Intervention of Ms. Dafina Peci at the April 2022 Balkans Leadership Conference

Civil Society Impulse for a Systematic Approach Towards Migration: A New Narrative for the Western Balkans

Context: Characteristics of Emigration in the Western Balkans

When it comes to the Western Balkans (WB), migration is one of the most pressing issues, as high numbers of emigrants leave every year, many heading towards EU countries. Huge migration flows appeared for the first time in the 1990s and the developments of that era seem to have influenced even the current situation. Characterized by regime turnover, political instability, and economic difficulties, the WB region produced a huge number of migrants and asylum seekers especially towards Eastern and Central Europe.[1] At that time, the migration flows were not only characterized by forced movements, but also migrants seeking better employment opportunities abroad.

The WB6 region that includes Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo has traditionally been a source of labor migration with the exception of Albania, which was closed during the period of communist rule from 1945 to 1990, while former Yugoslavia exported low skilled labor to Germany and other Western European economies since the 1960s. According to the statistics, the total number of emigrants from the WB6 region doubled from 2.2 million in 1990 to 4.4 million in 2015, which is equivalent to 24% of the region’s population in 2015.[2] Since then emigration continued, but unfortunately the data availability does not account for the current situation, as figures are not available for each specific country of the region.[3]

One of the main factors leading to labor migration from the Balkans remains the high levels of unemployment, especially among young people aged 15-30. Even though there has been a slight improvement of employment rates, youth unemployment remains high in the WB6 region in comparison to the EU countries. According to a recent World Bank report (2016)[4] on youth employment in the WB, many young people fall under the NEET classification (not in education, employment, or training) and young women in particular face difficulties to enter the labor market. Moreover, the transition from school to work remains a particular challenge for young people in the region. The available data show that, on average, it takes 21 months for a young person in Montenegro to find their first job, 24 months in Serbia, and 25 months in North Macedonia[5].

Another issue which limits this study and several others conducted before is the availability of data in order to have a good quality of comparative analysis. It is difficult to quantify international migration, since different countries have different methods of measurement. The ethnic wars in former Yugoslavia greatly reduced the availability and the quality of migration statistics. Furthermore, the economic and social problems of the transition period made for an unfavorable climate for the organization and implementation of a complex recording system for this phenomenon. Finally, other problems have arisen from more recent migration flows, in which informal, irregular or illegal flows have become increasingly important.[6]

Mass emigration has a severe impact on the public sector (health care, primary and higher education, science, and public administration); however, what often remains untold is that emigration also has the potential to bring much needed vigor, human capital exchange, and transfer of know-how. The evidence shows that many emigrants would be willing to contribute to their home country – in some cases, even return for a certain period of time or permanently – provided that the conditions back home improved, primarily in socio-economic but also political terms. Circular migration schemes are rare and often understate the real potential which the diaspora can generate. The Western Balkans lack systematic data about their diaspora, their skill sets, locations, preferences, competences, and interests. However, the available data show that the returning emigrant earns a 7% higher salary relative to people with similar qualifications and experience who have never lived abroad.[7]

People leaving the WB are often perceived to be hard working in the receiving states and to possess a great potential if they choose to return. They are able to transmit knowledge, positive practices, and intercultural exchange, but current policies do not enable their return. The payment gap, instability, and lack of infrastructure are some of the reasons that many migrants list as reasons not to return. The current policy framework leaves little space for understanding the future developments of migration as there are varied developments from country to country. If the WB governments and other stakeholders strengthen cooperation and express goodwill for solving this issue by creating opportunities, enabling stability, and creating a friendly environment for emigrants to come back, the regional dynamics might experience many positive developments both in social and economic terms.[8]

The Need for National and Regional Coordination and Cooperation on the Issue of Migration

This paper aims to give a brief overview of existing migration policies in the Western Balkans and to assess the roles of civil society and regional initiatives regarding this issue. Special attention is paid to the potential that civil society organizations possess to improve the migration situation in the Western Balkans and how this potential could be turned into possible solutions.

Until now national strategies have regulated migration on the national level. The table below gives an overview of the national strategies of the WB countries on migration.[9]


1. National Strategy on Migration 2019-2022.  

2. IBM[10] Strategy and Action Plan 2014-2020

3. National Strategy on the Fight against Trafficking in Human Beings 2018-2020

Bosnia and Herzegovina

1. Strategy in the Area of Migration and Asylum and Action Plan 2016-2020

2. IBM Strategy and Action Plan 2015-2018

3. Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking 2013-2015 and Action Plan 2016-2019


