The Western Balkans Diaspora: A Force for Change in the Region

Western Balkans Diaspora

The Western Balkans is facing a population decline as more and more citizens leave for better opportunities abroad. However, the Western Balkans Diaspora, or citizens living outside of the region, can play a vital role in addressing these challenges.

By engaging with the Western Balkans Diaspora, the region can tap into its human capital according to the Compendium on Best Practices in Diaspora Engagement in the Western Balkans..

It can leverage the skills, knowledge, and resources of its emigrants to drive growth and stability.

How diasporas affect the development of a country

The world population is currently estimated to be at 8 billion and is steadily increasing.

However, the population of the Western Balkans is steadily declining. Therefore, the region is facing a significant loss of human capital.

This can have a major impact on the region's economic, social and political stability.

However, diaspora groups, or citizens living outside their home country, can play a vital role in addressing these challenges.

Unfortunately, diaspora members are mainly known for sending funds home to help finance basic goods and services for friends and family members. By doing this, they help mitigate shocks and support recovery from crises.

Diaspora groups are potentially powerful actors in international affairs, foreign assistance, and foreign policies of their homelands.

They contribute significantly to the development of both destination (host) and origin (home) communities. Diaspora groups provide varied social, economic and cultural impact.

Also, they invest capital in their home communities to improve lives and to generate financial returns. Furthermore, they transfer the knowledge and skills honed through years spent abroad back to their communities of origin.

Diasporas are the ambassadors of their homelands and the embodiment of their homeland’s image abroad.

They are often instrumental in forging ties between destination and origin communities.

Western Balkans diaspora trends

Over the past several decades, the citizens of Western Balkan economies have largely followed similar emigration trends and patterns.

Emigration from the Western Balkans was evident even in the early decades of the last century.

During the second half of the 20th century, low-skilled workers from the Western Balkans actively sought better opportunities overseas or in Europe. As a result, we have seen in a more pronounced trend of emigration.

This was either through their own initiative or through structured, government-sponsored guest worker programs.

This early emigration was followed by another, larger wave of emigrants escaping the wars and political strife in the region during the 1990s.

Again, emigrants mostly picked EU Member States or moved onward to more distant overseas destinations.

While this emigration trend was reversed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this did not last.

Emigration again picked up speed and continued accelerating, with a pronounced spike over the past decade.

Younger and more educated emigrants

With the acceleration of emigration from the region, another important development occurred.

The emigrants became younger and more educated than ever before, threatening to further deplete the demographic, economic and social potential of the region.

Overall, and viewed through relevant international standards, the region has produced an uncommonly large diaspora. An exceptionally large share of the region's population lives abroad.

The figures range from 42% and 46% for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, to 14% for Serbia.

In 2020, the stock of migrants from the region exceeded 4.6 million - a level similar to that of Poland’s which has a population double that of the entire Western Balkans.

The EU ranks high among the preferred destinations for Western Balkans emigrants.

The geographical proximity of the EU, its higher wages, high-quality educational and health systems and better living standards, along with a more stable political environment have been some of the key pull factors for outward migration from the Western Balkans.

On the other hand, modest economic growth within the region following the 2007 global financial crisis, combined with fragile institutions at home and high levels of perceived corruption, have all combined to form strong push factors for this outward migration.

The recent backslide in the rule of law and freedoms in the region further reinforced these factors.

The level of emigration from the Western Balkans over the past decade is partly due to the EU's liberal attitude towards Western Balkans labor migration.

Germany, in particular, welcomes a large number of migrants from the region. Of the 1.6 million first permits issued to Western Balkans citizens by EU member states over the past decade, over 424 thousand were issued by Germany.

As a favored destination, Germany is followed by Italy, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, and others.

The repercussions of migration and brain drain are significant and negatively affect the structure of the population in terms of age, gender, and level of education.

This in turn affects the composition of the workforce and productivity growth, innovation, and attraction to foreign investors.

Tailor-making approach to Western Balkans Diaspora

The Western Balkans region has less than 18 million residents and more than 10 million diaspora members residing abroad.

Therefore, the engagement of its diaspora with all its potential development contributions is a clear imperative.

To address the emigration challenge, governments and societies of origin need to approach emigrants in a different way.

Not only as sources of remittances but as future investors, sources of knowledge transfer, or bridge-builders.

They also need to improve domestic political, economic and natural environments to encourage those who would like to stay or return to see a future in their home economies.

Destination economies need to put in place credible instruments for coordination and cooperation on migration. They should embed demographic considerations across their policy to help reduce, rather than increase, the disparities between the societies of origin and the destination economies.

For a full overview see the Compendium on Best Practices in Diaspora Engagement in the Western Balkans.