PRISTINA (Kosovo), Set 26, 2015:
They don’t come from a war zone, they’re not fleeing persecution, and the EU doesn’t want them. But for thousands of Kosovans fleeing unemployment and poverty, northern Europe is the only place to go.
As Europe creaks under the weight of a massive influx of refugees and migrants, it is the plight of those fleeing bloody conflicts in the Middle East that have captured the public’s attention.
But among the masses are thousands from the Balkans escaping economic misery.
“There is no law or regulation that can prevent the poor, the unemployed and the hungry from trying to find a better life,” says 26-year-old Mirnije Fejzullahu, an out-of-work lawyer from Pristina.
“If it is not possible here, they will seek it in the European Union,” she told AFP.
Like many Kosovans, Etem Bajrami has no job but must still find a way to feed his two young children, and he sees no future for his family in this impoverished country of 1.8 million.
“Here, nobody cares about our destiny,” says this 29-year-old technician.
“That’s why I will try to travel to the EU.”
Many are hoping to reach Germany, which is seen by many as the promised land.
Bona fide refugee?
Of the 200,000 asylum requests made in Germany in the first half of this year, 40% were filed by people from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. But the numbers of people arriving have exploded over the summer, with Berlin now saying it expects over a million asylum applications by the year’s end.
The numbers of Kosovans seeking asylum there have soared from 3,000 in the first half of 2014 to 32,000 in the same period this year, while Albanian asylum requests leapt from 4,500 to 29,000.
But as Europe struggles to cope with a never-ending flow of newcomers, the EU is taking steps to separate those fleeing war from those fleeing economic hardship, setting up reception centres to determine who is a bona fide refugee, and proposing a list of “safe countries of origin” to which migrants can be returned because there is little risk of persecution.
The proposed list would include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
‘Earn while you wait’
Since late last year, Kosovo has witnessed an exodus of an estimated 50,000 people, driven out by an economic crisis in a country where four out of 10 people live below the poverty line and unemployment stands at around 40%.
It is the biggest number of departures since the end of the 1998-1999 war, reflecting widespread disillusionment among the population just seven years after Kosovo broke away from Serbia and declared independence.
Despite heavy investment in infrastructure, Pristina has failed to establish a clear and effective economic policy, leaving it heavily dependent on international aid.
Such widespread hardship has provided fertile ground for human traffickers.
Many people have simply given up and hit the road west, with Eurostat figures showing that in 2014, Kosovo was the third biggest source of asylum requests after Syria and Afghanistan.
Even though less than 1% of asylum requests from the Balkans are accepted, it hasn’t curbed the flow of people willing to try.
“Once the (asylum) demand is filed, you are waiting but while waiting for the answer you are earning money,” one migrant told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Germans pay your stay at the reception centres, a monthly sum that far exceeds our income at home,” he said.
Stopping the money
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic suggested recently that Germany should “significantly reduce” its financial assistance to migrants from the Balkans, saying it would solve the problem of economic migration “very quickly”.
Earlier this month, Berlin said it would convert the monthly “pocket money” of 143 euros (RM705) given to asylum seekers into coupons for food and clothing.
Germany is also speeding up the procedure for examining applications from the Balkans, and in the first seven months of the year it deported 9,915 people.
Several countries have welcomed their inclusion on a safe list, with Pristina saying it would send “a powerful message”.
“Formal introduction of Kosovo to the list of safe countries will have an impact and will prevent irregular migration (to the EU),” said Valon Krasniqi, director of the Interior Ministry’s department of citizenship, asylum and migration.
“Of course, it is also a powerful message that there will be no granting of political asylum for economic or social reasons,” he said, saying that so far this year, around 14,600 Kosovans had been repatriated from around the EU, up from 4,600 in 2014.
Tirana also sees Albania’s inclusion on the “safe list” as good news, with Deputy Interior Minister Elona Gjebrea telling AFP it would “reduce the scope of activities of criminal groups that benefit from people’s despair”.
But others are sceptical that such measures will have any effect on the lucrative trade.
Human traffickers “seek other ways to continue their activities”, analyst Ramadan Cipuri said.
“Now they are more interested in refugees from the Middle East.”