Mass migration batters Balkans

by Cristian Florescu

Abandoned shops and mostly empty streets offer few signs of life in North Macedonia’s Valandovo, where young people are fleeing in large numbers hoping to find a better life abroad, write

Like much of this impoverished corner of southeastern Europe, this tiny Balkan nation is sitting on a demographic time bomb fuelled by an ageing population, sinking birth rate and mass migration.

North Macedonia has shed 10% of its population in the last 20 years. Around 600,000 Macedonian citizens now live abroad, according to World Bank and government data. Abysmal economic growth and a lack of investment have clobbered the country, now home to just 1.8 million people, in its 30 years of independence.

“If you have a little over 2.4 million citizens and more than a quarter has left, then you have to seriously be worried about what is happening,” says Apostol Simovski, director of the country’s statistics office.

Villages and small towns such as Valandovo, 146 kilometres from the capital, offer few jobs, pushing the ambitious and able to search elsewhere.

“The spirit of young people has been systematically destroyed,” Pero Kostadinov, the newly elected 33-year-old mayor tells AFP. “The enthusiasm to fight and stay home has been lost.”

In Valandovo alone, nearly 90% of people’s income is linked to agriculture, a common denominator across North Macedonia.

“Five of my friends from our class of 20 students have already moved abroad with their families,” said Bojan Nikolov, 24, a member of the youth municipal council in Valandovo.

The anecdote offers a stark picture of where the country’s future is headed.

Initial results from North Macedonia’s most recent census conducted in September estimated that the population has declined by more than 200,000 since 2002.

Since independence and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, many hoped integration into the European Union would provide a life raft and promises of a brighter future.

But North Macedonia’s path to EU membership has been repeatedly blocked, first by Greece and later Bulgaria, ushering in fresh doubts that the country will ever join and pushing many to jump ship.

For those who stay, monthly salaries average €470.

“It is better to be a slave for €2,000 in some foreign country than to be a slave with €300 at home,” goes a popular refrain in North Macedonia.

It is a picture replicated across the Balkans.

In Albania, about 1.7 million people, or roughly 37% of the population, have left the country in the past three decades, according to government figures.

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