If attempts are made to accommodate them in a planned fashion in Belgrade or its surroundings, the economic destiny of refugees from the Middle East, or even Asian and African ones, would be uncertain providing that these persons were not granted EU residence
COMMENT by ALEKSANDAR SIMURDIĆ, Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia
The refugee crisis, in fact, uncontrolled economic migration, became an obvious problem for Europe in 2015; a problem that has since turned into a constant political and security challenge. It is true that the populous countries, i.e. the “old” EU members, give the impression that their political and economic establishment can, at least for the time being, cope with such an enduring challenge of the migrant wave. On the other hand, in Central and Eastern European countries, the new EU member states are not even trying to create any, let alone temporary, illusion, and especially not a real possibility of immigration, under the guise of defending universal human rights and humanity. It seems that the so-called Western Balkan countries are currently providing the most sincere assistance to the tides of people coming from even more miserable parts of humanity, in line with their rather most financial capabilities. Although, and due to their own, quite recent experiences with refugees, their support for migrants has been sincere, that very support comes with a certain rationale. Namely, there is a general opinion in the region that refugees will use this part of the world solely as a transit route to the west of Europe, therefore have no intention of settling here, especially not permanently. The rational basis for this belief lies in the fact that the Western Balkan countries are so economically devastated and their populations are largely impoverished so that refugees will not enjoy much better living conditions than those back at home. The dayto- day increasingly alarming data on the mass economic migration of the Western Balkans population in the direction of the EU seem to validate the unattractiveness of countries in the region for non-European migrants. However, some think that the accelerated demographic depletion of the Western Balkans, which is equally characteristic of the EU’s marginal members, Croatia and Bulgaria, could be a long-term solution for the accommodation of refugees, that is, uninvited economic migrants, who were not allowed to move into the EU territory. Such opinions are based on an estimate that demographically depopulated areas and the ageing population would particularly affect parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, but also Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and even Kosovo, which is very significant since this area had the highest birth rate in Europe in the last fifteen years. All these areas could be economically revitalized by the prolonged or even permanent settlement of non-European refugees. While assessing whether there is a realistic basis to opinions about a permanent solution of the refugee problem, we would like to point out to a few more or less known facts. Let’s talk first about the size of the population in the Western Balkans, and in the countries that refugees are usually coming to. The total population of the Western Balkans is about 18 million and is currently the same as the total population of Syria. Iraq’s population is double that – about 38 million people. According to data from November 2019, the outflow of the population from Serbia is approximately 140 persons a day; that is 50,000 people annually. At that pace, Serbia could have lost close to 400,000 people in the past eight years, not counting the natural demographic influx and outflow, which has been disproportionate in Serbia for quite some time. Let’s start with an imaginary assumption that the population of Syria and Iraq has been declining since 2011 at the same rate that is happening in Serbia today due to economic emigration. The population decline in Syria alone would amount to over 1 million people, and together for Syria and Iraq, to nearly 3 million people, almost 50% of the total current population of Serbia, or close to 20% of the total population of the Western Balkans. We have taken into account only a minimal estimate, with no refugees actually emerging from the Syrian civil war and only the two smallest and most common countries of origin of migrants coming to Europe. If we consider other countries where refugees and migrants are coming from, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, then it is significant to note that their total population is around 300 million. If only 5% of their population ended up as refugees or economic migrants in 2011, and if all of them headed for Europe, that would constitute a group of 15 million people wanting to enter Serbia and other Western Balkan countries. In doing so, we did not take into account Egypt, which has been suffering from a perpetual political crisis and which still has a permanent, albeit, for the time being, and fortunately, still latent conflict between the military-political establishment and the opposition that is the Muslim Brotherhood. The question, however, is whether open clashes between the two groups can be avoided in the future, which would result in a massive refugee tide. Egypt currently has about 95 million inhabitants, with 95% of them living in the area stretching from the mouth of the Nile to the Mediterranean and upstream along the coast. Egypt’s average