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Emigration from the Western Balkans

Nermin Oruč

/ 11 Minuten zu lesen

The six Western Balkan countries have a long history of emigration resulting in large diaspora communities. However, comprehensive strategies to tap the potential of diaspora communities for development are still in the making. So are policies with a view to immigration.

As traditional emigration countries, Western Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina have large diaspora communities which are also committed to peace and development in their countries of origin. (© picture-alliance,

A brief history of emigration from the Western Balkans

The Western Balkans have a long tradition of emigration. The first major outflow of population from the region occurred between 1880 and 1921, when thousands of people emigrated to the USA. In the same period, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent displacement of population (mainly Muslims) led to significant migration to Turkey. Emigration continued in the interwar period and during the Second World War (WWII). After WWII, Yugoslavia signed several bilateral labour recruitment agreements with Western European countries in need of foreign workers. This sparked emigration from the Western Balkan region to Western Europe, especially to Germany. In the 1990s, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars, combined with the rather painful transition from a communist to a capitalist economic system, resulted in mass emigration from the Western Balkans: according to various sources, around 27 percent of Albania's population emigrated in 1990-1996 , and around 25 percent of Bosnia's population sought refuge abroad in 1992-1995. In contrary to the pre-1990 labour migration of predominantly male individuals, emigration from the 1990s onwards was characterised by outflows of entire families. There is also a trend for a change from permanent to temporary migration as globalisation and technological developments have facilitated mobility and have made travel accessible and affordable for large segments of the population. Today, youth emigration and brain drain represent the most sensitive issues policymakers in the Western Balkans dealing with migration are confronted with. According to a survey among youth in 2018, 33 percent of the young population in the region have strong aspirations to emigrate.

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. As all countries in the region (with exception of Kosovo) have below average fertility rates – with Bosnia and Herzegovina and its fertility rate of 1.2 belonging to the countries with the lowest fertility rates in the world – emigration contributes significantly to population decline.

Figure 1: Emigrant population from the Western Balkans, 2019

*Figure based on UN data on emigration. The UN's data on emigration does not report data for Kosovo separately.
CountryTotal number of emigrantsEmigrant share of total populationProjected population decline, 2020-2050
Bosnia and Herzegovina1,653,05650.1%-18.2%
North Macedonia658,26431.6%-10.9%

Source: Kondan, Silviu (2020): Southeastern Europe Looks to Engage its Diaspora to Offset the Impact of Depopulation. Migration Information Source, 25 August. Externer Link: (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: Main destination countries of Western Balkan emigrants, 2019. (© bpb)

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

Figure 3. Inflow of remittances, 2007-2019 (USD million, nominal). (© bpb)

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. Therefore, the amount of remittances might have declined despite an increase displayed in official statistics. Some lessons learned from the 2008-2012 global economic crisis may be useful in estimating the impact of the current pandemic. For example, an analysis of the BiH Household Budget Survey (HBS) data from 2011 has shown that during the economic crisis the number of recipients of remittances decreased, but the average amount of remittances that continued to be sent actually increased. A possible explanation is provided by Oruc and Tabakovic (2016), who argue that the countercyclical nature of remittances results in a specific pattern expected in cases of global economic crises. If there is an economic crisis in the origin country of migrants, the average amount of remittances increases because migrants feel the need to support their families and relatives more strongly. An economic crisis in the host country, however, reduces the number of migrants who are able to send remittances as they, too, suffer from increased unemployment, short-time work or salary cuts and might not be able to save money that they could send back to family members.

Figure 4. Share of remittances of the Western Balkan countries’ GDP, 2007-2019 (in percent). (© bpb)

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 suggest that remittances contribute to moving a large proportion of recipient households out of poverty. Remittances are mainly used for immediate consumption, but also for savings and education of children. Only small portions of remittances are used for long-term investment that could substantially improve economic growth and the well-being of large segments of the population in recipient countries.

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.

North Macedonia

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. These figures represent mere estimates as only approximately two-thirds of these people registered in the Western Balkan transit countries. The countries in the Western Balkan region faced serious challenges in dealing with this “crisis” as they had neither the necessary resources nor relevant legislation and policies in place to appropriately handle the large influx of asylum seekers. As a result, transit migration soon became a humanitarian crisis, with the main burden concentrated in several local communities (such as Una-Sana Canton in the north-west of BiH at the Croatian border) incapable to manage the crisis effectively. The pressure on small local communities produced frustration among the local population, which motivated protests against migrants and some small-scale clashes between locals and migrants. All these events received great attention in the media, resulting in a dominant narrative about migrants as “trouble makers” – a similar narrative to the one asylum seekers from the Western Balkan region who fled the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s were confronted with in their host countries.

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 well as border closures in countries along the so-called Western Balkan migration route led to an increasing number of migrants being ‘stranded’ in the Western Balkans. The mass inflow of immigrants and their prolonged stay in these countries was a new experience for the traditional emigration countries.

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 ), the governments in the Western Balkans continue to perceive migrants as a temporary burden they will get rid of as soon as the EU member states (re)open their borders. In fact, the Western Balkan migration route continues to be an important gateway for asylum seekers and migrants attempting to reach Western European countries. According to the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex), 22.613 illegal border-crossings were registered in the Western Balkan region in the first seven months of 2021. Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 Pandemic, UNHCR documented rising numbers of new arrivals in the Western Balkan countries. Of some 78,000 migrants who entered one of the six Western Balkan countries in 2018, about 27 percent (21,000 people) actually logged asylum applications. Although for most asylum seekers and migrants the Western Balkans remain a transit route, the number of registered migrants and refugees has increased significantly in recent years. Despite this development the governments of the Western Balkan countries have not set up neither integration polices nor even started a discussion of possible benefits of providing an option to stay in the country to at least some of these migrants. In the short- to medium-term labour and skill shortages will challenge employment and economic growth prospects in the Balkans. Most countries in the region are projected to experience significant population decline by 2050. In the context of their ageing populations, migrants, if well integrated, could make an important economic contribution.

Weitere Inhalte

Nermin Oruč, PhD, is founder and Director of Research at the Centre for Development Evaluation and Social Science Research, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He also coordinates the Western Balkans Migration Network (WB-MIGNET). His research focuses on the social impact of migration and remittances in the Western Balkans.