A few months ago I came across an old photograph of me in a box filled with personal and family momentos. I looked closely at the picture — taken when I was around 18 — wondering about that ragged, long-haired, teenager with ripped jeans and pierced ears. Flipping the picture over, I saw scribbling on the back. It simply read, “My dream is to get the hell out of this god-forsaken place.” I leaned backed in my chair, staring at the picture and I felt like I was looking not only at an insecure and vulnerable teenager but also a portrait of what I lived through in the 1990s. The scribbling was a statement that captured a yearning of a generation that wanted to desperately leave Kosovo and go someplace where life might just be more appealing.
My hankering to expatriate came in the midst of the darkest period of my generation—a youth ripped apart by an oppressive state that policed the streets with uniformed thugs disguised as law enforcement who beat us at their whim, interrupted our games and humiliated us in front of our dates. Life was difficult and often violent. Things had been falling apart for years. I sought refuge in a close circle of like-minded friends with scattered lives and lofty dreams, and together we formed a short-lived garageband that we called “Aquila,” which in Latin means “Eagle.” We tried to make music, but this was a mere sideshow for us because we lived and breathed to flee Kosovo. Our country was spiraling down a black hole — like it always seems to be. Desperation had ensued and people were held captive in a pernicious narrative that their lives had unraveled and all hope was lost.
The tragedy of illegal immigration that is unfolding today in Kosovo is different from that described above in one major aspect. Back then people fled not only from poverty but from a state that killed, jailed and persecuted them every day. Today, people are not escaping a murderous state, but they’re fleeing both extreme poverty and a sense of hopelessness. Let’s start with the obvious. Many Kosovo families linger in destitution as studies show that close to one third of Kosovo population lives in extreme poverty. It’s hard to judge these people for what they do to give their children a better life even if that means blindly taking to the road. Poverty is hard. It erodes the ability to think clearly and it upends one’s dignity by the overpowering necessity to take action and leave misery. Destitute people are in a constant, brutal fight to survive the choking economic and social conditions. They will believe lies and take outrageous risks to escape from that one third of extreme poverty, from the island of misery.
This is not to say that all those who flee are extremely poor. For desperation doesn’t only come from extreme poverty, but from a sense that prosperity in Kosovo is forever elusive. Crude economic measures don’t quite show it, but beyond the extreme poverty, there are a lot of people in Kosovo who are stuck in a grey economic area, muddling through, trying to get somewhere with their lives. People who live in this medium may not be terribly poor, but they may want things that make life slightly more appealing: better healthcare, better schools, more secure jobs, a cleaner government.
Muddling through in life is often seen as running on a treadmill. You get nowhere regardless of how hard you try to run. People who muddle through are probably not those who ask for handouts, but they are stalked by poverty that threatens them everyday showing up in unpaid bills, sick children and a hopeless job market. Those who find themselves in this predicament may work hard to improve their lives inside Kosovo, but they are often distracted by a distorted image of life abroad that visiting immigrants present when they come to Kosovo awash in cash. A large diaspora who flood the country during the summer display their prosperity and wealth in flashy cars, big houses, and expensive vacations. They pour hundreds of millions of euro into Kosovo each year, boosting temporary consumption and spreading ephemeral satisfaction. Most importantly, these visiting immigrants create wildly unrealistic expectations for the vast majority of Kosovars struggling to improve living conditions. Even if you have a modest job in Kosovo, it all seems pointless somehow to toil on forever with few hundred euros a month when you can just emigrate a few thousand miles north and return rich in a few years. This grotesque understanding of life outside Kosovo is devastating and it may play a critical role in convincing people—even those with modest means—to take to the road.
But beyond this introspective look, there are external players that have forced Kosovars into this desperate corner. No doubt that Kosovo suffers from an incompetent government that has consistently failed them. But the European Union, itself, suffers from a shortsighted, destructive and backfiring policy on Kosovo. It has squeezed and isolated a tiny country bringing free travel all around its borders while turning Kosovo into a blackhole of Europe. The EU has granted visa liberalisation to countries as far east as Moldova, but not to the tiny Kosovo. To be sure, visa liberalization doesn’t mean work visas, and this may not solve Kosovo’s economic problems, but it would have given Kosovars an incentive to cherish the opportunity to travel freely and visit their relatives without heading for the woods and making illegal border crossings. No other region understands better that building walls and barriers will not prevent people from jumping over them reaching whatever destination they seek. But it’s ultimately tragic that for a continent that has enabled free movement for over 300 million people, it has failed and refused to do so for less than 1.8 million in a tiny place in its own backyard. What a shame.
13 February 2015 - 10:58
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