Migration from the Western Balkans towards the EU is not new. But the size of the exodus from Kosovo surprised many in early February, when the media began reporting that a large number of Kosovar Albanians were trying to enter Hungary via Serbia. EurActiv Serbia reports.
There is no precise information on the number of Albanians who ave left Kosovo. Estimates in early February cite several hundred leaving daily. According to data provided by security forces, over the past two months, more than 50,000 have left, while media estimate 100,000 since August 2014.
Such claims are dismissed by Kosovo government officials, who stress that even the smaller number they know of is cause for concern and is a heavy burden on Pristina.
This led the Kosovo Assembly to pass a special resolution on stopping illegal migration and to request that the Kosovo government earmark between 40 and 50 million euros, which would be used to create new jobs and solve social problems.
At the same time, Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga started touring the municipalities from which the biggest number of illegal migrants had left, and spoke about the matter directly with the those she met on the street and in restaurants.
As one of the measures aimed at stemming the flow of migrants, on 5 February, the government decided to form a commission that would consider the possibility of writing off all of their debts to institutions and public enterprises created between 1999 and the end of 2008. The possibility of writing off interest on the debts of citizens and companies incurred after 2008 was also announced.
Authorities facing difficult task
Kosovo Premier Isa Mustafa has said that migration is a heavy burden on the authorities, and announced the undertaking of numerous measures that will forestall migration, while simultaneously creating better living conditions.
On 12 February, Mustafa told the Beta News Agency that “measures are being taken with the Interior Ministry of Kosovo to disable the departure of citizens from Kosovo”, and that the authorities are working on informing citizens that they cannot be granted asylum in the EU for economic reasons.
The Kosovo government is also preparing an economic development program, in order to ensure that citizens remain in Kosovo, and currently has at its disposal about 50 million euros primarily for the development of agriculture, said Mustafa, adding that, if necessary, more funds will be set aside.
Kosovo, in his words, is ready to take back the citizens who had attempted to reach the EU. “We are able to accept the return of the people who had already left. It’s not easy, because their numbers are great,” said Mustafa.
Kosovo, the poorest country in the region
According to an analysis conducted by Radio Television Kosovo, the personal earnings of Kosovo public sector employees are on average 100 euros higher than the earnings of their counterparts in neighboring countries – Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania.
However, even so Kosovo, is still the poorest country in the region, with around 30% of the population living in poverty, 10% of them in extreme poverty, living off less than one dollar per day.
The unemployment rate, according to official data, is around 30%, whereas according to unofficial data it is about 40%, and among youth aged 15-24, it is 55.9%. This age group accounts for the biggest number of migrants.
Over the course of last year, Kosovo had real GDP growth of just over 3%, whereas GDP per capita in 2013 was 2,935 euros, nearly twofold less than in the poorest country of the EU, Bulgaria, where according to Eurostat it was 5,600 euros, and nearly nine times below the EU average of 26,600 euros per capita in 2013.
Transit through Serbia
Illegal migrants from Kosovo predominantly arrive at the Hungarian border via Serbia – which is also the shortest direct route and mostly illegally entered the EU country. Subsequently, the mayor of border town Asotthalom requested that a wall be erected on the border that would prevent the arrival of migrants.
Kosovo is the only country in the Western Balkans without a visa-free regime with the EU, even though talks on the subject were launched between the European Commission and the Kosovo authorities in January 2012.
Meanwhile, the number of Kosovar applications for Serbian passports has increased, given that Serbia considers Kosovo its autonomous province and enjoys a visa-free regime with the EU. Serbian Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanovi? said at the beginning of February that over 60,000 such applications had been received, but failed to specify over what period of time.
The expansion of an agreement on the freedom of movement between Belgrade and Pristina, in September 2014, also facilitated the movement of Kosovars through Serbia, which according to Serbian officials contributed to their greater departure to the EU.
Certain Serbian government representatives also said that there had been such migration of Kosovo Albanians in the past and that the issue had been politicized and given media importance ahead of the Belgrade-Pristina dialog in Brussels, on 9 February.
That meeting in Brussels, however, was an opportunity for the Serbian and Kosovar prime ministers Aleksandar Vu?i? and Isa Mustafa to discuss migration and ways to suppress it, which Mustafa confirmed in statements to Pristina media.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? said in Budapest on 11 February that the EU should deal with the matter of Kosovo migrants much more seriously, because, as he put it, neither Serbia nor Hungary are the final destinations of those migrants.
Cooperation with EU countries
Due to the rise in the number of Kosovars trying to enter the EU via Serbia, the prevention of mass migration was the topic of a meeting of senior police officials of Hungary, Serbia, Austria and Germany, in Belgrade on 9 February.
The police directors of those countries agreed to intensify cooperation and border control. That would include an increase in the number of border police officers along the Serbian-Hungarian border, the involvement of the Gendarmerie and general jurisdiction police in control, and the greater use of police in finding smugglers.
German experts are also to provide assistance in identifying forged documents and the use of a thermal imaging camera along the border line between Serbia and Hungary.
Apart from economic reasons, some analysts in the region say that another cause of mass migration was the activity of criminal groups, which organize transfers across the border and make a good profit on them.
EU urges Kosovo to take steps
The European Commission has called on Pristina to prevent sudden mass, illegal departures of Kosovars to the European Union by watching the borders and taking urgent steps, the EU executive stated on 11 February.
The Commission added that the number of illegal migrants from Kosovo seeking asylum in the EU had gone up 40% since December, which surpasses the hitherto largest groups of immigrants from Syria and Afghanistan arriving illegally, or crossing the Union’s outer borders.
Spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said that Pristina must increase border supervision, intensify the information campaign on the rights of individuals traveling to the EU, and strengthen cooperation with the countries through which the illegal immigrants pass, and the Union countries which they aim or manage to come to.
“We are discussing the matter with the Kosovo authorities, and that is also the subject of consideration within the visa liberalization dialog (EU-Kosovo),” added Bertaud.
According to Frontex, a record 12,000 attempts at illegal border crossings were registered on the Serbian-Hungarian border in December 2014, with Kosovars accounting for 40% of that number. The trend, Frontex states, is explained by rumors among the Kosovo population that France’s decision to remove Kosovo from the list of safe countries of origin would facilitate getting asylum in the EU country.
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008. 22 EU member states have recognized it so far. Kosovo has around two million inhabitants, predominantly Albanians.
In October 2013, the European Union initiated negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo. The agreement was signed in July 2014, and will be adopted by the European Council.
In May 2012, Brussels launched a structural dialogue on the rule of law with Pristina, as the dialogue on liberalizing the visa regime for Kosovars officially kicked off several months prior, in January.
The European Union has a judicial and police mission in Kosovo, EULEX.
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