investigation 18 May 15

Mass Depopulation Threatens Bosnia’s Future

Bosnia faces bleak future as more and more citizens emigrate, leaving behind ethnic tensions and economic and social decline.

Sarajevo, Prijedor

Although still in his mid-thirties Alen from Sarajevo was a successful and respected marketing and sales expert who lived a comfortable life until three years ago.

“I had a very good career as the director and a co-owner of a local company,” he told Balkan Insight, “Then the recession came and eroded the country’s economy and morale. I decided to leave. I just couldn’t live in that environment any more.”

Alen left Bosnia three months ago and joined his brother who runs a company in Sweden. His wife and two daughters will join him soon.

Going, going, gone

Sarajevo. | Photo by BloodSaric/Wikimedia Commons

Alen is a part of a devastating trend in Bosnia. Tens of thousands of people have either left or are about to leave because of the lack of a future.

Some are worried by Bosnia’ endemic political and ethnic tensions. More are frustrated by the worsening living standards and poor social and communal services.

One motive shared by almost all of them is the apparent absence of job opportunities in the weakened economy.

A 2014 Progress Report on Bosnia, which the European Parliament adopted on April 24, 2015, identified some of the main causes of the growing dissatisfaction on Bosnia.

The long list included poor economic and social performance, political inertia, fragmented public administration, unemployment, corruption and weak rule of law.

“Widespread, citizen-led protests in early 2014 underlined the fragility of the socio-economic situation,” the report noted, referring to protests that started in the northern town of Tuzla in February and spread across the country, resulting in scenes of violence unseen since the 1992-5 war.

Demographics of doom

Sarajevo Central Bank by Anthony Joh

As in so many other spheres, Bosnian statistics about depopulation fall short. They do not provide either an exact picture or an explanation of the trend. No one knows exactly how many people died in Bosnia during the 1992-5 war, how many have left since, how many returned, or how many live in Bosnia today.

Bosnia’s Statistical Agency has only estimates of demographic trends between the end of the war and 2012. They still operate on the basis of the last available census results from 1991 – and much of the demographic data are only estimates.

After numerous political and technical problems, a new census took place in 2013 but the results have yet to be published. Many expect that only once the results are published, the full extent of Bosnia’s demographic decomposition will be revealed.

According to the 2014 Almanac of the BiH Federation Statistical Institute, the rate of new-born babies in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina has steadily declined from 34,304 babies born in 1997 to 20,145 born in 2013 – a whopping fall of 14,159 births in only 16 years.

Combined with the growing numbers of deaths in the same period, this has created a progressively decreasing overall demographic trend – from +7.7 per cent in 1997 to +0.3 per cent in 2012 and -0.1 per cent in 2013.

In addition, the number of marriages across Bosnia started decreasing from 2008, while the number of divorces has risen since 2009. This has all resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of schoolchildren, from 237,640 in the school year 2008/9 to 198,991 in 2012/13 – 38,641 less in five years.

As a result, Bosnia’s population that was growing from 3.64 million in 1996 to 3.84 million in 2006 began falling for the first time in 2007. It then continued decreasing from 3.84 million in 2009 to 3.83 million in 2012. According to first preliminary results from the 2013 census, Bosnia’s population in 2013 was 3.79 million.

The ageing nation

People of Sarajevo. | Photo by MDGF Bosnia and Herzegovina

These negative trends represent a problem for the education system. According to different media reports, primary and secondary schools – especially in smaller, rural and more remote areas – have had to scale down the number of classes or even close some schools.

A survey conducted by the Red Cross in Bosnia said that in the next 35 years Bosnia could become the oldest country in the region. This dire demographical perspective has also very concrete negative impacts on the economic future of Bosnia, having in mind that the number of workers already is almost equal to the number of pensioners.

While negative demographic trends age Bosnia, they prevent it from becoming smarter. According to the World Economic Forum, WEF, Bosnia is the fifth worst country in the world in terms of ”brain drain”, which refers to the number of students and highly educated people leaving for abroad.

Meanwhile, Bosnian citizens do not need census results, or exact statistics, to know that their neighbours, friends and family members are leaving almost on a daily basis.

