Leaving Kosovo: Exodus of young people as frustration soars

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Media caption,

"We are like two million birds in one cage, but we are hoping for a better life"

The scene in Mitrovica's 7 Arte Cafe seems convivial enough.

Fairy lights twinkle, a mixture of Albanian and English-language hits play over the sound system and the 20-somethings gathered around the tables regularly break into laughter.

But the joviality papers over a grim reality for these young people.

Kosovo may have unilaterally declared independence from Serbia seven years ago, but recently there has been little to celebrate.

It does not quite have the highest youth unemployment rate in the region - that dubious honour belongs to Bosnia - but almost six in 10 of Kosovo's young people cannot find a job.

And with the youngest population in Europe, more than half of whom are aged 25 or under, that represents a serious problem.

The 7 Arte Cafe is among the casualties. It rarely opens these days, because its customers either cannot afford the 50 cents for a coffee, or make one drink last all evening.

So it is easy to understand why tens of thousands of Kosovans have left since the start of the year - enduring uncomfortable bus journeys and illegal border crossings to make their way into European Union countries.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Many Kosovan migrants endured freezing conditions to cross into Hungary from Serbia this winter

"It's sad that this is happening, but it's not their fault; they're just looking for a better life," says one of 7 Arte's customers, 22-year-old Ardita Gjergieku.

Ardita is one of the lucky ones. She has a job in marketing in the capital, Pristina.

But she is still planning an exit of her own - she is studying English and applying for scholarships at universities in the US and Europe.

"The youth of Kosovo is very healthy and has a high potential to work," she says.

"It's a shame they can't contribute, and use this high potential that they have."

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Cafe owner Lulzim Hoti: "In any prison, if you found an open window you'd escape"

Others at the cafe are studying for English-language tests to make themselves more attractive to foreign employers and academic institutions.

"Most of them think the only solution is to go abroad because you can find a job or get more pay," says Lulzim Hoti, the founder of 7 Arte, which is a youth-orientated cultural organisation as well as a cafe.

"They believe everything outside Kosovo is much easier."

Lulzim, like many others, wonders whether the recent exodus was organised in some way, so dramatic was the upsurge in the numbers scrambling to leave.

But he admits that the situation for young people is so dire that even a rumour that an exit was possible would have encouraged many to pack their bags.

"In any prison, if you found an open window you'd escape - just to see something else and experience freedom," he says.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A Kosovo Albanian family leave for Serbia, who said in February that 1,000 people were entering through Kosovo every day

Many Kosovans make the point that it is hard for them to go to other countries due to the need for visas for most destinations.

This makes foreign travel akin to forbidden fruit for young people - and therefore all the more attractive.

But many of those who have left recently may be returning sooner than they would have wanted.

'Make a difference'

Several EU countries have said they will not accept any asylum applications from Kosovans, whose home they now consider 'safe'. Instead, they will be quickly repatriated.

"Those who have left will have to come back," says Kosovo's European Integration Minister, Bekim Collaku.

"My message to young people is: don't go. Stay here and make a difference in your country - your potential is needed now.

"If they're still determined to go, they'll have to work with us to make it possible to travel in a legal way. Illegal migration should not be the solution."

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Many windows damaged in protests in Pristina this January remain unrepaired

But many young people cannot imagine working with a political elite which they hold in contempt.

The windows of the main government building in Pristina remained shattered for weeks after a violent protest in January - evidence of the increasing frustration that has been building here.

Kosovans have endured a series of botched privatisations which have proved devastating for many former state-owned businesses, while many high-profile political figures have visibly increased their personal wealth.

Moving forward

Many people look to the EU for change; Brussels has its largest foreign mission in Pristina. But the EU and some of its member states have faced criticism for supposedly playing favourites with Kosovo's politicians, rather than holding them to account.

Last year's elections once again returned the same faces to power in slightly different jobs, but the EU says it believes progress is possible.

"We have to give the new government a chance to roll out its policies," says Tom Gnocchi, the head of the economic section of the EU delegation in Pristina.

"Their ideas are good - but implementation is the challenge. We're encouraging them to create real change."

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Ardita Gjergieku plans to return home to Kosovo "to lead and teach" after studying abroad

That would certainly be welcomed by Kosovo's young population. But one gets the feeling that they are not holding their breath. Instead, people like Ardita Gjergieku are taking matters into their own hands.

"I'm planning to get a master's degree abroad, then return and contribute to my country," she says.

"I want to establish a new company, influence people, lead and teach so the country goes forward."

It seems likely that Kosovo may lose many more of its brightest prospects before it finds a way of offering them hope at home.