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A crisis of opportunity: tackling the root causes of emigration in the Western Balkans

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Authors: Dr Albana Shehaj and Dr Valbona Zeneli

The Western Balkans (WB) have faced significant population losses due to emigration in recent decades. Countries in the region have seen around 10 to 30% of their population emigrate abroad in seeking economic relief. Young, educated workers make up a large share of those leaving, as wages are low and unemployment in the region remains high. Surveys show that average citizens are unhappy with the state of business in their country and are economically and institutionally motivated to leave the region.

Pull factors attract emigrants to Western European countries offering more abundant work and higher standards of living. Generous social benefits also make destinations like Germany attractive. As gaps in income and institutional quality between the Western Balkans and the EU continue to widen, these push-pull dynamics will only strengthen in the future. Worse still, the region’s population is aging, young people are leaving and fertility rates are collapsing. These three factors are closely linked, creating a difficult-to-break vicious cycle that most countries in South-Eastern Europe currently face.

Emigration brought certain benefits. Remittances sent by migrants working abroad have become a major source of income, accounting for e.g. more than 17% of Kosovo’s GDP in 2022. This money supports individual consumption throughout the region. Emigration has also eased the pressure of unemployment on local labor markets. However, significant population losses also carry risks.

With around 20% of their working-age population now working abroad, Western Balkan countries are facing a “brain drain” of skilled human capital. Sectors like healthcare are already struggling with a shortage of doctors due to emigration, according to the World Health Organization. Skilled labor shortages in fields like IT and engineering threaten competitiveness and economic growth. According to a WHO study, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo are already facing a shortage of doctors due to the emigration of health professionals, According to the WHO. Skilled labor shortages in IT, engineering and other sectors also threaten competitiveness, notably in Montenegro and North Macedonia, which perform poorly in talent competitiveness rankings. The loss of a large portion of their young citizens has led to a rapid aging of the national population and declining birth rates, creating demographic cycles that are difficult to break.

Reliance on remittances is also not sustainable. While supporting consumption, remittances do little to boost investment and growth. In the long run, emigration discourages self-sufficiency as economies become dependent on foreign aid and remittances. instead of creating their own opportunities. Politically, large expatriate communities are often excluded from voting, sparking resentment among citizens deprived of participation.

Governments in the Western Balkans publicly acknowledge that emigration is a challenge. Despite the pressing nature of political and public sentiment towards emigration, the political will to design and implement policy initiatives aimed at deterring emigration by addressing its root causes has been lacking. While the region’s migratory flows are comparable to the exodus of emigrants that the World Bank region experienced following the collapse of communist regimes in the 1990s, political actors in the region have chosen a strategy of deflating the crisis with the aim of avoiding public unrest and controlling the political and electoral costs of emigration.

Ineffective policy measures aimed at curbing emigration are not simply the product of political negligence justified by ignorance of the scope and implications of emigration by ruling elites. The status quo suits their political interests. Remittances and foreign aid prop up economies while ruling parties avoid the unrest that could result from solving deep-seated problems. Politically, emigration breeds resentment as large expatriate communities from the six countries are excluded from the right to vote. The exclusion of diaspora voters also protects existing electoral interests, as migrants tend to favor opposition positions. Across the region, legislative reforms and programs addressing this problem have not progressed due to a lack of political will or funding.

To curb unsustainable emigration trends and encourage circular migration, comprehensive long-term strategies are needed. Governments’ policy priorities should include greater investments in education, training and innovation to develop a skilled workforce and provide alternatives at the start. Targeted recruitment and tax incentives could also attract expatriate professionals again. Budget and pension reforms are also needed to prepare aging societies. Restrictive electoral policies that cut off diaspora engagement should be reformed to foster stronger ties between expatriates and their home countries. To boost economic growth, governments must engage in structural reforms that promote an open and transparent business environment, enabling investment in infrastructure, attraction of foreign direct investment and job creation programs.

Additionally, governments should create investment funds to channel remittances into local development projects. They should also gradually eliminate dependence on aid by linking aid with capacity-building programs and channel financial resources from the EU and other Western partners in a transparent and accountable manner.

Coordinated regional cooperation could maximize the benefits of migration while mitigating costs such as skills shortages. Through concerted action combining rhetoric and policies that win for citizens, governments in the Western Balkans can support development at home instead of losing more of their most vital resource – people – to emigration every year. ‘stranger. The question remains whether there is the political will to move from words to action.

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