As an idea, migration is deeply embedded in Serbian national consciousness. We know that throughout history, groups of Serbian people migrated because of different socio-political circumstances, in search of security and better life. Today, across the Balkans and beyond, there are areas inhabited by people of Serbian origin, while the migrations were memorialized in historical sources and also in the finest works of Serbian literature and art.
When Serbia was first established as a modern state in the 19th century, the idea of migration did not exist in the form we understand it today. We know that the Serbian government at the beginning of the 20th century supported circular migrations by sending young talented individuals to get an education abroad. This way of investing in people contributed to the significant improvement of education and science in our country. It’s interesting that Belgrade was planned and the buildings were constructed mimicking the style of European capitals and it’s in these first decades of the 20th century that our own capital city got some of its most famous and most beautiful buildings, all designed by architects educated abroad.
A condensed and interesting review of the evolution of emigration in Serbia was presented by professor Mihail Arandarenko within Chapter 4 of the UNDP’s National Human Development Report – Serbia 2022 (‘Report’ in the text below) under the title “Migration, Skills And The Labor Market.” He names Serbia a “traditionally an emigration country”, and writes that only after the Second World War more prominent emigration waves are detected.
Guided by economic reasons, first of all, the first significant emigration wave started during the 1960s. Unqualified, temporary workers were the majority of those leaving for West Germany, and there was also a regulative that put this exchange in legal order. That’s when the name “Gastarbeiter” appeared, in German, literally – guest-worker.
Although not as popular, other West European countries did welcome a certain number of workers from Serbia, but far less than Germany did.
Such an early wave of emigration left an important mark because this is the time when a diaspora network came into existence, serving as support to temporary and permanent emigrants. Also, impoverished areas of Serbia such as Eastern Serbia, and later Sandzak, which saw most of the early Gastarbeiters leave, today have a notable influence on the flow of retired repatriates as well as on the influx of remittances into the country.
Take Your Diploma and Off Into the World
When Yugoslavia fell apart, a new significant wave of emigration started. Although West Germany was the main destination of Serbian migrants thus far, the 1990s were marked by the turn towards the far-away Anglosaxon countries across the ocean, all the way from Canada to Australia and New Zealand. The reason for this turn were the immigration policies of those destination countries that favored highly educated immigrants, and most often, it is precisely them that have been deciding to leave during this period.
What’s interesting is that in the 1990s, the total migration stock of Serbia remained more-less stable because of the large influx of refugees from the other parts of the Former Yugoslavia.
The period after the political change that occurred in 2000 was marked by slower emigration. Believing in the upcoming stability and prosperity, people did not decide to emigrate as much, but those movements were made more difficult by the strict visa regimen the EU had.
The crisis of 2008 brough a new spike in emigration movements, which peaked between 2015 and 2019. Considering the fact that the world economy reached relative stability around 2013, such a trend could be explained by the transition the domestic economy was still in.
The global covid-19 pandemic brought a new closure of borders and different levels of quarantine almost everywhere in the world, thus not only stopping emigration but turning it around by instigating net migration movements through the repatriation of people who did not have permanent residence in foreign countries.
Founded amidst the covid-19 crisis, the Returning Point organization received about 8000 inquiries duing this period from our people from all over the world who wanted to return and were trying to find a way to do so. Today, it’s often speculated how many of these returnees will remain in Serbia now that the pandemic is practically over. The fact is that many of them have found their place here, and because of the new crisis linked with the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also due to the increasingly favorable living conditions in Serbia, they might not be easily inclined to emigrate again.
How Many Serbs Live Abroad?
We can find members of the Serbian diaspora everywhere across the planet. This diverse and large group is made of different generations of emigrants with different levels of connection with their country of origin.
Although there is no official number, according to the estimates of the United Nations, the total number of Serbian emigrants in 2019 was around 950,000.53, which accounts for about 14% of the resident population in the country, excluding Kosovo and Metohija, states Arandarenko in the HDR report. This assessment also does not include people of Serbian origin who are not born in Serbia and do not have Serbian citizenship.
There’s No Place Like Home
Considering all the numbers in regard to migration and the trend analysis as exposed in the UNDP Report, information concerning circular migrations were mentioned in two instances. One is related to economically driven emigration because Serbia is becoming a serious exporter of the workforce, which represents a problem in its own right.
Another mention of circular migrations concerns education abroad, although data states that the number of Serbian students out of the country generally stagnated between 2000 and 2500 annually throughout the past decade.
The importance of educational migrations has presented itself in history, as we mentioned earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century, and we at the Returning Point believe that it’s precisely this kind of social mobility that can contribute greatly to further development and betterment of our society.
That is why we remain ready to help and direct our graduates from abroad who would like to come back but are unsure how to go about it.