Diversity of Migration in South-East Europe

by Mirjam Zbinden (Volume editor) Janine Dahinden (Volume editor) Adnan Efendic (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 234 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Rethinking the Debate about the Diversity of Migration in South-East Europe
  • Employment Relations, Job Security and Emigration Intentions: “The Individualization of the Social”?
  • The Determinants of Economic Emigration, with Special Reference to Kosovo
  • Do Remittances Reduce Social Disparities in Macedonia?
  • Return Migration in the Shkodra Region – What’s the Next Step?
  • Readmission in Serbia – Huge Challenges, Weak Opportunities
  • Football on the Fringes of Europe: Black African Players and their Livelihoods in Albania
  • Urban Space, Migration and Intersectional Approaches in Gendered Bodies: A Case in Thessaloniki, Greece
  • South-East European Migration Transitions: from Emigration to Immigration?
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series index

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Mirjam Zbinden, Janine Dahinden and Adnan Efendic

Rethinking the Debate about the Diversity of Migration in South-East Europe1

In this introduction, we attempt to rethink the debate on migration in South-East Europe, which is often too narrowly focused on emigration – and, more recently, transit migration. We show that the region is marked by very diverse migration processes that are closely connected with global and especially European developments. These processes thus need to be theorized in a global context and in the light of international debates in migration studies. We first examine the diversification of migration processes since the early 1990s and then address the multiplication of actors managing migration and the hierarchization of mobility rights within the region as a result of the expansion of the European Union. Finally, we discuss how migration processes have increased diversity within societies. These considerations offer a common frame to the studies gathered in this interdisciplinary volume, each of which treats a specific aspect connected to these diverse forms of migration.

Keywords: migration, South-East Europe, diversity


Since the mid-1990s, much of the public and media debate on migration in South-East Europe (SEE)2 has tended to portray the region mainly as a problematic space of emigration and – more recently – transit migration. In the 1990s, the picture of SEE oscillated between a war-torn region producing masses of refugees after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and a region characterized by poverty-driven emigration to Western Europe. More recently, SEE countries have again been in the spotlight because of the so-called migration crisis involving thousands of refugees transiting through these countries (UNHCR, 2015; Vytiska, 2015). ← 7 | 8 →

However, recent research, including the contributions in this volume, shows that this view, according to which SEE is an exceptional region in which troubled migration processes are somehow endemic, does not adequately account for the diverse migration dynamics in the region. To challenge this view, we argue that there is a need to rethink and “decentre” the debates about SEE as an exceptionally problematic region and “recentre” it as a highly dynamic migration region marked by a multiplicity of migration-related processes fuelled by global and especially European developments. We develop our argument along three lines and with reference to new theoretical and methodological considerations in international migration studies.

First, the view of SEE as only a region of (problematic) emigration – and more recently also transit migration – is far too narrow. Indeed, the region displays a multiplicity of migration patterns that radically put into question its supposedly exceptional character.

Second, SEE is, today more than ever, interconnected with other parts of the globe in terms not only of the movement of people, but also the governance of migration. The European Union (EU) is an especially influential actor shaping migration in SEE, and the ongoing EU accession process of countries in the region has resulted in a hierarchization of mobility rights among SEE states.

Third, the region is often presented as consisting of ethnically homogenous states with strong nationalist tendencies. These ideas turn up regularly in the media’s representation of the reaction of some SEE countries to the “refugee crisis”, and it was a common discourse about and within the countries that emerged after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Recent research, however, reveals that these countries are becoming increasingly diverse as a result of migration, which is giving rise to new political questions.

These arguments demonstrate a need to rethink the debate on migration within, to, and from SEE, as well as the need to theorize these regional processes in a global context and in the light of international debates on the issue of migration.

