Toon Lambrechts is freelance journalist tegen beter weten in. Behalve in MO* Magazine en op MO.be is hij ook te lezen in onder andere Knack, EOS en Vice.
‘I saw on TV how everyone was leaving Kosovo, so I went myself’
Only recently the Balkans became a transit route, but migration is certainly not new to the region. For the last two decades, the Balkans were important countries of origin. Still, last year tens of thousands of Kosovars left their country in a time span of only few months. This migration wave stopped as suddenly as is has begun, and the reason why remains unclear.
An inch-thick stack of papers and four entry passes of the asylum centre of Thalham, that is all that the failed European adventure yielded for Bojar Hoxha. But his eyes still light up when he talks about Austria.
He has has seen this Europe, where the streets are immaculate and where the police is always friendly, the Europe where work is properly paid and where doctors perform miracles in well-equipped hospitals.
For two months it lasted, his stay in Austria. He returned voluntary with his family to Kosovo, but he will not easily forget Austria.
‘On the tenth of January I left with my wife and my two kids, just by bus from Pristina to Belgrade. There is no work here, it’s extremely difficult to support a family. We were not the only one who left at that time. Every day, at least ten buses made the ride, I didn’t even had a place to sit. In Belgrade, we took the bus to Subotica (Serbian town on the border with Hungary).’
In less than four months, at least 25 000 Kosovars, but more likely 40 000 or more, took their belongings and left for Europe.
Kosovo has always been an important country of origin, but at the end of November last year, something strange happened. For no apparent reason, thousands like Bojar Hoxha hopped on the bus to Belgrade in Pristina to continue their travel to the Hungarian border. The bus station of Pristina was caught off guard, even extra buses could not handle the crowds. In February this year, the exodus halted. In less than four months, at least 25 000 Kosovars, but more likely 40 000 or more, took their belongings and left for Europe.
No one who has a sensible explanation for the sudden, massive exodus. Also Xhemajl Rexha, a Kosovar journalist who repeatedly covered the migration hype doesn’t know why. ‘Suddenly we saw hundreds of people at the bus station, packed to leave. Men, families with children, everyone fought for a spot on the bus towards Belgrade. Not a nice sight at all.
Once in Subotica, they were brought by taxi drivers to some hotels who were in the business. Albanian smugglers did the rest. Curiously enough, the Kosovars use a separate network than the Syrians or Afghans for example, although they followed the same route.’
The influx of thousands of Kosovars quickly alerted the rest of Europe. Border security on the Hungarian-Serbian border was increased. Some countries proposed an accelerated asylum procedure for people from the Balkans. Nowhere in Europe someone from Kosovo has a serious chance to be recognised as a refugee. Meanwhile, every day dozens of Kosovars arrive at the airport of Pristina, deported back to their tiny country, an illusion poorer.
Bojar Hoxha continues his story. ‘In Subotica, we were approached by traffickers, but I found out myself how to cross the border. Most pass by the Tisza River, but I did not wanted to do that with my children, it was already hard enough. Once the border I handed myself to the police. That seemed like a good idea, but I was wrong.’
The Hungarian border police took Bojar, his family and thirty other migrants to a covered garage in Szeged. There began an ordeal where Bojar was not prepared for. ‘I think there were at least 150 people gathered in that garage. Several Syrians and Afghans, but the vast majority Kosovars.
‘If I wanted to drink, I had to drink from the toilet.’
There was nothing, no place to sit or to sleep. We stayed 16 hours locked up in the garage. I asked an officer some milk for my youngest child, but his answer was a punch in the face. The cop snapped at me where I got the nerve to ask something. If I wanted to drink, I had to drink from the toilet. Also we were not given any food. I’ve seen how they forced a man to stand on one leg until he could stand it anymore, just to have some fun.’
‘After 16 hours everyone got transported in small groups to the police station for registration. The atmosphere there was also quite violent. Even women and children were beaten if it pleased the policemen. At some point everyone was subject to a control by which you had to strip from your clothes. Men, women and children alike, in full view of everyone. There were no female agents to control the women separately.
After we were registered they gave us back our stuff we had to hand over in the beginning. Many people noticed that their money, phones or other valuable belongings were missing. But what should they do? Go to the police? They were the ones who had robbed us.’
‘They threatened anyone who didn’t wanted to apply for asylum.’
Bojar had, like other migrants, not the slightest intention to seek asylum in Hungary. Germany and Austria, these countries he dreamt of. But everyone was forced to file an asylum claim and to give his fingerprints. ‘They threatened anyone who didn’t wanted to apply for asylum. We were told they would lock us up in a detention camp for two months and then deport us back to Serbia. The translator told us that it wasn’t an empty threat, so I did not have much choice.’
After the whole procedure was completed, Bojar got a map of Hungary and the order to sign up at Debrecen Refugee Camp. Something he obviously didn’t do.
‘I found a driver who would to take me to the Budapest train station for 300 euro. It turned out that this man worked at night as a policeman, while operating an illegal taxi at daytime. He dropped me off one stop before the main station to avoid any control. He is a police man, he knows how thing work. Without any trouble we took the train to Vienna. I’ve applied for asylum a second time in Austria.’
‘My family got a room in a camp at Thalham. We were treated very well, the staff was fantastic. But it turned out that we as Kosovars had no chance of asylum. After two months, we received a negative decision. I decided to return voluntarily to Kosovo. The alternative was a deportation to Hungary where my fingerprints were registered. In no case I would even consider to return there.’
