An EU-funded project assists Western Balkan emigrants with information about emigrating to the EU legally -- and works to attract the diaspora to return.
By Anes Alic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 23/03/12
The Banja Luka migration service centre is one of five in BiH, and has served more than 700 people. [Courtesy of International Organisation of Migration]
The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) is implementing the EU-financed Migration for Development in the Western Balkans (MIDWEB) project to reverse the region's devastating brain drain. The stakes are high, as are the obstacles.
The project provides information to those who want to emigrate legally to EU countries, obtain education and employment, and then return. It also raises awareness of the perils and costs of illegal immigration.
The project's key instrument is a 2.1m-euro network of migration service centres (MSCs) in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, which provide specific education, employment and other opportunities.
"[MSCs] help navigate the [EU] bureaucracy, assist with visa applications, provide verification and translation of documents and even refer applicants to the proper authorities," the MSC website said.
The emigration trend is particularly felt in BiH. According to polls, 90% of BiH youth living in rural areas and 60% in urban areas would leave the country if given the chance.
Over 55,000 youths left the country between 1996 and 2011.
"MIDWEB helps potential emigrants with life-changing decisions and easing the migration process," Sarajevo project co-ordinator Irma Sadikovic told SETimes.
The importance of the MIDWEB programme is enormous, according to BiH's Federal Employment Institute official Haris Culjevic.
"[It] will disable illegal emigration with an added positive of attracting Bosnian experts to return home from Western Europe," Culjevic told SETimes.
Sasha Jelaca, a 25-year-old unemployed mechanical engineer, is typical of those seeking MSC assistance. Jelaca unsuccessfully sought assistance from most international organisations and Western embassies in BiH.
"There is absolutely no future for me here," Jelaca told SETimes, adding it is imperative to leave with his family where there are greater opportunities.
While many would contemplate emigrating illegally, Jelaca said he learned of the MSC in Banja Luka where he is gathering the necessary information.
Other MSC customers, like unemployed 50-year-old Banja Luka construction vehicle operator Zoran Zivanic, do not want to emigrate permanently but seek temporary employment.
"I know that my experience could be useful in more organised countries, and I would do this for my children," Zivanic told SETimes.
It is too soon to rate the project's success, but Jelaca and Zivanic said they found the MSC assistance useful.
While three Bosnians have returned thus far, officials are hopeful.
"We hope BiH institutions will continue our efforts to attract diaspora experts back home to share their experiences and help educate Bosnians who wish to work abroad," Sadikovic said.
Elsewhere in the region, Albania and Kosovo are particularly negatively affected by migration. Albanians top the list of migrants seeking asylum in the EU. Belgian authorities said that about 80% of asylum seekers hail from Albania.
EU authorities suspect a highly organised network of human traffickers is behind the increase, offering fake documents and promising open-ended opportunities, for a price.
In Kosovo, six new MSCs have opened since January 2011 and 1,159 people have been assisted, MIDWEB's Project Assistant in Kosovo Shqipe Pallaska told SETimes.
The number of interested parties has been growing every month, Pallaska added.
"Usually, the people who visit the centres are young: mostly students who are interested in getting higher education abroad or finding employment there. The profile that fits most potential Kosovo migrants is married, younger than 30, with secondary education, looking for employment or education abroad," Pallaska said.
Twenty diaspora Kosovo Albanians have returned home under the MIDWEB programme to share their expertise with local firms.
While Albanian migration to the EU has Brussels on the alert, Sadikovic said Tirana is a success story in terms of migration awareness and legal assistance.
"Albania is working hard to create the right atmosphere for the return of its diaspora and reduce illegal migration. It opened 22 MSCs and additional ones are being planned. I hope BiH will follow this example," Sadikovic concluded.