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Reassessing Serbia’s migration dynamics: Challenging the ‘Brain Drain’ narrative

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Between 40,000 and 60,000 individuals leave Serbia annually, whether for educational pursuits, family reunification, or other reasons, as reported by Biznis & Finansije. However, this narrative of a “brain drain” is countered by the fact that for every ten emigrants, eight immigrants enter the country. Furthermore, the educational profile of Serbian emigrants closely resembles that of the population remaining in the country.

It is estimated that the Serbian diaspora numbers between 1.3 and 2 million people, while approximately 10 million individuals worldwide claim Serbian heritage.

Tracking circular migration presents challenges due to limited data from source countries and the absence of precise surveys or field research. Since 2015, Serbia has experienced a surge in circular migration, particularly to Eastern European countries that opened their labor markets to Serbian citizens, especially those with higher education or vocational skills.

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Mihail Arandarenko, a professor at the Faculty of Economics, highlights the difficulties in researching circular migration due to data scarcity. He explains that obtaining accurate statistics is challenging because circular and seasonal migrations often overlap, particularly when seasons are extended.

According to data from the Foundation for the Advancement of Economics (FREN) and the Center for European Policy (CEP), between 2015 and 2019, over 224,000 individuals received their first residence permit in the EU28 from Serbia. Nearly 96,000 were employed, with the majority engaged in seasonal work, while others migrated for family reunification, education, or other reasons.

Ivan BrkljaĨ, an advisor for demographics and migrations, notes that around 77,000 individuals left Serbia in the previous year, mainly as circular migrants. For instance, Croatia issued around 21,500 temporary residence permits to Serbian citizens, mostly for seasonal work in hospitality and construction.

Regarding the “brain drain,” Arandarenko asserts that the narrative is politicized and refuted by studies conducted in 2021. He argues that Serbia does not exhibit a significant discrepancy in the educational structure between emigrants and the general population.

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Despite claims that 60% of Serbian citizens in Canada have higher education, only around 20,000 Serbians reside there. Similarly, in Germany, where approximately 300,000 Serbians live, less than ten percent have higher education, below the average. Arandarenko also points out a rise in circular migration, particularly since 2015, rather than a significant brain drain.

Another study conducted by Sandra Lajt using alternative methodology suggests that Serbia experienced a net influx of 90,000 highly educated individuals over a five-year period. This is attributed to the traditional arrival of specialists from Montenegro, Republika Srpska, or other destinations, as well as students who choose to remain in Serbia after completing their education.

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