The cost of emigration in the Balkans


The new-year brings bad news for the Balkans region, with countries from the region plagued by both migration and low life expectancy according to recent data, writes Cristian Gherasim, Bucharest correspondent.

Youth migration is hurting the region and costing billions

Firstly, according to research carried out by Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Institute for Development and Innovation, the region ends up losing billions of euros each year due to youth migration.

To estimate the economic footprint, the research takes into account both the costs associated with education, €2.46 billion, as well as potential loss in GDP growth due to youth migration.

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The costs associated with state funded education vary for each individual and are linked to the level of education and the time spent in school- anywhere from eight to 20 years.

Taking these variables into account, the research estimates the total education loses associated with young people leaving Western Balkan countries in one year to vary from a minimum of €840 million to €2.46bn.

The study puts a price tag of around €25,000 for the total cost of schooling an individual in Western Balkans countries, representing costs associated with the nine years of primary school, four years of secondary school and five years on average of higher education.

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Education costs for Western Balkans nations become investments for receiving countries.

It has been calculated that Western Balkans countries lose, due to youth migration, €3.08bn each year in potential GDP growth and decrease in consumption. Adding that figure together with the estimate for educational spending brings a total of around €5.5bn per year.

“Many highly qualified experts and entrepreneurs benefit from the possibilities of the globalised economy because destination countries are competing with each other in order to attract highly qualified people by offering favorable rules on entering and remaining in their countries”, said Emil Atanasovski, director for Western Balkans at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

More so that Eastern Europe, Western Balkans nations have a long history of emigration, reaching levels that are among the highest in the world.

“Unlike some Eastern European countries, whose populations only began migrating when they became part of the European Union, the population of the Western Balkan countries began migrating in large waves towards the West half a century ago”, Emil Atanasovski pointed out.

Life expectancy

Bulgaria is also on the cusp of demographic crisis as the latest European Commission Health Report puts the south-eastern European nations last in terms of the overall lifespan of their citizens.

The report shows that due to COVID Romanians and Bulgarian now die even younger than before. Life expectancy in both Bulgaria and Romania fell by 1.5 and 1.4 years respectively in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic – double the European average of 0.7 years.

In Bulgaria much like in Romania “COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily reversed years of progress in life expectancy, already the lowest in the EU in 2019. Despite health system improvements over the last decade, the impact of persistently high risk factors, high out-of-pocket payments and excessively hospital centred care continue to hamper the system’s performance”, the EC report points out.

Life expectancy in Romania and Bulgaria saw an uptick of 4 and 2 years respectively over 2000-2019, but still remains below the EU average by six and eight years.

Some of the problems have been linked to the medical system.

Despite recent spending increases, health care funding on primary care is also the lowest among other EU countries. The weakness of primary care and prevention could explain the high mortality rates in Romania in Bulgaria from both preventable and treatable causes.

The report says that in Bulgaria “it is estimated that up to one third of all patients circumvent primary care physicians by going directly to hospital emergency departments”.

Another problem identified by the EC report on the state of health in Romania and Bulgaria is the lack of medical staff.

For Romania “the migration of medical staff has contributed to the shortage of health workers in the country, and the number of doctors and nurses per capita is well below the EU average. This negatively affects access to care and increases waiting times”.

In Bulgaria ”several factors contribute to the nursing shortage, including the low number of nursing graduates, a loss of trained nurses due to emigration, an ageing workforce (the average age of nurses is over 50) and dissatisfaction with salaries and working conditions”.

This is a problem former communist countries have been battling for decades. Droves of doctors and nurses left to work in other European countries in search of better pay and better work conditions, escaping the lack of investment in the medical system, widespread corruption, politically-appointed hospital managers.

In addition to the poor health-care system, the European Commission report shows that unhealthy habits contribute to almost half of all deaths in Bulgaria and Romania.

Bulgaria gets a grim assessment.

“Smoking, unhealthy diets, alcohol consumption and low physical activity are responsible for nearly half of all deaths in Bulgaria. The adult and adolescent smoking rates are the highest in the EU.”

Aging plays a huge part in speeding up the population decline in the region. By 2050, Romania, Bulgaria, will see the age of their populations increase by at least eight years, according to latest Eurostat projections. Data provided by Romania’s Institute for Statistics shows how rapidly the population has aged over the past few years. Vâlcea county in Romania went from having 126 seniors for every hundred young people, to 185 seniors, just 10 years later. An older population means a shortage of available workforce, but also increased governmental expenses for pension schemes and healthcare.

Western Balkans

Nearly 600.000 Macedonians moved abroad in the decades following the country’s independence.

The latest census carried out at the end of 2021 shows a population decline of 10% in the last two decades alone.

In neighboring Albania1.7 million people, 37% of the population, have left the country in the last three decades. According to the UN population prospects report, the almost 3 million strong nation is expected to drop below 1 million inhabitants by 2100.

According to World Bank data Serbia, a country of nearly 7 million, is expected to have 1 million fewer inhabitants by 2050. This led Serbian authorities to give a startling statement that the Balkan nation is effectively losing a town each year.

Some of the reasons the Balkans region has seen rampant migration over the decades can be traced back to the breakup of Yugoslavia, the civil wars and economic hardships that followed

Bosnia-Herzegovina appears to be the hardest-hit countries in the region, with some studies saying that almost half of the citizens born in the west Balkan nation no longer live there.

Since becoming EU member more than quarter of a million Croats left the country looking for better paying jobs abroad. The population of just over 4 million has shrunk by almost 10% in a decade.

The Zagreb government is trying to reverse the brain drain and recently promised the Croats in the diaspora up to €26,000 if they return and start a business.

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