Mass Migration: What Is Driving the Balkan Exodus?

More than a third of all asylum-seekers arriving in Germany come from Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. Young, poor and disillusioned with their home countries, they are searching for a...
Women in Kosovo walk past a billboard in Pristina. The country split from Serbia and became independent in 2008. But it is not a member of the United Nations nor is it recognized by all EU countries. It is not even permitted to compete in the football World Cup. People are leaving to look for a better future in the EU. [Armend Nimani/DER SPIEGEL]

When Visar Krasniqi reached Berlin and saw the famous image on Bernauer Strasse — the one of the soldier jumping over barbed wire into the West — he knew he had arrived. He had entered a different world, one that he wanted to become a part of. What he didn’t yet know was that his dream would come to an end 11 months later, on Oct. 5, 2015. By then, he has to leave, as stipulated in the temporary residence permit he received.

By Susanne KoelblKatrin Kuntz and Walter Mayr, for Der Spiegel

Krasniqi is not a war refugee, nor was he persecuted back home. In fact, he has nothing to fear in his native Kosovo. He says that he ran away from something he considers to be even worse than rockets and Kalashnikovs: hopelessness. Before he left, he promised his sick mother in Pristina that he would become an architect, and he promised his fiancée that they would have a good life together. “I’m a nobody where I come from, but I want to be somebody.”

But it is difficult to be somebody in Kosovo, unless you have influence or are part of the mafia, which is often the same thing. Taken together, the wealth of all parliamentarians in Kosovo is such that each of them could be a millionaire. But Krasniqi works seven days a week as a bartender, and earns just €200 ($220) a month.

But a lack of prospects is not a recognized reason for asylum, which is why Krasniqi’s application was initially denied. The 30,000 Kosovars who have applied for asylum in Germany since the beginning of the year are in similar positions. And the Kosovars are not the only ones. This year, the country has seen the arrival of 5,514 Macedonians, 11,642 Serbians, 29,353 Albanians and 2,425 Montenegrins. Of the 196,000 people who had filed an initial application for asylum in Germany by the end of July, 42 percent are from the former Yugoslavia, a region now known as the Western Balkans.

The exodus shows the wounds of the Balkan wars have not yet healed. Slovenia and Croatia are now members of the European Union, but Kosovo, which split from Serbia and became prematurely independent in 2008, carves out a pariah existence. Serbia is heavily burdened with the unresolved Kosovo question. The political system in Bosnia-Hercegovina is on the brink of collapse, 20 years after the end of the war there. And Macedonia, long the post-Yugoslavia model nation, has spent two decades in the waiting rooms of the EU and NATO, thanks to Greek pressure in response to a dispute over the country’s name. The consequences are many: a lack of investment, failing social welfare systems, corruption, organized crime, high unemployment, poverty, frustration and rage.

Losing Confidence

A survey by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that close to two-thirds of 14-to-29-year-olds want to leave Albania, as do more than half of those in the same age group from Kosovo and Macedonia. They have lost all confidence in their young democracies, and they dream of a better life.

They apply for asylum in Europe because that is the only way to obtain a residence permit. But almost all applications are ultimately denied. In 2014, 0.2 percent of Serbians were recognized, 1.1 percent of Kosovars and 2.2 percent of Albanians. One of the topics of discussion at the next asylum summit in Berlin on Sept. 9 will be whether Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo should be added to the list of “safe countries of origin” along with Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. The hope is that changing the rules will encourage fewer people to migrate to Germany from the Balkans.

Map: Where the asylum seekers come from — Der Spiegel

Map: Where the asylum seekers come from — Der Spiegel

And there are, indeed, hardly any reasons to grant asylum to migrants from the Balkans. Even human rights organizations have few objections ton classifying these countries as “safe,” with the exceptions that apply to minorities like the Sinti and Roma, as well as homosexuals. But is this a way to stop the hopeless from coming? What are people like Visar Krasniqi running away from? And what is political security worth to someone who is poor?

The search for answers takes us to Albania and Kosovo, the two poorest Balkan countries and the sources of the largest number of asylum seekers in recent months. And to Serbia, which has been classified as a “safe country of origin” for the last year.

