Capital Belgrade
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 381
Mobile Codes 60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67
ccTLD .rs
Currency Dinar (1EUR = 101RSD)
Land Area 88,361 sq km
Population 7.3 million (excl. Kosovo)
Language Serbian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Serbia’s Brain Drain, Brain Gain and Brain Circulation

By Maria-Antoaneta Neag and Hristina Dakić Editor’s note: Highly qualified young Serbs still tend to look towards other countries (mainly EU Member States) for employment opportunities. The following relevant article offers insight on the brain drain, brain gain and brain circulation phenomenon related to Serbia, and at Serbian government and other NGOs´ strategies for tackling this challenge (e.g. Programmes for return of Serbian scientists from abroad, youth sports programmes for the diaspora etc.).

An Outbound Trend

Migration trends in the Western Balkans increased during the wars that led to the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Today, other than some lingering ethnic conflicts, the economic situation represents the main reason for emigration.

The same applies to Serbia, which is unable to provide a sufficient development perspective to its youth. The situation has deteriorated because of the economic and financial crisis: unemployment reached 22.2% at the end of April 2011, while the public debt went up to 41.3% of GDP by the end of July.

These economic problems, combined with corruption and labour unrest, are the reasons why more and more young educated people possessing knowledge and technical skills prefer to emigrate or to continue their studies abroad (especially in EU countries), thus leaving Serbia with an unprecedented brain drain situation.

A Lack of Data

One of the difficulties encountered when trying to tackle this challenge is the lack of data (regarding the brain drain phenomenon only scarce data is available, both in the country of origin as well as in the country of destination). Those people leaving Serbia for studies abroad are not able to provide a definitive answer regarding the timeframe of their stay abroad, as most of them also aim to find employment in the country where they will study. According to the World Economic Forum and USAID, in 2009 Serbia was second to last (132 out of 133 countries) in brain drain, meaning that there is a critical situation due to the loss of its educated and skilled people. These circumstances may impact Serbia’s future development and its labor market. Although the situation is rather difficult, there are a lot of projects focusing on brain gain.

Government Aid and Interaction with Serbian Communities Abroad

To better manage the communication with its Diaspora, the Serbian government has put in place a special Ministry for Religion and Diaspora that focuses on specific programs, having among its prerogatives the responsibility to keep an active relationship with Serbian nationals living abroad, estimated at three to four million people by the Ministry for Religion and Diaspora in 2010.

The ministry makes efforts to open new schools for the Diaspora in Serbian language and Serbian Orthodox traditions, to organise and undertake visits to the Diaspora, to provide priority to Diaspora Serbs when trying to acquire new identification documents, and to promote special programmes facilitating summer jobs for students from the Diaspora.

The Law on Diaspora was adopted on October 26, 2009, came into force on November 5, 2009. It changed the legal grounds of the Serbian relationship with its nationals living abroad. This law also envisaged the creation of a Diaspora database, to collect information (on a voluntary basis, with protection of confidentiality promised).

Economic cooperation with the Diaspora is an important aspect that is enhanced with the help of this law. The special Diaspora ID helps the Serbians exercise their rights and apply for different forms of support.

Brain Gain Strategies and the NGO Sector

An important point was made by the Minister for Diaspora, Srdjan Sreckovic, speaking at the General Assembly of the Organisation of Serbian Students Abroad (OSSI). He noted that “human resources, or human capital, are Serbia’s greatest advantage in comparison with its neighbouring countries, and the only sector of society in which Serbia does not lag behind other nations.”

There are a great deal of brain gain strategies now underway in Serbia, among most important recent ones being the Strategy of Scientific and Technological Development of Serbia 2010-2015, the Strategy to Preserve and Strengthen the Relationship between Homeland and Diaspora, as well as Hmeland and the Serbs in the Region (Ministry for Diaspora) and the Migration Management Strategy (Commissariat for Refugees). However, concerns about the actual return of the highly qualified young people back to Serbia should be addressed.

There are also a lot of NGOs working on migration issues and assistance for return and Diaspora programmes. These include the NGO Grupa 484 and its programmes aiming at developing the systematic support of highly qualified people, and the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence-BFPE and its initiatives to improve the reputation of Serbia.

