Brain-drain dilemma for Bosnia

The war's over. But Bosnia has a battle on hand: how to keep disillusioned citizens at home?

Adis Dzaferagic is a bright, energetic, and ambitious young man who had planned to be in Sarajevo law school, preparing his career in the new Bosnia.

Instead, he spends his days and nights scurrying around a downtown restaurant, waiting tables to feed his pregnant wife and unemployed parents. He is among the many Bosnians desperately seeking another country where they might make a new life.

"I cannot see a future here," he says with an air of resignation. "It will be 10 or 15 years before the economy is working properly here. What am I meant to do in the meantime? However hard I think, I cannot see a good answer."

Nobody knows exactly how many Bosnians are leaving their country each year, or deciding not to return home from wherever they sought refuge during the 1991-'95 war that saw the breakup of Yugoslavia. But estimates run into the hundreds of thousands, and officials fear that the brain drain is robbing Bosnia of its future, just as it emerges from a horrific past.

"It's the professionals who leave most," says Frances Sullivan Michaels, who runs the local office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a Geneva-based intergovernmental agency that works closely with the United Nations in organizing mass evacuations. "Many feel that they will never be appreciated or find jobs that match their skills here, and they can find opportunities abroad."

"This is a dangerous process, and I worry a lot about it," says Ejup Ganic, president of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation. "The damage is that once our people go somewhere and find jobs, it is comfortable for them. But we want young people here to run the country."

Ms. Sullivan Michaels has been running a modest program to try to stem the flow. The IOM, which recently chartered the flight that took hostages from Britain back to Afghanistan - spent $8 million over the past three years to match 900 doctors, teachers, managers, and other professionals with decent jobs. That support bumped up their salaries to at least approach what they could earn abroad.

But the project is winding down, because of "falling donor interest," says Sullivan Michaels.

According to IOM figures, 170,000 Bosnian refugees have resettled abroad through official programs since 1992, but many others have left on their own initiative. President Ganic estimates that "we have lost about 250,000 Bosnians" who "won't come home," and that thousands more have left since the war ended. Bosnia's pre-war population was around 4 million.

The forces driving emigration

Those who leave are driven by a variety of motives, but most of the would-be emigrants say it is the moribund economy and lack of job prospects that have forced them to seek greener pastures. Unemployment in the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia is running at 40 percent, and at more than 50 percent in the Serb-controlled part of the country, economic analysts estimate.

Religious and political discrimination still frustrates many local ambitions, too. "You can come out of management school and go to a factory, and the manager will ask you who you vote for," says Robert Barry, head of the Sarajevo office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "If you vote for the wrong party, you'll never work there."

Diana and her husband, Alen, who asked that their real names not be disclosed, illustrate both of the forces driving emigration.

Diana, a young woman with a well-paid job that she likes, is of mixed Catholic-Croat and Muslim-Bosnian parentage. She was raised a Catholic, but is now married to a Muslim. "A mixed society is not possible in Bosnia again, she says. "I try to forgive and forget, but during the war I was shelled by the Serbs and threatened by my Muslim neighbors, and I am always among people who tell me that it is not forgettable."

Alen wants to leave for economic reasons: He worked once, briefly, after the war, but his employer went broke, and he sees little chance of finding a job in the immediate future.

The two are ready to do what it takes to get "as far from Bosnia as you can get," in Alen's words. Since refugees who had been imprisoned in Serb internment camps during the war stand the best chance of being accepted for resettlement in Australia, they obtained false papers testifying to their internment.

"We wouldn't be accepted otherwise," explains Diana. "They don't think what it's like for us here, or about what we want to become. I don't want to turn into someone in 10 years' time who judges other people by their religion."

Meanwhile, every year about 150 young Bosnians leave for the United States to study - many on full scholarships. Will they return home after graduation?

Luring migres back

President Ganic hopes so. He set up a foundation that offers free advice to young entrepreneurs trying to set up a business in Bosnia - a long and bureaucratically complicated business.

But he is the first to admit that this is not enough in a country where there is no functioning financial system and where more than a million of the people who fled during the war are still waiting to go home.

"We need a banking system that offers loans. We need seed capital. And most importantly, we need a full return of refugees," he says. "That would create confidence in the state - how can you convince people to invest here if you cannot even help people get their own homes back?"

Nearly one-third of Bosnia's population fled during the war, farmers, artisans, office workers, and professionals alike. "But it's the professionals who are the last to return," points out Sullivan Michaels, "because they have the most opportunities elsewhere. And they are just the ones who are needed to jump start the economy here, because they are the ones who move the engine."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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