Aliens in the Balkans

16 March 2016

While there are significant security and political legitimacy issues in the Balkans, migrants and refugees are not looked upon as alien and threatening. A commentary by Vladimir Gligorov

The upcoming Balkan Opinion and Business Barometer (which surveys public and the opinion of the business people) (1) contains questions about refugees and related ones on migration and on ethnic minorities which give some indication on the determinants of the attitudes towards ethnically and otherwise alien people on the so-called Balkan route. Here some qualitative findings will be briefly commented on.

The Balkans are a migrant and transit region, which is also less developed and has been strongly affected by the current crisis. A remarkably large number of people express their desire to migrate out of the region. (2) This is not unrelated to the prolonged depression in the labour markets, with quite low employment rates and high unemployment rates (the latter between 15 and 30 per cent). These levels of unemployment have persisted in some countries for decades now.

Due to intra-regional migrations, mostly politically motivated in the last two decades or so, quite a number of migrants and refugees are to be found among the employees in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

Less concern than in the EU …

Now, when it comes to the attitudes towards refugees, there is generally less of a concern in the Balkans than in the EU (about twice as many people in the EU see the current inflow of refugees as a serious problem). Among the countries on the Balkan route, more concern is voiced in Macedonia and Croatia. The other countries show low levels of concern. The main reason is that refugees are mostly seen as being in transit. In countries where, willingly or not, they are more likely to stay, e.g. in Croatia and Macedonia, the concern rises significantly.(3)

Business people tend to be much more ready to employ refugees than ordinary people would be ready to accommodate them. The reason is that business people see benefits, while the public sees costs. It is important to put this distinction in that way, because the usual explanation that is invoked is that there are cultural or ethnic or generally the resentment of aliens that drives the attitude towards refugees. This is not borne out by the Balkan attitudes towards refugees. It is more about poverty, both of the natives and of the refugees.

… as long as refugees do not stay and are not poor

That the poor are not looked upon favourably is borne out by the attitudes toward the Roma. Macedonia, Serbia and other countries to a lesser extent, do not favour positive discrimination toward Roma. The general attitude towards disadvantaged groups is positive, but Roma are too numerous and too poor for a significant effort to be made to increase their wellbeing. In this case, as in many others, prejudices have a justificatory role rather than providing the explanation for discriminatory practices. This last remark is supported by the attitudes to intraregional mobility. While traditional routes of migration and mobility dominate, e.g. Montenegrins go mostly to Serbia while people from Bosnia and Herzegovina go also to Croatia, there is no discernible animosity towards immigrants from wherever in the region, though those from richer countries are preferred as visitors or tourists. This lack of ethnic distance is, again, more pronounced among business people than in the general public.

Protectionist and open

Finally, public opinion in the Balkans is also characterised by certain protectionist attitudes, i.e. domestic goods are considered as good as anywhere in the world, one’s own production is considered competitive with any other in the world, the government is expected to favour domestic businesses. At the same time, there is strong support for open borders to both trade and migration. Indeed, regional free trade and in particular free trade and visa-free regimes with the EU are very popular.

So, migrants and refugees are not looked upon as alien in the Balkans, as their plight is easy to empathise with in that region - as long as they do not stay, especially if they are poor.




(1) Balkan Barometer 2016, Regional Cooperation Council. Seven Southeast European or Western Balkan countries are covered. The Balkan Barometer is an annual survey and this is the second one.

(2) This comes out in every poll that asks the question. See for example Balkan Barometer 2015, Regional Cooperation Council at

(3) Of course, refugees are of major concern in Greece and increasingly in Bulgaria according to polls and newspaper reports.