Brain drain? In Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia there are signs of ‘brain gain’


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New research suggests that migration patterns in at least some Western Balkan countries are more circular than previously believed.

While the Western Balkans as a whole remains a region that suffers from the negative impact of external migration, or ‘brain drain’, a recent study by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) reveals that the Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are – at least among the most educated – who experience the opposite: what has been called “brain gain”.

Migration out of the Western Balkans is not new. For both political and economic reasons, the region has long been a net exporter of people, especially of young people.



But as the wiiw study reveals, the structure of this emigration is not uniform in the six countries of the region, nor at all levels of education.

Unsurprisingly, the study confirms that emigration is highest among young people.

In addition to young people in the region generally having fewer responsibilities and more willing to engage in the potentially risky movement to leave their home countries, they also face one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. world. This is especially true in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, where current youth unemployment rates are 40.2% and 46.9% respectively. While the wiiw study looked at data from 2011, it should be mentioned that historically the rates have been higher – 2012 saw youth unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina at 63.43%.

What is somewhat surprising, however, is the distribution of migration by educational level. In the region, net emigration occurs mainly among low and medium educated groups, with Albania the only outlier – here net emigration is highest among the educated.

Migration flows in the Western Balkans by level of education

The brain drain, the emigration of highly skilled and educated workers, is high in three of the six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.

It is particularly pronounced in Albania where 40% of the cumulative exits during the period analyzed (2012-2019) were highly qualified people. Additionally, in Albania and Kosovo, the brain drain occurs mostly among people in their early to mid-twenties, indicating that many leave as soon as they have completed higher education.

Much more interestingly, the other three countries of the Western Balkans – Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia – actually recorded a “brain gain” during the period observed.

This net immigration is also more pronounced among people in their twenties. In all three countries, emigration of people with an average level of education is highest among the youngest cohort. Therefore, the study authors conclude that the brain gain is the result of people returning to their home country after completing their higher education abroad.

In the case of Serbia, however, the brain gain is also the result of an increasing number of students from neighboring countries coming to attend university in the country. In recent years, Serbia has become a regional hub attracting foreign students.

According to study data, between 2015 and 2019, 90,000 highly skilled people moved to Serbia, as well as 30,000 low-skilled workers.

Circular migration

While for all three countries, and in particular Serbia, the data indicating the “brain gain” of highly skilled people is encouraging, the fact remains that all of the Western Balkan nations are net population losers. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 665,000 thousand people have left Serbia since 2000.

Youth unemployment remains one of the region’s biggest challenges – even in Serbia and Montenegro, which have the lowest rates, almost a third of those aged 15-24 who are officially unemployed. High emigration rates among those who do not belong to the most skilled groups may indicate that people are migrating just to be able to survive: the minimum wage in the Western Balkans remains among the lowest in all of Europe.

Yet the study shows that there may be more circular migration in some countries in the region than previously thought.

Overall, however, the policy implications that the study’s authors point out for the region appear to be true – countries must work to reduce youth unemployment and create quality, well-paid jobs for young people, many of whom are engaged in temporary work, often in the informal economy. .

Countries experiencing a brain drain need to ensure that there is not an oversupply of graduates in certain fields and deal with the mismatch between skills acquired in universities and skills in the labor market. requires.

Those with a brain gain must ensure that their advantage is harnessed: with policies that ensure that imported knowledge and know-how actually benefits local economies.


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