Qatar – The long decline: mass migration hits the Balkans
(MENAFN- Gulf Times)
Abandoned shops and mostly empty streets offer little sign of life in Valandovo, North Macedonia, where young people are fleeing in large numbers in hopes of finding a better life abroad.
Like much of this impoverished corner of southeastern Europe, this tiny Balkan nation is sitting on a demographic time bomb fueled by an aging population, declining birth rate and massive migration.
North Macedonia has lost 10% of its population over the past 20 years. Around 600,000 Macedonian citizens now live abroad, according to World Bank and government data.
Abyssal economic growth and a lack of investment hit the country, which is now home to just 1.8 million people, during its 30 years of independence.
“If you have just over 2.4 million citizens and more than a quarter are gone, then you have to seriously worry about what is going on,” says Apostol Simovski, director of the country’s statistics office.
Villages and small towns like Valandovo, 146 km from the capital, offer few jobs, pushing the ambitious and able to look elsewhere.
“The minds of young people have been systematically destroyed,” the 33-year-old newly elected mayor Pero Kostadinov told AFP. “The enthusiasm to fight and stay at home has been lost.”
In Valandovo alone, almost 90% of the population’s income is derived from agriculture, a common denominator across North Macedonia.
âFive of my friends from our class of 20 students have already moved abroad with their families,â said Bojan Nikolov, 24, member of the municipal youth council in Valandovo.
The anecdote offers a striking picture of the country’s future.
The first results of the most recent census of North Macedonia carried out in September estimate that the population has declined by more than 200,000 since 2002. Since the independence and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, many hoped that integration into the European Union would provide a liferaft and promises of a bright future.
But North Macedonia’s path to EU membership has been blocked on several occasions, first by Greece and later by Bulgaria, opening new doubts about the country’s membership and pushing for many to leave the ship.
For those who stay, monthly salaries average â¬ 470 ($ 530).
âIt is better to be a slave for 2,000 â¬ in a foreign country, than to be a slave with 300 â¬ at home,â says a popular refrain in North Macedonia.
It is an image reproduced across the Balkans.
In Albania, around 1.7 million people, or about 37% of the population, have left the country in the past three decades, according to government figures. Hundreds of thousands of people left Serbia to resettle abroad after the wars of the 1990s that hit the economy, with estimates suggesting that as many as 10,000 doctors have left in the past 20 years.
“All the countries of the Western Balkans are affected to varying degrees by emigration,” said Ilir Gedeshi, an economics professor based in Tirana, the Albanian capital.
âThe main reasons are economic, but apart from that, social reasons are becoming more and more important. “
But for Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – all hoping that EU membership will reverse their plight – Croatia is issuing a stern warning.
Since joining the bloc in 2013, its population of just over four million has shrunk by nearly 10% in a decade, according to preliminary census results.
The United Nations predicts that Croatia will have a population of just 2.5 million by the end of the century. Demographers warn that the country’s small population may lack the resilience to cope with further losses.
In December, Zagreb sought to reverse some of the brain drain by promising Croatian expatriates in the European Union up to â¬ 26,000 ($ 29,000) to return and start a business.
But for some regions, it may already be too late.
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