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Youth brain drain is one of the most worrisome problems for the six countries of the Western Balkans (WB6) – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Serbia. The numbers are shocking. In the last three decades, as a result of massive emigration, Serbia has lost 9 percent of its citizens, North Macedonia 10 percent, Bosnia and Herzegovina 24 percent, and Albania 37 percent, according to figures cited by EUObserver. These are mostly young, educated, and skilled people who decided to “vote with their feet.”

The pace and intensity of the problem rank the WB6 among the top brain drain leaders in the world, with estimates that the region will lose a quarter to half of its youth talent in the forthcoming decades. Considering the current state of affairs, the scale of already lost youth human capital, and youth emigration tendencies, it is time for the WB6 countries to stop thinking about how to keep youth home and start working on attracting them back, as I argue in a recent paper for the German Marshall Fund.

Massive Repercussions

The most recent research shows there is a diminishing distinction between the economic and non-economic push factors for youth emigration from the WB6. Historically, if youth predominantly left the region for bigger salaries and better jobs, nowadays they are increasingly leaving for a higher quality of public services, education, healthcare, governance, or the environment. Of course, geographical proximity plays a major role, but so do the ongoing EU membership accession processes and everything those represent. In the WB6, governments and reforms have been driven for decades by the dream of being an EU member and a strong ideology lies behind this in the accession process. The democratization of the region goes hand-in-hand with “Europeanization,” so the success stories of the EU, including well-working welfare states, are in the minds of young people and citizens in general. And not to forget: at the end of the day, the most important “pull factor” is the liberal EU migration policies.

The repercussions of youth brain drain are major, especially the loss of human capital and GDP. According to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the annual education costs lost as a result of educated, young people leaving the region vary from a minimum of 840 million to 2.46 billion euros. This implies a decrease in consumption and welfare for the WB6 economies, costing them around 3 billion euros of yearly GDP growth. 

The massive outflow of people in certain professions exacerbates the problems related to the availability and accessibility of basic services. The most critical sector is public healthcare with a huge portion of young doctors and nurses leaving the WB6, but lack of services is also evident in lower-skilled professions such as repair, maintenance, and construction, leading to higher service costs and lower quality.

At the level of politics, the brain drain creates a breeding ground for populism and anti-migration sentiments that can hurt the fragile WB6 democracies. As seen across Europe, right-wing parties are mobilizing support with alarmist rhetoric about the demographic disappearance of countries and the threat of foreign workers, and similarly as elsewhere, the democratic backsliding in the Western Balkans is connected with such populist tendencies.

Nevertheless, as a historically rooted and sensitive topic, the WB6 youth brain drain is often politicized and influenced by the political situation in each country. Youth brain drain has been one of the central topics during elections, around which entire political platforms are built. Parties try to appeal to voters by claiming their many promises and various policy proposals show that their top priority is to “keep youth home.” This was seen in the last parliamentary elections in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia, where the politicization of the problem was on display. The biggest parties blamed each other, putting forward numbers about their alleged share of responsibility for the talent exodus.

Consequently, thus far, these countries’ governments have not properly recognized and tackled the problem at the political or policy level. It is an issue characterized by inconsistent, inefficient policies and surrounded by a negative public narrative. In all six countries, retention policies are mostly used, aiming to build educational institutions and improve the economic possibilities for young people.

Those strategies are rather detached from migration policies, ignoring actual youth migration trends and solely aiming to keep youth home by addressing the causes of the brain drain. On the other hand, policies focused on the return of the emigres and using them as a resource are less used and were introduced only after 2010. Such strategies should be more developed to capitalize on diaspora knowledge, skills, and finances by attracting youth to come back home or contribute i.e. to facilitate the management of migration – that is, brain gain and brain circulation.

Time for a New Outlook

Given this state of affairs, we need a new brain drain paradigm focused on the potential of the WB6 youth diaspora and based on enhanced regional cooperation and enriched relations with the EU. In light of the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and of the new EU-WB6 “soft-connectivity” approach – focused on promoting consistent rules and democratic standards throughout the EU accession process– youth brain drain should be part of the conditionality framework for WB6 membership and gain equal status as the other difficult questions in the region. As a shared problem, youth brain drain requires shared solutions, visionary actions, and hard regional compromises.

The phenomenon also needs full recognition as a separate policy area, at the national and regional levels. In the process, it should be analyzed not only as a negative trend, but also as a viable opportunity for socioeconomic development, bearing in mind the financial assets, know-how, and networks of the youth diaspora. This narrative change can be achieved by following the Irish model of open collaboration that is based on the horizontal connection of institutions, media, businesses, and the civil society sector for diaspora engagement, or the Estonian one, by rebranding the region as a fertile ground for investment and innovation.

Mimicking the foreign direct investment (FDI) approach of fiscal benefits and global promotion; deepening the EU-supported Common Regional Market as a driver for the mobility of people, goods, services, and capital; and promoting the success of diaspora entrepreneurial stories are a few ideas to follow. Innovative and tech-savvy young talent should be mapped, reached out to, and offered collaboration through virtual tools and networks that can ease the facilitation of knowledge- and experience-sharing.

A new migration deal that would stress the role of the EU in mitigating brain drain through the EU accession process and increase the EU’s accountability can support the mobility and exchange of WB6 youth talent as a strategic move in the long run. Among others, the Economic and Investment Plan for the WB6 (2020) and the WB Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth, and Sport (2021) offer an excellent starting point for further strengthening the capacities of, and cooperation among, the key regional actors to carry out these political and policy innovations.

Whether the WB6 will keep and attract their young and talented people home is one of the factors that their EU aspirations and their democratic and economic progress depends on. The chance for this is here and might be the last one.

Marjan Icoski is a ReThink.CEE fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a program manager at the Organization for Social Innovation ARNO in North Macedonia. He has rich experience in civil society and academia, specializing in international programs, research, and funding for youth and human rights education. His main expertise includes youth migration and youth employment, social entrepreneurship, regional cooperation, and EU integration, specifically focusing on the Western Balkans.