1. National Strategy on Migration and Action Plan 2019-2023

2. IBM Strategy 2019-2023

3. National Strategy against Trafficking in Human Beings in Kosovo 2015-2019


1. Strategy on Integrated Migration Management 2017-2020

2. IBM Strategy 2014-2018

3. Strategy on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings 2019-2024

North Macedonia

1. Resolution on Migration Policy and Action Plan 2015-2020

2. National IBM Development Strategy 2015-2019

3. National Strategy on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and illegal Migration 2017-2020


1. Strategy on Combating Irregular Migration 2018-2020 and Migration Management Strategy 2009

2. IBM Strategy 2017-2020

3. Prevention and Suppression of Trafficking in Human Beings 2017-2020

However, the dynamics of migration defer from the national ones. Besides state institutions, which are the main regulatory bodies of migration policies on the national and international level, international organizations and local civil society organizations (CSOs) in the WB region have a complementary role and huge impact on the work with migrants. However, more cooperation is needed among national governments, international organizations, and other stakeholders which have a say on migration issues.

The cooperation between different stakeholders such as government representatives, donors, academia, civil society, and the business sector could create sustainable grounds for the improvement of the migration situation. This could include migrant education, employment, and integration into the receiving countries. Even though the freedom of movement is a fundamental freedom for the people living in democratic countries, uncontrolled movement can present a problem in the relations among states and among different minorities. As a result, a cross-sector approach towards migration and better cooperation between donors and businesses is needed, in order to ensure a sustainable budget for upcoming initiatives. A systematic approach to addressing common problems, inter-governmental cooperation, and civil society dialogue in a cross-border perspective are key elements for a potential solution.

The inclusion of think tanks and activist organizations in decision-making is traditionally low in the WB, at both the local and national level. Activist organizations, think tanks, business associations, trade unions, and other potential non-governmental participants need to increase their capacities, clearly formulate policy proposals and interventions, and advocate for the adoption of these proposals. In order for this to happen, more support is needed from federal institutions to consider recommendations from CSOs and to involve them in joint meetings and initiatives.[11]

Public stakeholders should consider and integrate the work of non-governmental actors when drafting their strategic papers and documents, especially in the preparatory phase. This preparatory phase might include desk research, collection of primary and secondary data, and analysis of the current situation, as non-governmental actors are often specialized in analysis and field work as they work directly with migrants and stakeholders. This way, state actors would involve civil society organizations in their daily work, increase the number of stakeholders and opinions, and save some expenses that are spent on the same work CSOs do daily. Also, cooperation among interstate actors and initiatives on the regional level should be better coordinated to avoid job overlapping and repetition.

Promising Regional and Civil Society Initiatives in Addressing the Emigration Challenge

There exist several regional and civil society initiatives that either directly or indirectly target the challenge of emigration. The Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative (MARRI) is an important regional inter-governmental initiative with all WB countries as its members. It is a regional mechanism with the core mandate to support the WB region in migration management. It was established in 2004 in the context of the Stability Pact within the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) and since 2008 it has six participants: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The Secretariat of the MARRI Initiative (MARRI Regional Centre) is based in Skopje.[12]

Other initiatives working on the migration issue have been developed with the aim of providing cooperation and joint solutions. An important initiative on the regional level is the WB-MIGNET (Migration Network). It is an initiative of seven WB think tanks that have operated in the field of migration for many years. Established in 2015 this network’s first activity was the development of an observatory for the WB, an online platform for policy makers, researchers and donors interested in migration in the WB countries. The daily work of WB-MIGNET is related to research (research projects, consultancy and advisory services); capacity building (trainings, summer schools, introduction and improvement of migration related curricula in collaboration with universities), and information dissemination including conferences, workshops, webinars, publications, and promotional activities.[13]

MARRI and WB-MIGNET especially contribute in the fields of research, capacity building and providing recommendations to state institutions. These initiatives are promising because they are very important for analyzing, monitoring, reporting, and training stakeholders who deal with migration issues, as well as migrants themselves. In addition, WB-MIGNET has close relations with universities, providing trainings, summer schools and curricula related to the improvement of the migration situation, which address the issue in the long-term.

The Regional Economic Area (REA), the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), and the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) are other existing initiatives that can contribute to preventing or mitigating emigration from the region. Their projects mainly have to do with the improvement of standards of living on the national and regional level through bilateral agreements, investing in strategic sectors, increasing civic awareness and calling on people, especially youth, to stay in their countries and invest their capacities. Their projects especially target the labor migrants, by supporting self-employment initiatives, capacity building in skills and knowledge, and exchange of experiences and know-how. Their common goal is to fight youth migration and brain drain, and contribute to brain gain, attraction of foreign investments, and facilitation of cooperation among existing stakeholders.