Kosovo: A Country Like a Cage

Vučitrn is a small city north of Pristina that holds a sad record: Almost a tenth of its of 70,000 people have left for — or have already returned from — Germany. The city’s largest employer, a galvanization plant, shut down last year and the exodus began soon thereafter. Some residents sold their houses or jewelry to pay for the trip; all went into debt. Suddenly no one wanted to stay in Vučitrn anymore.

The migrants took buses to Subotica on the Serbian-Hungarian border. Then a trafficker took groups of 60 to 70 people at a time on an eight-hour trek through the forest into Hungary, circumventing the border post. “It felt like all of Kosovo was there,” says Teuta Kelmende, 30, an attractive woman with high cheekbones and blue eyes. Wiping away a tear, she describes how she pulled her daughter along with her in the coldness of February. She scrolls through photos on her smartphone: of the hotel in Serbia, the train ride to Austria, the family sitting on a bus in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, bound for a migrant reception camp.

Kelmende and her husband live in the house of her husband’s parents in a village near Vučitrn. They own one cow. She dreams of learning to become a hairdresser and he dreams of making more than the €15 a day he takes in driving an illegal taxi. In January, they heard the news on television that Germany was seeking foreign workers and accepting refugees. They borrowed €3,000 from relatives and left.

Their dream ended a few weeks ago, and Kelmende and her husband, like so many others, are back in Vučitrn. On this day, she is sitting in the social welfare office. An international aid organization is looking for an assistant, and Kelmende is hoping to get the job. She is wearing lipstick and a chiffon blouse for the interview.

“We deceived ourselves,” says Kelmende, referring to their trip to Germany.

But perhaps that is unsurprising in this small country with a population of only 1.8 million, where one in four people lives on less than €1.20 a day. Two-thirds of Kosovars are less than 30 years old, and 70 percent of them are unemployed. Many families could hardly survive without the €600 million that is annually sent back to family members by the Kosovar diaspora. The payments represent half of the country’s gross domestic product.

Bloated Administration

Those who are not part of the system in Kosovo hardly stand a chance to rise out of poverty, despite the fact that Kosovo receives more foreign aid per capita than any other country. The EU pays €250 million alone for the EULEX police and justice mission, which has failed to develop constitutional institutions and in fighting corruption.

The same group of corrupt politicians occupies all top government positions. This has led to the development of a bloated administrative apparatus of about 100,000 employees. The jobs typically go to relatives and supporters of those holding political positions. Public property is treated like private property: Recently, for example, the country’s electricity plant was sold at a deep discount to a relative of the Turkish president. Profits are funneled into dark channels and court proceedings drag on forever, with 500,000 cases still awaiting processing.

The country has never investigated what happened to 13,000 people who died in the war, and former officers of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) are now in positions of power. It was only at the beginning of August that parliament approved the establishment of a special tribunal to investigate war crimes.

Kosovars have been liberated from their Serbian oppression since the war ended 16 years ago, and yet they still live in a cage. Kosovo is the only country in the Balkans whose citizens are denied access to Europe and require a visa for the EU. Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations nor is it recognized by all EU countries. It is not even permitted to compete in the football World Cup.

Such was the situation in Vučitrn, and no one was particularly interested whether the news about Germany seeking foreign workers was actually true. No one investigated rumors that traffickers might have put out the information to create false hopes.

This, at any rate, is what the mayor of Vučitrn claims. Bajram Mulaku, 66, a former mathematics professor, is a white-haired giant of a man with a piercing gaze. Sitting at a large conference table in the town hall, he says that drivers, traffickers and hotel owners must have earned more than €10 million from the exodus out of Kosovo. The government in Pristina likewise blames an international trafficking network for the wave of refugees, and police have already arrested 54 suspects.

‘We Have a Life’

In spring, Mulaku called upon his citizens to stay home. He spoke of opportunities, of subsidies for potato farmers and of beekeeping. People merely had to be willing to work hard, he said. But no one wanted to hear that. The number of people leaving the city and the number of traffickers kept increasing, and prices declined by the day. In the end, traffickers were charging only €200 to take people to Hungary. Now everyone wanted to try his luck, if only to see Europe once. More than 100,000 Kosovars have left the country in the last 12 months, including 48,000 in the first three months of this year alone. Most went to Germany and France. Only 13,000 have thus far returned.

