Europe

Migrant crisis: Explaining the exodus from the Balkans

  • 8 September 2015
  • From the section Europe
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Refugees and migrants wait to pass the borders from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia Image copyright AP

Since Macedonia declared a state of emergency in its border areas at the end of August, the "Balkan Route" has become notorious.

Up to 3,000 refugees, mainly from countries in the Middle East, arrive in the small south-east European country each day. A similar number cross borders into Serbia and Hungary - most of them ultimately hoping to reach Germany.

All this has served to overshadow another significant exodus - not through the Balkans, but actually from the countries of the region. In the first seven months of 2015, Germany received almost 200,000 requests for asylum. More than four in 10 of those applicants came from the Western Balkans.

Almost 30,000 of those people came from Albania - and a similar number from neighbouring Kosovo. Syria is the only country with more applicants. This represents a massive rise: Germany only received 8,000 asylum applications from citizens of Albania during the whole of 2014.

In the 1990s, conflict and forced displacement were behind the arrival in Germany of tens of thousands of ethnic-Albanian Kosovars. But no such emergency can explain this year's mass movement.

Similarly, Albania has travelled a long way from the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. It is now a democratic country and EU membership candidate led by the artist-turned-prime minister, Edi Rama.

But Kosovo and Albania share several common factors: small populations (around two million and three million, respectively); an ethnic-Albanian majority and little in the way of economic prospects.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many leaving Kosovo are doing so for economic reasons

This last factor has been the motivation behind many of the departures for Germany.

The Pristina branch of a German NGO, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, conducted a limited survey during January and February. It found that almost all of those leaving Kosovo's capital were driven by the dire economic situation - and were hoping to find jobs in Germany.

Around the same time, the BBC spoke to young people in the town of Mitrovica. One said young Kosovars were "like birds in a cage". Legitimate travel to EU countries was difficult because of visa restrictions. But at home, there were few prospects: the youth unemployment rate is around 60%.

Similar causes are behind the exodus from Albania, complicated by the return of tens of thousands of people who had lost jobs in Greece and Italy due to the financial crisis. To them, Albania's average monthly wage of €350 (£255) must seem unacceptably low.

Until now neither Kosovo nor Albania have been on Germany's list of "safe countries of origin", although that is set to change. So even though most asylum applications are doomed to failure, it takes almost a year before many people are ordered to leave the country.

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But what of the asylum applications from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro? There were almost 20,000 of these in the year to the end of July - and the great majority of these were Roma people, more than 90% in the case of Serbia.

According to organisations that work with Roma people this shows that despite the Decade of Roma Inclusion, an initiative that is backed by many eastern European states and comes to an end on 10 September, many people have been left in vulnerable situations.

"We had this Roma decade, lots of donors putting money in - but some of the key indicators have deteriorated compared to 10 years ago," says Dritan Nelaj of the Open Society Foundation.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The discrimination Roma face pushes some to seek asylum, even if they're not going to get it

"Roma people rely on informal income while economies are being regulated and formalised - they lose their position in the market and their income disappears. Housing and employment are not there. On the other hand, people feel discriminated against."

So for many Roma people, heading for Germany seems an attractive option. They trade insecure housing in the Western Balkans for a relatively well-appointed asylum centre - and even receive an allowance of €140 per month while their claims are assessed.

"Usually refugees want swift asylum procedures," says Milita Sunjic of the Belgrade branch of the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

"But in this case, they complain they're too short. Roma people tell me they know they're not going to get asylum - but at least they're safe and warm."

Unlike the unusual exodus from Kosovo and Albania, the plight of the region's Roma people is a perennial problem.

Mr Nelaj suggests the discrimination they face should make them legitimate candidates for asylum.

And Milita Sunjic says that as long as Roma families continue to suffer "abject poverty", they will continue to try their luck in Germany.


A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.