English | Srpski

Migration Processes in the Balkans in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Author:
Dušan Ljuboja
M.A. in History, University of Belgrade; Demographic trends specialist

The current position of the Balkans in the global as well as European migration flows can be hardly comprehended without a thorough understanding of its history. As observed by historian Ulf Brunbauer, migrations represent a long-term process on the Balkan Peninsula and constitute one of its key features for centuries. However, the ability to predict future migration behaviours of the Balkan's citizens does not require us to look back further than to the beginning of the modern times as this was the period when certain patterns were created, which are being followed even today. Although all migration movements result in relocations of smaller or bigger groups of citizens into new environments, we recognize two differing processes depending on the reasons of displacements:


• Forced migration of citizens, usually due to conflicts
• Migration for economic reasons, because of a desire for improvement of one's social status


Relocations caused by violence and wars or displacements of citizens belonging to different ethnic or religious groups by the state authorities certainly represent the biggest and the most obvious movements of people in relatively short periods of time. Significant changes, caused by the conflicts at the end of the last century, occurred in the inner structure of the populations of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. They represent the most recent examples that have remained etched in the collective memory of the nations in question.


Exchange of citizens also counts as a type of forced migration, and we can present the case, which occurred after Greco-Turkish War of 1922 as an example. Domestic migration of population in peacetime mirrors the policies of the state governments to improve demographic situation on the territory under their control or to move or relocate such population groups that are considered unreliable. In the periods of 1947 - 1951 and 1969 - 1978, more than 250,000 people emigrated from Bulgaria to Turkey. Furthermore, migration of this nature continued in the period of 1986 - 1992 when almost half a million people, mostly ethnic Turks, left Bulgaria.


Industrialization policies implemented by the Communist governments in all Balkan countries after the Second World War contributed to a great number of migration movements, which gradually led to constant relocations of people from rural to urban areas. Thus, about 5 million Yugoslav people left their homes in the period of 1946 - 1961. The social landscape of the wider Balkan region was largely transformed by intensive encouragement given to rapid industrial development. Previously agrarian societies, with a small number of towns in the true sense of the word, were transformed into highly urbanized ones in just several decades. According to the World Bank, in 2013 the percentage of the population living in urban areas in the Balkan states ranged between 55-63%, with the exception of Greece and Bulgaria, where more than two-thirds of the enumerated population lived in cities, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the sum was lower at around 40%.


The urban population of each Balkan country is chiefly concentrated in its largest city (between 20 and 30%). Such an uneven urban population distribution has very negative impact on all Balkan countries. The lack of balanced development of a country is evident when one of its parts starts to be visibly more economically developed, whereby it naturally becomes the target destination of the migratory movements. Due to the lack of employment opportunities young people of working age move from villages to towns, from towns to cities or to the capital of a country. Examples of some reverse processes, as, for example, increased movement of population from cities to villages in the last two decades in Romania, are primarily a consequence of failed transition of that former communist country, where people who last moved from rural areas have decided to return back, due to economic uncertainty, which they encountered in the cities.


Economic, or so-called migration of the working age population, is a movement of population in search for work outside the country of their origin and its roots can be found in the last quarter of the 19th century. Before the First World War the most desirable destination of the migrants from the Balkans was the USA, whose growing industry was in need of high amount of cheap labour. In the interwar period a sharp fall in emigration towards the USA occurred, which was principally caused by the Johnson–Reed Act of 1924 that determined the limit of 671 Yugoslav migrants per year, but also by the economic crisis of 1929. The importance of Europe for migrants grew with France and Germany becoming the most popular destinations, the later particularly encouraging the arrival of foreign work force (Fremdarbeiter) after the rise of the Nazi government in 1933. Communist authorities in the Balkan countries, with the exception of Yugoslavia and Greece, opened their borders for the economic migrants after the Second World War, for ideological reasons. Communist Yugoslavia did not decide to open its borders until 1963/64. Afterwards, West Germany became the main target of its emigrants with 61% of them choosing that country as their target destination followed by Austria (12%), Australia (6%), France (5%), Switzerland (3%), etc. Between 1963 and 1981 alone, around 836.000 people or 3.8% of the total population left the Country making Yugoslavia second in Europe after Portugal in the number of emigrants. Comparing migration before and after the Second World War, Michelle Palare noticed that all the migrants were at the beginning convinced that after three or four years they would return home and invest the accumulated capital into the purchase of real estate or land. However, according to official figures from 1981, only about 280.000 of them returned and, moreover, 19-34% of the returnees decided to go abroad again due to the inability to find employment at home or to fit into the old social system.


