In late 2014 and early 2015, many parts of Europe saw a sharp increase in asylum seekers from Kosovo, resulting in broad repercussions across the region.
According to available statistics from Eurostat and recipient governments, over 37,000 asylum seekers of Kosovo origin registered during the entire year of 2014, with an additional 42,000 during the first months of 2015. The number of irregular migrants and asylum seekers from Kosovo peaked during early to mid-February and since subsided.
Economic reasons are the main push factor (35%) for Kosovars to look for alternative opportunities in the EU countries, according to a rapid survey conducted by the Kosovo Ministry of European Integration. The main pull factor is family reunification (46%) as one in three Kosovars have at least one family member abroad, and Kosovars are the only citizens in the Balkans unable to travel to Schengen areas without a visa. The other underlying causes of migration from Kosovo are political reasons or conflict-related (8%), the lack of opportunities to relevant education (1%), and other reasons (10%).
Misinformation spread on social media also played a role in the rise of irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Rumours widely circulated online stated that Germany was accepting seasonal workers from Kosovo, and about France and Germany putting Kosovo on a “safe country” list later in 2015. Moreover, it was broadly taken for granted that asylum seekers would quickly receive housing benefits and the right to employment, which prompted many families to withdraw their children from school and sell their properties in order to afford the fees demanded from smugglers.
Kosovo citizens’ new ability to travel through Serbia with local identity documents – a point of negotiation during the EU-backed Brussels Agreement between Pristina and Belgrade in 2013 –further contributed to the spike in irregular migration.
During the height of the crisis in early and mid-February, IOM Chief of Mission Jorge Baca Vaughan met with the Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and President Atifete Jahjaga to offer IOM’s technical support and advice to assist in crafting a coherent government response to address the major migration push and pull factors and reduce to risks of vulnerable migrants.
Both the prime minister and president highlighted the important role that IOM has played in the return and reintegration of Kosovars to the country, and particularly welcomed IOM’s placement of a high-level advisor to the prime minister to develop corrective measures. President Atifete pledged that Kosovo will work to strengthen rule of law, support economic development, and restore its citizens’ trust in her country’s institutions.
IOM expressed the need for advanced preparation to ready for the effective return of a large number of irregular migrants to be returned via readmission agreements with governments in the region.
To further support coordination among countries of destination at the height of the crisis, IOM facilitated a roundtable of migration attaches from the diplomatic community in Pristina, which has since become a monthly affair.
Returns of Kosovars Commence
Indeed the Hungarian government and Kosovo Ministry of Interior organized the first return of over 70 Kosovars whose asylum applications were unsuccessful in late February. A new agreement between the governments of Serbia and Hungary permitted the expedited and less expensive method of return through Serbia’s land territory in early March. Returns from Hungary can be expected to be numerous, as since 2014, more than 43,000 Kosovars requested asylum there.
Chartered flights of Kosovars being returned from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany also commenced, with the governments in each country increasing their capacity to expedite the asylum process for Kosovar citizens.
Footage of Kosovars being returned en masse may have had a considerable effect on the public debate in Kosovo and contributed to stemming the flow of people leaving for the time being.
However, IOM fears this will only push Kosovar migrants further into irregular channels and fearful of interception by authorities in countries of transit and destination.
As the main push factors behind the migration flows from Kosovo revolve around the lack of economic opportunities, IOM and the UN Kosovo Team continue to lobby for an increased focus on support to employment creation initiatives in Kosovo, creating the conditions for further investments from the Kosovar diaspora throughout Europe and North America, and building the skills of the labour force to match the needs of the local and regional market demands.