Push and Pull Factors of Labor Migration

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The migration phenomenon in the Western Balkans has shown consistent evolution since the 1990s. Initially driven by displacement and political factors, it has transitioned towards irregular, low- to medium-skilled labor migration, encompassing various forms such as regular family reunification, student mobility, and more recently, high and medium-skilled labor migration.  

Over the past decades, waves of labor emigration from the Western Balkan six (WB6) economies have given rise to significant international diasporas in Europe and North America. According to a 2022 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, the number of migrants from the WB6 region has approximately doubled since 1990. And 4.8 million individuals, roughly one-fifth of the WB6 population, now resides abroad in countries such as Germany, Italy, Greece, Austria, the United States and Switzerland. However, there has been a recent uptick in emigration to the neighboring European Union (EU) countries Croatia and Slovenia. 

In contrast, intra-regional migration within the Western Balkans has remained relatively stable, accounting for around 15% of the total WB6 migrant population. Despite some recent increases in immigrant inflows, emigration remains predominant in the region. Concerns about depopulation are mounting, as evidenced by the Balkan Barometer, which indicates that 44% of citizens are contemplating living and working abroad, marking a 5% increase from the previous year. More alarming is the fact that 71% of youth aged 18-24 are considering leaving the region, a 10% rise compared to two years ago. 

The sustained high levels of labor emigration, particularly among young talent, present a significant development challenge for the region. This underscores the urgent need for comprehensive policy and advocacy efforts to effectively address this phenomenon. 


Understanding the dynamics that influence migration 

Migration is a very complex issue with a mix of push and pull factors. Despite progress in improving economic and social prospects over the past decade, structural challenges and socio-economic hardship continue to incentivize emigration from the region. This includes corruption, a lack of merit-based employment and promotion, and a quality of education that does not respond to the needs of the labor market.  

Furthermore, economic competitiveness in the region is struggling and the business environment remains challenging, especially for smaller businesses. Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) are lower than remittances. FDIs also have a relatively weak linkage with the local economy, which restrains the potential for spillover effects into know-how and technology transfer in the region, lowering the potential for increased economic growth and job creation and therefore reinforcing push factors. Significant inequalities in the region regarding social protection and health infrastructure further encourage migration.  

On the other hand, pull factors are significant and potentially more important. Higher demand for labor in the EU and facilitated labor mobility policies are making it easier for people from the region to work in these countries. Working conditions are also an important pull factor – even more than wages.  


Migration: A cost-benefit analysis 

Migration presents both benefits and costs. The risk of brain drain resulting from the emigration of skilled labor is concerning in the region. According to Russell King, Emeritus Professor (Former Director, Sussex Center for Migration, University of Sussex), “The outward trend of highly educated people is extremely worrying.” This loss of human capital can also imply a lost return on investment and accentuate skills shortages, thus hindering the increase in productivity of the economy. As Albania’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Besart Kadia emphasizes, “There are interesting dynamics since now the Western Balkan countries, which are poorer than most Western European countries, are exporting qualified workers. Essentially, the taxpayers in Albania are training doctors for Germany, one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.”   

While emigrants are often considered as a loss for their country of origin, they can make a substantial contribution to economic development and poverty reduction by providing vital support for communities through remittances, the transfer of knowledge, and stimulating labor markets through investments. On average, remittances correspond to 10% of the GDP in the Western Balkan countries, but a lack of trust in and access to financial institutions and high remittance transactional costs are important barriers to remittance investments.  


The role of the diaspora 

The diaspora represents an important development resource for the countries of origin because of its relative size to the total population. Due to emigration waves from the Western Balkans, about one-fifth of the population, or one in five citizens born in the Western Balkan regions live abroad. The large and growing diaspora nonetheless also provides opportunities for the region, which remain largely untapped. The diaspora, through remittances, provides financial resources and supports economic and social development in the region. On the other hand, the diaspora also provides demand for non-traded goods, which lowers the incentive to develop external markets and creates a higher demand for goods and services that are not tradable. Therefore, it is important to change the growth model in these countries to one that enhances competitiveness by making better use of investments in education and healthcare, which are long-term policies, but also increases investments in research and innovation (by targeting efforts to change the production structure of the economy, since currently all the Western Balkan economies are net importers services).  

