It’s estimated that 97,000 people have left Armenia as of September, with about 39% of Hayastan’s wanting to leave permanently. Fortunately, Armenia’s emigration rate is improving, as it is currently -3.35 per 1,000 people instead of 2010’s net migration rate of -4.9 per 1,000 people.

What the government has done hasn’t helped

The government has tried to limit emigration through ineffective mechanisms. The government can’t stop people from leaving, but it has tried to make it harder for people to leave rather than try to make them want to stay.

This summer, the government instituted a new policy requiring Hayastancis that leave the country for six months to tell the local embassy or be fined 3,000 dram. The fine, for now, isn’t large, but the concern is the government is keeping watch over the people that leave, maybe to dissuade them from leaving. Some even say the government delayed giving passports to children during the summer to stop families from leaving.

The government’s single-shot solution of paying people for having children is a much worse waste of government money. Armenia has been paying people to have children for a long time. The government is currently planning to start paying in 2014 a massive 1 million and 1.5 million drams payment to families for any child past the second child.

This is an expensive policy is a terrible waste of money because there is no multiplier effect. In any policy, the government should try to increase its multiplier effect. If building a new road costs 50 million drams but creates 300 million drams worth of activity, then it has a multiple effect of six. The money given for a first child will likely go to buy new clothes or items for the child. This has a multiplier effect of one. For the third and fourth child, the family already has many of the items they need, so they’ll buy fewer things, causing a multiplier effect of less than one. Considering the abundance of challenges Armenia faces, to promote a policy with a multiplier of less than one is a waste.

Even worse, the poor families that are most incentivized to take advantage of the million dram offers are the least able to afford to have children. Poor families desperate for money might have a child primarily for the money. The million drams can help the family to live for at most a year or two. Afterwards, the family may still be poor and won’t be able to take care of the new baby. The baby may be sent to an orphanage or maybe worse; poor children are the most vulnerable to being trafficked by criminal groups.

Government must pursue a different approach

What the government needs to do is to make people not want to leave and feel confident about their futures to want to raise families in Armenia. To do that, the government needs to focus on why people are leaving. From 2002 to 2007, 94% of Hayastancis left to find better work. In 2010, 89% of Hayastancis said that unemployment, poverty or low income was the most pressing issue for their families. Without increasing employment options, Hayastanci will continue to leave, no matter what stopgap policies the government attempts.

Increasing the number of jobs in Armenia is hard but doable. Use the millions of dram that would have gone to the third or fourth child and use that money on policies with high multiplier effect, or institute (free) policy choices that open up the market to new entrepreneurs, or make sure that foreign investors have redress for any fraud or corruption to encourage more investments. Any of these things will promote the economy and allow Hayastancis to stay.

The Diaspora also needs employment prospects

On a personal note, I want to mention how much more the government could do to encourage the Diaspora to return to Armenia. I am a member of the Diaspora who was able to come and live in Armenia for six months thanks to Birthright Armenia. I was a fellow at the Human Rights Defender’s Office through the coordination of Armenian Volunteer Corps. As my time was reaching an end, I spoke with as many people as possible to find a job that could keep me in Armenia longer.

I was unsuccessful and still have yet to secure anything that can bring me back. I don’t deserve a job more than any Hayastanci, but without opportunities for young members of the Diaspora to work in Armenia, we can’t and won’t come back to live in Armenia. New programs like Repat Armenia are helping solve this problem, but the government could do more to encourage this immigration and help repopulate Hayastan.

Gabriel Armas-Cardona is a graduate from New York University Law School and was a legal fellow at the Office of the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia. He regularly comments on the politics and human rights situation of Armenia on his blog http://humanrightsinyerevan.wordpress.com.

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