The Regional Economic Area is an interstate initiative on the regional level with the aim to create a common area where goods, services, investments, and workers can move between borders without obstacles. It also contributes to the creation of a single market and to raising the competitiveness with the EU market. This relates to the migration issue by addressing the push factors that motivate migrants to leave.[14]

The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) aims to contribute to the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of South Eastern Europe by developing the region from within. The RCC works to develop and maintain a political climate of dialogue, reconciliation, tolerance and openness towards cooperation, with a view to enabling the implementation of regional programs aimed at economic and social development to the benefit of the people in the region. So far, the implemented projects are Roma Integration 2020, ESAP (Employment and Social Affairs Platform), Tourism Development and Promotion, and the Western Balkan Youth Lab Project.[15]

RYCO is an independently functioning institutional mechanism, founded by the WB6 countries, aimed at promoting a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation between youth in the region through youth exchange programs. This indirectly contributes to the improvement of youth migration as they create possibilities of mobility which are especially important for learning new things and sharing best practices without the need to permanently leave the country. The establishment of RYCO is seen as a victory for youth organizations and initiatives, and a major achievement for young people within the framework of the Berlin Process. All national reports focus on RYCO and discuss its effects on their respective countries. While underlining the success of establishing RYCO, national reports also allude to certain risks in the implementation of RYCO programs and activities. For example, it is stressed that the regional cooperation for youth should be more oriented towards inclusiveness and concrete activities, while at the same time developing monitoring mechanisms to maintain and develop independence from political interference. So far, RYCO has successfully implemented four projects on capacity building, enhancing youth cooperation in the WB6, mobility programs, and the WB6 Lab.[16]

  • The “WB6 LAB” is a project which aims to foster reconciliation of youth in the WB through the promotion and strengthening of social entrepreneurship in the region.
  • In order to fulfill its objectives but also contribute to the region, RYCO has implemented “ROUTE WB6,” a promising initiative to promote long-term and short-term cross border volunteering as a tool to reduce ethnic distance among young people in the region and strengthen pro-social and European values that will lead to reconciliation, stability and prosperity in WB6 region.
  • “Supporting the WB Collective Leadership on Reconciliation: Building Capacity and Momentum for RYCO,” is one of the projects that RYCO has implemented in the field of social cohesion and reconciliation. The main goal of this initiative was to encourage tolerant and peaceful behavior and avoid discrimination.
  • Another important initiative that RYCO started to implement is “Enhancing Youth Cooperation and Youth Exchange in the WB6” which not only creates new mobility opportunities for young people of the WB, but also increases their capacities and awareness toward RYCO’s work and the implementation of regional youth mobility projects.

The work of the above-mentioned actors and institutions is very important as they are the driving force working on migration issues in the region. However, their job needs to be sustained and further expanded even with other initiatives. Some of them operate with national funds and some others rely on international donors. The donor-finance based projects are faced with two issues: the lack of sustainability and the risk of dependencies. In these circumstances a greater focus by political leaders from the region is needed, not only to increase the funding but also to better cooperate with the existing actors in the migration field.

Time for a new narrative

All existing initiatives to some extent have contributed to improving the situation of migration especially in the WB countries. But a high number of initiatives alone does not guarantee outcomes and results. What is noticeable is that actors are isolated and not well-connected with each other – a fact that needs to change. Even though the work of CSOs in the region is impressive, there is still a need for better coordination among stakeholders and the implementation of initiatives to ensure sustainability and well-being, especially for the younger generations. The examples of achievements and good practices listed in the national reports are not presented in a systematic way. This does not allow for continuous learning and the designing of new programs and initiatives based on past practices. It also does not guarantee a comprehensive involvement of other stakeholders such as academia, civil society, and the business community.

When designing future strategies, a result-oriented approach should be adopted. Local ideas and forms of engagement should be put in the forefront of all activities. Best-practices should be described in depth and then analyzed in order to enhance the learning effect for future initiatives. Only a solid groundwork can properly back up the regional initiatives, and only an effective strategy on the regional level could make a considerable impact. This paper suggests the need for a new narrative that includes all actors dealing with migration under a common goal on the regional level, and puts forward several recommendations and ideas.

  • Improvement of the understanding of migration processes in the WB region;
  • Better statistics on labor migration and brain drain in the WB region, including a common approach for measurement in order to make data comparable between countries;
  • Mechanisms to support intraregional mobility throughout the WB;
  • Encouragement of circular migration
  • Bilateral cooperation between the diaspora and the country of origin, especially on external expertise, research and development, and sectors with a potential for development such as information and communication technology (ICT), tourism, agriculture, energy, education, and transport.


  • A Western Balkans Migration Index (WBMI) should be created. The WBMI should serve as a tool to measure migration policies in the Balkans, taking into consideration policy indicators. This project is extremely important for generating data that can be used by governments, civil society, and academia to compare existing policies and their effects on the regional level, and create new policies based on the results and needs of the people. The WBMI should also include indicators to track labor migration and brain drain, but also asylum seekers, immigrants, and transit refugees on the regional level, in order to have an all-encompassing approach towards migration.

