Driving through rural Bosnia, you pass one abandoned building after another. Many have bullet holes or the marks of shelling; others are destroyed altogether. Money is one reason the buildings remain so decrepit, but a more significant reason may be that nobody wants them.
Bosnia has one of the world’s fastest-declining populations. Each year, its population shrinks by 1.4%. That has several causes: The economy is terrible and corruption is rampant, so people emigrate for work; people have little money and often little hope, so they don’t have kids; and the country can’t attract immigrants. That means that every year, there are fewer and fewer people living in Bosnia.
Someone in Sarajevo told me that one of the biggest issues is that it’s nearly impossible to get a job without the right connections. “Nepotism is rampant,” he said.
When I commented that connections help everywhere, he said Bosnia was worse: This isn’t a matter of one qualified person beating out another because he knows the manager. It’s a matter of someone totally unqualified getting hired over someone qualified because their family does a favor for the manager. He said most well-paying Bosnian jobs are allocated this way, with one exception: Foreign tech companies, which outsource to Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans. They’re outside of the Bosnian system, he said, and may be the most meritocratic part of the economy.
For the Bosnians who leave, Germany is the most popular destination, followed by Switzerland and Austria. Those who can get American visas go there, but that is difficult. Typical German incomes are €2,000 a month, Bosnians told me, compared to €400 a month in Bosnia. Some people get visas to work legally; others sneak in or enter on tourist visas and work under the table.
The declining population is turning swaths of rural Bosnia into ghost towns.
“This is a dead city,” one man in his 40s told me of Srebrenica. “Everyone gone,” he added in broken English.
Those who had left included his ex-wife, who took his two kids to Germany. When I asked what he did for work, he shrugged: “No work. I’m going Germany in January.” He spent his days drinking at a café.
Another woman, in her 20s, said, “Growing up here was great. There were a lot of people…Now, it’s hard. Everyone has left.”
Another man, in his early 30s, had lived in the UK and worked as a dancer. After Brexit, he lost his visa and ended up a tour guide at an obscure Bosnian tourist attraction.
“Everyone leaves and goes to Germany,” he said, estimating that’s where 90% of Bosnian emigrants go. “You make a friend for four or five years, then they leave.”
When you ask those who’ve stayed why they have, they typically say they don’t want to leave their country, culture, and language. One guy I met at a club in Sarajevo had spent seven years working for a multinational corporation in Germany but moved home because he missed it.
In Finland, I had met a Bosnian man who had brought his family there as refugees in the 1990s. They proceeded to lay roots in Helsinki, where the man and his son opened a successful café. Still, he longed to go back to Bosnia
“Everyone thinks it’s easier here, but it’s not. After taxes, rent, food, you end up making no more money, maybe just a little more money. And you work a lot more,” he said. When factoring in the homesickness and loss of culture, he said he wasn’t sure emigration was the right move.
Bosnia is not unique in this regard. Eastern Europe, and especially the Balkans, has the world’s fastest-declining populations. Serbia’s population is shrinking by .9% each year, Croatia’s up to 3%. Each country has towns and villages that have emptied out.
Yet Bosnia, one of the region’s poorest and youngest countries, may be suffering the worst brain drain. Every day, more people – doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers – leave, and fewer people remain to help the country prosper.
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