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08 December 2015

Youth in south-east Europe - why is everyone on the move?

Posted by: Arne Langlet, German institute of International and Security Affairs

Categories: Balkans, Bulgaria, corruption, emigration, Hungary, opportunity, Serbia, Unemployment

In the countries of South-East Europe (SEE) and the Balkans an alarmingly high amount of young people has already left, is leaving or plans to leave their home country. Although the situation differs from country to country, the general tendency, established by the FES survey becomes clear: every second young person in the region expresses the intent to leave his or her home country.

How can we understand the background of the migration from South-East Europe, about 26 years after the fall of communism? In order to deal with the situation in a more comprehensive way, understanding the background and the rationale is urgent.

Lastly, the situation of the Western Balkans displays a critical result of the EU´s enlargement and development efforts. Certainly every person´s motivation is different and varies from country to country or region to region, but three main rationales can be established:

To start with, strong economic reasons, as it has become an almost impossible task to find a job. The economic transition of the former communist economies is characterised by so-called “jobless growth”. After the civil wars of the 1990s, in the period from 2000 until 2008 these countries have experienced growth in GDP, which has not translated into a considerable growth of employment. In Serbia, for example, the amount of jobs has even decreased in this period. Hence, the economic transition towards open market economies has not delivered the growth in incomes and jobs that would have been necessary to sustain the level of economic well-being. Youth unemployment in the region is close to 50 percent. Hence, the prospect of economic well-being was purely connected to GDP growth, which collapsed with the outbreak of the 2007 economic crisis.

This has led to a situation where young people experience a psychological impulse to leave their home countries. It is the set of values that young individuals appreciate, which adds to the tendency to migrate. According to a survey conducted by the FES, “individual dignity” is the most important value for young people, followed by “fighting spirit”. Additionally, they hold most trust in family and relatives which is also largely reflected in the Millennial Dialogue surveys conducted by FEPS. These values connected increase pressure on young men who are expected to build and sustain families and want to live in dignity. It is almost impossible to meet these expectations in the current circumstances. The Hungarian Millennials for instance talked about aspirations to find a good/secure job and their desire to start a family. However, they did not necessarily feel that they would have a future in Hungary.

While one could expect increased interest in politics, young people in South-East Europe show an alarming distrust in politics. The youth appears to be disconnected from politics, with only about 20 % feeling represented by their politicians, 25% voting and even fewer believing that they can influence governing institutions. The least trusted institutions repeatedly are “political parties”, exactly those institutions which are supposed to allow young people to take part in politics. Due to critical levels of corruption, mostly in the political layers of society, the young feel unable to enter politics and change the governing circumstances. Exemplifying this attitude, the Millennial Dialogue shows that in Bulgaria only 12% feel that they can make themselves heard in politics (84% believe politicians ignore young people´s opinions), while 2/3rds feel that politicians do not even encourage young people to get involved in politics.

The reasons are many-sided, but put together they deliver an image of a situation where for young people migration becomes the most rational and possibly only option for a decent life.

Young people enter a situation where they are unable to sustain themselves or their families economically, and feel powerless to decisively alter political circumstances. There appears to be a big generational gap in politics and young people feel their opinions are strikingly underrepresented.

Hence, most migrants from that area are young men, which is not the easiest group to integrate. The exodus of a young (relatively) well educated generation could thus leave these countries behind and in decades of deadlock. The lack of interest of young people in politics prevents the necessary political momentum and change from happening. The aspiration for progressive politics should be to create incentives and possibilities for those people to work and live in their home countries, and try to find long term solutions. Also a shift of attitude of the established parties towards the youth in those countries is urgently needed.