This depopulation is visible across the country. A short drive to the small town of Vares, 50 km north from Sarajevo, or a tour through pristine landscape of southwest Bosnia and Herzegovina, from the town of Kupres, to Livno, Glamoc and Drvar, reveals once vibrant communities that are now half-deserted.

Djordje, from Sarajevo, has two cousins already working in Germany. He is hoping that once he finishes his studies at the Faculty of Law, his cousins will help him get a visa for Germany.

“They are inviting me to come. They say that finding a job is not a problem there,” he told Balkan Insight.

Local non-governmental organizations and experts have been urging governments to address this problem but to no avail.

Elvis has left Kupres - other places

Kupres. | Photo by Hattab/Wikimedia Commons

Before the war, Kupres was a small but prosperous hilltop town in southern Herzegovina, relying on the forestry industry while developing its winter tourist and skiing facilities.

After the war, illegal logging and botched privatization ruined its industrial potential and winter tourism alone was insufficient to sustain the shrinking population.

Local media and civil society groups estimate that at least 1,000 people – almost a third of the estimated population – have over the last few years used their dual Croatian citizenship to move to Croatia or further away, searching for better future elsewhere in the EU.

Depopulation in the town prompted a local women’s association, Kupreske, to write a public letter to the authorities in February, warning them that the town could soon end up deserted.

“We are very concerned because so many people are leaving Kupres in order to find a better life. Entire families are leaving,” the letter said.

More than three months after the letter was published, Ivana Mrso, a spokesperson for the association, told Balkan Insight that authorities ignored their letter. “It was an unsuccessful attempt,” she admitted.

Like Kupres, Glamoc, Drvar and Vares, the eastern Bosnian city of Srebrenica – infamous for the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniaks in July 1995 – increasingly resembles a ghost town, thanks to negative demographic trends and steady depopulation.

The town was once home to more than 10,000 inhabitants with a vibrant local industry and mining.

Now it is home to barely more than 2,000 people and only few businesses. After the war, part of the Bosniak pre-war population returned but many of them, as well as many Bosnian Serbs, left again, because of poor public services and lack of employment opportunities.

“The town is deserted,” 32-year-old Ivan said. “It was much better a couple of years ago. Now, everybody is leaving. We are happy if we have 20 new kids for a new school year in September.”

Ivan complains that despite all the war-related attention and despite the promises of various local politicians, Srebrenica remains underdeveloped and poor.

“Today, the least important issue for us is people’s ethnic background. We are all struggling to survive.”  

Youth suffer the worst

People in Sarajevo. | Photo by BIRN

The absence of employment opportunities, poor long-term perspectives and gradual depopulation have the worst impact on the youth.

Different surveys show that more than 60 per cent of Bosnia’s youngsters are unemployed. Lack of employment in turn impacts on young people’s interest in having families. Surveys also show that more than 60 per cent of young people are determined to leave Bosnia for good.

“The young are desperately leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina. The patronage system, corruption and desperation reign here,” a Radio Free Europe report on this issue said on April 10, 2015.

Two years ago, a youth NGO, the Youth Information Agency, OIA, carried out a survey that showed that a staggering 80 per cent of young people would leave tomorrow if they had the opportunity.

Besides unemployment, traditionally the main motive for leaving, the OIA survey also showed that many people who wanted to leave also blamed the lack of the functional institutions, including judicial, health and education systems.

Nevena, a 26-year-old Sarajevo resident, is a typical example of Bosnia’s youth. Since she finished her studies at the Faculty of Linguistics almost three years ago, she has been unable to find a job and earns only pocket-money by giving English lectures to school children.

Last year, she did a three-month stint as babysitter in Germany, which provided her with a whole new perspective.

“I will be leaving for Germany soon again. I am thinking of enlisting with a college there, so that I can stay longer without worries about being banned from entering again,” she said. “I do not see my future here.”

Croats - suffering or enjoying a head start

View of Sarajevo.

In the last few years, Bosnian Croat politicians as well as Catholic Church officials have been vocal in complaining about what they see as mass exodus of Croats from Bosnia.