‘In Austria I saw for the first time what a real hospital could be, not the joke we dare to call a hospital here in Kosovo.’
‘I miss Austria. Life is so organised over there, everything is so well managed, everyone is treated equally. My daughter had a problem with her eye, she had to stay a few days in the hospital. There, for the first time I saw what a real hospital could be, not the joke we dare to call a hospital here in Kosovo.’ Bojar blames the Kosovar politicians for doing so little for their country.
‘Our politicians went to Austria to proclaim in front of the cameras that there was nothing wrong with the life here in Kosovo and that we had to return. But now I’m sitting here and still have no job. They are professional liars, up for no good.’
But why he left at that point? The economic malaise in Kosovo has been going on for nearly a decade. ‘I saw on TV how buses full of people left, so I wanted to take my chance. From my friends in Germany I heard that the border was open. I’m glad I tried, but never again I would cross the border illegally, that makes no sense. Hungary was terrible. I can not believe you welcomed that country in the EU. Should I have the opportunity to travel freely, I would leave immediately. The rest of Kosovo too, most likely.
Young people, few opportunities
Kosovo’s Albanian population has a strong tradition when it comes to migration. It seems highly unlikely nowadays, but in the sixties and seventies, Western Europe had an urgent need for foreign labour. Especially Germany, Austria and Switzerland looked at what was then Yugoslavia and signed an agreements with Belgrade to fulfil their need for foreign workers. Especially the least prosperous part of the population accepted the proposal to work abroad, and there were a lot of ethnic Albanians amongst between.
The wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia drove tens of thousands of people from their home country. Kosovo has seem it part of the war, but eventually got its hard-won independence. More than one and a half decades later, the hope and enthusiasm among Kosovo’s youth has extinguished. The independence did not kept its promises.
It is perhaps the first thing that stands out in the streets of Pristina. Young people. Kosovo is not only Europe youngest state, the population is equally young. A whopping 44 percent of the population is younger than 25, a figure very rare in Europe. Even a booming economy could not cope without friction with such a young population entering into the labour market, let alone a fragile economy like Kosovo, which relies heavily on employment by the government. So unemployment rates shoot up to 35 per cent, the youth unemployment rate even to a worrisome 55 percent.
‘Finding work is not an easy task here in Kosovo. You need connections.’ Iliriana Kacakuni works for KFOS, the Kosovo Foundation for an Open Society. Her research focuses on the reasons why people choose to move out of Kosovo.
‘A social safety net is nonexistent. Salaries are too low to build a life on. People, especially young people, have lost the hope of finding a good job. You don’t have 500 lives to start over. The belief in meritocracy, in the fact that you can build something through effort, has vanished completely. We all have cherished the expectation that times would change for better, but it took too long. So of course, at some point you just hop on the bus to try your luck elsewhere.’
The lonely island Kosovo
Kosovo may not be an economic success story, the rest of the Balkans isn’t either. Yet all the other Balkan countries got suspended of the requirement to apply for a visa to travel to Europe. That explains why the other Balkan nationalities hardly occur anymore in the statistics on illegal migration. Only the Kosovars still need to have a visa, which have become increasingly difficult to obtain, according Iliriana Kacakuni.
It is very difficult for Kosovars to travel abroad, which means that there is a strong sense of isolation.
‘Last year, Europe introduced a new biometric visa system. At the same time the number of applications was limited, so you have to wait for a very long time just to get an appointment at an embassy. In addition, the approval rate for visas is extremely low for Kosovo. Nearly 20 percent of the requests gets rejected, compared to only 4.5 percent elsewhere. So it is very difficult for Kosovars to travel abroad, which means that there is a strong sense of isolation. Especially among the young genereation, who wants to see something more of the world than this tiny country.’
But the lack of economic opportunities and the feeling of isolation are no new developments. Why then this sudden wave of migration? Iliriana Kacakuni doesn’t know. ‘There must have happened something at the border, making it easier cross illegally. The price certainly played a role. A ticket to Belgrade costs only 25 euro, for the same amount of money you can travel to Subotica on the border with Hungary. A visa applications will cost you more. Even if you are deported after three months, you might be able you find some black work . And at least you’ve seen a glimpse of Europe.’
Also in this dossier:
‘Europe, still one country ahead’
Greece: The starting line
MO*reporter undercover in human trafficking in Macedonia
Bulgaria: Exquisite back door to the Balkan
‘Do you know the way to Hungary?’
‘Welcome to Hungary (But not wholeheartedly)’
‘Human traffickers never keep their word’
Why some refugees do return to the hell of their homeland
Also Xhemajl Rexha has only partial explanations for the sudden migration peak. ‘We have already experienced a similar wave of migration in Kosovo, namely in the summer of 2013. But back then, the trip cost 3000 euro. Now, for only 300 euro or so you could make it to Hungary. The news that the whole trip was so cheap certainly played a role. It is difficult to understand. Normally it are mainly young men without jobs who migrate, but now we saw families packing their bags, and even people with relatively good job here.’
One possible explanation sounds very 21th century-like. ‘It just went viral. Information spreads very fast nowadays. Also unfounded rumours about open borders and possibilities to get asylum spread like wildfire. At the same time, the stories from the detention centres in Hungary circulated equally fast, one reason why the exodus has stopped. Meanwhile every day people return to Pristina, deported back from Europe. Their stories of delusion make others think twice about packing up. Because ultimately, this exodus was completely pointless.’
This report was produced with the support of Fonds Pascal Decroos.