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Escape from the Balkans – VoxEurop (English)

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A growing phenomenon with worrying implications: the flight of workers, skilled or otherwise, from former Yugoslavia. A look at the data and political responses.

Lately there has been a growing number of alarmist articles published in the local press regarding the depopulation of former Yugoslavia. These articles often deploy long-term statistics comparing the current migratory patterns with those of the nineties, which were a consequence of political turmoil, war and the economic crises which characterised that decade. However, the use of this time frame has more to do with the now firmly established trend of explaining contemporary phenomena in the region as direct consequences of those earlier troubles, than with helping to understand the various phases in the region’s development.

On the one hand, the migratory tradition in former Yugoslavia region has deep roots, reaching at least as far as the second half of the nineteenth century, especially in the Habsburg region. Furthermore, the Yugoslav federation also experienced large-scale emigration in the 1960s when – alone among the socialist states – it legalised the migration of workers. 

On the other hand, it would be inaccurate to speak of a constant flow in the last three decades. Rather, migration from the region comes in separate phases. A turning point in the chronology comes in 2009-10, when the European Union allowed citizens of the western Balkans – with the exception of Kosovo – to travel within the Schengen zone without a visa. After this, a new phase began, with an increase in migration from former Yugoslavia towards northern Europe (Germany in particular), especially in more recent years. This was a consequence of a number of factors, including the impact of the economic crisis, and the opening of the German labour market for western Balkan workers. While transport hubs in many cities in the region teem with buses heading to destinations in northern Europe, registration for universities and schools falls, and there’s a growing market online for groups offering to act as intermediaries in the relocation of workers abroad. 

While the case of former Yugoslavia is particularly striking, emigration affects a large portion of eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, mediterranean Europe – a symbol of the growing regional disparities across the continent. According to a Guardian report, from 2007 to 2018 most of south-east European countries have witnessed a population decline. Looking towards the future, the view is even more alarming: demographic projections for 2050 conducted by BIRN suggest a disturbing scenario, with a peak demographic decline of 29 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while all the countries in the region – except Slovenia, with a slight improvement – will massively lose population. However, the estimates for migration are by nature imperfect, since they are mostly based on residency, which many people fail to update, especially when it comes to seasonal migration. Furthermore, in the absence of comparative studies, it is not currently possible to compare and contrast the existing data for each country, and there are often discrepancies in the sources which mean they should be treated with caution. 

Former Yugoslavia confronting emigration

One of the countries in which emigration is taking a toll is Serbia, the most populous country in the region, with more than seven million inhabitants. According to a study by the Institute for Development and Innovation, with the support of the Westminster foundation, the approximately 49,000 people who leave the country each year, mostly young and educated, amount to an economic loss of two billion euro per year. According to other sources, seventy percent of young Serbians would like to emigrate, due to a desire for better earnings, or from a pessimistic outlook towards prospects in their home country. The government recently established a team to combat this tendency, gathering people from both politics and academia. However, the results of this endeavour are yet to amount to any significant progress.

Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to be in an even worse situation, even if there’s a lack of official statistics (which the authorities nevertheless claim to possess). According to estimates from the Union for Sustainable Return and Integration in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 173,011 people left the country in the last five years and 73,468 Bosnians have requested to relinquish their citizenship. However, according to some calculations the number of people who have left the country in recent years is closer to half a million. The country’s population, which was 4,372,000 according to the 1991 census (before the war), has fallen to 3.5 million in the 2013 census. The official figures, however, conceal a much more worrying reality. According to other statistics, almost half of citizens born in Bosnia and Herzegovina no longer reside in the country. This depopulation has lead to a paradoxical turn of events: in the district of Una-Sana, for example, where thousands of refugees are stuck at the border of Europe, the authorities can’t manage to find enough local workers to fill a factory labour shortage.

Emigration also seems to be affecting Montenegro, with its little more than 620,000 inhabitants, according to the 2011 census. In the absence of official figures, the NGO KOD estimates that 150,000 individuals have left the country between 1991 and 2012. This trend has had a particularly strong impact on the mountainous northern region. While in some cases this is long-term migration, in others it is seasonal, towards nearby Croatia, where wages are higher. Meanwhile, in 2019 Montenegro faced a labour shortage in its tourist sector. Migration towards North Macedonia, a country with little more than two million inhabitants, also seems to have become a regular phenomenon. In all cases, Germany seems to have absorbed the majority of emigrants, with other nearby countries (Austria, Switzerland or Italy) playing a decidedly more marginal role.

It’s not hard to imagine the factors pushing citizens in the region towards departure: unemployment, low wages, lack of job prospects, rampant corruption and the low quality of institutions. The abolition of visa requirements for the region in 2009-2010 brought with it a spike in asylum requests, especially for Germany. However, these were rejected, since the western Balkan countries are considered “safe”. This phenomenon is particularly apparent among specific groups, such as the large and marginalised Roma community.

The case of Kosovo and the lack of visa liberalisation

Since 2010, Kosovo is the only country in former Yugoslavia whose citizens still require Schengen visas to travel within the EU. This, combined with specific as well as more general factors in the region, helps staunch the flow, legal or otherwise, of one-way migration, given the more serious impediments to travel.

That said, relative to the region, the country with the lowest average age (29) still fails to avoid the general demographic decline. According to the study Depopulation HotSpots, relative to just below two million current inhabitants, the resident population will fall by 11 percent by 2050. The trend can be explained by a number of factors, of which continual emigration is one of the most important.. 