We also maintain that the way researchers approach and understand migration issues has changed. In particular, a critique of the ethnonational epistemology that once predominated in migration studies and the emergence of the transnational perspective have shed new light on migration processes and introduced an epistemological reorientation to the way in which migration issues are conceptualized. ← 8 | 9 →

Migration studies have been heavily criticized for their ethnonational-centred epistemology, as well as their naturalizing view of ethnicity in conceptualizing migration and settlement processes (Amelina and Faist, 2012; Dahinden, 2016). Applying a transnational perspective entails an important epistemological shift that makes it possible to counter methodological nationalism (Wimmer, 2002) and go beyond the “national container” in the analysis of migration and settlement processes (Dahinden, 2009). The transnational perspective emerged from the realization that migrants simultaneously maintain ties with their countries of origin (or with a third country) and construct new relationships and forms of belonging, making home and host societies a single arena for social action by moving back and forth between different cultural, social, political and economic systems (Glick Schiller et al., 1992; Portes et al., 1999; Levitt and Jaworsky, 2007; Vertovec, 2009). A substantial number of studies demonstrates how migrants construct transnational social fields (Levitt and Glick Schiller, 2004), spaces (Faist, 1999; Pries, 2001) and belongings (Hannerz, 1996). It is in this regard that the transnational lens makes it possible to bring together different patterns of migration and the connections migrants have with other places. Without a doubt, one of the main benefits of this approach is that it makes it possible to overcome the polarization between the two dominant approaches in classical migration theory. Until recently, one group of researchers analysed the causes of migration (mainly in economic terms – see below), while a second focused on the effects of migration, analysing the processes of assimilation or integration experienced by “uprooted” migrants in their new environment. The transnational perspective makes it possible to bring together emigration, immigration, integration and return because they are understood to be entangled steps in one and the same process taking place in a transnational space.

Furthermore, methodological transnationalism (Amelina and Faist, 2012), taken seriously, makes visible transnational connections and the actors involved, and thus avoids reproducing supposedly natural nation-state borders or “nationally coloured categories”. It also makes it possible to analyse the important role of the nation-state and its influence on migration patterns, as well as on institutions and identities. In a similar vein, we propose to adapt a cosmopolitan methodology (Beck and Sznaider, 2006) and a conceptual diversity lens (Meissner and Vertovec, 2014), both of which make it possible to denaturalize ethnicity within migration studies and thus open up new ways of understanding current social processes. ← 9 | 10 → This methodology makes it possible to focus on actors’ multiperspectival strategies, which may simultaneously correspond to relationally defined local, national, transnational and global spatial contexts (and not only ethno-national ones). For instance, both migrants and nonmigrants may experience a diversity of belongings – geographic, religious, political, social – which influence their activities. Diversity in this perspective also goes beyond cultural ethnonational considerations to include a more encompassing analytical stance on processes of diversification, including migration patterns, migration channels, legal status, localities, migration policies and the links migrants maintain with different places. These lenses make it possible to “decentre” and “recentre” debates regarding migration movements in SEE by “embedding” the region in international debates and theories – and thus to open up new avenues for future research.

Beyond Emigration: Towards a Diversification of Migratory Movements

By no means do we claim that migration or mobility in SEE are novel phenomena. On the contrary, migration and migration-related diversity have shaped social relations in the region throughout its history (Tosic, 2009, 2015; Roth and Lauth Bacas, 2011). What we do consider new is the concurrency of many different migration patterns and the ways in which migration patterns currently develop and change in the region, in connection with and similarly to other places on the globe.

It goes beyond the scope of this introduction to present a detailed history of migration in and from SEE. Instead, we offer a number of short historical snapshots to draw a rough picture of the importance of migration movements in the region and highlight the diversification of migration patterns after 1989.

Scholars point to the fact that migration movements were very common during the Ottoman Empire, both within the empire – which contributed to its cultural heterogeneity – and to Europe, the United States, Australia, and Latin America (Roth and Hayden, 2010; Vermeulen et al., 2015). From the late eighteenth century onward, migration patterns and identifications changed fundamentally due to the rise of nationalism and the subsequent process of nation-state building. With the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, a national consciousness emerged among people ← 10 | 11 → who had formerly been highly divided and identified by class, language and religion (Vermeulen et al., 2015: 4). Nation-state formation induced new primary categories of identification along national and ethnic lines and introduced a new logic of membership. From this point on it seemed natural that each “nation” should have its own territory, based on a shared culture and tradition (Gellner, 1983). This making of “modern communities” (Wimmer, 2002) based on ethnicity and nationality is not particular to SEE. Rather, it is intrinsically connected to the logic and formation of the modern nation-state as such and not different from the processes that occurred in Western Europe. The wars, the “unmixing” of people and the ethnicization that accompanied the process of nation-state creation resulted in major population movements, which continued with population exchanges and the resettling of ethnic minority groups living within the newly created national territories. Moreover, during this time of intensive nation-state formation, labour migration continued. Workers, traders and students from the former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, for instance, migrated to Germany and Austria from the late nineteenth century up to the Second World War (Guentcheva et al., 2003; Brunnbauer, 2009) – migration patterns that were reactivated after the end of the Cold War.

