On a sunny morning at Sofia University, the largest university in Bulgaria, proud parents snapped photos of the recent graduates as they tossed their caps into the air. In just a few weeks, many of them will be hundreds, even thousands of kilometres away from their native Bulgaria seeking out the better opportunities, jobs and incomes awaiting them abroad.
As natives of the poorest member of the European Union, Bulgarians have been leaving their home in droves, contributing to the world’s fastest population decline. Bulgaria’s population was around 9 million at the end of the 1980s, but it fell to fewer than 7 million in 2018, and is expected to fall below 6 million in 50 years. The UN Population Division projects that Bulgaria will lose 23% of its population by 2050 – a projection so high that the country is neck-and-neck with Lithuania for the fastest shrinking population in the world.
Low birth rates are the biggest factor for such steep decline. But what sets Bulgaria apart from other declining European countries is its massive outbound migration.
The government does not keep reliable statistics but some economists, including Cvetan Davidkov, estimate that at least 60,000 Bulgarians leave each year. And even that estimate may be low, given that Germany alone says it welcomed 30,000 new Bulgarian residents in 2017.
“The [population] prognosis isn’t optimistic, and that is a big problem for us,” says Davidkov, a professor at the faculty of economics at Sofia University. The brain drain, he says, affects all sectors of the economy as the majority of Bulgarians – from doctors to construction workers – believe that better opportunities await abroad.