In most other states in the Balkans great migration movements appeared towards the end of the 20th Century, primarily in the direction of Southern Europe and especially after the changes that swept through the Balkans after 1989. The collapse of communist regimes and opening of the borders in Romania, Albania and Bulgaria took place almost simultaneously with the increase in demand for cheap labour in the then booming economies of Spain, Italy and Greece. In just 15 years, more than one million people originating from the Balkans moved to Spain and Italy. When we change the point of view and direct our attention to the countries of destination, it can be observed that the demand for cheap workers, including the ones from the Balkans, starts to decline or even rapidly fall after the economic crisis of 2008. In only four years after the outbreak of the crisis, the unemployment rate in Spain rose to alarming 26% with Italy portraying similar trends. Of all countries on the European continent, Germany has been the least affected by the recession. This fact has given the Federal Republic the ability to maintain a certain level of annual influx of foreign workforce, which has, in return, caused repeated increase in the number of Balkan immigrants into the Country, predominantly after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU in 2007. Spain even decided to block the entrance for those foreigners in search of employment from those two countries. Nevertheless, that resolution was overturned when Romania and Bulgaria entered the Schengen Area at the beginning of 2014.

In the final decade of the 20th Century the Balkans became an area of pronounced emigration due to the fall of the communist regimes as well due to the Yugoslav civil wars. Nevertheless, gradual accessions of the Balkan countries into the EU led to transformations, which eventually made the most advanced of them immigration targets. Evolution of a country into an immigration recipient is usually associated with its stability, institutional and economic progress, but also with the general phenomenon of ageing population in Europe, which naturally raises the need for new workforce that cannot be secured by biological potential of the local population.
Greece and Slovenia represent two instances of countries that have made the transition from emigration to immigration societies. In Slovenia, the most immigrants come from other former Yugoslav republics while half of them originate in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Greece, just as Yugoslavia, did not close its borders to the economic migrants after 1945, due to which the level of emigration was at very high level. However, in the 70s of the last century, a trend of coming back among the emigrants became prominent and in the last two decades Greece managed to open its doors for foreigners in search of employment. Of over 700.000 people who came to Greece in that period, almost 60% originated in the neighbouring Albania, while one-fifth arrived from other countries of the former Eastern Bloc. An obvious example of the changes caused by migration in a Balkan society can be seen on the case of Greece, especially after the collapse of the banking system and the debt crisis in which the country has found itself in recent years. The presence of a large number of foreigners further adversely affects employment opportunities for the local population, and opens the space for the emergence of anti-immigration movements, and even openly racist groups, such as the Golden Dawn.


States that exhibit both emigration and immigration characteristics, such as Croatia and Romania since recently, belong to a special category. These countries have a potential to perform similar transformations as Greece and Slovenia in the future. On the other hand, countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia continue to show high emigration levels, even in spite of considerable decline of emigration at the beginning of the 21st century. The migration picture of one of such countries portrayed on the example of Serbia, shows that annually about 30.000 citizens leave their homes. That represents a great harm to the society since the negative natural growth also causes a loss of roughly the same number of people. The profile of the migrants themselves is also one of the reasons for constant but not rapid emigration. Specifically, on average it is a young person able to work and often single, which allows for greater mobility in search for work and the possibility of a longer stay in the country of destination. These are people with at least secondary education, who have a certain level of capital required for exit from the country, but not enough to stop them thinking of emigrating abroad. Inadequate housing and unemployment are the main motivational factors to seek better opportunities in economically more developed countries.


The most worrying is the fact that every third PhD student thinks of leaving Serbia. According to the research conducted by Vladimir Grečić, more than 40.000 people with higher education diplomas have left the Country in the last 20 years, while up to €12 billion in total has been spent on their education. Thus, the brain drain is perhaps the biggest problem of economic migration today. Serbia could take advantage of its young scientific cadre educated abroad as its own intellectual potential, which they in fact represent, but only if it is able to create additional employment opportunities. Increasing investment in science and research from the current impermissible 0.3% of the estimated budget is certainly one of the first steps. Moreover, Serbia must design an applicable investment strategy for its higher education system, which would take into account the real need of the country for certain professions, in order to avoid having a group of people wandering around most of the time in search for work.


The Balkan states today represent a heterogeneous migration environment, where those countries that first completed the process of EU accession eventually evolved into countries attracting immigration. It is possible to predict that in the future the rest of the region (the so-called Western Balkans) will also make that transition and that will reduce its emigration issues. New crises and conflicts in the region could in the future bring such processes and their homogenization into question. Nonetheless, the need for cheap labour is not so pronounced in Europe as it used to be only a few decades ago, primarily due to the consequences of the economic crisis and the increase in unemployment rates in the majority of the European countries. From this we can infer that the emigration waves from the Balkans in the future will be controlled primarily by labour demand of the market and not by restrictions imposed by individual countries as was the case in the past.


* The views and opinions expressed in the articles posted on this page do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of CIRSD

Back to young contributors