The renowned Agence France-Presse, the oldest journalistic agency in the world, published today an investigation on the migration crisis affecting several countries in the Balkan region. After their independence in the 90’s, many countries in the Balkans progressively found the way to development and economic openness. However, and as reported by the AFP, to date they have not been able to compete with the opportunities and salaries found in other European countries, and the statistics are difficult to contradict.
One of the problems, they report, is the abysmal development difference in towns and localities far from the capital. And that is the case of Valandovo, a town located 146 kilometers from Skopje, which now stands out for its streets full of shops and abandoned homes, and where young people leave in large numbers in search of better opportunities.
North Macedonia has shed 10 percent of its population in the last 20 years. Around 600,000 Macedonian citizens now live abroad, according to World Bank and government data.
Abysmal economic growth and a lack of investment have clobbered the country, now home to just 1.8 million people, in its 30 years of independence.
“If you have a little over 2.4 million citizens and more than a quarter have left, then you have to seriously be worried about what is happening,” says Apostol Simovski, director of the country’s statistics office. “The spirit of young people has been systematically destroyed,” Pero Kostadinov, the newly elected 33-year-old mayor of Valandovo tells AFP. “The enthusiasm to fight and stay home has been lost.”
North Macedonia has sought to join the European Union in the last decade, and thus hope for a better future for the country and its youth. But the aspirations of the small Balkan country have been hampered by the refusal of Bulgaria and Greece, who have tried to convince other member states through doubts about the true possibility of North Macedonia to join. Currently, the salary for those who decide to stay averages 470 euros. Many young Macedonians now believe that “it is better to be a slave for 2,000 euros in another country, than for 300 euros at home,” as is commonly heard.
The reality is similar in other countries such as Albania, where approximately 1.7 million people (almost 37% of the population) have migrated in the last 30 years according to government estimates. For Ilir Gedeshi, an economics professor in Tirana, the reasons behind the mass migration in the Western Balkans are not only due to economic reasons, but social factors are also decisive.
The analysis becomes more interesting and worrying when one takes into account the reality of a country like Croatia, which joined the European Union nine years ago. Although the economic, social, and political development in the country since its independence is highly palpable, the migratory phenomenon is not unlike those of other countries in the region. While countries such as North Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, or Montenegro hope that their fortunes will be reversed by joining the European Union, what happens in Croatia should serve as an example, warns AFP.
Since joining the bloc in 2013, its population of just over four million has shrunk nearly 10 percent in a decade, according to preliminary census findings.
The United Nations projects that Croatia will have just 2.5 million people by the end of the century. Demographers warn that the country’s tiny population may lack the resilience to weather further losses.
In December, Zagreb sought to reverse some of the brain drain by promising Croatian expatriates in the European Union up to 26,000 euros ($29,000) to return and start a business.
But for some areas, it may already be too late.
“For sale” signs litter the eastern region of Požega, one of those hardest-hit by war in the 1990s. More than 16 percent of the area’s population of nearly 80,000 have left in the past decade, official figures show.
“In my street one-third of the houses are empty,” said Igor Cancar, 39, from nearby Brestovac.
They include his sister who moved to Austria with her husband and two children, along with most of his close friends.
“If we want young people to stay, we need a kindergarten and help them build a house,” Cancar added.
“The last train is leaving, and we are doing nothing but standing on the platform and waving.”
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