A Crisis of Opportunity: Addressing the Root Causes of Emigration in the Western Balkans

The Western Balkans (WB) have faced significant population losses due to emigration over the past decades.

Authors: Dr. Albana Shehaj and Dr. Valbona Zeneli

The Western Balkans (WB) have faced significant population losses due to emigration over the past decades. Countries in the region have seen approximately 10-30% of their populations emigrate abroad in search of economic relief. Young, educated workers make up a large portion of those leaving as wages are low and unemployment in the region remains high. Surveys show that the average citizens are unhappy with the state of affairs in their country and are economically and institutionally motivated to leave the region.

Pull factors attract emigrants to Western European countries with more plentiful work and higher living standards. Generous social benefits also make destinations like Germany appealing. As income and institutional quality gaps between the Western Balkans and the EU continue to widen, these push-pull dynamics will only strengthen going forward. To make things worse, the region’s populations is aging, young people are leaving, and fertility rates have collapsed. These three factors are strongly interlinked, creating a hard-to-break vicious cycle that most Southeastern European countries are currently facing.

Emigration has brought some benefits. Remittances sent home by migrants working abroad have become a major source of income, for example accounting for over 17% of Kosovo’s GDP in 2022. This money supports individual consumption across the region. Outmigration has also eased unemployment pressures in local labor markets. However, significant population losses also carry risks.

With around 20% of their working age populations now labor migrants abroad, Western Balkans countries face a “brain drain” of skilled human capital. Sectors like healthcare already struggle with doctor shortages due to emigration according to the World Health Organization. Skilled labor gaps in fields like IT and engineering threaten competitiveness and economic growth. According to a WHO study, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo already face doctor shortages due to emigration of healthcare professionals, according to WHO. Skilled labor gaps in IT, engineering and other sectors also threaten competitiveness, including in Montenegro and North Macedonia, which score poorly on talent competitiveness rankings. Losing large portions of their young citizens has led to rapidly aging domestic populations and falling birth rates, creating hard to break demographic cycles.

Reliance on remittances is not sustainable either. While supporting consumption, remittances do little to boost investment and growth. Over the long run, emigration discourages self-sufficiency as economies become dependent on foreign aid and remittances instead of creating their own opportunities. Politically, large expatriate communities are often excluded from voting rights, breeding resentment among citizens cut off from participation.

Western Balkan governments publicly acknowledge emigration as a challenge. Despite the pressing nature of the political and public sentiment on emigration, political willingness to devise and implement policy initiatives that seek to deter emigration by addressing its root-causes, have been shortcoming. While the region’s migrant outflows are comparable to the emigrant exodus that underwent the WB region in the aftermath of the 1990s collapse of the communist regimes, political actors across the region have chosen a strategy of deflating the crisis in efforts to avoid public unrest and to subdue the political and electoral costs of emigration.

Inefficient policy measures to curb outmigration are not merely the product of policy negligence justified by unawareness of the scope and implications of emigrations by governing elites. The status quo aligns with their political interests.  Remittances and foreign aid prop up economies while ruling parties avoid unrest that could come from tackling deep issues. Politically, emigration breeds resentment as large expatriate communities from all 6 countries are excluded from voting rights. Excluding diaspora voters also protects incumbent electoral interests as migrants tend to favor opposition stances. Throughout the region, legislative reforms and programs that address the issue have not been advanced due to lack of political will or funding.

To curb unsustainable emigration trends and incentivize circular migration, comprehensive long-term strategies are needed. Governments’ policy priorities should include higher investment in education, training, and innovation to cultivate skilled labor and provide alternatives to leaving. Targeted recruitment and tax incentives could also attract expatriate professionals back. Fiscal and pension reforms are also required to prepare aging societies. Restrictive voting policies that cut off diaspora engagement should be reformed to foster stronger expatriate ties with their home countries. To motivate economic growth, governments need to engage in structural reforms that foster an open and transparent business environment, allowing infrastructure investment, foreign direct investment attraction, and job creation programs.

Additionally, governments should establish investment funds to channel remittances into local development projects. They should also phase out aid-dependency by coupling assistance with capacity-building programs and channel financial resources from the EU and other western partners in transparent and accountable ways.

Coordinated regional cooperation could maximize the benefits of migration while mitigating costs like skills shortages. With concerted action matching rhetoric with policy wins for citizens, Western Balkans governments can support development at home instead of losing more of their most vital resource—people–to emigration abroad each year. The question remains whether political will exists to transition from words to actions.

Dr. Albana Shehaj
Dr. Albana Shehaj
Dr. Albana Shehaj is a Research Scientist and Program Manager at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University.