Perhaps the government is not entirely opposed to the mass exodus, because the typical migrant is 20 to 34, has no training, is unemployed and earns no more than €450 a month. Kosovo also has the highest birth rate in Europe, and 40,000 people come of age every year, creating even more pressure on the labor market.

Visar Krasniqi doesn’t want to go back. He is sitting in Café Oase on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, exhaling smoke from a hookah. He shows us his mobile phone, with an endless list of numbers of Kosovars in Berlin, Germany and all of Europe. They talk on the phone and play soccer, but most of all they compete with one another over which of them will stay in Germany the longest. And when they are short of funds, they cheer each other up by saying: “We are poor, but we have a life.”

In Sweden migrants are deported after only four days, says Krasniqi, but the Finns are more liberal. In fact, he wants to go to Finland after Oct. 5, the date when his stay in Germany will come to an end.

Albania: Caught Up in the Maelstrom of Emigration

Mali Tafaj is standing in a field, threshing rye, five kilometers from the border with Kosovo. He gathers the dried sheaves, jerks the ears up to the cloudless sky and then slams them against a wooden block to detach the grains. Gathering, jerking and slamming the grain onto the wooden block — this is the rhythm of Tafaj’s days. He has been working in the field since 8 a.m., alongside his sister Baid, his father Bayran and his mother Nadira. They are producing feed for their three cows. The threshing will take eight hours. But there isn’t much else to do in Novosej, anyway.

Mali Tafaj, 23, works on the farm with his family near the village of Novosej, Albania. As his parents age Mali Tafaj says he feels a sense of responsibility to step up and care for the family and has considered moving to the EU to work.

Mali Tafaj, 23, works on the farm with his family near the village of Novosej, Albania. As his parents age Mali Tafaj says he feels a sense of responsibility to step up and care for the family and has considered moving to the EU to work.

Novosej is a small hamlet in northeastern Albania, with huts made of fieldstone and unpaved streets. Chickens scratch around in the dirt, old men ride by on their donkeys and children tend the sheep. Many years ago, the village had a population of more than 2,000, but now there are only 300 people left. “They are all in Germany,” says Tafaj.

A slender 23-year-old man and a fan of AC Milan, he wipes the sweat from his brow. When he enrolled at the university, he listed his top choices of the subjects he wanted to study: 1. Finance, 2. Journalism, 3. Forestry. The government chose forestry for him. Now Tafaj knows the Latin names of all types of local trees, but he doesn’t have a job. Albania has a 30 percent unemployment rate.

There are about three million Albanians still living in the country, and about the same number as have already left the country. Albania is ninth in the World Bank’s ranking of the ratio of a country’s emigrants to its population. In first seven months of this year, 29,353 Albanians applied for asylum in Germany, including 7,500 in July alone. Only about 8,000 applications were filed during all of last year. After Syrians and Kosovars, Albanians have become the third-largest group of asylum seekers in Germany.

The most recent wave of emigration began with a rumor, say the villagers. The rumor, which came from Kosovo, just over a nearby hill, at the beginning of the year, was that the border to Serbia was open and that Germany was looking for workers.

Waiting for a Miracle

Dozens of Tafaj’s friends and relatives left the village and drove across the border to Prizren, where they paid €200 to board a bus to Germany. Since the visa requirement was lifted in 2010, Albanians are now permitted to spend three months a year as tourists in the Schengen area. Upon arrival in Germany, they applied for asylum, and now they receive €143 a month in support and are waiting for work. Or a miracle.

Albania is a country of constant transformation: from a communist regime to unrest bordering on civil war to a parliamentary democracy. Albania became a candidate for EU accession a year ago, but it is also a country where human trafficking and organized crime are rampant.

Some 72 bombs tied to criminal, private or political feuds have exploded there since 2014. Entire families are trapped in their homes because of threats of blood revenge. Albania is in 110th place in the Transparency International corruption ranking.

Albania is also the poorest of the 37 European countries for which Eurostat collects statistics. After 1990, agricultural cooperatives were closed and the country’s industry was in shambles. About half of all scientists and academics left the country and roughly one in two Albanians still work in agriculture today. Annual per capita GDP is €3,486, one-eighth of the EU average. The average hourly wage is a little over €2.

But no one is persecuted for criticizing the government. There is no war, the Sinti and the Roma are not hunted down, and even gays and lesbians are tolerated. If Albania is soon classified as a “safe country of origin,” it will become easier to deport its citizens. But would that solve the problem?