Following the Second World War, the Cold War (1947–1989) impacted heavily on migratory movements. Of course, the degree to which borders were closed or open varied throughout the region. During the early years of the communist regimes, many people fled to Europe, but also to the United States (Vickers 2011 [1995]). Important migratory movements also occurred in the following decades between communist countries, for instance from China to Serbia (Blagojevic, 2011; Chang and Rucker-Chang, 2011; Wundrak, 2011), as well as from “friendly states” in the Near and Middle East to Bulgaria (Zhelyazkova, 2004; Krasteva, 2005). Labour and student migration was very common within Yugoslavia (Schierup, 1995). Finally, after the Second World War, several Western European countries had a serious labour shortage. Some SEE countries, mainly Greece and Yugoslavia, became central labour-recruitment regions, particularly for Germany, Switzerland, and Austria (Mesic, 1992; Schierup, 1995; Brunnbauer, 2009). This guest-worker period played a crucial role in subsequent migration and refugee movements from the region after the Cold War (King et al., 2013). Other countries in the region were more closed during this period – Albania in particular (Dahinden, 2013). ← 11 | 12 →

While migration historically has been very common and diverse in SEE, the migratory map within SEE has been redrawn since the collapse of communism in 1989. Since then, not only has the already existing transnational character of the region been reinforced but migration patterns have also become more diverse. Several studies have brought together research on different migratory movements in SEE since 1989 – for instance Petronijevic (2007), Transit Migration Forschungsgruppe (2007), Krasteva et al. (2010), Roth and Lauth Bacas (2011). Most of the literature, however, treats specific cases of migration, not its multiplicity or diversity. That is why we will concentrate here on the most important changes that have affected migration: it will help us explain the diversification of migratory movements in SEE.

First, the opening of borders after 1989 was partly followed by mass emigration, in the beginning mainly irregular and male – because very few legal possibilities were offered by Western European states. Rates of emigration were especially high in Albania (Vullnetari, 2012). Simultaneously, internal migration from rural to urban areas became an ongoing issue that continues to affect the structure of societies in all SEE countries. Given that internal and international migration became increasingly entangled, new forms of transnational and back-and-forth movements developed (Vullnetari, 2012). These emigration movements were highly gendered from the beginning, channelling men and women to different parts of the gender-segregated Western European labour market. While women entered the care sector, mainly in Italy and Greece, and the sex industry, men more often worked in unskilled labour in typically male sectors (for Romanians, see Vlase, 2008). In this context, trafficking is another issue that has given rise to significant academic (and even more media) attention since the 1990s (UNDP, 2005).

Second, ethno-national boundary making and the wars that followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia resulted in refugee movements towards Western and Northern Europe, but also in internally displaced people, regional migration, and ethno-national “unmixing” among the emerging nation-states (Leutloff-Grandits, 2010). Refugees were channelled by their already existing transnational networks to particular European countries where established guest workers lived (for Albanian-speaking migrants from the former Yugoslavia, see Dahinden, 2005). Return migration soon also became an issue, given that a large share of war refugees went back, voluntarily, semivoluntary or involuntarily, ← 12 | 13 → which often resulted in new conflicting situations (Dahinden, 2010; Dedja, 2012; Gjokutaj and Hroni, 2013). Return was not always to the place they had left but sometimes followed ethno-national “unmixing” lines, resulting in replacements that can be considered a form of immigration to newly formed nation-states (Halilovich, 2013).

