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Brain Drain Vs. Brain Circulation

Million Dollar Question

Do people just leave Serbia or do they also return? What policies are available to the government in order to make migration a win-win combination for society? These are issues that are plaguing many countries that are facing a brain drain, and particularly those, like Serbia, that find it difficult to offer their citizens better life prospects in the short term

Democracy, the rule of law, greater possibilities for highquality living and work – there are many ways to answer the question of why people from Serbia leave the country in search of an environment that is more suited to their aspirations. Reversing this trend means providing people with the prospects to lead such a life in their own country and, as the experiences of many countries struggling with similar problems testify, it is a hellishly difficult and enduring process. And when it is hindered, through misdirected measures, that wave rises. Our respondents offer different ideas about what can and should be done.


Slavica Đukić DejanovićSlavica Đukić Dejanović Ph.d.
Minister Without Portfolio Responsible for Demography and Population Policy

Fewer Differences and More Opportunities for All

The road to transforming the brain drain into capital is gradual and requires the efforts of the entire society. This is one of the priorities of the government of the Republic of Serbia, which recognises the full seriousness of the migration phenomenon and its consequence

Population migration is among the most difficult demographic phenomena to predict and measure. This part of the everyday reality of modern society cannot be prevented by any country, which is why it is necessary for us all to work together to create an environment that will encourage young people to stay or come to our country, in order to achieve their personal and professional dreams and goals. Simultaneously, there should be consideration for those young people who do not plan to return to Serbia, whose knowhow, skills, experience, business contacts and financial resources could represent Serbia’s development potential.

I would remind readers that, according to the results of the last Census of 2011, approximately 150,000 Serbian our citizens, with an average age of 28.7, moved abroad in the period from 2002 to 2011, and almost every fifth person among them had a college degree or higher school diploma. Starting on the basis of this information, the Cabinet that I lead – in cooperation with the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, the University of Belgrade Faculty of Geography and the NGO ‘Centre for Life – For Us to Be More’ – conducted some research connected with migration.

It is necessary for us all to work together to create an environment that will encourage young people to stay or come to our country, in order to achieve their personal and professional dreams and goals

The conclusion we have drawn from the research is that there is a need to change the circumstances that compel young people to leave our country, i.e. to increase their motivation to remain in Serbia. This can only be achieved through the creation of a favourable living environment, both at the level of local self-government units and at the level of the state, the environment in which young people use their acquired knowledge, realise successful professional careers, have adequate conditions for scientific research work and, first and foremost, can live from their work.

Respondents also cited several priority areas that they consider the state should take care of in the coming period, and those include: raising living standards, creating jobs, fighting crime and corruption, improving healthcare coverage. All of the aforementioned are undoubtedly among the priorities of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, which recognises the full seriousness of the migration phenomenon and its consequences, starting from demographic, to economic, social, cultural etc. We mustn’t forget that the road to transforming the brain drain into capital is gradual and requires the efforts of the entire society, from the state to every family and individual. We are now laying the cornerstone of a future society in which future generations will live in a world of reduced differences and greater opportunities for all, and in which young people will not only leave Serbia, but will also arrive.


Mihail Arandarenko, Ph.d.Mihail Arandarenko, Ph.d.
Professor, Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade

The Wrong “Medicines” Speed Up Emigration

Relatively large tax breaks for returnees are generally positive, but will have only a limited effect, while the chance is missed to direct and channel short-term migration through interstate cooperation between national employment services

Serbia’s most important export product is labour and not – as is commonly presumed – steel, automobiles or raspberries. Some 15 per cent of people who were born in Serbia have been living abroad for more than a year, which is five times the world average. On the other hand, remittances from foreign countries add almost 10% to Serbia’s GDP. At first glance, it could be said that those who have left manage to live well abroad and at the same time generously compensate for their absence those who stayed behind in the country.

Things are, however, slightly more complicated. Among immigrants born in Serbia, there are a large number who have lost any significant connection with their country. On the other hand, a large part of remittances are comprised of the earnings of those who aren’t even included in migrant statistics, because they spend less than a year abroad. These short-term migrations are more often circular, occurring year after year.

There is another, rapidly growing category of ‘migrants’ – so-called telemigrants, or digital migrants. They live in Serbia, but they work for foreign clients via the internet, often using online platforms like Upwork. According to rough estimates, there are currently more than 20,000 telemigrants in Serbia for whom foreign clients are their primary source of income, which places the country at the top of the world rankings on a per capita basis. It is interesting, but also disturbing, that countries with high physical emigration also have a large number of telemigrants.

Instead of devising measures that would support telemigration as the best alternative to physical migration, the state leads a short-sighted policy of maximising public revenue, which is likely to result in the accelerated conversion of telemigrants into ‘real’ migrants

I think that Serbia should pay equal attention not only to ‘long-term’ migrants, but also to its residents who are involved in short-term migration and in telemigration.

Migration policy measures that have been undertaken or announced don’t provide much confidence. Relatively large tax breaks for returnees are generally positive, but will have only a limited effect, since they are of a temporary nature and aimed at those who have generally already chosen where they will spend their working careers. On the other hand, the government is not doing enough to direct and channel short-term migration through interstate cooperation between national employment services, precisely at a time when the main European destination countries are further liberalising access to their labour markets.

The hasty introduction of the ‘independence test’ (evidence that it is not hidden employment) has brought anxiety to the community of self-employed digital workers, most of whom are telemigrants. Instead of devising measures that would support telemigration as the best alternative to physical migration, the state leads a short-sighted policy of maximising public revenue, which is likely to result in the accelerated conversion of telemigrants into ‘real’ migrants.

