Should I stay or should I go? A tale of emigration from Serbia

Posted on 26. February 2015

by Darija Maric

darija-maricWhile I was writing a paper on migration trends in Serbia, I came across the following data: “The Law on Diaspora and Serbs in the Region defines the Diaspora as a category that includes citizens of the Republic of Serbia living abroad, persons of Serbian ethnicity that emigrated from the Republic of Serbia and the region, and their descendants (Article 2). Precise data on the number of members of the Serbian Diaspora does not exist… the Ministry of Religion and Diaspora estimated that the size of this population is approximately 4 million.” Reading this made me put my pen down and think. Why?

According to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, there are 7,2 million people living in Serbia. It is not a big country, especially when compared to France, Germany or the United Kingdom. What also makes it different from these countries is the fact that its population is getting smaller. Although Serbia’s natural increase rate has been negative for a number of years, the main reason for this phenomenon is ever growing emigration.

There is no precise data of how many people leave Serbia on a yearly basis. In the media, one can read numbers varying from 10.000 to 35.000 people a year. Nothing new, someone would say. People left Yugoslavia as well 40-50 years ago and no one batted an eye. However, the people who left Yugoslavia during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were mostly craftsmen, and factory and field workers. They were all of working age, the majority of them being very young. Their main motive for leaving the country was to earn enough money to send it to their families back home, to build a new house and buy a fancy car and some land to work on. Although many of them stayed in their destination countries much longer than they planned, they always felt that “home” is back in their place of birth and so they were resolved to return there once they had earned enough money, which a great number of them did. “Temporary stay” – that is what they wanted and how they saw their life far from the country of origin.

While studying in Austria, I’ve met many people like that. They’ve all lived there for decades, but one can tell where their hearts lie. While their children speak perfect German and see Austria as their home country, first generation immigrants still talk about “back home” and are only “at their own” in the place where they were born and raised. If you address them in their mother tongue, you can easily see how nostalgic they are. Almost without exception, they will tell you how they are waiting to retire in order to return “home” and start living with “their people” in a house they’ve built and furnished years ago for that purpose. (There are many houses like that in Serbia; whole villages of beautiful, grand empty houses whose owners work abroad and who are gradually decaying year by year, the way only empty houses can. I’ve always seen them as these grandiose but sad monuments of love for one’s country and of the hope of returning one day.)

The 1990s brought different reasons for leaving the country. Due to the outburst of a civil war, economic sanctions and the political situation in Serbia – and the whole Balkans as well – people fled the country in order to save their lives and the lives of their family, simply because they felt that was the smartest thing to do until things would “calm down” and “get back to the way they were before”. Those were people of various profiles – unskilled, craftsmen, highly educated people – and of all ages. In other words, people who felt like they had no other choice but to leave.

Today, many of my parents’ friends live in Germany, Canada, Switzerland, England or the US. What unites them is that, although there was a war raging in their homeland, they all saw their leaving as something “temporary”. They never believed that the country they grew up in and which they loved so much could fall apart the way it did. And they never believed they would spend their lives far away. Although many of them fled for their own safety, there was never a doubt in their mind that they would, eventually, go back. Naturally – what else? But this belief turned out to be false and they somehow came to peace with that, living their lives in a different, calm and silent way. I feel that they, when compared to the people who emigrated a few years or decades earlier, somehow seem less nostalgic. They do not speak of returning “home” and they seem to have accepted spending the rest of their lives overseas as a fact of life. Maybe because many of them do not have the houses to return to… or maybe because they do not feel the place they would return to would still be “home.”

And yet, in the 21st century, things seem to have changed. The sanctions have been lifted, the wars have stopped. Serbia is a democratic country with a candidacy status and is on its way to enter the EU. So where do these discouraging statistics and numbers come from? Although it is true that the situation is not as gloomy as it once was, the number of people who are planning to spend their lives elsewhere is on the constant rise. Reasons for such a decision are mostly of an economic nature – an average salary in Serbia is around €450 per month. But if you consider that a great number of people work for far less, even with faculty diplomas, that the unemployment rate is over 17% and that prices are not significantly lower than in the rest of Europe, it becomes pretty obvious why an increasing number of people are looking for jobs elsewhere. A majority of them are young people, who have more often than not graduated from a faculty and speak several foreign languages. According to the statistics, young doctors, IT-experts and engineers are at the top of the list of the people who have emigrated in the last decade. The media often report on the brain-drain problem and the politicians are publicly inviting young people to stay and help rebuild their country. However, if we look at the numbers, that does not seem to be giving much result, or at least not as much as expected.

I happen to know many young people who have decided to seek a better future elsewhere. They are well-educated, smart and polite. They have worked hard and got good results during their studies but are having difficulties in finding a job. Or, if they were lucky enough to find one, they are working long hours for salaries with which they can barely make ends meet. Of course, that is not always the case. Some of my acquaintances went to live abroad in order to get a higher position, better education or a better-paying job although they earned more than a decent living in Serbia. What they all have in common is this feeling of dissatisfaction, of wanting more from life than is now being offered to them. They feel they cannot reach their full potential in Serbia, that the country does not give them enough opportunities. Some of them say they owe it to their children to try and give them a better future by trying their luck in a more developed, richer country. Others do not want to live the lives of their parents, who have spent their best years working hard and struggling to make ends meet with what they’ve earned, all in the vain hope that things will eventually change. But they all seem determined and focused. And unlike the ones before them, they do not see their leaving as a “temporary stay”. They do not talk of buying houses for retirement. They do not sound nostalgic or homesick. When you talk to any of these people, one thing becomes clear – they do not plan on ever going back. Their plan is to build their future and raise their children in some Western country where they can find a proper job and where they think their hard work and dedication will pay off. And they feel like opting to leave is “the smart thing to do.”

However, that is not the way every young person in Serbia feels. “What would happen if we would all just pack our things and go?” One of my friends asked me the other day. “Someone has to stay,” she answered her own question, and then added: “Someone has to make sure our kids have a better future here, where their roots lie.” Another friend agreed: “I could never leave. This is where I was born, this is my home. We survived worse, our ancestors survived worse. It would be cowardly to just abandon our soil. We have to work hard to change the things we disapprove of and to teach our children that you have to deal with your problems, not to run from them.” He concluded with quoting a famous Serbian poem: “Stay here… the sun that shines from foreign skies can never warm you just as our sun warms…”

When it comes to me personally, I understand both views. I can understand why someone choses to leave and why others chose to stay. And I think that no one should judge another for the decision they’ve made; it takes equal courage to leave everything you know and love – all your friends, family, your home, the places where you made bitter-sweet memories – and go to the unknown, to start from scratch and rebuild yourself, make new memories and grow new roots, as it takes to stay and fight the odds, to believe in a better tomorrow and work hard every day, surrounded by people you care about, in the country you feel as your own and where you can express yourself freely, without having to translate every sentence in your mind and wonder if you did it correctly.

Having said that, I do believe things in Serbia have to change. Young people must feel that they are needed, that their knowledge is wanted and that their hard work and dedication is valued. And it is important to show it not through mere words and empty promises, but through effective change of policies and investing in new work places and better education. It is important that young people living in Serbia see first-hand how things are changing for the better. Therefore it is essential to make the decision-making process as transparent as possible, in all areas, and to put the best and most qualified people in charge, not the ones who “know someone who knows someone”. Some steps have been taken in that direction, but a lot more has to be done.

And once that happens, we will get our hope back. And with that hope, we will get our future back. And the numbers I mentioned at the beginning of this text will look a lot different – and much more promising.