SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Nejra Isaretovic, a 25-year old physiotherapist from Sarajevo, is busy these days studying German and taking driving lessons -- key skills required for her new job in Germany.
Isaretovic is among thousands of nurses and physicians from across the Balkans seeking work in Western Europe, causing alarm among health officials that the countries may be left without trained medical staff in the near future.
"The state is pushing young people to leave, we get nothing -- no jobs, no future, and most importantly, no security," said Isaretovic, who could not find a job in her field in Bosnia.
Last year, 10,000 Bosnians applied for work permits in Germany, according to the Agency for Labour and Employment, which mediates between job applicants and German employers under a 2013 agreement between the two governments.
Since then, about 2,700 nurses have left the country of 3.5 million, 1,100 of them last year alone. Around 400 doctors are estimated to have left in 2016 and the same number expected to emigrate this year.
"The departures from Bosnia have been gradual so far but once they reach a momentum, it will be en masse, and may cause the health system to collapse," said Meho Kovacevic, a 43-year-old orthopaedic surgeon working in the central town of Zenica.
The situation is similar in other Western Balkan countries.
The certificates that are required for physicians to work abroad have been issued for 1,600 doctors in Serbia over past two years, and nearly 1,300 in Croatia since it joined the European Union in 2013.
LOSING BEST EXPERTS
With their economies still recovering from a decade of political and economic turmoil in the 1990s, and unemployment in double-digits, the former Yugoslav republics have few funds to spend on healthcare. Working conditions are poor and expensive modern medical equipment scarce.
That is why a call by Germany in January last year for foreign workers to come was met with a massive response. Europe's biggest economy has vacancies for 10,000 nurses and 2,000 doctors, with some 40,000 registered doctors due to retire by 2021.
According to the German Medical Association, 2,365 doctors from the seven countries that make up former Yugoslavia were registered in Germany last year, including 864 from Serbia.
"We are losing our best experts," said Zoran Savic, the president of Serbia's medical workers' trade union. "Younger doctors will fill in their places but it takes a minimum 10 years to educate a specialist physician."
Medics complain of unpaid overtime and low wages. Nurses are paid 250-400 euros a month in Bosnia and Serbia, compared with a starting salary in Germany of about 1,500 euros.
Surgeon Kovacevic, who is married with two children, said he was not planning to leave Bosnia but was taking German classes all the same. "Why tilt against windmills?" he said.
(Additional reporting by Gordana Katana in Banja Luka, Aleksandar Vasovic and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Fatos Bytyci in Pristina, Igor Ilic in Zagreb and Thorsten Severin in Berlin; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Catherine Evans)