The Church has been so disturbed that a few months ago it carried out its own analysis, using its records of births, baptisms and deaths among Catholics. The analysis is not perceived as fully accurate since not all Bosnian Croats are Catholics.

Yet, most agree that the analysis – consulted in the preparation of this article – is accurate enough to indicate general trends.

According to the Church’s analysis, there were nearly 425,000 Catholics in Bosnia in 1996. The numbers progressively grew to some 463,000 in 2006 but has since fallen to 432,000 in 2013.

The loss of these 31,000 people was reflected in all four bishoprics in the country. Yet whether this represents any greater degree of depopulation compared to other ethnic groups will be known only once Bosnia’s Statistical Agency publishes details of the 2013 census.  

In a dramatic interview for Radio Vatican on October 26, 2014, the Bishop of Banja Luka, Franjo Komarica, complained that during and since the war Croats have been “rooted out” from Republika Srpska “and now from the other part of the country”, meaning the Federation entity.

“Catholics are facing strong pressures of physical extermination,” he added. “The Catholic family is facing physical extinction.”

While many Bosnian Croat and Church officials claim Croats suffer the most because they are the smallest of the three ethnic groups, others disagree.

They point to the fact that most Bosnian Croats have citizenship also with neighbouring Croatia and use the advantage of an EU passport to freely travel and seek jobs across Europe.

While the issue is hotly debated among politicians and church officials, it is a frequent theme on social networks and in internet chat-rooms.

“Are you coming across mass depopulation of the Croat population from Bosnia?” one person asked on one of the local web forums.

“Most people would leave if they could. The situation is such that you are truly successful only if you manage to leave,” another replied: “Croats with [EU] passports have administrative opportunity to leave and so they leave.”

“Only [the Bosnian government] the Council of Ministers will remain here at the end,” a third concluded.

Preferred destination - Germany

People on the street of Sarajevo. | Photo by BIRN

Anecdotal evidence and research data suggest that Germany is the most preferred destination for Bosnians who leave in the search of an education or jobs.

Charlotte Hermelink, director of the German Goethe-Institute in Bosnia, says more and more people are applying for German courses each year.

“We are delighted that so many people are interested in German. Besides a general interest for the language, we are aware that many people are coming to explore the possibilities of finding a job in Germany,” Hermeling told Balkan Insight.

She added that the German health sector is especially in the need of doctors and other medical staff, which is something Bosnia has in abundance.

This demand has triggered an influx to Germany of Bosnian medical staff, including at least 300 doctors who left for Germany in the last few years.

“Best doctors leaving Bosnia,” the Mostar daily Dnevni List reported on February 21, 2015.

“We are extremely worried about this trend,” Braco Hajdarevic, president of the Mostar Medical Chamber, said recently.

“Many of these doctors are young and could be future leaders in their fields. But they have left now and we have lost them.”

Other skills are also in demand in the EU, prompting more Bosnians to take courses to better prepare themselves for work in Europe.

The Centre for Adult Education in Gracanica, a town in northern Bosnia, reports that they have more and more people applying for courses to gain new skills, mostly in nursery or care of the elderly.

Since 2013, the State Agency for Work and Employment has been also helping people to find jobs outside Bosnia. It has signed Memorandums of Understandings about exchanges of workers with Germany, Slovenia, Qatar and other countries.

Since the first agreement with Slovenia in 2013, the agency has helped 1,658 Bosnians to find work in Slovenia. Over the same period, some 500 people left for Germany. According to Agency data, about 30 per cent of those who found job in EU countries are drivers, 20 per cent are welders, and 18 per cent are construction workers.

Yet, despite alarming depopulation trends, local leaders do not seem unduly worried and are still engaging in political squabbles instead of undertaking the reforms that might stabilize the economy and attract new investment.

“We are well aware that our neighbours, friends and people we know, are leaving,” Aida from Bihac said. “Everybody knows that, but that is still not enough for the elites to do something about it.

“I do not understand the way they think. I cannot understand that they do not care about the people who voted for them. That attitude is against common sense,” she concluded.

Research team: Srecko Latal, Nidzara Ahmetasevic, Zoran Jegdic, Katarina Panic.

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