To begin to understand the impact of demographic decline, we need to know what questions to ask and how to interpret what data is available. When it comes to emigration there are no accurate figures. We know about births and deaths because they are recorded. There is no room for ambiguity in being dead or alive. But where you live is another question entirely. If you are going abroad to work, you do not have to report this to anyone in your own country. Then, while there may be numbers for people registering in destination countries, there is little analysis of what they mean. The Croatian National Bank is one of the few institutions to have examined the figures and their work revealed just how hard it is to pin down numbers. For example, the same person can be a registered voter and taxpayer at home, while showing up in several more countries simultaneously.
Imagine a woman from eastern Croatia, where there is not much work, or at least not much well-paid work. She lives at home half the year but cares for elderly people abroad for the rest of it. She might have Irish and British social security numbers and, in the recent past, have worked in Germany too. She might also happen be a Serb and have a Serbian or Bosnian passport. If she has property in either of those countries, she might appear as a resident in their statistics as well. To complicate matters, many of those registered as Croatian citizens abroad are actually from Bosnia. We can make an educated guess that 20 per cent of them are Bosnian but we cannot be sure. Bosnian Croats, and anyone else who can make a convincing claim to be one, are eligible for Croatian passports. Because Bosnia, unlike Croatia, is not in the EU, having Croatian citizenship makes it far easier to work there. Hungary gives out passports to Hungarians in Romania, Serbia and elsewhere and Romania gives its citizenship to a large proportion of Moldovans. Bulgaria gives passports to Macedonians. For these and other reasons, figures relating to population and demographics quoted in even reputable parts of the press are often completely wrong.
A few recent examples:
According to The Financial Times, there are 3.5 million people in Moldova. In 2018, the newspaper reported that 3.6 million – or 16 per cent – of Romania’s population, had emigrated since 2007. The Guardian had a recent graphic highlighting the fact that Kosovo had lost 15.4 per cent of its population between 2007 and 2018 and said that this was the sharpest decline in all Europe. All of these figures are wrong.
There are no more than three million people in Moldova today and possibly far less. The Romanian figure refers to the drop in population between 1990 (not 2007) and 2017 and includes factors other than emigration. And the real figure for the decline in Kosovo’s population from 1991, let alone 2007, is in the region of 4.3 per cent. In the case of Kosovo, the reason for the giant error is that the country had no reliable figures before its 2011 census, which showed that its population was far smaller than previously believed. Thus comparisons were made between the updated figure and a high but completely inaccurate previous one. Journalists and academics may believe that because national statistical agencies are government agencies, the figures on their websites should be accurate. In this region, at least, that is not necessarily the case or figures are not explained properly. In 1991, the last Yugoslav census included around a million citizens who lived abroad. It is extremely rare for anyone analysing pre- and post-war population figures to factor this in, so they usually compare apples with oranges — that is to say, an overall figure that includes people not in the country in 1991 versus only those people actually living in successor states after the wars.