How to Manage Migration in the Western Balkans?

Some birds fly south for winter, driven by the need for warmth and food in milder climates. They face neither physical borders nor restrictions on their movement. The situation for most of humanity, however, is much less straightforward — not least on the fringes of Europe.

The Western Balkans sits on a fault line of ethnic and religious tensions. The histories of Albania and Serbia among others are deeply marked by wars — wars that have sparked waves of migration over the centuries. Yet nowadays migration in and from the region is driven less by political unrest than by mass unemployment, linked in part to the Eurozone crisis.


The region has high rates of youth unemployment, around 50 per cent in some areas, making life tough for graduates who are ready to join the labour market. With no jobs at home, migration is a solution for some; but for many others it’s a legal and logistical nightmare.

While most EU citizens enjoy free movement across EU borders, Balkan nationals face restrictions on living and working in the EU. Some try to circumvent formal channels, migrating for example without official documents. Taking this route some fall prey to criminal gangs — doubling the pressure on themselves and the respective governments.

In recent years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has partnered with National Employment Services in the region to set up a network of Migration Service Centres (MSC). These are funded by the EU’s MIDWEB project, on which we recently carried out an evaluation.

Every week large numbers of young people come to these centres in search of jobs and to collect social welfare payments. The centres also provide information to potential migrants, including details of summer jobs in the EU, which can earn Balkan students enough to fund a year of education back home.aIMG_0530

Destination countries may worry that programmes like this might encourage mass migration; sending countries may fear the fallout of ‘brain drain’. Yet both are missing the point. The MIDWEB project is not designed to promote migration, but rather to inform potential migrants about opportunities for legal migration while stressing the dangers of illegal border crossing.

Whatever your personal views on migration, vulnerable people need a coordinated, constructive and proactive policy to help them make informed choices and avoid needless risks. This may well be the only logical approach in the current political and economic climate.

By Elaine McGregor, Project Coordinator at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and Vivianne van der Vorst, Migration Research Consultant at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. Images by Elaine McGregor.