A female traveller at the airport looks out of a window © Song_about_summer/Shutterstock

© Song_about_summer/Shutterstock

Why do people emigrate from Serbia? What are the feelings, desires, and perceptions behind such a decision? A study goes to the bottom of these questions

02/02/2021 -  Francesca Rolandi

In your research you have tackled a complex topic such as emigration from Serbia. However, rather than with figures, you have dealt with sentiments and attitudes which fuelled migration desires and choices. What are the main drivers, according to your research?

I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a “main driver”, but I think it’s important to understand that the ways we collectively process a mass migration of young workers is a key aspect of that phenomenon and its long-term trajectory. Social sentiments, attitudes, and ways of talking about things tend to work as a sort of feedback loop; they provide us with a framework for discussing a topic, even what is acceptable and unacceptable to say, which in turn shapes our actions. So, if we look at readers' comments on the numerous news articles on emigration from Serbia, many will start with a statement such as “people aren’t leaving here just because of wages”. In such a statement, it’s notable that wages are of course a factor, but not the only factor. For many younger workers, for me meaning those who largely experienced work or “adult” life after 2000, emigration is tied to a discourse I call the “blocked future”. This discourse encompasses feelings of disappointment in what transition was supposed to offer and what it actually did; the seemingly endless waiting that transition entails, whether for entrance into the EU, for non-corrupt politicians, or job security and economic stability; and the feelings of unpredictability and sense of inability to eventually live “normally”, which entails planning one’s life with the expectation that those plans will come to fruition without another change in the social system. I think it’s also noteworthy that stating an intent to emigrate may not actually mean one will emigrate in the near future, but that such a statement works both as a critique of the status quo and as being able to temporarily make someone feel like they nevertheless have a choice when all other aspects of life feel like they are not up to you.

The thing about such mass sentiments is that they can eventually become quite entrenched, so even if there are structural changes which make life more predictable and livable for young people, it may become too late to turn back a mass feeling that people should leave.

How do those who plan to emigrate perceive Serbia, on the one hand, and the countries of emigration, on the other hand? How did this perception change among those who have actually left the country behind?

There is a popular sentiment that social life in Serbia is richer than in “the West”, people are more generous with each other, they invest a lot in their friendships, but that this aspect is diminished by the unpredictability I mentioned. The most common point among the people I interviewed was that other “organised” countries provide clear pathways to navigating everyday life, even if they don’t have ideal systems. I found this to be discussed most often through descriptions of mundane bureaucratic interactions, like paying taxes or getting a document. Among those still in Serbia and those who had left, the explanation often went this way: there are long lines for almost anything you have to accomplish which has to do with the state, you will rarely know which documents you need before you attempt to go into a bureaucratic office, which then requires going back and forth between different offices while missing work, and on top of this there appear to be other people jumping the long lines through knowing someone who works there, or possibly through a political connection, which makes your own experience of waiting longer and more frustrating. As bureaucracies tend to be our primary face to face interaction with “the state”, these types of narratives serve as a metaphor for feelings of a broader sense of injustice, a lack of care on the part of the state towards average people, institutionalised corruption, and the general sense of unpredictability of what may happen next. In contrast, my respondents in Germany discussed bureaucratic offices as being transparent even for non-German speakers and feeling respected by the state simply by being able to navigate it. Now, I have had German colleagues tell me that German bureaucracies can be equally awful – we might observe that bureaucracies aren’t looked upon favourably in almost any country – but whether German bureaucracies are “really” easier to navigate is not the point. The fact that people feel this difference and point to it as to why they don’t want to return to Serbia can be enough to both sustain a migration and to confirm the suspicions of those intending to emigrate to so-called “organised countries.”

As Dana Johnson observed, contemporary migrations from Serbia are much more couched in real experiences abroad than they were in past decades, and so these differences of expectation and reality aren’t as stark as they may have been in the past. However, I think it’s important to also point out that while the predictability offered by some other countries is very welcomed by my interlocutors, they also warn that this does not mean that life isn’t difficult – there are still visa regimes to deal with, life as an immigrant and newcomer, higher costs of living, and smaller networks of support. I think this is where sometimes the assumption that predictability means an easy life should concern us, as people who emigrate find themselves unable to seek empathy for their own struggles of navigating an entirely new system from their friends and family in the Balkans.

You started your research in 2015. How did some internal and external factors – the consequences of the 2008-09 economic crisis, the increasing authoritarian trends in Serbia, or Germany's increasing openness towards workers from the Western Balkans – entangle and interact with the attitudes towards emigration? Do you see any trend or turning point in the attitudes of Serbs towards migration in the last five years?

In looking at emigration from the perspective of discourses – ways people collectively talk about phenomena, which in turns shapes how they see the world and act – it’s hard to notice differences over short periods of time until you can look backwards at it and systematically organise it temporally. Discourses tend to be pretty durable, changing a little bit at a time. Between 2015 and 2020 – of course, before the Covid-19 pandemic – there wasn’t really a major rupture that would radically shift these sentiments, as there was in the factors you mention that predate that time period. But, again, as Dana Johnson’s work points out to us, in the longer term there does seem to be a shift in aspiring emigrants having already had gone abroad, which in turn shapes migration expectations to be less “imagined” and more rooted in experience. This is likely an effect of the EU visa liberalisation for Serbia in 2009 and Germany’s welcoming of Western Balkan workers, which means that more people have travelled and worked abroad now, whether long-term or during summers in tourism industries in Greece, Malta, and so on.

