By Christian Lowe
YEREVAN, (AFP) - Sona Avetisian, a barmaid in Armenia's capital, has one sister living in Paris, another in Warsaw, a cousin in Greece and other relatives in the United States. She herself lived in France for a year.
Her story is typical. "Practically every family has someone living abroad," she said. "Without them, we just could not survive."
Turn that phenomenon into statistics and this rocky republic in the Caucasus is looking down the barrel of a demographic implosion: fully one quarter of the population has left in the ten years since Armenia became independent.
According to estimates from the United Nation's International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 1991, when Armenia's population stood at about four million, the net outflow -- after immigration has been subtracted -- was between 800,000 and one million people.
"This is a trend which is happening in most of the (former Soviet) countries, in the Caucasus and other countries as well," said Nilim Baruah, IOM head of mission in Yerevan. "However Armenia's rate is the highest."
Another statistic makes the point eloquently: in IOM figures for people from the former Soviet Union applying for asylum in western Europe in 2000, tiny Armenia came second only to Russia, with a population of 144 million. Gagik Yeganian, head of the State Department for Migration and Refugees, is not exempt. He has a brother-in-law who left Armenia for Moscow. He is frank about the damage done by the mass exodus.
"These figures do not mean anything unless you ask who these people were who emigrated? Ninety percent are under 65, it is mostly males and the majority have higher education so we are talking about a brain drain."
"As a result the demographic indicators have got worse: the number of marriages has fallen three times, the number of births has fallen by 2.5 times, the family support system is being destroyed and couples are living apart."
It was the lack of decent work at home that forced Avetisian, the barmaid, to work as a babysitter in Paris for a year. "I earned more money there in a month than I do here in a year. I came back because I missed my kids."
But what, according to demographers, makes Armenia unique is the fact that after millions of Armenians fled the pogroms in the Ottoman Empire at the start of the last century, there are ready-made Armenian communities all over the western world acting as a magnet to new migrants. Surveys of returned Armenian emigrants have found that a big lure was that they had friends and relatives settled abroad, said IOM's Baruah.
Yet there is a substantial silver lining to the emigration. Armenians overseas send 250 million dollars each year to dependents back home, according to official figures. These remittances are equivalent to about 12 percent of Armenia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Without this informal humanitarian aid, life for those left behind would be a lot worse.
And the emigration is not as catastrophic as it once was. After averaging some 150,000 people a year at its 1992-1995 peak, the annual exodus has now settled down to between 30,000 and 50,000.
As the economy at home improves -- it had record GDP growth of 9.6 percent in 2001 -- some of those who left, particularly the Armenians in Russia, are thinking about coming home, said Yeganian. He compared Armenia's emigration problems to Ireland. "Not so long ago they had bumper stickers saying: 'Last one out switch off the lights,' but now people are coming to live there."
"I think in three to five years Armenia will stop exporting people. All the indicators are there. It will become an importer of people.
That may be a little optimistic, but barring calamities, the worst of Armenia's exodus of people appears to be over.