Back in 2017, former president Serzh Sargsyan announced his ambitious goal to increase Armenia’s population to 4 million by 2040. His strategy at the time was based on three pillars: substantially reducing the rates of emigration, increasing birth rates and life expectancy, and creating conditions for the return of emigrants. However, according to a 2015 report by the UN, Armenia’s population is projected to decrease to 2.7 million by 2050 and to 1.8 million by 2100. In the worst case scenario, Armenia’s population will be 2 million by 2050.
But following the Velvet Revolution, which toppled Sargsyan’s decade-long presidency, the ominous demographic projections have started showing some positive developments.
Armenia’s population has been engaged in mass migration starting with the 1988 Karabakh Movement and the devastatingly difficult years that followed: The Spitak earthquake, radical socio-political changes, an economic blockade, war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result of the earthquake some 25 thousand people died, about 200 thousand were left homeless and of those, 50 thousand never returned.
The massive emigration during the first years of Armenia’s independence was characterized as “survival migration.” In fact, from 1992-1994, a sharp increase in emigration from all the former Soviet republics had been the practice, which in the South Caucasus was mostly explained by ethnic conflicts, where the political situation along with the wars in the region contributed to mass emigration rates. During these years, 980,000 people emigrated from Armenia and only 370,000 returned (37 percent). The outflow went to the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent State (CIS), mainly Russia, while the rest was distributed among United States and European countries.
The process of emigration intensified from 2008-2014, when almost 250 thousand people left the country. A recent publication by the Statistical Service of Armenia shows that Armenia’s permanent population as of October 1, 2018 is estimated at 2,969,200.
According to the Head of Armenia’s Migration Service, Armen Ghazaryan, there is a noticeable change in migration flows. Ghazaryan noted that the aggregate data of all border crossings shows that during the first nine months of 2017, the difference between the number of entries and exits was - 53,912, while the difference during the first nine months of 2018 was -15,695, which he characterized as a dramatic fall. The change, however, is even more significant in the aggregate data of border crossings involving citizens of Armenia only; the interplay for the first nine months of 2017 was -75,015, while in the first nine months of 2018, positive entry and exit dynamics of +8614 was registered.
Ghazaryan explained that since the early 2000s, positive border crossings were registered only in three consecutive years; 2004, 2005, and 2006. All the succeeding years have seen a decrease in numbers, and 2018 was dramatic in that sense.
“What we have seen starting from 2007, is migration in search for a better quality of life or human development migration, and that is the reason why the numbers are not high but consistent; from 2010 to 2016, the difference between entry and exit was almost -40,000 every year consistently,” explained Ghazaryan. “This shows that people were going with their families, which is a significant demographic change.” And usually if people are leaving with families, prospects of return are demolished. The recent numbers indicate that this trend has been slightly yet positively changing.
Brain Drain or Circular Migration
According to Armenia’s National Security Strategy, the brain drain - the migration of highly qualified people - is among the threats to the country’s security. Ghazaryan said that it is extremely challenging to acquire data about that particular group of emigrants. “The data would vary depending on the definition of brain drain; whether it includes doctors of sciences, academics or highly qualified professionals,” he said. At the same time, Ghazaryan noted that circular migration for high level professionals is a positive trend, because it creates avenues for exchange and brings in the intellectual capital that is produced outside.
Theoretical perspectives on migration, which have evolved since the 19th century, show that people are attracted to industrial centers of the world, such as London or New York.
Currently, those attraction points are universities and high tech development centers, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Cambridge University, Silicon Valley or Bangalore. Ghazaryan believes that it is a positive trend that those centers attract high level professionals from Armenia and this tendency needs to be encouraged. “In our interdependent world, there are great number of possibilities allowing those professionals to contribute their skills and capacities to their home country,” stressed Ghazaryan.
Economic Reasons vs. Potential for Development
In his study about the reasons inducing migration, Hrant Mikayelyan, a researcher at the Caucasus Institute claims that the biggest waves of emigration in Armenia have been observed during periods of economic crisis, such as the one in 2008 when Armenia’s economy contracted by 9.7 percent and GDP fell by 15.7 percent in the first five months of 2009. Ghazaryan noted that almost 80 percent of today’s emigration is because of economic concerns, while the remaining 20 percent is human development emigration. Labor is closely intertwined with economic reasons, because the size of the income according to Mikayelyan’s research is the primary triggering factor for emigration. But there are other, sometimes equally important reasons as well, such as better working conditions and environment, high level of social security and healthcare insurance.
Some of the direct consequences of migration are urbanization as a result of internal migration and an aging population, which if not mitigated can pose a substantial threat to Armenia’s security. The Statistical Service of Armenia estimates that about 36.3 percent (1,079,400) of Armenia’s population live in Yerevan. An overcrowded capital and highly centralized economy in almost every sector have been identified as major economic and social challenges for Armenia in recent years. But Ghazaryan noted that urbanization is a global trend, which intensified with the first Industrial Revolution and continues until now when the world is experiencing already the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
A glance back at Armenia’s demographic patterns shows that the level of urbanization in Armenia was already quite high during the Soviet period and has only escalated since independence. The increase in urbanization stems mainly from a combination of inconsistencies in the labor market and a rural-urban division in access to education and living conditions, which results in the depopulation of border villages. The new government program for territorial development is aimed at creating the environment for Armenia’s equitable and more sustainable development that is not just centralized in the capital but all across the country.
Ghazaryan agreed that aging is an extremely serious problem and emigration of economically and reproductively active people is among the factors contributing to its further expansion. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) analysis, as of 2013, people aged 60 and older comprised 14.4 percent of the Armenia’s total population, and it is expected that the number will increase to 31.5 percent by 2050. Such a growing share of elderly people in the population structure implies a significant additional burden for the state, which is already happening in most European states. “Sixty-three is the age for pension leave in Armenia, which means that by 2050 Armenia’s pension system will be under significant pressure, which in turn means that Armenia’s economic system will be pressured,” claimed Ghazaryan. “This was one of the major reasons why the government decided to continue the implementation of the mandatory pension system and establish the basis for smoother transformation.”
Coupled with an aging population is low fertility rates. As of 2016, the fertility rate in Armenia was 1.6, which is well below the 2.1 rate that is needed for the reproduction of any society. According to Ghazaryan, the low fertility rate can be explained by issues in the healthcare system, and the Ministry has already started implementing projects aimed at decreasing child mortality rates as well as increasing the quality of infant care. But the second and an even more pressing issue is sex-selective abortions; Armenia has the third highest rate of abortion of female fetuses in the world, after China and Azerbaijan. Approximately 115 boys are born for every 100 girls.
The youth of the 21st century is more mobile, which is driven by the push factors in the country of origin, such as shrinking job opportunities, poor healthcare system, and pull factors in the country of destination, such as opportunities for career development, competitive wages. “Youth mobility is inevitable but if we have attractive pull factors inside the country, it will turn that mobility into a circular migration,” explained Ghazaryan.