Serbian repats: what did we learn from stories of return?

July 26, 2020

Before joining UNDP in Serbia, I spent three years going back and forth between Belgrade and London, as a business development executive at the startup that I co-founded. Both of my UNDP Accelerator Lab colleagues Irena and Draško returned to Belgrade after being abroad for more than 15 years and calling many different cities home. Despite having other opportunities to continue developing our careers somewhere else, we decided to call Serbia home again. Why am I telling you this? Our personal experiences have something in common with one of the most pressing issues in Serbia

Many young and educated people are leaving the country, and unlike the two of us have no intention to come back. High outmigration, along with low immigration and low fertility, is to blame for the fact that Serbia has one of the ten fastest-shrinking populations worldwide, with the average age getting higher and the workforce smaller. The effects these trends have on development in this country have made depopulation a key thematic area for the Accelerator Lab in Serbia. 

Circular migration is an important integral part of this complex, multilayer issue. In Serbia, one half of the circle – diaspora returnees and foreign migrant workers – is almost entirely missing. So, how do we “draw” the full circle? We decided to look for more people like Draško, Irena and I - Serbian citizens who lived abroad, but decided to come back, in order to learn about their deeper motivation and the experience of returning to the home country. 

Our goal is to understand the process of returning with all bottlenecks and key points along that journey.

Thoughts and feelings instead of cold facts

We narrowed our research to people with high qualifications, who lived abroad for at least 3 years and have gone through a period of adaptation back in Serbia for not longer than 3 years. We wanted to discover the most significant problems (pain points) and positive experiences (happy moments) that people encounter during and after their return to Serbia. Our goal is to understand the process of returning with all bottlenecks and key points along that journey. 

Large studies would bring factual data but don’t reach and talk about feelings and attitudes. With that in mind, and with great help from the newly established “Design Thinkers Lab”, we decided to “borrow” the human-centred methodology Design Thinking. This methodology uses a vast spectre of different tools to develop empathy and gain deep insights from participants in the research. The process has six iterative phases - Understand, Observe, Define Point of View, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

In the very beginning, we set our research task, the so-called “challenge” in Design Thinking methodology, as “Redesigning the experience of repats in Serbia”. It was intentionally set as broad as possible in order to encompass most diverse experiences from the moment a person started to seriously consider returning to Serbia, throughout the process of moving countries, to settling in and reintegrating in Serbia. This exploratory activity was one of the first steps in the process of learning how the UNDP Country Office, the Government of Serbia and our partners could contribute to remodeling the experience of returning, reintegrating and building a new life in Serbia for the returnees. 

Speaking from the personal experience of the Accelerator Lab members, and trying to step into the repats’ shoes, we understand that the decision to go back to one’s home country can be very intimate and private. Bearing this in mind, we decided to frame our research through the empathy-based data collection process starting from conducting a questionnaire, a contextual semi-structured interview, drawing visual representations of return, and in-person observation by the researcher. Throughout our preparatory work, we decided that we will focus on four different groups of repeats that we want to understand better: 

1. people who returned to start their own business in Serbia, 

2. people who studied abroad and returned after completing their studies, 

3. people who returned to raise their children in Serbia, and 

4. people who returned to spend their retirement in Serbia. 

The research was conducted on a small sample of 13 people who shared their stories. After collecting all the data and insights from the second phase (Observation), we defined the problem statement based on what was learned about our returnees. Some learnings were very specific or even anecdotal. Habits do change and the heritage gets lost, as those interviewed told us for example that smoking indoors and in public places bothers them or that “forms in Serbian embassies abroad written in the Cyrillic alphabet are not necessarily understandable to all Serbs”. Personal ties and family bonds seem to have longer expiration dates, as most happy moments for repats, including a better work-life balance, are directly connected to a strong support network of family and friends. We also learned that our repats have pain points in accessing the healthcare system, in dealing with complicated administrative procedures and time-consuming bureaucracy.  

Most repats who shared their stories with us said their ties with friends in Serbia stayed strong.


Staying in touch

After compiling the list of all relevant happy moments and pain points, we entered into the third phase (“Points of View”) with a crafted list of relevant “How Might We” questions that capture the most significant problems and positive experiences that people encounter while returning. For example:

  • Given that children’s welfare plays an important role for parents when choosing a place to live with the family, how might we help them recognize the advantages of raising children here so they can perceive Serbia as a home?
  • Given that highly educated repats have had successful careers abroad, how might we help them share their contacts and experience so they can actively participate in economic and social development of Serbia and feel more fulfilled?
  • Given that the public administration involves a lot of procedures that require going to institutions, how might we use the first contact of repats with institutions and encourage them to share the invaluable feedback to spot problems and room for improvement?

Based on what we learned and insights that we generated, our idea is to co-create a set of innovative solutions that are tailored to real human needs and experiences, in order to assist our repats while considering their return.

Our plan is to come up with the best ideas for identified "Point of views", to create prototypes, to test them and select the best ones that will be part of our portfolio of interventions for return migration. For starters, to address the HMW insight about the Serbian language a “quick win” might be introducing forms in Latin letter by Serbian Embassies abroad, but also reimagining the way our young diaspora learns the Serbian language by using the Internet and digital technologies. 

Besides serving as a basis for creating new policies and measures that will improve the experience of returning to Serbia, the materials gathered can serve as inspiration and information in communication toward the Serbian diaspora.

To address all these issues, as one of the first steps, the UNDP Accelerator Lab recognized the importance of providing the support to the newly established platform Returning Point. The mission of this platform is to provide Serbian diaspora with information on all the possible ways of establishing contacts with Serbia - local authorities, companies, investment opportunities, startups and individuals alike - while at the same time communicating and circulating relevant information for the expats wishing to return to their native country. 

By helping this initiative grow we are supporting the creation of a new “one-stop” platform where Serbian diaspora and repats could easily find and navigate through all relevant information on the possible ways of (re)establishing contacts and connections with their country. 

For more info about the methodology, lessons learnt and all user stories, we also made our comprehensive report available here.