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Kosovo's brain drain: How the skills exodus impacts society

Vjosa Cerkini in Pristina
June 25, 2023

Germany is popular with young Kosovar job seekers. A new law now makes it easier for skilled workers from non-EU countries to come to Germany. Will this accelerate Kosovo's brain drain?

A tractor drives along an empty street in the city of Gjakova, Kosovo
Empty shops and quiet streets: the centre of the city of Gjakova in KosovoImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

It's 8:30 a.m. in Gjakova, one of the most picturesque cities in Kosovo. As she unlocks the door to the Opportunity language school on the outskirts of the city's bazaar, 32-year-old Eljesa Beqiri has a broad smile on her face.

Although she is a qualified journalist, Beqiri has never actually worked in the profession. Instead, she works as a coordinator at the language school, where she organizes German courses. She is one of the few young people in Gjakova — and indeed Kosovo — who don't want to go abroad.

Almost all the school's pupils have set their sights on migrating to Germany or another German-speaking country. The main attractions are the wages paid in Germany and the country's social security and health systems — all of which are much better than in Kosovo.

Eljesa Beqiri sits outside a cafe in Gjakova, Kosovo
Beqiri organizes German courses at a language school in Gjakova. Most of the pupils at the school want to emigrate to GermanyImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Beqiri is single and lives with her mother and her youngest brother in Gjakova, which has a population of 40,000 and is situated in the southwest of the country. Her other brother emigrated to Germany seven years ago. All six of her father's brothers live there.

She is more than content to stay at home: "I would never go to Germany because I like speaking Albanian, and it's where my friends are," she says. "I like the mentality here. I have friends no matter where I go in Kosovo. And anyway," she adds with a wink, "I don't want to marry a German."

Low wages in Kosovo

The average monthly income in Kosovo is only about €300 ($330). For most young people in Kosovo who still live with their parents, €300 is just enough to live on. They cannot afford to go on holiday or get sick. If a major medical operation or treatment is needed, the whole family chips in.

Eljesa Beqiri opens the door to the Opprtunity language school in Gjakova, Kosovo
Although she is a qualified journalist, Beqiri has never actually worked in the professionImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Beqiri used to depend on the support of her bother in Germany. But for three years now, she has been earning good money in the language school and together with the income of the other family members, who all have jobs, they have enough to live comfortably. "Kosovars believe that money grows on trees in Germany and they just have to harvest it," she says, summing up the pupils' view of Germany.

The vast majority want to leave

Every year, about 340 people take courses at the Opportunity language school and almost every one of them wants to emigrate. A small number stay in the country and use their German skills, working in call centers for companies like the Bambus Group, which is registered in Hamburg and provides customer services in the telecommunications sector in 36 languages.

Empty shops in Gjakova, Kosovo
Emigration is taking its toll on business in Kosovo: Many shops in Gjakova have closed in recent years as owners have moved abroadImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Gjakova's pretty Old Quarter is full of shops, cafes and restaurants. Already, some shops in the pedestrian area have closed down. Posters indicate that new tenants are welcome; the former owners have obviously emigrated. Beqiri is afraid that if things go on like this for another ten years, the rest of the shops in the Old Quarter will close down, too.

Few prospects for nurses in Kosovo

Arlinda Ramaj also comes from Gjakova and is typical of the people who learn German at Opportunity. She is 27 years old and a qualified nurse. There are very few opportunities for nurses in Kosovo, which doesn't have a proper health system. She is learning German and hopes to move to Germany soon to work as a nurse. "I am attracted by the higher standard of living, the opportunities and the higher salaries. If I could find a well-paid job here, I would stay," she says.

Arlinda Ramaj outside a café in Gjakova, Kosovo
Arlinda Ramaj is a qualified nurse who wants to move to Germany for workImage: Vjosa Çerkini/DW

Her brother has been in Germany for a year, where he works as a waiter in a restaurant. Even though he trained as an accountant in Kosovo, Ramaj says that he is happy with his job and income. Ramaj's sister, who is currently preparing for her final school exams, wants to emigrate to Germany later, too.

Emigration on the rise

Lirim Krasniqi, co-founder of Germin, an NGO that focuses on the Albanian diaspora, knows all about emigration. "I could talk about it all day," he says, indicating how much there is to say on the subject.

According to the Kosovo Office of Statistics, 15,000-20,000 Kosovars left the country every year a decade ago. In the last five years, this figure has risen and is now estimated to have reached 30,000 per annum.

Kosovo is losing vital skills

"The economic impact is huge, because most emigrants are young, aged between 24 and 35. Kosovar companies are now noticing that there is a shortage of skilled workers here," Krasniqi SAID. "This is why the wages have risen. In the long term, however, Kosovo is losing the most vital part of its society. The health sector is taking the biggest hit, not least because of the length of time it takes to train people."

No future: Young people in Kosovo

Kosovo's government does not have a strategy for dealing with emigration. Countries such as Germany are seeking to recruit workers and are opening doors, in particular to young people from the Balkans. Berlin has just reformed the Skilled Immigration Act, which was designed to make it easier for skilled workers from non-EU countries to work in Germany.

How can Kosovo respond?

Kosovo cannot compete with what Germany has to offer in the short term. Its university graduates are studying for unemployment, says Krasniqi, who goes on to say that "Kosovo must reform its education system so that graduates have a chance here, too."

He also has an idea about how to respond to the brain drain: "Germany should pay Kosovo compensation for the training that skilled workers get here. This compensation could take the form of investment."

Some come back

Not everyone emigrates for good; some stay away for just a few months or years. Vlora Ramadani is 33 and works at the Opportunity language school. She teaches German 11 hours a day, Monday to Saturday.

All her pupils are determined to emigrate. They are part of the 30,000 that dream of success in Germany. But after 11 years in Germany, Ramadani is happy to be back in Kosovo. "I like how easy-going life is here. I don't need a car; everything is close by; I can walk wherever I need to go. In Germany, everything is hectic. It's all work, work, work," she says.

Both she and Beqiri earn a good living because there are so many young people in Kosovo who feel differently and are determined to emigrate.

This article was originally published in German.

A young woman (Vjosa Cerkini) with long black hair
Vjosa Cerkini Reporter focusing on Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries