Armenia's government has battled for years to lower emigration rates. According to a new study by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, the government's efforts have run up against a multimillion-dollar "emigration industry" that includes legitimate travel agencies and a netherworld of more dubious middlemen. This industry, which may get help from some embassies, has pilfered over $100 million from Armenians leaving their homeland since 1995. It's also fed a steady flow of would-be Armenian refugees that increasingly worries governments in Western Europe.
Because the study examines smugglers and other illegitimate businesses, the numbers it uses are estimates. "The actual figure is probably much higher," says Ovsanna Babayan, IOM's national program officer in Yerevan. The point the numbers makes, though, may give Armenians pause. Between 800,000 and a million Armenians have fled the country since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, draining the population by more than 25 percent. If a million departing citizens gave $100 million to swindlers who promised to facilitate their passage, they threw away $100 per person that could have more productively fed per-capita domestic production. An extra $100 per person would boost per capita GDP by 3.6 percent.
Only about a quarter of Armenians trying to leave pay smugglers or their associates, and emigration rates have stabilized or slowed since 1996. But even that number reflects Armenians' lack of confidence in impartial law-enforcement and in their country's future.
It also exposes a willingness to sacrifice cash for the promise of life outside the country. According to the IOM study, which surveyed emigrants to Western Europe, 59 of 100 emigrants surveyed said they left the country with help from storefront travel agencies, which can be held more accountable than smugglers who operate by mobile phone. Twenty-six respondents reported using middlemen. Two-thirds of the respondents who used legitimate or illegitimate brokers reported spending between $500 and $3000 on travel; 90 percent of these people earned less than $100 per month. Ten respondents overall reported losing money to middlemen, though a third went into debt to pay for travel and around a third sold assets. Noticing this disparity, researchers posed as migrants and found several operators who falsified passports or charged high fees for promising to deliver visas later - but who did not qualify to survey respondents as cheats.
This illogic highlights the government's dilemma. a cultural code of secrecy and a common belief that swindlers will be more likely to turn over funds if they stay out of jail keep the smuggling industry thriving. Western diplomats say they hope the study will spur Armenian officials to reassess how they police emigration. They also express hope that the study, which features extensive quotes and anecdotes from emigrants, will help identify the socioeconomic conditions that lead people into the smugglers' orbit. "The study has shed some light in some dark corners," says Lloyd Dakin, the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Yerevan. "It's a subject that has been almost taboo, but hopefully this will start a process to try to do something about it in a way that will be effective."
Among other things, the survey reveals that breadwinners are leaving: men are twice as likely to leave as women are. Nearly three-quarters of these men are married, and more than 80 percent claim to be supporting children. Emigrants are also often educated; they're twice as likely as the national average to have graduated from university. These statistics may reflect how hard good jobs are to find in Armenia. GDP has grown an average of 5 percent each year since 1995, but 80 percent of the population still lives on less than $2 a day. [For more information, see the EurasiaNet Business and Economics archive].
Observers have long known that most emigration from Armenia is legal, if difficult. Because poverty and underemployment are so stubborn, roughly 85 percent of Armenia's emigration in the last 10 years has been to Russia and the Ukraine, where Armenian-speaking communities already thrive. But substantial numbers still travel to Western European countries, many as asylum-seekers. Western European countries have become more reluctant to welcome refugees in recent years, and asylum rates have dropped. Between 1992 and 2001, according to UNHCR, there were 43,849 asylum seekers from Armenia to Western Europe; Armenians often abscond to Germany, Brussels and the Netherlands by bus and truck. Not coincidentally, the Netherlands' foreign ministry funded the IOM study.
Amid all the study's evidence, from statistics to descriptions of outfits that pass Armenians in Moscow off as Russians to make it easier for them to get visas, it's hard to see what the government will do to reduce illegal emigration. Diplomats brush aside rumors of a brisk side business in visas at Western embassies, but these rumors remain healthy. Armenia's constitution does not restrain citizens from leaving the country - but authorities recognize how frivolous asylum seekers are both aggravating European governments and smearing those eligible for legal emigration. The Armenian government has yet to establish a reintegration program, which the Europeans will probably have to fund; studies of deportees from Germany have found that most simply return to Germany the first chance they get.
Emigrants do not respond well to simplistic reintegration policies. "They have burned all their bridges to their home country; if they can't stay in one country they will move on to another," says the IOM's Babayan. IOM has promised to help the government launch a campaign to spread stories about the difficulties of illegal migration and clarify the options for legal migration to various countries. But even with tightening conditions in Europe, most Armenian emigrants are likely to stay where they've landed and urge their friends and relatives to follow them. Most studies, including one by the Armenian Sociological Association, show that emigrants - even those still transitioning to legal status abroad - find life there more satisfactory.
And in an economy that is still not generating enough jobs for the young, emigration serves as an important political safety valve. The Armenian Diaspora sends around $300 million back to the country each year, roughly three-quarters of the government budget. So while opposition members chastise President Robert Kocharyan for the high emigration rates and officials say they would like to explore more regularized labor migration to Europe, the patterns the study describes will be hard to change.
Ken Stier is a freelance journalist, based temporarily in Yerevan, who specializes in Caucasus and Central Asian affairs.