But countries should be aware that emigration and its consequences are often a symptom rather than the cause of underlying structural problems. In this way, Western Balkan countries are engaged to a certain extent in these different structural problems (e.g., governance quality, improved local economic opportunities). 

Although appropriate mechanisms for the involvement of the diaspora already exist under the impetus of states and international partners (e.g., IOM, GIZ, ICMPD), they do not succeed due to many factors such as a lack of trust in state institutions and weak institutions. Consequently, it is important to improve the understanding of the mutual benefit between diaspora communities and their country of origin.  

This shift entails moving away from a one-sided reliance on what the diaspora can offer, towards a more balanced dynamic, while also capitalizing, testing and upscaling the myriad of initiatives that exist outside the state-driven initiatives and processes. By doing so, skills transfer and knowledge exchange from the diaspora can be encouraged, while establishing and maintaining direct communication with diaspora members.  

It’s also essential to make diaspora economic engagement policies more inclusive and participatory, thereby ensuring that the voices and needs of diaspora communities are adequately represented and addressed. In this regard, it is necessary to collect and share data not only about the diaspora, but also among the diaspora communities and associations abroad and to promote good practices. Scientific collaboration through digital solutions for alumni networks also represents a huge potential.  


Creating wholistic migration policies 

As a multifaceted and complex phenomenon, migration policies should be holistic to address both push and pull factors. In the meantime, to be holistic, labor migration should be an explicit part of the development strategy of each country, considering, among other things, push and pull factors to reduce migration-related costs and increase gains.  

While Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina have prepared and/or adopted holistic migration strategies that address irregular migration and reintegration of returnees, North Macedonia and Serbia are the only countries that focus on reducing the push factors of emigration. At the country level, actions should involve short to long-run solutions. These include: increasing investment towards education and healthcare as well as research and innovation (e.g., incentivizing startups or companies that are involved in ICT), standardization of systems of qualifications among the region, implementing domestic labor measures (e.g., improvement in working conditions through labor inspectorates, higher wages), and strengthening integration policies for immigrants (especially skilled workers) and measures against racism and discrimination.  

At the regional level, countries must unify the system of qualifications and skills and harmonize social security schemes to regulate the circular migrations between countries. Moreover, as Milla Carovska (former policymaker of labor and social policy in North Macedonia) stresses, “It is important to develop some policies at the regional level that include language training, cultural orientation, access to social services and childcare services” to regulate temporary or circular migration within the region.  

There is a need for evidence and data to design appropriate and effective migration policies. This data should encompass both immigrants and emigrants to understand how they can contribute, and should be accompanied by specific sectoral analysis and targeted schemes for skills needed in the labor market. To improve evidence and migration management, it is necessary to explore options for using new technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and big data.  

The complexity of labor mobility in the Western Balkans underscores the urgent need for comprehensive policies that address both push and pull factors. While the region faces significant challenges related to emigration, there are also opportunities for economic growth and development through better utilization of its human capital and diaspora resources. Moving forward, policymakers should prioritize investments in education, healthcare and innovation, while fostering regional cooperation and leveraging technological advancements to design evidence-based migration policies. By adopting a holistic approach and harnessing the potential of labor mobility, the Western Balkans can mitigate the risks of brain drain and pave the way for sustainable development. 

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[1] https://www.oecd.org/south-east-europe/programme/Labour-Migration-report.pdf

[2] https://www.oecd.org/south-east-europe/programme/Labour-Migration-report.pdf

[3] https://www.oecd.org/south-east-europe/programme/Labour-Migration-report.pdf