Is Everybody Leaving? Migration to and from Armenia: Myths and Reality

Nina Iskandaryan

Haykanush Chobanyan, the first speaker, presented the viewpoint of the State Migration Service and shared her personal research experience. Mrs. Chobanyan primarily described problems with assessing the exact or even approximate number of migrants, the imperfections of technologies used and insufficient funds for their reformation. She noted that calculating migration flows is a difficult task, especially for the country of departure (for the receiving country it is easier), and stressed that due to the absence of exact numbers, the picture is often presented in a quite distorted manner, especially by opposition parties. She stated that it is not the statistics that play the main role in evaluating migration but large-scale sociological studies, which have not been conducted in Armenia in recent years. At the end of her speech Haykanush Chobanyan gave the following figures: between 1988 and 2001, 1.1 million migrants left Armenia. From 2002 to 2007, around 25 000 people left Armenia yearly. Simultaneously the number of seasonal migrants during that period was 60 000 each year. The average number of migrants over the past 5 years has been 30 000 people each year, which means that the growth was not significant.

Alina Pogosyan began her presentation by describing the two main current discourses on migration in Armenia. The essence of the first, which she called “the official discourse”, is that in a situation of unemployment and economic hardship, migration is a generally positive phenomenon, as it creates an outlet for the economy. In the other, "opposition discourse,” migration is seen as a negative phenomenon and is often used to criticize government policy. Ms. Poghosyan thinks that the causes of migration must not be seen solely in the economic situation of the country. She shared her personal research experience, when men from a well-to-do village family become seasonal migrants despite the lack of need, since the “culture of seasonal migration” is already established. Alina Poghosyan stressed that it is much more important not to collect statistics on migration, in which the problems and aspirations of people become dissolved, but rather to explore individual motivations and stories, i.e. the human face of migration. Then it will be possible not only to describe the migration, but also to develop strategies for its reduction, redirection, protection of migrants, etc.

Finally, Caucasus Institute researcher Hrant Mikaelyan presented his vision on the causes of migration and the overall situation with migration in Armenia. He named three reasons for emigration from Armenia: economic, political and psychological. According to him, the main reason is economic, as illustrated by the choice of destination country. About 85% of all emigrants from Armenia go to Russia, a country in which the scope of corruption is much larger and violation of human rights far more common than in Armenia. In other cases more affluent people may emigrate to the West (EU and North America), for any of the three reasons he named. Mr. Mikaelyan pointed out that migration statistics vary significantly across government agencies: just for 2012, he found five different official figures on the number of migrants from Armenia. He agreed with the two other speakers that only sociological research can help clarify the picture. Mr. Mikaelyan summed up his speech with facts about immigration to Armenia, saying that most immigrants arrive from Russia, Georgia, Iran and Syria. In the majority of cases they are Armenians moving to Armenia from various countries, or return migrants from Russia.

One of the main themes of the ensuing dispute was the risk that migration presents to the country. According to Alina Pogosyan, the main threat that migration poses to Armenia is the change of the demographic layout. Despite the assurances of the experts, guests expressed an opinion that the demographic risk is exaggerated. A lot of criticism was made with regard to Haykanush Chobanyan's presentation and the government's inability to establish an accurate count of the number of migrants. Speakers insisted that very precise estimates are impossible in principle, in turn participants pointed out the need to use indirect estimation methods (consumption of power, sugar, the number of children in schools, etc.) They discussed the fate of Armenian migrants in Russia and in the West, the potentials of repatriation, as well as the impact of inaccurate migration statistics on the accuracy of voter lists. In general, speakers and guests agreed that the issue of migration from Armenia is very complex and not sufficiently researched issue.