A brief history of emigration from the Western Balkans
The Western Balkans
As a result of large population outflows, countries of the region have a significant diaspora community around the world (see Figure 1). Since 1990, the stock of migrants from the Western Balkans has doubled, reaching almost 3.8 million in 2019.
Figure 1: Emigrant population from the Western Balkans, 2019
|Country||Total number of emigrants||Emigrant share of total population||Projected population decline, 2020-2050|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||1,653,056||50.1%||-18.2%|
Source: Kondan, Silviu (2020): Southeastern Europe Looks to Engage its Diaspora to Offset the Impact of Depopulation. Migration Information Source, 25 August. Externer Link: https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/southeastern-europe-seeks-offset-depopulation-diaspora-ties (accessed: 11-10-2021).
Population decline and population ageing are considered to negatively affect economic growth in the Western Balkan countries as they increase labour shortages in some sectors despite still rather high unemployment rates. The demographic development also puts increasing pressure on their already weak social protection systems.
Figure 2 shows that the EU-27 are the main destination of emigrants from the Western Balkans, with Albanian migrants concentrated in Italy and Greece, while migrants from other Western Balkan countries are mainly living in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries. Intra-regional migration is also common, particularly among Bosnian and Montenegrin migrants. In the absence of legal pathways for (circular) migration in the aftermath of labour recruitment bans in Western European countries in the early 1970s, many emigrants from the Western Balkans sought irregular channels for entry and stay, or resorted to filing asylum applications as this seemed to be the only option to be mobile and seek a better future elsewhere. However, recent developments such as the introduction of the “Western Balkan Regulation” in Germany and bilateral employment programs with public employment agencies in the Western Balkans resulted in a drop of asylum applications from the region, but also in increasing emigration of workers from specific sectors such as construction or care, which aggravated skill shortages in these sectors in the Western Balkans.
Diaspora and development of the Western Balkans
The diaspora from the Western Balkans is an important but not yet sufficiently utilized resource for development of their home countries. Migrants’ remittances are an important source of income across the region. Figure 3 shows the annual inflow of remittances since 2007. For most countries in the Western Balkan region, the inflow of remittances has been relatively stable, with the largest amount of remittances received by Serbia.
It remains to be seen how the recent COVID-19 pandemic will affect remittances to these countries in the long run. According to World Bank data, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania saw the most significant decline in remittances as they have the largest diasporas and many of their citizens reside in European countries that are experiencing an economic recession due to the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it. In Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia officially recorded remittances rose in 2020. This might, however, be due to an increased usage of formal remittance channels (bank transfers) as border closures made non-formal remittances (money transported to countries of origin by relatives and friends or migrants themselves) difficult.
In all Western Balkan countries except North Macedonia remittances make up around ten percent of their GDP (see Figure 4).
Remittances are generally perceived as an informal social protection mechanism for vulnerable groups in the Western Balkans. For example, remittances represent the second largest source of income for remittance-receiving households in Kosovo, at around 20 percent of their total monthly income. The contribution of remittances to these households is larger than any formal social protection benefit or gains from non-permanent employment activities. Research results
While the importance of remittances is acknowledged by policymakers in the Western Balkan region, other possible contributions of the diaspora to development, such as making and attracting investments, facilitating the transfer of knowledge and tourism flows, as well as supporting their communities in building roads, schools, churches or other community infrastructure are still largely ignored. Governments do not yet strive to assure an environment that fosters and facilitates these contributions to development. For example, all countries of the region are under-performing with regard to attracting foreign direct investments. The large diaspora community, which often shows interest in investing in the region based on patriotic feelings beyond purely economic incentives, should be the main target of government efforts to attract foreign investments. However, government institutions in charge of attracting foreign investments (such as the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency in BiH) generally lack concrete action. There are no policies offering preferential treatment for diaspora investors in the Western Balkans. Furthermore, administrative barriers, government inefficiency and corruption have been listed as key obstacles for efficient and sustainable diaspora investment as well as direct foreign investment in general.
