Every day, in the early afternoon hours, buses depart toward the European Union from the main bus station in the northern Serbian city of Subotica.
Among the passengers waiting to depart to Vienna is a 20-year-old from Novi Kneževac who plans to continue her education in Austria. She is not willing to talk about her departure, but her father tells K2.0 that her mother went to Austria five years ago and is now working as a cleaner at a hotel for a monthly salary of about 1,500 euros. For the same job, in Serbia, she received 16,000 to 20,000 dinars (about 160 euros).
“With that salary, you can not provide for yourself, and what about everything else?” says the father, refusing to give his name, as he waves goodbye to his daughter. He adds that he is staying in Serbia with his younger son, but believes that something must change in the country “because otherwise everyone will leave.”
Similar images at bus and train stations, as well as airports — scores of people saying their goodbyes to loved ones as they leave indefinitely — can be seen every day throughout the Balkans. According to the recently published Alternative Report on Youth Needs in Serbia, 71 percent of respondents said they wanted to leave the places they live in, with Western European countries (45 percent) representing by far the most popular destinations.
Countries right across the Balkans are seeing their citizens pack their bags and heading for exits. Photo: Natalija Jakovljevic.
The report notes that the situation is similar across the region, and states that unfortunately, countries do not have adequate responses, nor population policy measures to prevent mass exoduses of citizens.
“Demographic research shows that young people from countries in the region are leaving for other countries not only because of the economic conditions, or as we say ‘trbuhom za kruhom‘ [to seek their fortune], but because of the instability of the political system and the deteriorated values,” says the conclusion of the report that was based on a survey of 1,200 respondents.
The exact number of those who are leaving the region’s countries is virtually impossible to determine accurately because of the lack of reliable statistics, but the same trend is noticeable in Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Croatia, the only country in the region that is also a member of the EU.
According to data from Germany’s Statistical Office, between 2013 and 2017, almost 240,000 people moved to Germany from Croatia alone; that’s roughly the combined population of Split and Zadar, the largest cities in Dalmatia.
Around 100,000 moved in the other direction, but that still leaves a net migration from Croatia to Germany of almost 140,000 people in half a decade. Official data from Croatia suggests that most of those leaving the country are between the ages of 20 and 39.
In the same five-year period from 2013 to 2017, net migration to Germany from Kosovo was around 39,000, from Serbia around 29,000, from Albania around 28,000, from Macedonia around 24,000, and from Montenegro over 3,000.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than 2 million inhabitants have left since the early 1990s, placing it in 16th place globally in terms of emigration rate according to the World Bank. While much of this migration occurred during the war years of 1992-95, the number of people leaving again appears to be on the rise.
Net migration from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Germany in the past five years was officially around 40,000, with 14,000 of those people moving in 2017 alone.
Meanwhile, estimations made locally by Sarajevo-based NGO Union for Sustainable Return and Integration, indicate that more than 160,000 of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 3.5 million citizens have left the country in the past five years, with the numbers increasing steadily year on year.
According to their calculations, in 2014, around 27,000 people left, while 29,000 left the following year and 34,000 in 2016. Last year, they say that number was up around 35,000 people, while the NGO’s director, Mirhunisa Komarica Zukić, recently told local media that the number of those estimated to have already left by the mid-point of 2018 was 18,000.
"That's 360 doctors [leaving] at the state level — or one entire hospital — per year.”
Demographers warn that the figures that are available to the public are incomplete, and as such are particularly alarming.
A 2017 study suggests that the main reason for leaving today is unemployment, but that reasons also include the existing socio-economic environment, a weak health system and state instability. Schools in some cities are half empty, and a similar situation can be seen at the university faculties.
In a trend replicated in different parts of the region, doctors and other medical personnel seem particularly prone to leaving the country. “Some estimates are that one to two doctors leave the country on a daily basis,” says Kristina Bevanda, president of the Professional Trade Union of Doctors and Medical Practitioners in the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton for the local media. “When this is approximately summed up, that’s 360 doctors at the state level — or one entire hospital — per year.”