In the afternoon, we are invited into the home of Mali Tafaj and his family. They live in a simple stone hut, with the parents sharing a room with the little brother, and Tafaj sleeping next to his sister. At night, they talk a lot about emigrating. His sister Badi says: “As a woman, I have to stay. But I want my brother to leave soon.”

‘For My Parents’ Sake’

The Tafajs have an annual income of €3,500. They earn 20 cents from a kilogram of potatoes and €2.50 from a kilogram of veal. “It troubles us that we cannot offer the children a future,” says the mother. On the day before, Tafaj spoke with a few emigrants who live in London and are home on vacation. They are well dressed and have brought money from England. Transfers from abroad make up one-tenth of the country’s GDP. “I will have to support my parents when they get old,” says Tafaj. “But how?”

In a video posted by the German police that he saw on Facebook, a voice says that there are no prospects for asylum in Germany. Tafaj would actually like to stay in Albania. “But I will probably go,” he says. “For my parents’ sake.”

What would Edi Rama say to a young man like Tafaj?

“I know that Germany is tempting,” says Rama. “The €11 a day. The temporary work permit. The ability to save a little money in those three months. All of that is worthwhile for many people.” Rama is a tall, jovial man who was once an art professor and used to be the mayor of the Albanian capital city of Tirana. He is now the country’s prime minister. His office in Tirana, which doubles as his studio, is a three-hour drive from Tafaj’s village. There are wax crayons on the tables. Rama wants to be the one to bring Albania into the EU.

From left, Badi Tafaj, 20, Nadire Tafaj and Mali Tafaj, 23, thrash rye near the village of Novosej, Albania. Bad Tafaj says life in the village is very hard but leaving would be difficult for her since she feels a responsibility to help her parents. As his parents age Mali Tafaj says he feels a sense of responsibility to step up and care for the family and has considered moving to the EU to work.

From left, Badi Tafaj, 20, Nadire Tafaj and Mali Tafaj, 23, thrash rye near the village of Novosej, Albania. Bad Tafaj says life in the village is very hard but leaving would be difficult for her since she feels a responsibility to help her parents. As his parents age Mali Tafaj says he feels a sense of responsibility to step up and care for the family and has considered moving to the EU to work.

For decades, the country’s economy was based on a construction boom and transfers from emigrants. Now it has been diversified to include a textile industry, mining, telecommunications, energy and tourism. “But palpable results take a long time,” says Rama. The reform process has come to a standstill. Tens of thousands protested when the government raised taxes on cigarettes and gasoline, and announced plans to introduce a higher income tax. People are leaving Albania because change is taking too long for their taste. To prevent more and more people from emigrating, the prime minister is urging the EU to classify his country as “safe” as quickly as possible. He knows that EU accession negotiations will not begin as long as large numbers of Albanians continue to seek asylum in countries to the north.

Rama also has a dream, one that he discussed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she visited Tirana in July. He wants Germany to enter into cooperative programs with Albanian trade schools. The schools would deliberately prepare Albanians for the kind of work that no one in Germany wants to do. He calls the idea “a game changer,” and adds: “Fifty trade schools, and in three years everything here would be different.”

Serbia: Escaping the Winter

Most Balkans immigrants originate from Albania and Kosovo, but one in five is from Serbia or Macedonia, two countries that have been considered “safe countries of origin” since 2014. Despite this, the number of asylum applications for Serbian citizens has increased by 45 percent compared to the first seven months of 2014. Only 0.1 percent of Serbians have so far been permitted to stay in 2015. So why do they keep coming?

A Roma mother sits surrounded by her children inside the Makis Roma settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. (Marko Drobnjakovic)

A Roma mother sits surrounded by her children inside the Makis Roma settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015. (Marko Drobnjakovic)

During the first three months of this year, 91 percent of the Serbian asylum-seekers in Germany were Roma, despite the fact that there is less discrimination against Roma in Serbia than in Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia. What drives them is need. “We also want to get a piece of German prosperity — that’s why many are going,” says Vitomir Mihajlovic, who is sitting in his office with a view of Belgrade’s St. Mark’s Church. He’s president of the Roma National Council, which, he says represents 600,000 Roma.

