Youth Exodus: Emigration, Nationalism, and the Fight for Progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Photo of the Sebilj fountain in the center of Baščaršija Square in Sarajevo. Photo taken by author in January 2024.

The European Union has just witnessed a strong surge in support for far-right and nationalist parties in the June 2024 EU Parliament elections. Parties such as France’s National Rally, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, and Italy’s Brothers of Italy, have all gained sweeping victories in the EU elections. This comes after months of speculation about the rising tide and (re)emergence of nationalism across EU member states. Across the pond, the electoral battle between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump also raises concerns about nationalism in the US context. Yet, while the EU and the US worry about nationalism in their respective corners, a country they helped rebuild faces a far more worrisome threat of nationalist politics. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a country whose political system was a product of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, has long struggled to overcome sectarian ethnic nationalism, a factor that has led to an annual emigration of 50,000 to 55,000 people. The Dayton Accords, which did bring an end to the Bosnian War, entrenched ethnic divisions within BiH’s political system, establishing two entities along ethnic lines (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska), as well as a tripartite Presidency consisting of a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb elected member.

Earlier this year, in March 2024, EU leaders agreed to formally open accession talks with BiH, a symbolic move that was welcomed by many in the country. However, in May 2024, the UN adopted a resolution designating 11 July as the “International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica,” sparking increased nationalist sentiment in Republika Srpska. In response, the Bosnian Serb government called on its citizens to “display the flags of Serbia and symbolically express their opposition to that [U.N.] document.” Such nationalist tensions are not new for BiH, a constituent country of former Yugoslavia that was torn apart (and put together) along ethnic lines. Milorad Dodik, the current President of Republika Srpska, has long called for the Serb entity’s independence; recent calls are stoking fears that this time he may be more serious. These nationalist sentiments are even more relevant in the context of a longstanding issue that threatens to exacerbate tensions: the emigration crisis.

Brain drain

Between 1992 and 1995, thousands of people fled their country to seek refuge from the atrocities and destruction of the Bosnian War. However, even though the war itself ended, the emigration crisis did not. In the decades since BiH has suffered from a demographic crisis attributed largely to the emigration of the country’s youth, a phenomenon that scholars refer to as a “brain drain.” According to a 2020 World Bank report, “half of BiH’s population has emigrated and it is likely that this trend will continue.” Additionally, according to a United Nations Population Fund survey, nearly half of BiH’s young people (18-29) say that they are thinking of temporarily or permanently leaving the country. Anes Hodžić, a recent graduate from the University of Sarajevo with a master’s in international relations, and a friend of the author, provides a first-hand confirmation of that: “Many of my colleagues have moved to Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, or the United Kingdom, and none are considering returning.”

This reality would be devastating for any country, but for a country that should be building back from ethnic nationalist violence, it is substantially worse, as it proves that the goal of a prosperous democratic society has not been realized. Lingering ethnic divisions, toxic nationalist politics, and a feeling of hopelessness in the face of political corruption have undermined economic growth and contributed to the conditions that have led to the current wave of emigration. Not only does the ethnic nationalist sentiment contribute to the emigration crisis, but In this environment, radicalization and ethnic nationalism are likely to intensify, as individuals with more democratic, liberal, and civic values continue to leave the country.

The loss of young people is particularly devastating given that the country is already facing other demographic challenges, such as an aging population and a low birthrate. Consequently, the reduction in working-age individuals places a greater strain on the country’s welfare system. This leads to a weaker economy for the remaining population, creating a downward spiral for BiH’s economy and society. This “feedback loop” creates an environment that encourages populist and nationalist sentiment, while also continuing to push the youth away. In BiH’s already ethnically entrenched politics, nationalist leaders are able to stoke such populist sentiments, as has been seen in other European democracies. Indeed, parties in BiH have already done this as the youth brain drain has emerged as a key issue.

The continued predominance of ethnic politics, combined with other factors, makes the future outlook for young people in BiH appear bleak. A divided society and a limited economy all work to contribute to this emigration crisis. While the free movement of people should be the right of every Bosnian to gain experience outside of their country, no person (especially young people) should feel that emigration is their only option. Young Bosnians are escaping a sense of hopelessness as they search for opportunities abroad. Hodžić points out that “going abroad for work was never as easy as today for young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of them are getting much better-paid jobs than they could ever get [here].”

The role of the EU in this crisis is also noteworthy. With its promise of free movement of people and more attractive welfare and economies, it could constitute a significant pull factor for many of BiH’s citizens, as Hodžić points out “the only way for us to stop this trend, in the long run, is to go through the necessary political and economic reforms and continue [BiH’s] path toward NATO and the European Union.” EU integration (and the economic and social benefits that come with it) could be one answer to this troubling crisis.

While the EU and the US watch as nationalist and far-right parties gain popular support within their own context, attention needs to be drawn to a country that has struggled with nationalist politics since the EU and the US designed it that way, a country whose very future threatens to be undermined by mass youth exodus and nationalist tensions.


I would like to sincerely thank my friend, Anes Hodžić, for his important contributions and insight in the making of this piece, as well as his friendship during my time in Sarajevo. Anes is a recent graduate from the University of Sarajevo with a BA and MA in International Relations and Diplomacy.

Branson Gillispie

Branson Gillispie is a second year Master of Arts in International Relations (MAIR) student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), with a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs and Writing Rhetoric and Communications from Transylvania University in Lexington Kentucky. His research interests concern the intersection between conflict resolution, nationalism, identity, migration, and society, across Europe and Eurasia.

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