What I did notice, however, is that there seems to be a shift in how Serbian state officials are discussing emigration. If we look at labour migrations beyond individual economic decisions, we start to see how they are deeply politicised. For many, Serbia’s recent emigration has come to represent how the country fails to provide a predictable future for its citizens, and how people are “voting with their feet”.

When I first started my fieldwork, government policy was pretty quiet regarding emigrants. At least from the right wing (including the current ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party), it seemed like there was a sort of indifference to those who are leaving: at best they could become a source of remittances, and at worst they were framed as being unpatriotic. Since about 2017, there has been a proliferation of politicians making statements and developing strategies to try and retain and regain young workers. The state is now alarmed about depopulation, both as a result of emigration and of low birth rates (the two are related, as the core group that is emigrating are those in their reproductive years). Some of these statements to retain potential emigrants by politicians have been quite thoughtless, for example when Zoran Đorđević, Minister of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy 2017-2020, said that “there is no social life abroad, but there is in Serbia” – as though a social life is the primary concern of young workers living precariously. As far as policies, such as the 2018 expansion of financial benefits to new parents as part of pro-natalist campaigns, unfortunately they seem to be “too little, too late” to keep Serbians from desiring to raise their children abroad.

A variety of individuals have left Serbia in the last years. Do you see any significant difference in the attitude of Serbians from various generations toward emigration? Are attitudes towards emigration gendered? And what about the social background?

As far as generational differences, parents are a major factor in helping adult emigrants enact mobility. Many older people have made it their goal for their children to be able to go abroad, for example financially supporting them by helping with tuition or living costs if their children emigrate to study. In some ways, emigration can be thought of as an intergenerational investment, which then also puts pressure on emigrants to stay abroad in order to fulfill that family investment. Of course, that form of support changes from family to family and their financial means, so it may also mean being a stable place to come home to from work abroad, or childcare provided by grandparents.

Among those considering emigration, I have noticed that women tended to prioritise the idea of having children in thinking about life abroad – even if they do not necessarily want to leave, they worry about the system their potential children will grow up in and whether they will be able to provide for them. I haven’t seen this to the same extent among childless men who talk about emigrating, but it does change among those who are already fathers. This tells me that there is a gendered component to considering and enacting emigration, as family planning and care work is still significantly gendered in Serbia (as in other countries).

Regarding social background, the main difference I saw had not to do with family class background, vocation, or education, but with whether someone could reasonably expect to inherit or receive independent housing from their families – the primary route to homeownership for younger adults today. For those who had a home to live in rent-free, the cost of living was much lower, the risk of job loss was less threatening, and they could work towards other goals. In considering emigration, it also felt much less risky because one can have somewhere to come back to, while at the same time it tended to mean more choice as to how, when, and for what reason one leaves.

Yugoslavia was the only socialist country which allowed and tried to manage labour migration from the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, the word “emigration” tended to be avoided since it reminded the political migration which had left the country in the previous decades and sounded too “permanent”. In fact, labour migrants were officially called “workers temporarily employed abroad”, implying the idea that they would return one day, even if this was often not the case. Is this aspect of Yugoslav mobility present in the narratives of current migrants from Serbia?

While some people, in a way, really work to detach themselves emotionally from living in Serbia, others very much want to stay but cannot see a way of making it align with other normative goals, for example having children. This is, as I mentioned above, especially true with people who were not homeowners and were not expecting to receive housing through their families in the future. For young Serbians, mortgage credits are largely out of reach (and seen as very risky even if obtainable), work tends to be more available in large cities which simultaneously means that urban housing costs are rising, while rental culture is very undeveloped. In this sense, many migration projects seem to be about eventually earning enough money to buy a home in Serbia, fitting the idea of “workers temporarily employed abroad”. However, like with 1960s Yugoslav guest workers, it’s a question of how many people will ultimately return as people become more embedded in their new locations while waiting to save enough to come back.

While it might be too early to attempt an analysis, what are your feelings on the impact of the pandemic and the consequent closure of the borders on Serbs’ migration desires?

I’m honestly unsure of what effect to expect. I would speculate that such rapid border closures would make nearer migration (for example, to the EU rather than the US) more desirable, but it’s also a question of whether people expect such measures to take place again in the coming years. It may also be that another global financial crisis makes migration more difficult and riskier, and thus less desirable, or that the uneven effect of a financial crisis reshapes which countries are desirable.

You have yourself origins from the former Yugoslav area, and you moved to the United States as a child. Later, your research brought you back to the Balkans and you decided to deal with migration. How was your biography perceived by your informants?

I think more often than not, it was funny to people that I was studying those who wanted to leave while myself being someone who had “returned”. My former landlord, who did not know what my project was about, at one point wondered out loud in a bewildered tone, “all the young people are leaving, and you’re coming back”. I think for some the idea that someone would want to come back was confusing, and for others I met who weren’t part of the research it was even frustrating. In general, though, I think I had a bit in common with my respondents, most often as we were younger people who wished we could stay but realised mobility would be necessary to achieve specific life goals, or as Balkan people “abroad”. But I think mostly I was perceived as a “1990s diaspora person”, which I think is a category of its own, somewhere between an insider who can relate and, simultaneously, a foreigner.

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