population density of 1540 people per square kilometre is higher than in Bangladesh, where the population density is 1252 per square kilometre. In the desert part of Egypt, the population is much smaller and amounts to 96 people per square kilometre, but only 5% of the total population lives there. If you think that that is not such a densely populated area, think again – it is almost the same as the average population density in Serbia; close to 90 people per square kilometre. At the same time, Serbia is the most densely populated country in the Western Balkans, except for Kosovo (if viewed separately). It is quite telling that Bosnia and Herzegovina has an average population density of 66 people per square kilometre. The percentage of the urban population in the countries that usually produce refugees is not smaller but is often even higher than in the Western Balkan countries. Thus, the share of Syrian urban population in the total population is about 58%, which is the same as in Albania (58.38%), or even more than in Serbia, where the urban population makes up about 56% of the country’s total population. In Iraq, this percentage is higher and stands at 69.97%, which is higher than in Montenegro, where the percentage of urban population is the highest in the Western Balkans and stands at 64.20%. If we assume that Bangladesh, with only 38.6% of the urban population, or Pakistan, with 39.22%, are countries with the pronounced rural population, we should bear in mind that the percentage of the urban population in Bosnia and Herzegovina is almost the same and it stands at 39.9%. The data on percentages of the urban population cited here, which seem modest for our region, is based on the World Bank’s estimates. With all this in mind, it is wrong to think that massive domestication from the war and/or poverty-stricken countries of Asia and the Middle East would be possible, in that the refugees/migrants would settle in the desolate rural parts of the Western Balkans. As we have shown by statistical facts, the refugee-migrant population is, on average, even more urban, or in any case not more rural than the Western Balkans average. It is hard to expect, therefore, that the average migrant from Syria, Iraq, or Pakistan would be able to permanently and successfully settle in the desolate villages of Serbia or Bosnia, even if they received substantial financial assistance from the EU to engage in agriculture or food processing. Refugees have a completely different social background. They are former shop owners, administrative workers, police officers, soldiers, intellectuals or students, and may even come from urban slums, but they are certainly not farmers. Even if they are farmers, they are certainly not growers. Provided that they had cattle, then it is safe to assume they were not pig farmers, considering the religious context of the societies from which they came. It is unlikely that they were breeding cows that require a lot of water and vegetation, precisely what is lacking in the Middle East or Central Asia. If some migrants were livestock breeders before, they are more likely to have been sheep or goat farmers, which is the kind of livestock that is relatively underrepresented in most Western Balkan countries. We should especially bear in mind the following information – the average age of the population in Egypt is 24, in Syria the same, and in Iraq, the average age is just above 20. In Pakistan, it is 22, while in Bangladesh, the average population age is only 26, which is considered the oldest. In Serbia, the average age is close to 41. In rural areas, the population is even older and it cannot be the demographic basis for the socialization and integration of young migrants. It is quite impossible for the extremely young migrants, whose age is well below the population’s average in their respective countries, to voluntarily agree to live in abandoned rural areas in the Western Balkans. Therefore, migrants in the Balkans cannot be successfully socialized and productively employed in agriculture. Massive and successful permanent housing and relatively successful socialization of migrants outside major cities are not possible. Large cities, with their demographics and economy, provide an opportunity for economically meaningful employment of refugees, at least in perspective. However, there are simply no such cities in the Western Balkans. Belgrade is an exception, but the capital of Serbia, with its unstoppable internal migration, is rapidly showing all signs of overpopulation. If attempts are made to accommodate them in a planned fashion in Belgrade or its surroundings, the economic destiny of refugees from the Middle East, or even Asian and African ones, would be uncertain providing that these persons were not granted EU residence. At the same time, there would be an increased possibility of social conflict with the indigenous population, which is in the majority and in an unfavourable economic situation. Nobody should entertain an illusion that the Western Balkans is the solution to the migrant crisis; unless we view this problem in an isolated manner, that is, the same as the Pacific Islands that accommodate those who have been unlucky in life. In the countries of our region, and political and social space in general, there is no readiness for such an approach, except for certain corrupt individuals who will not be able to successfully implement the project that is to isolate and quarantine migrants in the Western Balkans.