This article was originally published on the Serbian online platform Masina: proizvodnja drustva kritike.
The recent wave of mass migration from Kosovo has, in the local media, been primarily reported through a nationalist matrix. So far, little to no attention has been paid to the structural and economic causes which, in the vast majority of instances, are the key trigger of these migrations. However, no sooner will many of these migrants arrive in their desired destination in some western European land, than they will be met with a stricter legal framework limiting the possibilities for seeking asylum and receiving work permits. In addition, strengthened control on the borders of ‘Fortress Europe’s’ peripheries will ultimately lead to deportation.
In the past several months, every day entire Kosovo Albanian families have begun uncertain nightly trips. Beginning from the main bus station in Prishtina and other cities of Kosovo they travel through Serbia to the Hungarian border and from there, in still greater insecurity, try to reach Austria, Switzerland, Germany and other western European countries. In different media reports, these journeys are characterized as a mass exodus, and with dramatic emphasis some even go so far as to suggest that this population movement can be compared with the wave of Kosovo refugees in Macedonia and Albania during the 1999 war.
Even though the situation is peaceful and without the horrors of persecution and murder that characterized the 1990s in Kosovo, the current wave of emigration is dramatic. It is estimated that since the autumn of 2014 over 50,000 residents of Kosovo have left. This gloomy assessment is confirmed by further reports that individual schools have disbanded entire classes because of unenrolment of students who have emigrated with their parents, evidence that larger villages have seen as much as 10% of their population leave and the general impression that the crowds in the streets of Prishtina are noticeably smaller than before.
The means by which these migrations are achieved is equally dramatic. Since the September 2014 agreement between Belgrade and Pristhina regarding the freedom of movement between the two territories, persons carrying Kosovo documents were granted free transit through Serbia. This route has become an unexpectedly wide channel for accelerated migrations from Kosovo. Generally, these travellers are younger people with very little luggage, often newly married couples with young children, but they also include the middle-aged and the elderly, especially when entire extended families decide to emigrate. They are usually boarded onto irregular buses or some other vehicle in which they are carried to the northern Serbian town of Subotica.
Once they arrive in Subotica, they are housed in the holiday resorts that line the shores of Palić Lake, located near the Hungarian border. These accommodations, owing to the increased demand in recent months, have become particularly expensive in comparison to their usual off-season prices; according to the testimonies of migrants, the price for one night is around one hundred euros per room. From these resorts, emigrants search out ways to make contact with people-smugglers who transport them through the border with Hungary. These smugglers often charge an incredibly high fee, and because of this some travellers try to find their own way into Europe, sometimes paying local taxis to drive them to the very border.
The border itself is crossed in the so-called ‘green belt,’ the region where it is poorly guarded. The crossing is made on foot and usually at night, in order to reach the town of Szeged or Ásotthalom unnoticed. During the cold periods of this winter, when the whole region was covered by snow, such an undertaking was particularly arduous and risky. Those able to avoid arrest on the border most often find their way to Budapest and from there move on to Western Europe, whose borders are porous thanks to the Schengen system. Of those, however, who do not escape arrest (the majority of cases), many make sure that they have the cash ready to pay the fine so that they can attempt to immediately cross the border again. If the arrest is made on the Hungarian side of the border, however, the travellers will immediately apply for asylum, comforted by the knowledge that they are at least still in the territory of the European Union.
Even without the personal testimonies of the serious dangers that are faced on these desperate journeys, the accounts recorded and presented in detailed media reports as illustrations of the current migrations, induce compassion. Indeed, just the very idea of the suffering which threatens a large number of people with small children who are forced to leave their home to undertake an uncertain journey evokes sympathy.
However, in the official reactions to this wave of migrations, there has been no sign of compassion.
The first reaction of the Hungarian government reflected a certain degree of panic owing to the increased number of people passing through the border unchecked. Right wing political functionaries announced that persons applying for asylum should be held in prison while their requests were processed, or called for a fence to be built, similar to those which currently stand along the Turkish-Bulgarian or Mexican-US borders, in order to protect not only Hungary, but the EU. From the other side, the first reaction of Serbian officials reflected a snide satisfaction that these migrations seemed to confirm the state’s foreign policy strategy to symbolically challenge Kosovo’s symbolic independence. In reference to the migrations, Nebojša Stefanović, the Serbian Interior Minister, claimed that some 60,000 Kosovo Albanians applied for Serbian passports (with which it is, in principle, possible to travel in the Schengen zone countries without a visa). ‘A great number of Albanians,’ he added in an utterly inappropriate statement, ‘apparently want to recognize Serbia as their country. That is how I interpret this data.’
