Balkan brain drain could be costing the region its future

Is brain drain real? Figures from the Western Balkans would suggest that it is. Photo: Tomas Ragina, Shutterstock

‘Brain drain’ has become a sad refrain in the Western Balkans, where many youngsters harbour dreams of living and working abroad. But is brain drain real, and what impact is it having?

The phrase refers to the emigration of highly trained or qualified individuals from one country to another. In the Western Balkans, it reflects the way thousands of usually young people move to EU countries to pursue further education or work. 

But Janos Ammann, an economics editor at, is not convinced it is necessarily a bad thing.

Is brain drain real?

“In academia, brain drain is a disputed concept, as it is just one aspect of high-skilled labour emigration. But this emigration also offers opportunities. One obvious opportunity is the potential of higher earnings for the migrants themselves. But migrants also benefit their countries in other ways by sending money back to their home countries,” he said.

While this may be true in some cases, not all migrants send money home, and many remittances come from second, third, and fourth-generation family members abroad.

Also, there is no clear pattern between EU and non-EU Western Balkan countries regarding the amount of money sent back.

For example, some countries have relatively low figures, like non-EU North Macedonia with 3.4%, or EU member Romania with 3%.

In the middle tier are Serbia (7.3%) and EU member Croatia at 7.1%.

The figure is significantly higher in non-EU countries Montenegro (12.6%), Kosovo (18.9%), and Albania (9.9%), while it is just 1.4% in Bulgaria, which joined the bloc in 2007 and remains its poorest member.

These numbers show that in some cases, brain drain could indeed be offset by remittances, but not across the board.

What’s the situation in candidate countries?

In the early 1990s, thousands of Albanians left the country for Italy, Germany, the US, Switzerland, and neighbouring Greece. There are over 4.5 million Albanians outside Albania, while just 2.8 million remain.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Albania ranks fourth globally for the emigration of highly skilled people. Up to 83% of people want to leave, and almost half are actively trying to apply for visas or looking for jobs.

Emigration figures have declined slightly, but this is likely because most of those who could go have already left. It’s also attributed to an ageing population and a low birth rate. The UN  has suggested that if current trends continue, the people of Albania could be just 1.9 million by 2100.

The strain on the economy is already being felt. Many Albanians do not want to work in manual labour, while other jobs such as nursing and teaching are left wanting. Those with education and ambition leave in droves, and many do not return.

After receiving free education, Albanians will leave and not pay back into the system through social security and tax. This could significantly impact the sustainability of pensions and welfare and the continuation of free healthcare and schooling.

EU hopeful Albania struggles with its own asylum seekers

Albania has a problem with asylum. Between 2010 and 2019, more than 193,000 Albanians applied for asylum in the European Union, a significant portion of the EU candidate country’s population of 2.8 million.

It is a similar story in Serbia. A survey by the National Youth Council of Serbia, published in August, found that 50% of young people want to emigrate, and 25% are in the planning stages.

The main reasons for wanting to leave is a desire for a more dignified way of life and a higher standard of living, according to Vladamir Tintor from

“The government’s Economic Migration Strategy estimated that around half a million people left the country between 2007 and 2019, at a rate of between 30,000 and 60,000 a year. Most go to Germany, then Austria, and Slovenia,” he said.

Across the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), data from the 2019 Labour Force Survey from the Agency of Statistics reported that some 530,000 people had left the country between 2013 and 2019.

In many instances, those who are leaving are also renouncing their citizenship. Zeljko Trkanjec, EURACTIV’s correspondent for BiH and Croatia, noted that since the end of the war in 1995, almost 85,000 have done so.

As one young person explained to Trkanjec, ”here, they don’t recognise enough education or diplomas. It’s hard to find a job in your profession with normal working conditions, a good salary, and where you can afford to pay the bills and live well”,

The consequences are likely to be severe, but Trkanjec believes the government has little motivation to enact change.

“The main interest of the politicians is to preserver their positions. Educated people are leaving, so it’s easier for them to govern. Those less educated are more likely to succumb to nationalist rhetoric, “ he said.

What about those who went before?

Croatia joined the EU in 2013, but people were leaving en masse to seek opportunities abroad even before then. Trkanjec explained that since the 1960s, Croatians were regularly working in Italy, Austria and Germany as guest workers before returning home. This changed, however, when Croatia joined the EU in 2013.

“Croatia has faced an exodus of people from the moment it became an EU member. Many young people are leaving with their entire family, which is a big problem for demographics,” Trkanjec said.

It is currently estimated that at least 350,000 people have left, equivalent to 9% of the population. This could be as much as 20% in terms of people in the labour market.

This has caused problems, including a lack of qualified nurses.

In Bulgaria, between 1990 and 2007, when it joined the EU, an estimated 60,0000 people were leaving each year. Since EU accession, the number has fallen as the country’s economy has grown. 

Figures quoted by the Financial Times in 2018 suggested it was around 30,000, with a further 10,000 returning each year. But there are issues with the low child-birth rates, which Krassen Nikolov from EURACTIV Bulgaria described as a “demographic catastrophe”.

“Bulgaria has had a strategy about it for several years, but nothing has been done. The impact of this has been huge – from a loss of foreign investors due to labour shortages and long term problems with economic growth,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Romania, the biggest country in the region with 19 million people, the population has decreased since the fall of communism in 1989, and this only accelerated after EU membership in 2007.

Official figures note a decrease of around four million between 1990 and the end of 2020. Eurostat reports that more than a fifth of the country’s active workforce lives in another EU country – the biggest diaspora in Europe and the fifth-largest in the world, according to the OECD.

Bogdan Neagu from EURACTIV Romania said: “Most of those who emigrated have a low level of education and work in unskilled sectors, especially in Italy and Spain. But highly skilled workers including IT and healthcare professional have also left in high numbers and with significant consequences.”

Development in critical industries has been hampered due to a lack of qualified staff. The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the issue as there are many areas without enough medical staff, a deficit of tens of thousands.

“Of the 231,000 employees in the Romanian healthcare system, 14,000 are doctors. This is the same amount of doctors that left between 2009 and 2015, according to the national healthcare union Sanitas. A further 28,000 nurses left during the same period,” he said.

As Carnegie Europe wrote in a research note in March, the EU, as the key beneficiary of the brain drain from the region, should consider policies “that address both push and pull factors, such as obliging labour-importing nations to compensate source countries for the true cost of exporting talent.”

“An EU that is serious about accession must take responsibility as the primary beneficiary of brain drain from the Western Balkans and share the burden of finding a solution.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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