Southeast Europe faces dramatic population drop, U.N. warns

SARAJEVO, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Dramatic falls in population in Southeast Europe as young people seek opportunities abroad are threatening the ability of countries in the region to maintain vital social services, the United Nations warned on Monday.

According to the latest U.N. projections, nine of the world's ten fastest-shrinking nations are in East and Southeast Europe, Allana Armitage, Director of the U.N. Population Fund for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, told Reuters.

By 2050 Bulgaria is forecast to lose a quarter of its population and virtually every country in the region will shrink over the coming decades because more people are emigrating than immigrating, and because of low birth rates.

"Fewer children and high outmigration means that populations of the countries of Southeast Europe are getting smaller and older, and unlike in Western Europe, immigration is not being pursued to fill the gap," she said.

Between 1995 and 2035, the proportion of the population aged 65 and older will double in most countries, and in some it will triple, the forecasts show.

With countries facing the prospect of reduced numbers of people of working age, there are worries about the future of social benefits, notably pensions, Armitage said.

Most countries are already suffering severe labour shortages that are hindering economic growth and dimming hopes of catching up with western Europe.

The problem reflects poor levels of pay, education and training, as well as political uncertainty in still mainly state-dominated economies that have driven young people to find better-paid and more fulfilling work abroad.

Armitage said that under current conditions it may be difficult to reverse emigration and low birth rates.

"However, a promising way forward for addressing these trends ... is to identify strategies leading to strengthening of human capital and thus turning current challenges into opportunities," she said.

To achieve this, governments should develop comprehensive and human-rights based population policies aligned with better childcare, more flexitime options at work, parental leave for both parents and better burden-sharing between men and women.

Guaranteeing smooth transitions from education to employment and access to decent work are also important to ensure young people are properly paid and qualified young professionals stop emigrating, Armitage added. (Reporting by Maja Zuvela; Editing by Giles Elgood)