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Matt Field

British Diplomat

Part of UK in Bosnia and Herzegovina

15th June 2020

Cost of Youth Emigration

Long lines of people in front of foreign embassies in Sarajevo has become an all too common backdrop on our way to work. Migration is a fact of modern life, with both positive and negative elements. But there is something especially worrying about seeing so many young people in these lines, often accompanied by family members, awaiting work permits. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, funded by the UK government, has recently published the first study that examines how much does youth emigration cost this country, and the Western Balkan region.

The findings of the study are alarming, and make a clear, fact-based case that the time to act is now.

We do not believe that people of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) need to be told that the country is slowly but surely emptying. Accurate figures are often hard to find, but between the Census of 1991 and Census of 2013, Bosnia and Herzegovina formally lost 20% of its population. The real figure is likely much higher, and appears to be increasing in pace over recent years. Youth emigration produces both short and long-term economic costs, that will affect BiH in years to come.

The study shows that in a single year, Bosnia and Herzegovina suffers a loss from €650 million to over €800 million, in education invested in people who leave the country. Just to compare, this cost is almost equal to the value of total exports of both transport services and transport of chemical industry. Instead of contributing to development of their homeland, these young, educated and skilled people will be building their destination country. Emigrations reduces the tax base, and increases pressure on pension and social funds. The inability to prevent the annual outflow of people by employing them results in a yearly loss of €710 million. This means that every work-capable person who emigrates takes more than €21,000 of future annual GDP.

The country is already struggling to secure the funds for pensions, health services and salaries. Perhaps most critically, BiH is also losing young innovators, capable decisionmakers, scientist, academics, artists and all others who do not necessarily want to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina but feel they have to. This is a problem that urges us all to build alliances regardless of whether we come from government, public or private sector. This is a problem that requires us to forget about our differences and to focus on what connects us.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy also carried out similar studies in other Western Balkan countries (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia), and found similar patterns. The exact details of costs varied, but the same challenges remained.

What can be done? Firstly, the study is part of a deliberate and concerted effort by the UK to put young people and their needs much more at the centre of decision-making and government policy in BiH. By listening to what is driving these individual decisions, we can better understand how to create conditions that enable people to choose to stay. The messages are consistent – better public services, stronger rule of law, healthcare with dignity, quality education linked to rewarding jobs, fairer economic opportunity, less red tape, less party political interference in daily life, and more scope for creativity and innovation. While there are already some entrepreneurs and other young people succeeding here in BiH, imagine how many more would do so given these kinds of improvements.

We would also encourage young people to make their voices easier to hear. That starts with Election Day, when only those who vote can expect to be listened to. It can mean an active role in politics, especially at the local level where some of the biggest impact can be seen. And it means building networks to increase their volume. Speak up!

It is also helpful to rethink emigration as a one-way and always negative flow. It can be circular. The diaspora is one of the country’s greatest resources, not only in terms of remittances, but also a potential source of ideas, energy and investment. We have seen a number of enterprising people with links to BiH come back here to trade, to build, to teach, to create and to learn. But they too want to know that they will be treated fairly and given the opportunity to succeed, and that means better policies and regulations for investors and others trying to do business.

This study may not have produced many surprises to those looking closely at these issues in BiH, least of all to young people themselves. But we are already encouraged to see political parties and those in government begin to discuss these questions, and ask how to put policies to tackle emigration front and centre. This is clearly the right thing to do, economically and socially, to give the opportunity to everyone to live in a fairer, safer, more prosperous and better BiH.

Authors of this blog are Mrs Nermina Voloder, Westminster Foundation for Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina Country Representative, and Ambassador Matt Field