Escaping poverty in Kosovo

Faton crumpled his university degree, packed a bag and left Kosovo, hoping to overcome the dangers of sneaking across borders into Western Europe and looking forward to the construction job his relatives had promised him.

The 27-year-old architect decided to pay traffickers to smuggle him to “Schengen land”, the passport-free zone in Western Europe, after Germany and Greece refused him visas on three occasions over several years.

Faton, who is among the army of unemployed who comprise an estimated 45% of Kosovo’s population, grew fed up with the lack of hope and the poor living conditions—he was crammed into an apartment in Pristina with his parents and five siblings. Only one family member had a steady job.

“We sold some land, and I paid €1 000 to people who will get me to Munich,” Faton told the German Press agency, dpa, before leaving. “My brother will pay the balance of €1 500 when I call from Germany.”

The route planned for his group of illegal migrants goes through Serbia, Romania and then to Nagykanizsa in Hungary, within the Schengen zone.
From there, Faton presumably has an open road to Germany, where he has an uncle in Munich.

His plans do not include the perilous crossings of rivers along borders, such as the one that went terribly wrong in October in Tisza, between Hungary and Serbia, where more than a dozen Kosovo Albanians drowned.

The lucrative business of human trafficking to the West is so secretive that even months after the tragedy, it is unclear how many drowned when their inadequate vessel capsized in the river.

Seven traffickers involved in the case were arrested in Kosovo.

“I know that it’s risky, but I can’t live this way anymore,” Faton said. “I only told the guy who’s arranging my trip that I don’t want to swim rivers and lakes, as some do.”

Extreme poverty
A surge of Albanians fleeing Kosovo flooded Western Europe, mainly Germany and Switzerland, during the political turmoil of the 1980s and violence of the 1990s.

But the desire of many young Kosovo Albanians to escape remained even after Nato ousted Belgrade’s security forces in 1999, and nothing changed even when the former Serbian province declared independence on February 17 2008.

Kosovo authorities estimate that today 300 000 to 550 000 Kosovars live in Germany and another 200 000 in Switzerland. There are many more Albanians in those countries from Albania proper, as well as in Italy and the United States.

Most fled the repression of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, but even now, the outbound flow continues. It is no surprise, as the achievement of political goals did not improve the standard of living.

According to the Pristina-based research institute, Riinvest, nearly one-fifth of the roughly two million people in Kosovo, 90% of them Albanian, live in “extreme poverty” today.

Dramatically receding volumes of foreign investment and aid, lagging reforms and widespread corruption cloud the already bleak outlook.

The authorities do little to encourage people to stay—after all, the hundreds of thousands living abroad send about €350-million home each year to help their families survive.

The figure is an estimation by Riinvest, as officials in the Finance Ministry say that they do not have the exact data, as much of the money from abroad comes in cash.

Once they reach their destination in the West, Kosovo Albanians make contact with their welcoming diaspora to find jobs, more often than not in the low-paid construction business, where the illegal migrants working in the black labour markets are easy to hide.

Some are lured into the powerful Albanian underworld, but even they traditionally continue supporting their families left behind in Kosovo.—Sapa-dpa

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