Demir Demireli is a 38-year-old returnee to North Macedonia, now an on-demand construction worker in his hometown. With the summer season over, demand in the sector is plummeting, leaving Demir with thinning daily pay-outs and long winter months ahead, struggling to take care of his ill wife and four children. “Of course, I would like a full-time job, a good job…I want to have a regular salary…But I can’t read or write,” says Demir. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the number of people in similar situations in North Macedonia is not small. The majority of returnees are Roma, many of whom decided to leave the country because of poverty, and the assessments carried out by UNDP show that most asylum seekers and returnees are in the 30-44 age group, with low levels of education. Employment is singled out as the biggest challenge reported by returnees: it is an important channel for ensuring both the economic and social prosperity of vulnerable citizens.
This is why UNDP’s project, with its holistic approach, is focused on ensuring that returnees and Roma enhance their employability prospects. The project supports institutions with solutions for economic and social reintegration of vulnerable returnees. It is funded by the European Union and carries out activities in Albania and Serbia as well as North Macedonia. Suzana Ahmeti Janjić from UNDP in North Macedonia explains that the need for this type of project was obvious as the way the returnees have been treated was largely ad-hoc, as there is no designated system in place which focused on their problems and needs. “By talking to returnees, we understood that the first six months after return are very important, as this is the time when they may decide to leave again if they face serious challenges. What we also understood is that they have very limited support from institutions or other bodies specifically targeting their needs in these first six months,” says Suzana.
In partnership with institutions in three municipalities in North Macedonia, the UNDP project has already started activities to improve the situation on the ground. As Suzana explains, first they started with raising awareness of institutions at the local and central level about the problems of the returnees. At the central level, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy initiated the establishment of an informal coordination body that focuses on the problems of returnees. At the local level, UNDP has integrated returnees and their needs as one of the target groups in local economic development strategies, also with a specific budget allocated for supporting interventions referring to their needs. Suzana considers one of the achievements in this regard to be the design of the specific employment measure which was accepted by the Employment Service Agency as part of the national employment plan for 2022, an important central level strategic document, in which returnees are recognised as a vulnerable group. “This is an example of a tangible result, and we have already started with concrete support for implementation of this measure, which among other things includes vocational education and digital and soft training,” says Suzana.
Suzana explains that because of the increased dynamics in migration, companies are recognising more and more challenges related to the availability of skilled workers. The project therefore wants to invest more in adult education because, like Demir, most of the returnees do not have primary or secondary education, which is a barrier for their formal employment. “The returnees are valuable human capital for employers. It is not like in the past when thousands of people were looking for a job: it has started to become a little bit the other way around,” says Suzana.
Returnees and Roma also face challenges when they have a good business idea and entrepreneurial spirit to start their own business. They often have limited financial capital and few of the networks needed to start a business, as well as limited management experience and knowledge of topics such as business planning, financial management or legislation in areas such as tax regulations. Many of the viable business ideas that returnees and Roma have remain informal due to lack of systematic support. As a form of support, especially to young and innovative returnees with ideas that can generate income and jobs, the project is providing start-up grants to help open new or formalise existing businesses. The project also provides targeted support to enhance business management skills, the knowledge necessary to operate a formal business, and access to networks of entrepreneurs.
About the project
The Reintegration of Returnees in the Western Balkans project is focused on addressing key barriers to the socio-economic reintegration of vulnerable returnees, and the drivers of social and economic exclusion and outmigration in the Western Balkans. The project is part of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) II Multi-Country Action, EU support to Fundamental Rights of the Roma Community, and Reintegration of Returnees, entrusted to UNDP, the World Bank, and the Council of Europe. The overall objective is to contribute to the effective reintegration of vulnerable returnees from the EU with particular attention to Roma. The support to Roma returnees also contributes to reducing the existing socio-economic gap between Roma and non-Roma women, men and children.
Photo credits: Sanja Knezevic, UNDP
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