Instead of this, the government could support the creation of a digital freelancing platform with both English and Serbian as working languages, targeting members of our business and scientific diaspora on the demand side and our telemigrants on the supply side. This would ensure everyone wins in the long run.


Nenad JevtovićNenad Jevtović
Director of the Institute for Development and Innovation

Battle for Every Individual

The almost shared response of the expert public when it comes to economic development and the improvement of material standing is the improvement of institutions. I wouldn’t deny that this is the best solution, but I believe that consideration should also be given to micro measures targeting individuals

Relevant domestic statistics on migration trends don’t exist, while international stats rely on OECD data, which estimates that approximately 245,000 people left Serbia in the 2012-2016 period. This means that an annual average of about 49,000 people emigrated from Serbia to OECD member countries. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the OECD’s data also covers temporary migrations, i.e. those temporarily leaving Serbia and then returning, and the average for this five-year period was approximately 33,000 temporary emigrants. On the basis of the aforementioned, we reach a figure on the net outflow of the population of Serbia totalling around 15,700 people annually.

Viewing that which represents the positive side of emigration, and about which accurate data is available, is money that is sent to Serbia from abroad (remittances). Serbia is among the top ranked European countries in this category, with about 2.6 billion euros arriving in Serbia in 2018, which accounts for around 6.2% of GDP. The society also bears the costs brought about by emigration. According to analysis carried out by the Institute for Development and Innovation, those costs amount to up to two billion a year, based on investments in educating those who leave and potential GDP lost.

Society bears the costs brought about by emigration. According to analysis carried out by the institute for development and innovation, those costs amount to up to two billion a year, based on investments in educating those who leave and potential gdp lost

According to one research project, the dominant reason for the departure of young people from Serbia is economic, and a desire to improve their material situation. The almost shared response of the expert public when it comes to economic development and the improvement of material standing is the improvement of institutions. I wouldn’t deny that this is the best solution, rather I would merely emphasise that it ignores the fact that building institutions requires a long time and the taking into account of historical, educational and cultural factors.

My personal view is that governments should have available proposed measures that have a micro approach and directly target the connecting of individuals from the motherland to emigration, in order to accelerate the flow of ideas and capital. In this way, there could be an improvement of situations like that of 2014 and 2015, where only three pre cent of the money sent to Serbia through remittances was used to invest in business. Turning to micro measures, targeted towards individuals, can turn the brain drain into a brain gain in the short to medium term. It is worth noting that the micro approach does not ignore the development of high-quality institutions as a key factor of economic and social development in the long term, which is the key to people staying in their home county.


Vladimir GrečićVladimir Grečić Ph.d.
Professor, Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade

Democracy Against the Brain Drain

The closer Serbia moves towards EU membership, the more emigration there will be. Even if demand for labour in the EU were to decline, the selection of personnel would strengthen at the expense of Serbia, by absorbing the highest quality and most sought after profiles of workers

The term “Brain Drain” was first used in 1958 by the British Royal Society (to refer to the emigration of scientists and engineers to the U.S.). Migration is actually determined by push and pull factors. It primarily concerns differences in levels of income, access to the labour market, finding suitable jobs; in conditions for advancement in a profession, access to high-quality education, the level of construction of overall infrastructure, in the level of living standards, institution building, the rule of law, levels of corruption and crime, security.

The average number of emigrants departing Serbia annually almost doubled from 2007 to 2017, from 27,000 to 48,000. Of them, approximately 15 per cent are highly educated + highly qualified. Information on returnees is not available.

However, the closer Serbia moves towards EU membership, the more emigration there will be. Should demand for labour in the EU decline, the selection of personnel would strengthen at Serbia’s expense. It would absorb the highest quality and most sought after profiles of workers. Talented people are the drivers of innovation, and innovation is the basis for increasing an economy’s productivity and competitiveness.

It rarely happens that people migrate in just one direction. Who returns? Returnees are: (1) unsuccessful (Return of failure); (2) conservative (Return of conservatism); (3) retirees (Return of retirement); (4) Innovators (Return of innovation), who are interested in developing their country of origin. The term innovator returnee is equivalent to the term brain gain. The latest census of the Serbian population showed that the largest number of returnees are actually retirees.

The executive government, through public policies directed towards reducing the impetus factor of emigration, should act continuously to strengthen the capacity to retain and attract experts from abroad, I.E. For the circular migration process

If emigration is excessive, its effects will be negative for both the economy and society. The effects of the brain drain include, but are not limited to, the following losses: loss of tax revenue; loss of potential future entrepreneurs; loss of important, skilled workers; loss of confidence in the economy; loss of innovative ideas and money invested in education; and the loss of critical health and educati on services.

What is the state’s response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration? More effective management of migration, especially the risks they carry. These relate to public policies with which the environment is created for the more rational use of human potential for the purposes of development. Public policies are defined as “whatever governments choose to do or not to do” (Thomas Dye, 1987).

The executive government, through public policies directed towards reducing the impetus factor of emigration, should act continuously to strengthen the capacity to retain and attract experts from abroad, i.e. for the circular migration process. Mitigating emigration is achieved by: (1) building and strengthening institutions; (2) securing the sustainable development of the economy and society; (3) harmonising the education system with the needs of the economy; (4) adapting the education system to new technological changes, as a strategy for engaging in the division of labour in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

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