Is Armenia’s Demographic Decline Reversible?

Armenia’s population continues to decline. As of January 2019, a permanent population of 2.962 million was recorded, the lowest number since the 1990s, when it was above 3.5 million. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) forecasts a further decline of Armenia’s population – 2.977 million in 2025 and 2.816 in 2050. Is this trend reversible, and if so, how? Tsovinar Harutyunyan, UNFPA Assistant Representative in Armenia, spoke to CivilNet’s Emilio Cricchio, about the issues related to Armenia’s demographic challenges.

How would you assess Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s statement that by 2050 Armenia’s population will reach 5 million?  

The official UN population projections are provided by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (UN DESA), which presents global population forecasts once every two years. The 2019 Revision of World Population Prospects report is the twenty-sixth round of official United Nations population estimates and projections. The above-mentioned figures are from this report. However, we need to take into account that the UN population projections as any other projections are based on past trends, i.e. the past behavior of the main demographic indicators pertaining to migration, births, deaths, et cetera. On the contrary, as we see it, the statement by the Prime Minister is not based on the trends of the past but rather on his vision for the future, so it would not be logical to compare the UN projections with his figure. 

If the main demographic indicators such as migration, number of births, fertility rate, as well as number of deaths and mortality indicators alter, the projections will also subsequently change. 

With regards to the question, “How can we reverse the trends?” Our general answer would be through introduction and long-term uninterrupted implementation of comprehensive family-friendly rights-based policies. These policies would create an environment encompassing the social, health, educational, cultural and political spheres, where couples would be able to have as many children as they want and bring them up in the best possible conditions, in terms of livelihoods, health, education, safety, without seeing it as a risk for their own well-being and individual aspirations. However, we have to take into account that changes in demographic trends take a very long time and the respective policies are very expensive.

In the first sitting of this year, Armenia’s government announced an increase of the one-off child benefit payment for the first and second child, from roughly $100 to $630 and from $300 to $630, respectively. To what extent can this help improve the situation? Does the Government of Armenia have a clear vision to tackle this challenge?

As the experience of other countries shows, as a stand-alone step it would not help much in terms of increasing the fertility rate. However, the increased amounts are large enough to cover some of the basic needs connected with the birth of a child. Generally, we favor long-term smaller size benefits over larger, one-time, lump sum payments. One-time child benefits can be much more useful if implemented hand-in-hand with other policies, several of which the government has already allocated funding for, and will start implementation in 2020. These include providing monthly child care allowances, helping to improve housing conditions, ensuring the availability of affordable day care facilities with convenient working hours, and ensuring decent employment opportunities, especially for young people. 

We are closely cooperating with the Government of Armenia on these issues, and we can state that our government partners acknowledge the importance and urgency of steps needed to improve the demographic situation in Armenia. As a matter of fact, in 2019, the government established a special high level council chaired by the prime minister, to improve the demographic situation in Armenia, and UNFPA is honored to be part of the activities of the council and to provide its expertise and knowledge of international best practices for the benefit of Armenia.

With all of these policies, the birth rate in Armenia remains the lowest in the region, at 1.57, while the numbers in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan are 1.76 and 2.1 respectively. For a society not to experience depopulation, fertility rates should be around 2.1. How can this be changed? 

A small correction: for a country not to experience depopulation and not to have a negative growth of population, the number of births should exceed the number of deaths. A country may have a total fertility rate exceeding 2.1, but still experience depopulation, because the childbearing cohort is much smaller than the population cohort approaching the line of life expectancy. Or, the total fertility rate may be below 2.1, but the country may still have positive natural growth of population. However, the total fertility rate, or the number of children who would be born per woman in her childbearing years, is also an important demographic indicator that has vital impacts on a given country’s long term demographic structure. 

If we take a look back at the situation with demographic indicators in Armenia right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, we see a relatively positive picture. Armenia had a population of 3.5 million with annual number of births reaching almost 80,000. The total fertility rate was 2,62, well above the 2.1 level, which is necessary for ceteris paribus, mere reproduction of a given population. The natural growth was around 60,000. Since then, the total fertility rate has dropped significantly in Armenia, approximately to 1.6. The same happened with the number of births, that plummeted to a record low in 2001 of around 32,000. 

One of the consequences of this is that the cohort of young women born in that period will soon, just in a couple of years, enter their most fertile period, when the total fertility rate is less than 1.6. This will translate into an even lower number of births for the coming years. However, the cohort of young women born around 2010 is expected to increase the number of births again.

As I mentioned earlier, looking at the examples of countries that have managed to increase their fertility rate and number of births (e.g. France, Sweden), we see that the following approach has been instrumental in their success: creation of conditions that would allow for conflict-free coexistence of reproductive needs and career aspirations of women. They include paid maternity leave for women with guarantees that they will not lose their jobs afterwards and risk their careers, encouraging fathers to take paternity leave, flexible working hours for new mothers, increased availability of affordable daycare and educational institutions with schedules that are convenient for working mothers, affordable and accessible health care, availability of education and training opportunities for mothers, et cetera. And the Government of Armenia is already taking steps in this direction.

However, we should not forget that the leading factor in Armenia’s population decline was and still is migration. 