Of course, a still more drastic reaction came from Germany, where officials stated that they will make further efforts in the future to dispel the apparent misconceptions which exist in Kosovo regarding the possibility of receiving asylum and work in Germany. At the same time they noted that moves will be made to ensure that border controls between Serbia and Hungary are further strengthened to prevent illegal immigration to Germany. The German media has already delivered reports about the cramped and uncomfortable housing intended for the newest Kosovo citizens seeking asylum. Asylum applications from Kosovo have also been prioritized for speedy processing by the German authorities. And as, in general, it is the case that those applications that receive expedited processing are more likely to be denied asylum, many of these applicants will be forcibly returned to their country of origin and banned from future entrance to the entire Schengen zone. In his statement to the media, Manfred Schmidt, president of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, recognized the difficult economic situation in Kosovo but insisted that poverty, according to the Geneva Convention, was not a justified reason for asylum. He added that neither in Germany nor in other countries of the European Union is economic hardship sufficient for a person to receive refugee status.
The statement of the German functionary touches on the real problem, but clearly displays a cynical, systematic disavowal of any responsibility. The people in Kosovo are clearly deprived of any such prosperity. Following the devastating war of 1998-1999, starting from the year 2000, the governing administration of the territory, acting under the auspices of the international community, conducted a wave of privatizations, in which a large number of companies were liquidated and a good part of those that remained were given over to monopolies. The productive sector was marginalized in relation to trade and services and the majority of investments were oriented toward the development of road infrastructure and the real estate market.
Population density and the average young age of the population, which should represent a comparative advantage of Kosovo’s economy, have been transformed into an additional social burden. The rate of unemployment is estimated at higher than 45%. Around 30% of the population live in poverty and even around 10% in extreme poverty (living on less than a dollar a day). Alongside this, political frustrations brought about by the rejection of the country’s sovereignty and the exhausting negotiations with Serbia, the population’s doubt in the legitimacy of the government (as well as the absence of a creditable political alternative) and the evident corruption of the international tutors, as embodied by the behaviour of the EULEX mission, have further fed the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. The fatal idea that some parts of the population are simply superfluous, people whom nobody requires and who will need to manage by themselves, has been imposed on Kosovo. In this way, it is a society typical of peripheral capitalism in Europe – especially in the current stage of general economic recession.
Through such a globally-imposed, Malthussian ideological lens, individual countries of the capitalist periphery, such as Serbia, are given a political role as a cordon sanitaire in controlling migration. Thus, in the meantime, the number of travellers from Kosovo passing through the Serbian-Hungarian border has decreased significantly and Minister Stefanović has decided to eschew his witty remarks and to apply himself to the tasks assigned him: ‘We will continue to work with colleagues from Germany and Hungary on the border crossings; the thermo-imagining cameras, which have just arrived, will help us greatly to secure the green parts of the border and we have strengthened our control at the border crossings,’ he said on 18 February. The resources of impoverished Serbia have again been placed in the service of defending Fortress Europe and the Serbian police – thanks to the irony of history – have once again been placed beneath the command of German police.
We are reminded that the precursor of the Schengen Agreement was the institutionalized, cross-European cooperation of police organs and judiciary in combatting the political extremism of the 1970s. At the time, ministries of interior affairs of the member states of the European Community established the TREVI network, which was responsible for hunting down leftist extremists and radical elements across national borders. After the extension of such policies later, particularly after 1990, the signatories of the Schengen Agreement acquired appropriate military equipment, including special video cameras with infrared devices for border surveillance, helicopters, armoured vehicles, patrol boats and other equipment for hunting those people who did not have appropriate visas for entrance into the EU. Specially trained units for border protection, together with hundreds of camps for temporary housing used in the process of deportation, were created in order to preserve the large social gap between the Western European imperialist metropoles and the Southern and Eastern peripheries. In addition, this system ensured that the great army of disenfranchised immigrants serving as cheap labour in the lands of the EU, might be more easily controlled. Control of migration to the EU has so far cost the lives of thousands of people from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Situations, such as the current mass migration from Kosovo, press home the need for a persistent search for models of economic and social organization through which the relations of dependence on the centres of finance capital can be severed, and the structural conditions for the use of local resources in satisfying the basic needs of the people can be established. Such a task is not an easy one, particularly when we take into account the strong military presence of the leading imperialist powers in Kosovo itself, as well as the deliberate agitation of national antagonisms in the region more broadly. Therefore this winter’s emigration, an aimless journey of a great number of desperate people living in uncertainty, needs to be understood as a mute appeal for the creation of a more powerful and more articulate Balkan-wide political platform of solidarity and resistance to the domination of capital and to a political logic that treats people as superfluous.
Translated from Serbian by James Robertson
Vladimir Marković is a sociologist. He works as research support officer at the University of Belgrade. He was an editor of Prelom magazine 2001-2006. His research interests include political sociology, social movements and critique of ideology.