Initiatives for Brain Circulation

There are countries in Europe which are particularly experiencing the brain drain phenomenon, such as Serbia and Romania, losing their young talent to other states. Concurrently, there are countries enjoying the effects of brain gain, such as Austria and Germany, and the inflow of highly qualified workers on their labor markets (with the help of special legislation in this field).

Howecver, as anti-migrants feelings continue to increase throughout Western Europe, affecting the political discourse and power relations in various countries, the best solution for all stakeholders is to have strategies for brain circulation encouraging international studies and mobility, but also return to the country of origin.

For Serbia, an opportunity lies in developing constant cooperation, exchange of resources and know-how between scientific Diaspora and institutions in the home country, such as universities, research centres, business corporations and so on, with an aim to develop cooperation in the process of so-called brain circulation.

At present, the existing brain gain programmes focus on creating better working conditions for the highly qualified people (Ministry of Science and Technological Development), scholarships and mobility programs (Petnica Science Centre, University Centre for Career Development founded by Belgrade University, National Employment Service, Ministry of Youth and Sports etc.) and cooperation with the professional Diaspora and other forms of support for returnees (Serbian Unity Congress, Organisation of Serbian Students Abroad – OSSI, Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence-BFPE).

Common Efforts with Regional Partners

Some common efforts on brain gain have also been made in the region together with the countries around Serbia, such as Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro and the Republic of Macedonia. A regional conference on migration, Mobility and Emigration of Professionals: personal and social gains and losses,  has been held in Belgrade on November 26, 2010, with the aim of sharing experience and ideas for managing migration in these countries and seeking a regional response to the brain drain phenomenon.

The current cooperation in the region has been developed with financial support from the Balkan Trust for Democracy and the initiatives of NGOs: Grupa 484 (Serbia), European Movement in Albania (Albania), Academia (BiH), Center for Democracy and Human Rights (Montenegro) and the Center for Research and Policy Making (Macedonia).

Complications and Bureaucracy

Even though there have thus been a lot of efforts made to encourage the flow of highly qualified experts back to Serbia, this is often made rather complicated by the lack of institutional support. People who are willing to return to their home country face difficult bureaucratic procedures, and are frequently disappointed by the lack of support experienced throughout the process. Such burdens are often the engine that pushes them to leave Serbia forever.

Another challenge relates to the extremely complicated and lengthy procedure required for the recognition of foreign diplomas. The process can take up to a year and can be quite expensive. The lack of coordination between universities and responsible ministries is evident. The procedure differs in all universities across the country: in 15 universities there are 15 different requirements.

When it comes to employment, the main problem is the absence of a national framework for qualifications which leads to non-recognition of professions, simply because they are not listed in the system. It has to be noted that even some people who graduated specific majors in Serbian universities face this problem!

Students who finished interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary studies abroad face even more hardships because the Serbian educational system does not recognise those degrees. The government is challenged in its efforts to address this issue. Even though officials are showing the will to deal with this challenge, according to Vesti, it turns out that the issue is far more complicated than it seems. Nevertheless some non-governmental actors are underlining the need for a sustainable solution, pointing out the major negative impact of the diploma recognition obstacle on brain gain strategies.

A New Proposal and Initiative

The leaders of Grupa 484 had the initiative to establish systematic support for returnees who need their degree issued by foreign universities to be recognised in Serbia. Currently, this proposal is being drafted and developed in cooperation with organisation such as NALED, BFPE, Serbian City Club and some others, with the aim   of simplifying the procedure for recognition of diplomas and qualifications.

It is necessary to accelerate validation of diplomas obtained abroad, especially in prestigious European and world universities. It is preferable that through cooperation of university administrations in Serbia, a single list of the world and university centres is established for which diploma validation procedure is not necessary, but which will be automatically recognised taking into account the authority and reputation of the institution that has issued them.” – Recommendation by Grupa 484


Considering all these challenges, Serbian stakeholders – including the government -have realized the positive effects of brain circulation on the future development of the country. For that reason, they are stressing the need for cooperation with its Diaspora and exchange of knowledge across borders.

Thus the goal should be to stimulate the mobility of highly educated people and professionals preventing, at the same time, their outflow. In order to achieve this, it is not sufficient to encourage their return only in a symbolic way but also to provide all necessary conditions for the returnees’ inclusion into the labour market. A swifter process for recognising diplomas is just one of the institutional problems this country still needs to face.

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