The population of Latvia is fast shrinking due to a labour exodus.
RIGA: A running joke in Latvia pokes fun at the exodus of young talent from the ex-Soviet Baltic state, but experts insist it is no laughing matter as the tiny EU newcomer struggles with demographic disaster.
"We have a joke that in 2030 the last Latvian can switch off the lights at Riga airport," Aldis Austers, chairman of the European Latvians' Association, told AFP recently.
The figures are daunting. A 2011 survey revealed the Latvian population shrank from 2.2 million in 2000 to just 2.0 million as of last year -- plunging 13.0 per cent in little more than a decade.
Worse still, if nothing is done to tackle the exodus, the population could drop to 1.6 million by 2030, according to a recent economy ministry study.
Migration studies by University of Latvia Professor Mihails Hazans show the country is becoming demographically top-heavy.
"Most emigrants are young -- about 80 per cent of recent emigrants are under 35 -- hence the remaining population is ageing faster," said Hazans, whose studies have referred to the trend as a demographic disaster.
"Do we have some hope that they will come back? Unfortunately not very much. After three years the number who are planning to come back in the short run drops from ten to three per cent."
Britain and Ireland became popular destinations following Latvia's accession to the European Union in 2004.
The exodus peaked after the country was hit by 20 per cent joblessness as it suffered the world's deepest recession when its economy shrank by 25 per cent over two years during the 2008-2009 global crisis.
Inna Steinbuka, the European Commission's representative in Latvia and a former employee of EU statistics body Eurostat, is convinced Latvia's brain drain is "no longer a risk, it is a reality."
The country's Economy Minister Daniels Pavluts is also worried.
"In 2020 we are facing a 15-per cent decrease in the working-age population and a 10-per cent increase in economic demand," he told AFP.
Pavluts terms stopping emigration a "priority" and says trying to draw back the diaspora is a "second stage". Attracting skilled labour from abroad should be "a labour supply of last resort," he says.
Initial suggestions by a special task force on demography set up by centrist Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis are aimed at boosting the birth rate and coaxing scientists to come home.
Improving access to kindergartens and reviving fertility programme funding that was slashed during the crisis top the task force's list of priorities.
Dombrovskis has also floated the idea of using EU funds to give expatriate scientists good reasons to return.
"I see that as an issue of the brain drain," Dombrovskis told AFP, pointing to the current dearth of funding for high-tech research.
"But the main reason behind emigration is the economic situation: lack of jobs, and lack of well-paid jobs. That's what we need to concentrate on if we need to deal fundamentally with emigration."
The mass exodus is also tearing Latvian families apart like never before, and children are suffering the most.
When parents leave to work abroad, their children are often left behind and the strain placed on them is damaging, says Dace Beinare, a care adviser with the SOS Children's Villages charity caring for youngsters who have lost their parents.
"Many children are left with grandparents and are effectively abandoned. This is actually a form of violence. They are forced to be more responsible than they are capable of being at that age," she told AFP.
"Emotional problems will eventually become problems for society as a whole: health problems, mental health problems, an inability to adapt to society, and lack of self-confidence and skills."