Diaspora policies of Western Balkan countries
After decades of political inactivity with regard to addressing the diaspora, in the last decade all Western Balkan countries introduced institutions and policies to incorporate the diaspora into their development strategies. However, the impact of these efforts is still to be assessed, particularly given the low effectiveness and delays in implementation of actions envisaged in the framework of diaspora cooperation strategies.
In Albania, the National Strategy for Development and Integration (2014-2020) recognized the importance of the diaspora and the need to create mechanisms and services to facilitate remittances, to prevent Albanian citizens from irregular migration and overstaying their visas, as well as to improve opportunities for the reintegration of returning emigrants. The strategy listed three specific objectives with a view to diaspora communities: (1) engaging the diaspora more strongly in Albania’s development, (2) enabling transnational entrepreneurial activities, diaspora investments and innovative business activities, and (3) empowering emigrants with regard to the transfer of skills and knowledge. The Strategy was succeeded by the new Development Strategy for 2021-2030. In the meantime, Albania also adopted the National Strategy on Migration 2019-2022 and the National Diaspora Strategy 2021-2025, with the objective to ensure effective migration governance, to regulate flows of remittances and to improve their use as well as to strengthen the link between migration and development by more strongly including diaspora communities in development strategies.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina has adopted several four-year Action Plans in the Area of Migrations and Asylum (2008-2011, 2012-2016 and 2016-2020). However, these did not cover emigration- and diaspora-related issues, despite the fact that these issues should be of crucial importance, given the large Bosnian diaspora. The first Policy on Cooperation with Diaspora was finally adopted in 2017. A subsequent step was the adoption of the Strategy on Cooperation with Diaspora for 2020-2024, but only at the level of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is just one out of two administrative entities of BiH (the other administrative entity is the Republika Srpska). The strategy covers the main areas of cooperation with the diaspora, including institutional capacity building, attraction of investments and transfer of knowledge, as well as cultural exchange.
In Kosovo, the government adopted a State Strategy and Action Plan on Migration 2013–2018, which aims to promote circular migration, seasonal work, legal migration, migration for educational purposes, different trainings and exchange of experiences.
In Montenegro, the 2017-2020 Strategy for Integrated Migration Management included an action plan. However, the strategy did not draw much attention to emigration. Still, there were some positive moves in this direction afterwards, such as the adoption of the Law on Cooperation of Montenegro with Diaspora in 2018, the adoption of the Strategy for Cooperation with the Diaspora 2020-2023, and the establishment of the Directorate for Cooperation with Diaspora.
In North Macedonia, the government first adopted a Resolution on Migration Policy 2009-2014, which was focused on more effective management of legal migration, both immigration and emigration. The subsequent Resolution on Migration Policy 2015-2020 created an environment for supporting a wide range of activities targeting migration, such as supporting temporary migration, mapping the diaspora and establishing a database of different types of migrants, as well as drafting a policy related to the return of high-skilled workers.
In Serbia a comprehensive national policy regarding migration is still underway. However, the Strategy and Policy of Industrial Development of the Republic of Serbia for the period 2011–2020 and the Strategy on Scientific and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia for the period 2016–2020 underline the importance of improving the cooperation with the diaspora, especially with Serbian researchers, to extend the country’s innovation potential and to stimulate their return.
The Western Balkans as transit zone
Two decades after the 1990s, when the Western Balkan region experienced massive refugee outflows due to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the region itself became a transit zone for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, West and South Asia, and Africa. In 2015-16 almost one million people crossed the Western Balkans in their attempt to seek refuge in European Union Member States.
Such negative perceptions of migrants quickly became widespread, especially in countries with right-wing governments that already held negative perceptions of Muslims and were fuelling a negative narrative about migrants. Although only a few hundreds of migrants actually filed asylum applications in BiH, the authorities in BiH’s entity Republika Srpska, for example, portrayed transit migrants as a threat of Muslim domination in the country and forced them to leave their territory to other parts of BiH.
Measures adopted by the European Union such as the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016
As most migrants and asylum seekers who stranded there as a consequence of border closures do not want to stay in the Western Balkans (less than three percent of those entering BiH in 2019 applied for asylum in BiH