Stories from Macedonia are similar, although according to available research, “brain drain” at universities is no longer exclusively focussed on medical and technical science personnel, but is slowly beginning to affect disciplines, including law, politics and economic science. At the same time, just 0.2 percent of GDP is allocated to science.
Back in Subotica, the healthcare profession is also being hit by migration. Žolt Sendi, president of the Union of Nurses and Technicians of the Local Health Center, says that the number of those seeking temporary unpaid leave from work or terminating employment contracts is on the rise; more than 1,000 such workers are leaving Serbia annually, he estimates.
“Those who leave are mostly middle-aged, 30 to 40 years old, and are experienced health workers with a number of years of service,” Sendi says. “They leave when they are the most productive, and the reasons are being overloaded, the stress and the financial situation that they are in. Their departure leads to the weakening of both the primary and secondary health care system.”
President of the Union of Nurses and Technicians of Subotica’s Local Health Center, Žolt Sendi, says that more and more experienced health workers are leaving Serbia. Photo: Natalija Jakovljević.
Nenad Ivanišević, director of Subotica’s Gerontology Center, says that this institution is facing an exodus of employees.
He says he has had to address a request for “interregional mediation” to the National Employment Service, which has referred candidates to them who have applied for jobs in medical professions in other cities and towns in Serbia. Without this kind of reinforcement, he says, their ability to provide services would have been compromised.
The local Union of Nurses and Technicians estimates that two to five percent of employees, mostly nurses and technicians, leave annually. Among them is technician Zlatko Prćić, who says he moved to England so that he can live life with dignity, “both personally and professionally.”
“I lost integrity as a person and as a professional in Serbia,” Prćić says. “It became irrelevant whether you really are trying to do your job responsibly or not.”
He says that life in England is not perfect, but that at least he has a salary that enables him to pay his own expenses and to help out his parents in Serbia.
Viktorija Aladžić, a professor at the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Subotica, claims that there are a decreasing numbers of students in the local university faculties. She believes that the main reason for people leaving is not only a non-functional state but also changing societal dynamics.
“The interpersonal and quality social relations within the family, with friends, with work colleagues and so on, are among the most important factors for achieving individual and collective happiness,” Aladžić says.
According to the professor, in a society where these relationships are disturbed, where it is normal for bosses to maltreat workers, or for family members to harass each other, where people treat each other with hatred, disregard, underestimation, and disrespect, it’s natural for citizens — and above all young people — to want to go to live elsewhere.
Viktorija Aladžić, a university professor in Subotica, says that the numbers of students in the faculties is decreasing as people leave. Photo: Natalija Jakovljevic.
One of those who has left Subotica is Tamara Olman. The qualified economist left Serbia in her early 30s and has been living in Vienna for the last four years. “Now, I live in a country where rules are respected, where order exists, where the state takes care of its citizens, where there are many opportunities and privileges, and where the social system is properly regulated,” she says.
Olman works as a waitress, while learning the local language, and says that upon arrival in Vienna, the Austrian state provided her with the opportunity to attend a bookkeeping course.
Finding employment with an economics degree back in Serbia was “mission impossible,” she says. “I knocked on 101 doors, but in vain. I’m angry and disappointed at not being able to be recruited through the regular procedure, and that is the reason I left my country.”
Stories such as Olman’s are common in Subotica.
Sociologist Branislav Filipović believes that the key reason for the exodus of young people from the city is poor economic and demographic policy, while indications from other Western Balkan countries suggest that the situation across the region is similar.
“Young people from Subotica do not simply leave,” he says. “It’s better to talk about it as a concept of organized flight.”
"Despite my husband’s job and the two jobs that I had, I saw that we could not have more than the most basic things — perhaps not even that.”
According to Filipović, insecurity, corruption, dysfunctional state apparatus, small wages and everything else that makes everyday life the way it is can be considered as causes for departure.
“With the departure of professionals and educated young people, the city and the state are losing the social essence of possible changes,” Filipović says.
Nevena Miljački Ristić is another who has left Subotica in recent years, seeing the opportunity of a more comfortable life away from her home country. Today, she lives in the U.S., in a “beautiful small town” called the Woodlands, on the edge of Houston, Texas.
