Pristina, Kosovo – In a matter of a few months, almost five percent of Kosovo’s population left in search of better opportunities in the EU as economic refugees because of unemployment, poverty and tumultuous politics at home.
Yet, most of them will have to return, back to square one, yet poorer.
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About 100,000 have reportedly fled the country since the beginning of this year. It is the largest exodus since the war in 1999. Young people, members of the middle class, and families have left – 5,200 pupils are missing from school because their parents want to provide a better life for them elsewhere.
“Dreams stay dreams in Kosovo,” said Ibrahim Haziro, 23, from Pristina. “There is no perspective and people have given up hope that things will change.”
Haziro was unemployed in Kosovo and without an education degree.
“Germany is like the promised land,” he said. “Here we can turn our dreams into reality.” The Kosovar crossed into the EU illegally in February and requested asylum in Germany.
Dreams stay dreams in Kosovo. There is no perspective and people have given up hope that things will change.
Like thousands of others, Ardian Zeneli, 35, a taxi driver from Pristina, wants to leave, too.
“People don’t want to stay here. We are 1.8 million people and it’s been 16 years since the war, but there has been no progress.” Working six days a week, he earns 250 euros ($271) a month.
Kosovo is one of the poorest countries in Europe with an unemployment rate of 55.9 percent among young people aged 15-24. Among young women, 68.4 percent are unemployed, according to the World Bank.
Both economic and political tensions in Kosovo sparked this staggering exodus.
“The mass emigration during the winter of discontent 2014-15, paired with a series of violent anti-government protests and strikes in key sectors, including health and education, reflect the social tension that has been brewing over the years and the perceived lack of an economic perspective even for the well-educated,” Jan-Peter Olters, the World Bank country manager in Kosovo, said.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is recognised by 108 UN member states. Europe’s youngest country has been stricken by political unrest and turmoil. The new government was formed six months after inconclusive elections in June.
“Kosovo is the most isolated country in Europe. It is the only country that needs a visa to travel to the EU,” Olters said.
In September, Serbia relaxed travel rules for Kosovars.
Crowded buses started leaving Pristina every night, bound for Belgrade. From there, they went to the Serbian-Hungarian border by bus or taxi, where many crossed on foot.
Once inside Hungary, they can travel freely to other EU countries thanks to the Schengen Agreement.
The destination for most Kosovars is Germany, the perceived economic powerhouse of Europe and home to the largest Kosovar diaspora aside from Switzerland.
The government was shocked by this sudden exodus. They didn't expect buses full of people leaving daily. It can affect the country's stability. It could also be a wake-up call.
About 20,000 have entered the country since January. Asylum applications from Kosovars increased by 572 percent year on year.
Haziro, who is now waiting in an asylum centre in Augsburg, decided to leave Kosovo after he heard rumours that Germany was looking for Kosovars, and that it has an “open door” policy.
Some even heard that Germany will give them 4,000 euros ($4,340) as a welcome gift.
“Smugglers and human traffickers have profited from the rumour mill and spurred it on,” said Germany’s Representative for the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, Hans ten Feld.
“They created false hopes among people that a better life was waiting for them in the EU.”
Smugglers charged Kosovars about 250-500 euros ($270-$540) per head to help them get into the EU.
Some rumours are even true. Germany provides accommodation for every asylum seeker, gives them daily meals, and pocket money. After three months, they are allowed to work.
Road to illegal roads
However, most won’t be allowed to stay for long. The approval rate for Kosovars is currently at 0.3 percent.
In January, only two Kosovar asylum requests were approved. That month, 3,630 had officially applied for asylum – the number of yet unregistered Kosovars is much higher.
In February, German authorities even decided to prioritise and expedite Kosovar asylum claims, to accept or reject them within 14 days.
Most Kosovars are being rejected because they are economic migrants and aren’t fleeing from war or ethnic or religious persecution – the prerequisite for asylum.
Some Roma, members of the minority also called Gypsies, have been granted asylum because they could prove discrimination and that they fear for their safety.
Haziro was surprised when he heard most Kosovars have slim chances of getting accepted. He’s been waiting for one month now, but, he said, “I think they will say yes because they need people for work.”
Ten Feld said: “Seeking the asylum route isn’t a viable option to gain access to the EU. The solution lies within Kosovo. It is in the interest of the government to retain its labour force and to be able to provide a future for its people and the country.”
Germany, Austria and others have started an awareness campaign in Kosovo to dispel misinformation.
Kosovo’s President Atifete Jahjaga urged people not to leave the country during a visit to Mitrovica with a German representative.
“We know that Kosovo is not the country we wished to have, but 15 years ago we have come out of a terrible war, which has left huge consequences. These are challenges of the transition, transformation process. These are the challenges of our state building,” Jahjaga said in a statement.
“Our citizens must not fall prey of criminal groups and illegal groups, seeking to find a better life, because their life and their future is within Kosovo,” she added.
“The message is that all our citizens who have taken their road towards illegal roads, their asylum will be rejected and they will be returned to Kosovo.”
The awareness measures seem to have been effective and numbers leaving have declined. New arrivals from Kosovo into Germany have stagnated.
However, the tens of thousands that have left are still waiting in EU countries for the outcome of their asylum claims.
Deportations have begun in Germany, Austria and Hungary, with many being put on charter flights back to Pristina.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pledged one million euros to Kosovo, which will be used in projects to reintegrate returnees and to help people to set up their own businesses.
“Reintegrating the returnees will be difficult,” Olters said.
“Their disappointment will be worse than before they left. They have been unsuccessful in trying to start a new life abroad and they are returning poorer, because many sold their possessions and took on debt to pay for the journey.”
“The government was shocked by this sudden exodus. They didn’t expect buses full of people leaving daily. It can affect the country’s stability. It could also be a wake-up call.
“Now, a page could be turned to create better opportunities in the country and provide people with a perspective.”
It’s a long road ahead that requires patience before any improvements can be seen. But if the tens of thousands who have left in a matter of just weeks are any indication, patience is a virtue that Kosovars have little left of.