Constant talks and fears of a new war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) alongside the country’s worsening political situation are not the sole reason why 23-year-old Sarajevan activist and marketing management student Kerim is moving to Berlin in a couple of months.
With a list of what he would change in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the area of human rights, gender equality, and peace-building, he feels he should first move abroad, broaden his horizons, build up his education, knowledge, skills and contacts, and then eventually come back to his hometown. Sarajevo’s four-year siege ended long before Kerim was born, but the war’s legacy inevitably reflects the lives of both generations of young people who were children at the time and those born afterwards.
“My desire to leave BiH is primarily because our educational system unfortunately cannot offer me what I want and those are security management studies and since I am involved in the actions in human rights and organisation of the Pride March, I realised that if I would eventually come back to my country, which really is my end goal and the reason I am leaving, I first need certain academic and business experiences, in order to find answers I am looking for, to understand this situation here, and to understand how can I as a young individual contribute to improving and stabilising all this, without necessarily being involved in a political party,” Kerim explains.
Admitting how ethno-national political parties — which predominantly hold the power in most of the governing bodies in BiH — represent a burden that is deepening the crisis, he explains he does not consider himself part of the wave of youngsters leaving the country to start their lives and careers far away from the Balkans.
However, for a couple of 30-year-olds, Amra and Admir, a lawyer and activist and an electrical engineer, respectively, life in Bosnia and Herzegovina includes a series of disappointments and unfulfilled expectations they are already putting behind them. Amra is soon to join Admir in Germany, where he moved to five months ago after landing a good job. After graduating from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Sarajevo and finishing his master studies in Graz, he returned to his hometown and worked for several years in a state-owned engineering company in Sarajevo – widely considered to be a ‘secure’ state job – before deciding to pack his bags and leave, Amra explains, adding she is now preparing to follow suit in a few months.
“We were thinking about leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina in the long term, and it happened a few months ago literally overnight that he got this job offer. And I am initially leaving because my boyfriend left for Germany now”, Amra explains, with his consent, adding that Admir’s reasons were both professional — including an uncertain salary and lack of opportunity for development — and personal in regard to the worsening political and security situation in the country, which has triggered his war memories from the time of the siege.
“He grew up in the besieged Sarajevo and he has traumas from a possible new conflict, it triggers an expectation that something is to happen again. Of course, one wants to seek refuge abroad”, Amra explains. “I was a refugee in Germany during the war, and my family returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999. Now I am returning to Germany again”.
“Admir just got a chance he could only dream of here and one doesn’t miss that. Over there in Germany he experienced what he couldn’t experience here for years – that his work is respected and that he is paid properly without questions lingering what happens tomorrow, will there be a new war, what did the politicians say”, Amra says, adding that “one gets annoyed with the corruption, nepotism, and in my case not having a chance to find employment in any institution (as a lawyer) because I did not have well-positioned cousins”.
“Even if there wasn’t this political crisis, at some point I would reach a roof, I couldn’t develop. My boyfriend as well, he could only work in that one company and he wouldn’t progress”, she concludes.
These two are among thousands of young Bosnians and Herzegovinians who see their future elsewhere. Around 23,000 of them are projected to have already undertaken concrete steps in this direction and are very likely to emigrate within the next 12 months, a 2021 survey by UNFPA shows. According to this study, almost every other Bosnian and Herzegovinian aged 18-29 is considering leaving temporarily or permanently.
Unsatisfactory standards of living in BiH, which have stagnated or deteriorated in recent times, are predominantly cited as the main reason for young people’s interest in moving abroad, the study suggests. Surveyed young people “for whom socio-economic challenges are more pronounced in the post-conflict context, emphasise that their decision to migrate outside of BiH are driven by their motivations to escape social and political insecurities, prospects of long-lasting unemployment or underemployment, the lack of or insufficient access to learning or job opportunities, and the lack of relevant policies, social services and/or security programmes that specifically target the needs of youth”.
In the past 70 years, there have been several waves of migration from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first being in the times of Yugoslavia, over economic reasons. In the 90-ties was the largest one due to the war, when 1,1 million people fled the country and spread across the world, mostly in European countries. Migratory trends continued also around 15 years after the war ended, when visas for the Schengen Area were waived.
One of the authors of the UNFPA study, Jasmin Hasić, explains how the latest trend of migration could precisely be described as progressively rising demographic imbalance which is mostly caused by outward migrations but also other factors related to a lack of natality and geodemographic policies in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“It would be wrong to say outward migrations of young people are caused by the economic reasons (like in Yugoslavia) or conflict (like during or right after the war), but it is a result of several groups of ‘motivations’,” he explains. “Aside of the bad natality policy, young people are leaving because they are faced with ineffectual and destabilizing political developments in the country, systematic corruption and the inability of institutions to meritoriously fight the social and political shocks, a lack of functioning and time-bound government support measures or pro forma adoption of purely declarative policies that do not adequately address the youth needs, and a lack of comparatively effective and concrete actions to tackle the negative social footprints of human capital loss and damages to the economy it contributes to.“
State statistics and estimates show that since the beginning of 2011 “the trends of outward migration have intensified, and it is estimated that around 200,000 citizens from BiH, from all ethnic groups and national minorities, left the country, including a high percentage of young and well-educated people”, the UNFPA study says. “Such outward migration dynamics from Bosnia and Herzegovina will most likely continue in the future unless there is a drastic change in the institutional and public discourse signalling systematic plans that curb the causes and symptoms of the current negative migration trends.”
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population is projected to drop from the current 3.5 million to under 1.6 million in the next 50 years. Meanwhile, fewer children are born, which contributes to the ageing of BiH’s population.
“Youth migration as such is a good thing: it opens up opportunities for studying and gaining professional experience abroad, learning new languages and getting acquainted with different cultures. But young people shouldn’t feel they have to leave their own country because of lack of opportunities at home,” said Alanna Armitage, UNFPA Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia in November when the study was published.
For Kerim, finding a home in Berlin, where he plans to continue his studies, is temporary for now: “I want to gather knowledge and tools on how did people in the organised states campaign for their rights and how can we apply that here”.
“I am not leaving because I don’t have a job”, he concludes. “In fact, the biggest reason I want to leave is to gather that formal and informal knowledge and skills so that I can learn how to fight for our people here”.
Even if he were to dismiss the current political and security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a second, Kerim would still plan to leave, as the country is too small for career growth across all sectors.
“During my studies and some exchange programmes so far, I realised that in order to be more productive, it is important that we travel and consider other people’s perspectives, which is contributing to us individuals who will be the ones to bring for a change tomorrow”.