Since the early 1990s, over one million people have left Armenia. From 2000 to 2018, the net passenger flow through Armenia’s borders has constituted more than 470,000 people. Yet we have had decreasing but still positive natural growth in the same period.

As socio-economic factors such as lack of jobs in general, lack of jobs with decent salaries, absence of profession-specific jobs are major reasons behind migration, one of the solutions that could be sought to enhance employment opportunities is connected with overall economic development. However, there is also the problem of matching the skillsets of people looking for jobs with current employment opportunities. Youth, especially new graduates and young people who return from army service are in a more vulnerable situation in this respect. In addition, employment conditions should not harm the ability to form a family, to have your desired number of children and to take care of them.

There are other factors that also play a significant role in terms of migration. A UNFPA Armenia study in 2009, found that around 44% of respondents said that they do not see their future or the future of their children in Armenia. Behind this disturbing figure, there are also reasons of psycho-social nature, such as the inability to find justice, the lack of the rule of law, inability to fulfill her/his potential as an individual or that of their children. In today’s Armenia, there is hope that at least part of these reasons will be eliminated. Change of the psychological atmosphere, the rule of law, as well as improved economic factors could lead to a positive shift in this area.

The UNFPA was leading the campaign against sex selective abortion. Although with some success, the number of girls at birth is still lower, 100 compared to 111 boys. Is this a cultural issue or something else? How can this be reversed?

The issue of prenatal sex selection is rooted in the preference of boys over girls. This preference is mainly explained by the necessity to continue the family tree, economic (financial) factor, boys being the inheritors of property, as well as the power of men in families, and much males having a more active role and higher social mobility compared to girls. 

Although the rate of 110 boys to 100 girls was recorded in 2019, it is still higher than the normal ratio of 102-106 boys to 100 girls, thus it has been decreasing since 2014. After uncovering and studying the phenomenon in Armenia in 2010-11, through the large-scale joint work with the media, civil society,  international organizations, the Armenian Government, the National Assembly, the Church, academia, medical and social workers, art and PR organizations, and also with the involvement of the public, the sex-at-birth ratio decreased from 115 boys/100 girls (2010) to 111 boys/100 girls (2019). As a result, Armenia has moved from the third to the fifth in the world, in terms of prenatal sex selection. 

Moreover and most importantly, son preference has also decreased. The share of families with equal preference for boys and girls has almost doubled since 2011, from 47.3% to 82%. It is obvious that society is changing: the campaign “#Bavakane” that we launched together with Doping Creative Agency in 2019 had more than 12 million social media reactions, the campaign video was watched more than 2.5 million times, and was shared by prominent political figures including the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and celebrities like Serj Tankian.  

Nevertheless, this positive trend requires continuous efforts. We still need to do a lot to achieve the equal valuing of girls and boys in our society.

In contrast to the gender discrepancy at birth in Armenia, the number of women at reproductive age – 20 to 40 years, exceeds the respective number of men by 40,000, thus women have a problem of finding mates. Besides mass male labor migration, what are other reasons for this? What is the solution?

In any case, the main reason for this gap is migration; it is difficult to think of any other factor that would have more or less of an impact on this issue. The sex composition of migrants is highly biased: 82.1% of men and 17.9% of women. Moreover, migrants mainly represent the active age group, 20-54. Hence, all the above-mentioned steps regarding migration will also contribute to this matter.

We don’t have any studies yet, but from mere observations of the situation, we may say that there are two processes that have become visible – first is that Armenian women are marrying foreigners more frequently, and second, young women who do not find partners may choose single motherhood. But again, these are phenomena that we have not yet studied, so we cannot draw any conclusions or make any recommendations at this point. 

The more a country develops economically, the more attractive it becomes for third country citizens to migrate there. Currently, there are a lot of Indians who have settled in Armenia. And most recently Armenia has established a visa-free regime with China. To what extent can Armenia manage the new influx of new immigrants and refugees? For Armenia, is this an opportunity or a challenge?

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, and everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. This is a basic principle that the United Nations adheres to. And this is the angle from where we look at this issue both for people coming to Armenia, and people leaving Armenia for other countries.

If we pose the question: how would you like people from Armenia to be hosted and treated when they leave for another country to settle there temporarily or permanently? The answer to that could serve as a basis for answering the question: how should Armenia treat people coming to Armenia for the same purposes? 

It is true that countries that are economically more advanced and stable attract people from countries and territories with poorer conditions, or with humanitarian situations. We are very hopeful that Armenia will steadily improve its position in this respect. In fact, we already see, as you mentioned, a small number of foreigners from countries like India, Iran and the Russian Federation seeking residency in Armenia (in 2018, the total number of foreigners who had gained residency status in Armenia was 8,330, out of which 2,052 were from India). If Armenia wants to stay an open nation in its interactions with the world and not become a closed-border country, than this issue should be definitely taken into account.

Based on the experience of other countries, we can say that such influxes carry both challenges and opportunities. Hence, what Armenia needs to do, is to strategically assess the possible developments and develop policies that would allow for appropriate accommodation of such developments, to neutralize challenges and utilize opportunities for the benefit of Armenia. However, it is very important that these policies adhere to basic human rights principles.

There is another important point that we should take into account: the main task is not the elimination of migration per se, but migration regulation, i.e. making it safe, secure, ensuring human rights and respecting human dignity.