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 hemorrhage 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 endeavor 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.