“The main reason we left was purely financial, because, despite my husband’s job and the two jobs that I had, I saw that we could not have more than the most basic things — perhaps not even that,” she says. “With a baby on the way, we had no choice but to go somewhere where we would be paid for our work.”
Ristić points to nepotism and the subsequent limitation of opportunities through simple hard work. “Resourcefulness and affiliation to certain parties or groups is much more appreciated than the expertise or the desire to advance,” she says, adding that others she knows personally who have left Serbia did so after they had already wasted too many years “hoping that it would get better.”
Leaving long term
Many of the same issues facing Serbia are replicated in neighboring Kosovo. Queues in front of embassies have been long for many years, and they particularly include young people.
This is in no small part down to the lack of a liberalised visa regime with European Union countries; since 2010, Kosovar citizens have been the only ones in the region still requiring visas to travel to Europe’s border-free Schengen Zone.
But additionally, faced with poor economic prospects, endemic political corruption and a barely functional rule of law, tens of thousands of Kosovars have attempted to leave the country indefinitely in recent years.
Most notable was the mass exodus in 2014-15 when hundreds of Kosovars were leaving daily, mainly heading on buses to Belgrade before trying to cross into Hungary and then onward to other European Union countries. By February 2015, 1,400 Kosovars were crossing the border from Serbia into Hungary every day, while in the first few months of that year 42,000 Kosovars applied for asylum in the EU.
A number of political measures were taken to try to prevent Kosovars from leaving, and to incentivize their returns, but little has been done to address the fact that a large number of Kosovars cannot see a future for themselves in their home country.
Between 2012 and 2016, 122,657 people emigrated from Kosovo — legally or illegally — with most heading to Germany. According to the European Statistics Agency Eurostat, the largest number of Kosovars who acquired residence permits in other countries were in Germany (47 percent), then Italy (12 percent), France and Austria (about 9 percent each), and Slovenia (about 7 percent). In 2016, more than 21,000 Kosovars had valid residents’ permits in EU countries.
Kosovars have become used to long waits outside European embassies if they wish to even take a short trip abroad, adding to an ever-growing sense of entrapment and isolation. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
In the autumnal warmth of an October day, in front of the Swiss Embassy, as usual, there is a big line.
Among those who stand in line for hours and wait to submit their visa applications is 21-year-old Jetlir. He tells K2.0 that he is a student and wants to leave because he sees no future in Kosovo. “I do not see anything,” he says. “Even when I acquire my degree, I will not be able to find a job.”
Jetlir adds that he believes he has little chance of getting a visa, but he still insists he has to try. “If they approve my visa application, I’ll go to my uncle in Switzerland who has promised to help me find a job on a construction site,” he says.
Despite the long anticipated visa waiver for Kosovar citizens — when and if it comes — only applying to short-stay tourist travel, Jetlir, like many of his compatriots, equates visa liberalization with an opportunity to leave the country longer term. “I hope that liberalization of the visa regime will happen soon, because waiting in lines is becoming very tiring,” he says. “Then we will leave as human beings.”
In the line near Jetlir, and almost twice his age, is Enver. He also wants to leave Kosovo, having no intent of coming back.
“I hope that they will give me a visa and that I will be able to go and find a job because there is no job for me here,” he says. “The time for our generation is ticking, but at least we can work something out for our children to enable them to have what we have missed for the last 20 years.”
Over the border in Montenegro, the economic prospects for young people are similarly dire. Youth unemployment in the region’s least populous state is over 40 percent, and studies show that more than half of young people (aged 16 to 27) want to leave.
Many have already done so. Local informal education NGO Forum MNE says that, according to its research, in the past decade 10,000 young people have left the country, which only has just over 620,000 inhabitants to begin with.
One of those to have left is 30-year-old Dušan, who left the country nearly 10 years ago and still does not think about returning.
“The state does not inspire young people,” he says, pointing to the omnipresent regional problem of nepotism. “The state tells us that it is OK to use any kind of connections to achieve something in life.”
Fed up with the situation in his home country, 30-year-old political scientist Boris decided to pack his bags and leave Montenegro last year. He headed to the U.S., where he has a job, and says he has no intention of returning to the Balkans.
