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How many times have you heard that many young well educated people are leaving Serbia? Following the media headlines such as “Brain drain from Serbia: And now, adio!” or “Economist: Serbia tenth ‘brain drain’ destination in the world,” you can easily get the impression that Serbia will soon lose all of its highly educated population, and then what – nobody knows. All in all, the picture that has been propagated publicly for a while now and that dominates the social narrative, is mainly dark, even catastrophic at times.

So, we came to wonder, is the reality this dark indeed? Do our young experts really leave in those numbers so we will really lose all the highly educated workforce? And finally, is the drama created in our society justified?

According to the research of dr Mihail Arandarenko, professor at the Faculty of Economy in Belgrade, publicized in the UNDP’s National Human Development Report – Serbia 2022, based on which this blog is written, the situation is far from tragic, while the extremely negative perception of the public is guided by media sensationalism.

How Did the Emigration from Serbia Look in the Past?

Looking over the short history of emigration from Serbia in the 20th century, the first wave of guest workers leaving for Western Europe is evident during the 1960s. This wave inspired the words of Swiss playwright Max Frisch who famously noted through one of his characters – ’We wanted workers, but the people arrived’, showing that many who left at that time have continued to live and found families in the western countries, although they initially came as temporary laborers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, emigration slowed down, mainly due to the restrictions imposed by the destination countries. The 1990s brought the dissolution of Yugoslavia and a new significant wave of migration. For the first time, a greater number of highly educated people started to leave, although the number of people in Serbia remained more or less the same due to the great influx of refugees. At that time, a greater interest emerged in emigration to overseas countries, such as Canada or the US, where experts were more sought after than in Europe.

After 2000, emigration continued at a slower pace, guided predominantly by reasons of economic or family nature. Europe regained its position as the biggest destination for Serbian emigrants, while the Anglosaxon countries lost the appeal they had in the previous decade.

What do Experts Say – Who Emigrates Today?

In the last decade, the migration balance of Serbia has shown a negative trend, meaning that many people still emigrate, but the situation still cannot be described as catastrophic, while the number of people leaving is far from overwhelming.

It’s important to know that the standard annual statistics do not provide information on the educational structure of immigrants.

To get the scientifically approved data about the educational structure of emigrants, Chapter 4 of the HDR report leans on the recent research by Sandra Leitner (Vienna Institute for Economic Studies) and another by Mihail Arandarenko, both from 2021.

Sandra Leitner’s research, conducted with the Vienna Institute for Economic Studies, showed that the cumulative net emigration total between 2015 and 2019 within the 15–39 age group is estimated at -37,400 people, which is deemed acceptable.

However, the most important finding of the statistical analysis this report gives is contrary to intuition and the widespread perception – the data shows that in the observed period there is net immigration of the highly educated, i.e. those with college and university degrees. On the other hand, the analysis determined the high net emigration flows of those with secondary education.

Also, as the largest country in the Western Balkans, Serbia has universities that attract a sizeable share of Serbian-speaking students from neighboring countries, notably Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, but also from other countries. It is very likely that the retention rates of high-skilled student immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are higher than the corresponding rates for Serbian students elsewhere, with an overall positive net migration balance.

According to the same research, net emigration was mainly initiated by those with a secondary level of education who left the country searching for work, especially those with medical medium education, which is the largest group among the people with secondary education in Serbia representing almost three-quarters of all medium-skilled emigrants in 2018.

Another research we mentioned, conducted by Mihail Arandarenko in 2022, brought into question the dominant narrative about the massive brain drain from Serbia. Arandarenko observed countries that are the most appealing to experts and highly educated emigrants, and that also have programs for a highly qualified workforce. The countries in question are the USA, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the Netherlands which introduced similar programs relatively recently.

The analysis of the numbers of emigrants who left for the aforementioned countries, based on the immigration data of those countries, showed that they are not even among the top ten destinations of our emigrants. Although several hundred people emigrate in this way (in numbers – to Australia was between 200 and 300, and to Canada between 250 and 500), there is no clear trend, which in the broader picture does not represent a number to worry about.

Everyone is Going to Germany!

Speaking of emigration in Serbia, it’s hard not to think about Germany. This is hardly a coincidence because Germany is the country with the most Serbian immigrants in the world. It’s important to mention that almost a third of all Serbian emigrants end up in this European country. Serbian public became particularly unsettled by the reports of high numbers of emigrating doctors and medical staff, as well as engineers and IT experts, flocking to Germany.

Apparently, in January 2016, faced with a critical lack of workforce, Germany introduced the so-called ‘Western Balkans Regulations’, in force until the end of 2023. It gives citizens of the Western Balkan countries, including Serbia, the chance to take up employment in Germany, provided that they have a binding job offer and the approval of the Federal Employment Agency (BA). Even before that, medical workers were coming in an organized way through the ‘Triple win’ program based on the 2013 bilateral agreement between German and Serbian employment services. The major novelty of the new regulation was that, unlike in other third countries, there were no requirements regarding the workers’ professional qualifications.

The data shows that the total number of our doctors in Germany did grow from 600 in 2015, to 1.500 in 2020. However, this enlarged number until the covid-19 crisis was almost twice as low as the number of unemployed doctors in Serbia, which shows that available medical staff in Serbia exists and that they should be supported by better local opportunities for employment.

So, Who is, Actually, Drained?

Looking at the latest research concerning migration, it becomes clear that emigration of the highly educated population is not the main depopulation problem of Serbia. Moreover, the greatest number of emigrants are leaving because of work opportunities, while they possess secondary education only.

“Brain drain”, this unfortunately coined term, emerged as a result of a series of previous research papers that, according to Arandarenko, were incomplete and did not observe the whole picture of migration trends in Serbia. As reported by him, the level of education of emigrants is similar to the level of education of those who stay.

Such a conclusion does seem encouraging, although Arandarenko advises caution, saying that migration control and management should be among the top priorities of our government in the decades to come. Otherwise, Serbia could easily become a country that exports labor force, especially after it joins the European Union and the migration barriers are removed.