The WBMI should include all WB6 states and should be co-financed by all of them and EU in order to assure sustainability and continuation of the project. However, this initiative should not only be state-based, as the contribution of civil society and academia is extremely important in designing and implementing multidimensional projects on national and regional level. The main goal of this project is to generate data on migration indicators and facilitate the data collection, analysis and comparison. The national governments should ensure data sharing and serve as regulatory bodies to properly implement migration policies and to integrate policy recommendations from other stakeholders.

  • Create Regional Sector Offices (interstate mechanisms) based on the RYCO model, but focus on specific sectors that have a great potential such as: research and development, digitalization, tourism, ICT, agriculture, transport, and energy. Online platforms created for each sector might regulate and better coordinate the work of involved actors.

The main work will focus on capacity building, assistance of stakeholders taking part in EU projects, and mobility programs for staff. These offices shall include all six WB states and 12 civil society organizations, 12 academic institutions, and 12 business representatives for each sector, respectively two representatives for each country. This way we contribute to a new governing and cooperation model based on inclusiveness and participation. National governments should finance this initiative, while other stakeholders can contribute based on a financial quota.

  • Create a Youth Resource Center to serve as a core mechanism for capacity building of youth organizations on the regional level, by aligning all youth policies, activities, and initiatives. This can serve as a regulatory mechanism between public and private stakeholders, and between local, national, regional levels and the EU level. It could be a joint initiative co-financed by states and other regional actors such as the RCC. The main work will focus on capacity building, development of regional projects in the field of youth, networking and aligning local and national policies with regional initiatives and EU acquis.
  • Create a Regional Business Center as a regional mechanism focused on start-up development, business capacity building programs, regional cooperation of business units, internationalization of markets, and raising competitiveness vis-à-vis EU markets. It should have a Head Office in one Western Balkan country and local branch offices in the others. The regional Head Office can serve as the main office for research and development, advocacy for the business community on the EU level, and coordination of programs among local branches. The national tasks would be capacity building, exchange of know-how, and mobility programs with EU countries, and among the WB countries themselves. It should be co-financed by EU and national governments.
  • Revitalize diaspora unions in order to share experiences and expertise among emigrants, and to reconnect migrants living abroad with their countries of origin. The creation of a Regional Diaspora Union with representatives from all national diaspora unions in order to foster cooperation and good relations, and to address common issues of concern of the Western Balkans region should also be considered. National governments, diaspora unions, and civil society organizations would be the main involved stakeholders. Project-based external funds might serve to implement joint initiatives and connect the diaspora with the country of origin.


Balkan Refugee and Migration Council. Common Western Balkan Maigration Policy: Borders and Returns.

BBC. (2016, March). Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts. BBC .

Corrado Bonifazi & Marija Mamolo. (2004). Past and Current Trends of Balkan Migration. In C. B. Mamolo, ESPACE, POPULATIONS, SOCIETIES (pp. 519-531). Roma: Istituto di Ricerche sulla Popolazione e le Politiche Sociali IRPPS.

EU Commision. (2015, October 25). Meeting on the Western Balkans Migration Route: Leaders Agree on 17-point plan of action. Brussels, Belgium. Retrieved from

European Commission. (2020). EU Commission. Retrieved from

International Institute for Peace. (2019). Young Generations for the New Balkans Vision 2030, Towards Alternative Horizons.

International Organization for Migration. (2019). World Migration Report 2018. Geneva.

Migration, Asylum, Refugee Regional Intitiative. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Nermin Oruč & Will Bartlett. (2018). Labor Markets in the Western Balkans: Performance, Causes and Policy Options. Sarajevo: Regional Cooperation Council.

Regional Youth Cooperation Office. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Regional Cooperation Council. (n.d.). Retrieved from

The Economist. (2020). World Democracy Index. The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.

Vracic, A. (2020, January 13). BIRN. Retrieved from

Western Balkans Migration Network. (n.d.). Retrieved from

World Bank . (2018). Western Balkans Labor Market 2018.

Živković, V. (2018, December 25). European Western Balkans. Retrieved from


[1] Bonifazi & Mamolo, 2004

[2]Mara & Oruč (2016) based on elaboration of UN Statistics: The World Population Prospects (2015)

[3] Oruč & Bartlett, 2018

[4]World Bank , 2018

[5]World Bank , 2018

[6]International Organization for Migration, 2019

[7]International Institute for Peace, 2019

[8]International Institute for Peace, 2019

[9]Balkan Refugee and Migration Council

[10]Integrated Border Management

[11]Nermin Oruč & Will Bartlett, 2018

[12]Migration, Asylum, Refugee Regional Intitiative

[13]Western Balkans Migration Network

[14]Regional Cooperation Council

[15]Nermin Oruč & Will Bartlett, 2018

[16]Regional Youth Cooperation Office




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