According to the Guardian, Kosovo has lost 15.4 percent of its population between 2007 and 2018, which is the greatest decline in all of Europe. Yet how reliable are these estimates? Not very much, according to many experts in Kosovo and elsewhere. A reliable figure for the population decline in Kosovo since 1991 (not to mention 2007) is 4.3 percent. In the case of Kosovo, the reason for the error is that the country possesses no reliable figures prior to the 2011 census. Moreover, the numbers are often tied to political propaganda: while the sizeable Kosovar diaspora is seen to maintain a close relationship with the homeland, often maintaining residence there, the depopulation of the country’s Serbian community is often cited for political ends by Belgrade.

While access to credible figures is complicated, the underlying problem remains: Kosovars, especially the young, struggle to leave their country. The preferred method for legal migration, in recent times, is Croatia. The Croatian embassy in Pristina declared that from 1 January to 15 April 2019 the number of visa applications was 2,414. In the same period for 2018 there were 1,155 applications, and in 2017 there were 901 applications: a constantly increasing trend, confirmed by the long lines that can be seen every day in front of the Croatian embassy in the Kosovar capital.

According to a study published in April 2019 by the European Policy Institute of Kosovo, in the period between 2008 and 2018 a total of 203,330 Kosovar citizens left the country and applied for asylum in the European Union.

A veritable mass exodus seems to have occurred in 2014-15, when hundreds of Kosovars left each day, mainly by bus to Belgrade before trying to cross Hungary on their way to other EU countries. By February 2015, there were at least 1,400 Kosovars at the border between Serbia and Hungary, while in the first months of 2015 42,000 Kosovars applied for asylum in the EU.

In 2015, there were 122,657 Kosovar migrants in Europe – legally or otherwise. In 2018, this number reached 9,175, demonstrating how, after a period perceived to be “open borders”, people attempting to leave the country were more focused on legal means such as temporary visas, work and study.

According to the European statistics agency Eurostat, the highest number of Kosovars who acquired residence were in Germany (47 percent), then in Italy (twelve percent), France and Austria (around nine percent each), and Slovenia (around seven percent). In 2016, more than 21,000 Kosovars acquired legal residence in EU countries. As for illegal immigration, 141,330 Kosovar citizens were reported to have entered the EU illegally. These figures don’t include legal migrants, such as those whose residence is covered by work permits, states the report.

“A fifth of the Kosovar population has attempted to leave Kosovo by illegal means”, claims Taulant Kryeziu, co-founder and programme director of the European Policy Institute of Kosovo. Nevertheless, the institute’s statistics show that between 2016 and 2018 illegal migration decreased considerably, with more opting for legal migration, and that the principal destination for Kosovars – in general – is still Germany, with 38,000 visas allocated in 2018, 13,000 of which for long-term residence.

Why are young people leaving? There are many reasons, but the main reason is work. Kosovo, according to official figures, has a total unemployment rate of 31.4 percent, and a youth unemployment rate of 57.3 percent. Apart from lack of jobs, the salaries are among the lowest in Europe.

There have been many efforts on the part of political leaders in the country, in the midst of a severe political crisis, to limit this outward flow, but the perception of a far too fragile rule-of-law and a high rate of corruption (Transparency International places Kosovo at 98 out of 180 in its ranking of the most corrupt countries in the world), doesn’t help. Nor does any of this encourage emigrants to return.

According to a report by the UNHCR on the hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Kosovo, a total of 3,236 Serbians and 576 Roma expressed their interest in voluntarily returning to Kosovo after the war in 1999. In 2005, Kosovo established a minister for Community and Return, who tried to encourage people to remain in the country or return to it, but the results – to date – are evidently pitiful.

The Westbalkanregelung

Thus, on the map of the Balkan peninsula there are various migratory flows, exiting but also entering, since 2015, with the increasing arrivals of refugees along the so-called “Balkan route”. 2015 was also a crucial year due to Germany adopting a special regulation called the Westbalkanregelung. This allowed all western Balkan citizens with a work contract to obtain work permits, without any particular requirements concerning qualifications or knowledge of the German language. 

The Westbalkanregelung, which includes Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, helped open legal passage for migrants who had previously relied on the asylum process. Now 25 percent of foreign workers in the German labour market originate from the western Balkans. These workers are mainly employed in the construction and catering sectors. The Westbalkanregelung will be in force until 2020, and it is still unclear what its fate will be after this time. “In the past, it was asylum seekers who arrived, now it’s construction workers”, runs a triumphant headline in Die Welt. However, it is not yet clear what will become of these workers if their contracts are not renewed, given that only five percent have permanent residence. 

In any case it seems probable that Germany will remain an attractive destination for the foreseeable future. As was the case in the sixties, when Yugoslavs filled direct trains to western Germany, the theme of emigration has taken deep roots within local popular culture. 

“I can no longer wait, take me to the United States. Take me to the Golden Gate, I will assimilate”, the Bosnian group Dubioza Kolektiv sing with bitter irony. The brain-drain also forms the backdrop of the Serbian series Jutro će promeniti sve (“everything will be different in the morning”), concerning the dilemmas faced by the thirtysomething protagonists. There are also, of course, documentaries touching on this theme, such as Davor Obrdalj’s Nestajanje (“The Disappearance”) describes the story of three young people with specialised training, fleeing from a Sarajevo where everything is determined by party affiliation. Emigration is thus a theme that seems to be on everyone’s lips, except the local political classes, who for the moment prefer to sit on their hands.

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