Increasing numbers of young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are considering leaving the country without any intention of returning, according to a UN report published on Wednesday.
The survey by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) interviewed 5,000 young people earlier this year. It found that nearly half (47%) had been thinking about emigrating, with almost a quarter (24%) considering leaving permanently.
The country has a long tradition of emigration which has intensified over the last three decades in the wake of the conflict in the 1990s, the report says.
However, what had settled into "steady trends" of economic migration towards more developed countries, has now taken on a "new dimension", with "immense" consequences for Bosnia itself.
"The general impression is that the structure of the migrating population is changing and that more and more young people are considering outward migration and leaving without any intentions of returning, which has an immense impact on social, economic and demographic trends and development," the report concludes.
Based on the results, it estimates that between 22,300 and 23,700 of 18 to 29-year-olds will leave the country either temporarily or permanently over the next 12 months.
The reasons for the exodus go beyond the usual desire to seek better economic prospects, standards of living and quality of life, the UNFPA says. It also cites a low level of trust among young people in public institutions.
"More than 70 per cent of young people believe that the BiH society is systemically corrupt," the survey says. "These findings imply that young people do not believe that public institutions in BiH care about their interests."
A combination of factors, from a "lack of sense of general stability" to "unmet needs for security", means that migration aspirations and behaviour in Bosnia are "driven by necessity rather than a choice".
The report recommends further "crucial" public sector reforms, with youth policies targetting the transition from school to work, youth inactivity and poverty. Public services should be made more available and accessible, while action is needed to restore young people's trust in public institutions.
It also calls for a new drive to involve young people in decision-making and increase their engagement in society.
A varied approach is needed, the report says, to combat "the prevalence and persistency of negative stereotyping of young people as passive, indifferent, incompetent and useless, together with the notion that only ‘losers’ stay in BiH, while the brave and the smart leave".
The UN survey comes amid the Balkan country’s worst political crisis since a US-brokered peace deal ended more than three and a half years of bloodshed in 1995.
The agreement divided Bosnia into two regions — the Serb-run Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation — which were given wide autonomy but remain linked by some joint institutions.
Serbs have long advocated independence from the rest of Bosnia. Their hardline leader, Milorad Dodik, recently pledged that the Bosnian Serb region would declare the creation of its own army and judiciary by the end of November.
The Serbs' stance has led to alarm in the West that Bosnia may be in danger of breaking up.
Visiting the country this week, a senior US official warned nationalist leaders trying to "tear it apart" that "there are tools we have to punish that kind of behaviour", seen as a reference to potential sanctions.