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Although the focus of the European public has in recent years been on migration waves originating in the Middle East and Africa, there is another parallel migration from the Western Balkans region, which has been happening relatively silently since the 1990s. It is a phenomenon known as the “brain drain” – emigration of able, highly educated individuals in search of higher-paying jobs or and better working conditions, usually in the European Union and the United States.

In a recently published study on brain drain by Gallup, countries of the Western Balkans ranked worst in Europe. The study, which was conducted between 2015 and 2017 on the sample of half million people in 152 countries, shows that 42% of Kosovo citizens want to emigrate from the country, which is the worst rank in Europe and third in the world. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania, there are 32% citizens who want to leave and these countries are followed by Macedonia with 30% and Serbia with 25%. Surprisingly, Montenegro has a “positive” score, with a possibility of receiving 25% of young and educated work force from other countries.

This problem is becoming increasingly recognized in the Western Balkans region and is on the agenda of numerous gatherings of politicians and businessmen. Thus, at one such gathering which took place in Belgrade this year, brain drain and emigration of the qualified labor force has been recognized as one of the main problems, and the need to stop these processes has also been stressed out. Paradoxically, the Western Balkans is recognized as a region that can become borderless in 12 years, which would create up to 250.000 new jobs, and thus tens of billions of Euros would needed to be invested in stopping these processes.

In the meantime, the emigration continues.

“It’s not just about unemployment”

Although young people seem to be migrating to other countries exclusively due to unemployment, low wages or, for example, corruption, Andan Ćerimagić, the analyst of European Stability Initiative, points out that there is a number of other reasons.

“What is important to say when talking about migration from the Western Balkans is that it is a legal migration. In the 1990s, in the Balkans, we had refugees and asylum seekers, and today people are leaving to study, work or connect with their families,” says Ćerimagić.

Alida Vračić, Executive Director of Populari, agrees with this assessment. “The factors that come to the forefront are economic factors or inability to find a job, but in almost the same way, they are followed by long-lasting dissatisfaction and the feeling that the desired changes are happening slowly or aren’t happening at all,” she says.

She thinks that there are those who are materially or even professionally satisfied, but for them, the suppression of freedom is a problem. “People just do not want to live in that environment, so it’s no wonder they leave their countries,” she adds.

“Entering the European Union will only increase the trend of migration”

Both interlocutors agree that it can not be expected that the departure trend will be reduced if the whole region joins the European Union. On the contrary, the trend of departure will increase. For example, Croatia became an EU member in 2013, and the number of unemployed from mid-2015 to mid-2016 dropped by 95,000 people, but the number of employed grew by only 14,000 which means that 80.000 people have left the country.

“When we look at the example of neighboring Croatia, we see that with the entry into the EU has been the final trigger, and people began to leave the country in large numbers, which only confirms that membership alone will not hold anyone back. If the rule of law and opportunities for people to progress are lacking, if there is not enough freedom of expression and potential for creativity, membership in the European Union does not mean much,” Vračić points out.

She thinks that if the things continue as before, without investing in innovation, science, and research, the region will forever be trapped in a secondary category of workers “who simply fill some and someone’s jobs.”

Ćerimagić believes that this trend will occur in all Western Balkan societies as long as the economic challenges of the region are not solved and as long as there is no “strong vision of society” in which citizens are willing to invest.

“If we take an Estonian who goes to live, for example, in Sweden, he has a completely different perspective compared to the Bosnians or Serbs who leave the Balkans. When he looks back at Estonia with the experience he has gained, he may think that he might return or perhaps he would like to transfer the knowledge he has acquired in Sweden or connect companies from Sweden with those from Estonia. Here, examples of people who came back to start their business are very small,” says Ćerimagić and adds that there needs to be a better business climate and better connection of Western Balkans economies.

There are multiple consequences of the brain drain

There are multiple consequences of the brain drain and the poorer countries are affected much more, because of parallel investment in the highly skilled workers that will leave.

Bosnian Chamber of Medicine announced that in 2016 about 300 highly qualified doctors left the country. In Vračić’s opinion, this number could be even bigger because some doctors leave the country immediately after the completion of their medical education and thus they are not recorded in the official statistics

“Some media in Bosnia and Herzegovina calculated that a doctor’s education costs about 150,000 euros, which indicates that more than 50 million euros are spent annually on the education of health workers who leave the country, and this leads entire sector to collapse. A similar situation is in the rest of the region, in the sectors of science, education and other,” she adds.

In addition to the problem of staff shortage in almost all sectors, coverage of the pension fund can also be compromised. In the Western Balkans, as well as in the European Union, the rapid aging of the working population takes place. “Today, you have about four people of working age for every potential pensioner, and by 2050 there will likely be only two,” claims Vračić.

On the other hand, Adnan Ćerimagić believes that departure does not have to necessarily carry negative consequences. “In many companies, they raise salaries for their workers with the hope that they will keep them which is a positive thing for the workers themselves. Another positive thing would be to launch a public debate about how we are governing ourselves or how we are organizing our society, points out Ćerimagić, adding that “we mustn’t give up from everything, but we need to seek instruments to counter this phenomenon”.

Too many empty words, but too few concrete measure

On 19 December 2018, Germany has adopted skilled labour immigration law with the aim of attracting labor force by making it easier for employers to recruit from outside the European Union. The law has lit the red light for the regional policymakers, because of the fear that it would lead to a wider migration. For example, Zoran Đorđević, Serbian Minister of Labor, announced that his ministry will form a team at the beginning of January 2019, which will help Serbian Government countering the issue of brain drain by proposing adequate measures.

However, both interlocutors believe that so far the measures that are being implemented in the region to fight this problem are being reduced only to empty words and promises.

Ćerimagić says that most of the regional politicians will answer negatively to the question of whether they want young people to emigrate. “The problem is that the debate is not held on a level of principles. In order for this to change, we must focus the debate on the quality of education,” adds Ćerimagić.

He thinks that received education must be practically applied. It is necessary to collect and review data which could serve as the basis of a good public policy.

Alida Vračić believes that the public debate does not even exist at all, and the proposed measures are usually neither meaningless, nor can they be implemented.

“Here and there, there are sporadic questions of people who are leaving, but without context, essence and very often this question is only discussed in an emotional way, which is wrong. Although we have adopted a bunch of legally binding documents, made various strategies and established institutions, you would find very little analysis of the benefits we have had so far from emigration, how this process could be reversed and what is needed for that to happen,” explains Vračić.

She, like Ćerimagić, thinks that data is very important when these measures are planned. It must be known who is coming and who is leaving and in what period, with what skills and qualifications, and is there a possibility for them to come back. No serious society can make a credible projection of development in the coming period, so it is necessary to make a series of changes in data collection, introducing administrative censuses and ongoing research to find out what is actually happening, concludes Vračić.