Third, the process of EU integration, starting with the accession negotiations with Slovenia in 1998 and Romania and Bulgaria in 2000 (Greece has been a member since 1981), is an important factor shaping migration patterns in SEE. With accession, the regulation of immigration, visa regulations, the Schengen Agreement, and EU readmission agreements emerged as new issues (Vermeulen et al., 2015). An important structuring element is the fact that the accession process varied between states and therefore created new differences within the region, especially with regard to (im)mobility and migration possibilities or restrictions (see below). Visa regulations resulted in an increase in circulatory or shuttle-shaped migration and short-term intraregional migration because the only means of legal entry to EU countries were short-term tourist visas. These circulatory movements consisted mainly of tourism-trading and (irregular) labour migration (Vermeulen et al., 2015). Interestingly, shuttle migration has also increased as a result of the south-eastward expansion of the EU, for instance between Greece and Bulgaria (Sikimic et al., 2012; Hatziprokopiou and Markova, 2015; Hristov, 2015).

Fourth, the recent economic crisis has had a significant impact on migration patterns since 2008 (Gemi, 2013; Michail, 2013; Bonifazi et al., 2014). In particular, the crisis has prompted substantive return migration from Greece and Italy to Albania (Mai and Paladini, 2013; Göler and Dhoka, 2015; Vathi et al., 2016; see also Vlase 2013 on return migration to Romania and Ivanova 2015 on return migration to Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina). Along with return migration and the integration of returnees, re-emigration and the ensuing forms of transnational living have become emergent issues. In this volume, Kopliku reveals the complexity of these return decisions among Albanians returning from Italy and Greece to Shkoder, as well as the manifold transnational lives these returnees develop.


This interdisciplinary volume gathers recent work related to the diverse migratory movements in South-East Europe. The contributions address current aspects of emigration, immigration, transit migration and return from different disciplinary vantage points. They impressively demonstrate that South-East Europe is a highly dynamic migration region marked by a multiplicity of migration-related processes fuelled by global and especially European developments.
«This edited book presents an illuminating and stimulating range of essays on a key European and global region which has experienced an extraordinary diversity of migration types and regimes in recent decades. Employing an innovative range of methodologies, the contributions show that South-East Europe is no longer to be seen as a ‘problematic’ space of emigration and transit but as a theatre for highly dynamic mobility phenomena.» (Russell King, Professor of Geography, University of Sussex)
«This thought-provoking book makes an important contribution to understanding migration processes from, within and through South-East Europe. The innovative research approach and new insights about diversity of human mobility in the region described in the book will resonate with scholars, policymakers and broader readership within and beyond the region.» (Hariz Halilovich, Associate Professor of Anthropology, RMIT University, Melbourne)
«The thorough theoretical and empirical contributions of this volume reveal South-East Europe as a highly diversified European space of complex migration regimes and processes beyond the image of the "troubled", "ethno-national" Balkans. This timely book impressively shows how good scholarship both critically re-assesses knowledge production and points to inequalities and hierarchies on different scales.» (Jelena Tosic, Researcher and lecturer in Social Anthropology, Universities of Vienna and Berne)

Biographical notes

Mirjam Zbinden (Volume editor) Janine Dahinden (Volume editor) Adnan Efendic (Volume editor)

Mirjam Zbinden is a Doctoral researcher in Political Science at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). She holds a Master degree in Geography (University of Bern). Her current research examines immigration and asylum policy at the European Union’s external border in Bulgaria with a focus on the role of power/knowledge in multi-level migration governance. Janine Dahinden is Professor of Transnational Studies at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland and head of the Maison d’analyse des processus sociaux (MAPS). She specializes on issues on mobility, migration, transnationalisation, ethnicity, social networks, culture and gender. Her research is transdisciplinary and combines qualitative and quantitative methods. Adnan Efendic is an Associate Professor of Economics and Head of the Department of Economic Theory and Policy at University of Sarajevo. Adnan also works as the Editor-in-Chief of the South East European Journal of Economics and Business and he is an affiliate fellow at CERGE-EI, Prague. Adnan is an applied economist currently doing research on formal and informal institutions, social capital, and migration.


Title: Diversity of Migration in South-East Europe