He says all the talk in Europe of “asylum cheats” is misleading and what his people are actually looking for is “economic asylum. That means that we aren’t fleeing for political reasons, but that we are nonetheless threatened.” Mihajlovic says that 80 percent of Serbian Roma haven’t even completed primary school and that discrimination creates a vicious cycle of suffering. The marginalization of the people who live in Mahala, a Roma settlement, starts as soon as school for most, and it doesn’t take long for a sense of resignation to set in.

Conditions are at their worst during the cold winter months. To prevent people here from heading for Western Europe, Mihajlovic suggests that Germans send wood for heating, food and toiletries and undertake other short-term measures. The clock is already ticking, he warns. “Things will pick up again in September. Then the next wave will begin making its way north.”

Eight People in 12 Square Meters

Haljilj Hasani is among those planning to make that journey soon. The 42-year-old spent nine years working for the garbage collection company, but he’s been out of work for a long time now. He lives together with his wife and six children in a 12 square meter (130 square foot) space in Makis 1, an impoverished container settlement at the edge of Belgrade that is surrounded by trash, stray dogs and children who play on the bare earth. At least he lives here for the time being. The city wants to evict the family because they left for Germany in 2011 and, by doing so, forfeited their right to live here.

Haljilj Hasani, a Roma minority that was denied asylum in Germany, poses for a portrait as he shows his Serbian passport with a ban to enter Germany stamped on its page, and other documents, at the Makis Roma settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. (Marko Drobnjakovic)

Haljilj Hasani, a Roma minority that was denied asylum in Germany, poses for a portrait as he shows his Serbian passport with a ban to enter Germany stamped on its page, and other documents, at the Makis Roma settlement on the outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. (Marko Drobnjakovic)

Their 2011 trip took them by bus from Belgrade to Essen, where they applied for asylum. Around a year later, officials rejected their applications, but they stayed anyway, for another 15 months. “It was like living in America,” says Hasani. “We got an allowance of €900 a month as well as food and toiletries.” But then, they were cut off. The police showed up one morning at 3 a.m. and drove them to the airport. They were flown back home on an Adria Airways flight from Frankfurt on Feb. 25, 2014. Hasani dug out his ID, which the German federal police stamped with the word “deported”. It didn’t scare him. “I was told that it is only valid for two years,” he explains. He will be permitted to enter Germany again in February and he says his family plans to go again.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has some advice for the Germans. “Send our people home again and, more importantly, don’t give them any money.” There’s nothing Vucic could use less right now than trouble with the Germans. The EU lifted the visa requirement for Serbians traveling into the Schengen area in 2009 and it would be a major setback for the prime minister and his policies of opening Serbia, which include cautious overtures to Kosovo and painful economic reforms.

But it’s not just Serbian Roma who are heading to Germany. Belgrade has become a transit hub for tens of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Iranians who are flowing into northern Europe via Turkey and Greece. The EU, their dream destination, is located just 200 kilometers from the Serbian capital and around 2,500 refugees arrive in Serbia every day. And so many refugees are arriving in neighboring Macedonia that the government declared a state of emergency last Friday.

To send a message, Serbia’s prime minister appeared on Aug. 19 in the park behind Belgrade’s central station, where thousands of refugees gather prior to the last stage in the trip to Hungary. Just one day earlier, the refugees had been camped out here between mountains of trash, shreds of clothing and excrement. On the morning of the 19th, though, in expectation of the visit, the city’s sanitation department cleaned up the park up so that Vucic, surrounded by cameras, could extend his “hospitality and cordiality” to the refugees. Most of those present, though, didn’t even know who was speaking, so the prime minister patted a boy on the head and disappeared again.

On Thursday, the Western Balkan Conference is set to begin. Ironically, the meeting will be held inside Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, the heart of the former Habsburg Empire. The countries touching the empire’s former external borders still haven’t found lasting peace even 100 years after it unraveled. For this year’s conference, organizers have come up with something special. In the stadium where the football team Wiener Austria usually plays, heads of current EU member states are to match up against the team “FC Future EU.”

That team includes Serbian Prime Minister Vucic, Kosovo Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Rama of Albania, men who wouldn’t even have shaken hands not too long ago. It would be a good opportunity for these men to bury old hostilities. And to try to find a way to stop the exodus.

Photo Gallery: Leaving the Balkans Behind

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