The Strange Case of Kosovo

As Europe debates how to tackle the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming from war torn Syria, and the Balkans has become the main route of their escape, Kosovo seems to have been spared from this problem; on their way towards EU, refugees escaping war-torn regions of Middle East do not pass through Kosovo at all, and use Macedonia and Serbia instead.

This has saved Kosovo government and society much trouble, since there’s already a huge group of people Prishtina government has to deal with when it comes to men, women and children who want to escape their homeland and settle somewhere in Europe: Kosovo’s own population!

As a matter of fact, shortly before the crisis with refugees from war in Syria, EU was facing a huge problem with illegal migrants from Kosovo. By all estimations, in the period from September 2014 to February 2015, there were around 100,000 Kosovars that attempted to cross illegaly to EU, aiming to seek asylum, mainly in Germany or Austria. And a year before that, during the summer of 2013, several thousand illegal migrants from Kosovo flooded France in another massive attempt to escape Kosovo.

The last wave was stifled after much pressure from European Comission officials, who made it clear that Kosovo’s European integration process can suffer if illegal migration is not halted, but there’s still cases of Kosovars trying to get to Europe, in what many see as justified attempt to escape poverty and desperation.

After decades of political tensions and repression under Serbian rule Kosovo majority Albanians demanded political rights and independence, a struggle that eventually escalated into an armed conflict that only ended with NATO military intervention in 1999 and subsequent UN interim administration, Kosovo declared independence in February 2008. But the ruined economy and disturbed social and political structures are still not rebuilt, despite huge international assistance over the last 16 years.

This situation, which is illustrated best with the permanently huge level of unemployment (since the 1999 war, official estimations put unemployment somewhere between 40 and 35 per cent), combined with the fact that Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, cause continuous social tensions in a country that is still under construction.

Apart from that, Kosovo already had a long tradition of population mobility; immigration from Kosovo to the West and wider world can be traced very early.

Even so, the latest migration is becoming harder to swallow for local politicans as well as European diplomats. There’s a growing feeling that continuous desire of too many people to leave Kosovo and settle elsewhere points toward the inability of the local government to create better conditions as well as perspective for Kosovars at home. It painfully underscores that 16 years after the end of war and seven years after independence declaration, there’s a great lack of economic development and the standard of living is lower than expected despite huge international assistance over the past decade and a half, while continuing political tensions only add to the desire on part of many Kosovars to simply get away from it all.

For EU, it’s also an added problem on top of already big pile of complicated issues to deal with: economic and financial crisis (Greece), armed conflicts and wars and their consequences (Ukraine, Syria), as well as internal European disagreements (refugee quota, relations with Russia, enlargment fatigue).


Kosovo migrant’s profile

Be that as it may, the reality of too many Kosovars willing to leave Kosovo is plain to see. The reasons are many, and they include poor economic situation, social and political instability, poor public services, lack of progress in rule of law, as well as weak institutions and deficient democracy.

Official statistics give a grimm picture; according to Kosovo Statistics Agency data, of little less than 1.8 milion population in Kosovo 34.5 % live in poverty and 12.1 % in extreme poverty. In numbers, this amounts to around 580.000 citizens living in poverty and another 200,000 in extreme poverty.

Based on these figures, and individual interviews with people that attempted to illegaly migrate from Kosovo towards EU, a study was conducted aiming to build up the profile of a typical Kosovar who wants to leave the country for better life. The study, produced in December 2014 by Prishtina based “Riinvest Institute”, found that the most common reasons for migration from Kosovo are due to high unemployment and difficult living conditions and that a typical potential migrant from Kosovo is, on average, a Albanian male, 25-35 years old, unemployed, and with monthly family income less than 205 Euros, and living in conditions below the poverty line.[1]

This conclusion was confirmed by another study, “Migration 2.0: Who are the Kosovars most willing to migrate to EU countries”, published in February 2015 by Prishtina based think-tank Group for Legal and Political Studies. This study also finds that “percentage of respondents willing to permanently settle in any EU country marked an increase of 26 percent in 2014 compared to 2012”.[2]

This study also confirmed that besides economic factors, amongst some other potential reasons for the increasing willingness to migrate to EU countries is also the lack of trust towards the political process and institutions. This leads to the logical conclusion that a 6-month long political deadlock after the June 2014 national elections, when political parties could not agree to form a government, was among the reasons for massive migration from Kosovo in the direction of EU, from September 2014 to February 2015, when an estimated 100,000 Kosovars attempted to illegally enter EU.


The vicious circle

The whole story is happening in the context of a process of European Integration, within which Kosovo hopes to, one day, become a member of EU. For absolute majority of Kosovo parliamentary parties, EU membership has no alternatives, and it remains the strategic goal of all Kosovar political leaders. The greatest proof is the fact that due to European process, Kosovo has agreed to sit and discuss difficult issues, and reach compromise and unpopular agreements, some even constitutionally questionable, for the sole purpose of opening up the EU entrance door just a little bit more.

But, the desire of so many ordinary Kosovars to migrate to Europe at all costs is hurting Prishtina’s European membership dream. The latest wave of illegal migrants has slowed down the process of visa liberalization with EU Schengen countries for Kosovo, which is the only Western Balkans country that’s is not part of a visa-free travel to Schengen zone.[3]

But, the lack of meaningful progress in European Integration, such as visa free travel or lifting of trade restrictions with EU, is also among the factors inciting migration, because people are slowly losing patience and trust in the European promise.

And this puts Kosovo in a vicious circle, that’s proving too difficult to break, especially with the kind of political instability that is characterizing Kosovo in the last two years, that’s culminating with the current confrontation between government and opposition, that has seen tear gas being thrown inside the parliament building, members of the parliament being arrested, and opposition protesters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the Police.

And, who wouldn’t want to run away from that?!


[1] Study titled “Why are Kosovars leaving” was based on opinion poll conducted with 100 Kosovars who attempted illegal migration to Europe, through Hungary

[3] There was no official statement linking the visa liberalization process of Kosovo with migration crisis, but in more than one occasion EU diplomats have unofficially and off the record stated that stopping migration was essential for visa free regime to be possible. Also, among conditions set for Kosovo to fulfill in order to achieve Schengen visa-free regime is the demand to repatriate the Kosovo migrants and asylum-seekers in EU countries, mainly concentrated in Germany and Austria.