Like Dušan, Boris points to nepotism as a key factor locking young people out of the labor market, but also says there is a lack of effective labor policies.
“The high level of political influence, such as favoring one party over the other, and the lack of harmonization of expert and professional profiles with the needs of the labor market, are the dominant reasons why young people cannot be employed, or be realized as experts or professionals in their profession,” he says.
Boris believes that current state policies do not show an interest in really keeping young people in the country. “If we take into account that Montenegro, although a NATO member and a candidate for EU membership, continues to show enormous signs of weakness in the area of rule of law and political discrimination … then it is not surprising that, according to the research, more than half of the total youth population wants to leave the country,” he says.
According to data from Montenegro’s Employment Agency, 5,779 graduates are currently unemployed, as well as 243 people with a master’s degree and 10 with a doctorate.
Some steps have been taken in an attempt to address economic prospects for young people.
Six years ago, the Ministry of Education started the Vocational Training Program. This scheme offers university graduates the possibility of having a nine-month internship in the media, banks or other companies after they have completed their studies, with interns receiving a 250 euro monthly salary provided by the state.
So far, more than 30 million euros has been invested in this project, but there have been issues with implementation. Critics in the civil sector point to a lack of information regarding which employers are giving jobs to interns, and who is controlling the system of applications and internships. Questions have also been asked as to whether young people applying to participate in the program really have the opportunity to learn relevant skills.
Further efforts to reduce youth unemployment were made two years ago, when Montenegro introduced the Law on Youth, as well as adopting a 2017-21 Youth Strategy, which acknowledged that “the labor market in Montenegro faces a serious problem of absorption of young people who have completed schooling.”
Also in 2016, a Directorate for Youth at the Ministry of Sport was established, charged with the “promotion, development and improvement of youth policy at the national and local level.”
Nenad Koprivica, director general of the Directorate, tells K2.0 that it is of the utmost importance that all institutions involved in fostering youth employment “coordinate activities and develop institutional capacities.” For now, such coordination seems lacking and citizens on the ground say that they have see few signs of improvement.
In its latest progress report on Montenegro, the European Commission points to the fact that women, young people and the long-term unemployed find it most difficult to find a job. Meanwhile, according to data from Montenegro’s Employment Agency, 5,779 graduates are currently unemployed, as well as 243 people with a master’s degree and 10 with a doctorate.
Despite the steps taken on paper to increase economic opportunities, a lack of concrete results has left many in Montenegro, like their counterparts throughout the region, seeing their futures elsewhere.
A personal choice
The impact on those who have taken the decision to leave the region varies from person to person.
Some, such as 26-year-old Ervin Heđi from the village of Palić, near Subotica, have no doubts that they’ve made the right decision, and don’t look back.
Heđi now works as a construction worker in Vienna for a monthly salary of between 2,600 and 2,800 euros. He says that he has more acquaintances abroad than at home, and when he goes back home there is almost no one to visit. “I’ve lived abroad for a year and I’m not planning on coming home,” he says.
"Be happy but tied, or be free but sometimes sad. Everyone has to choose for themselves."
For others though, the decision to have moved away elicits mixed feelings.
Marko Makivić was an actor for 10 years in the National Theater in Subotica, where he appeared in more than 25 performances. Fed up with the “degradation of society … in favor of a minority of nouveau riche social climbers,” he left Serbia last year and has been living in Bangkok, Thailand, while working as an English language teacher.
“The majority are acutely numb and their passivity has metastasized,” Makivić says of the situation back home. “Of course, there is a subgroup of a small number of active people who are trying, within their capacities, to reinvigorate and awake people around them.”
The decision to move away was a tough one for Makivić, and like for so many others who have left the region, it still weighs heavily on him.
“I’m sad because of the friends I have not seen for a long time, I’m sad because I miss my audience … there are many things I’m sad about,” he says. “Somehow, everything comes down to two options: Be happy but tied, or be free but sometimes sad. Everyone has to choose for themselves — so do I.”K
Reporting by Natalija Jakovljević, Sanja Rašović, Nidžara Ahmetašević and Fitim Salihu.
Edited by Jack Butcher.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.