In May of 2015, I was sitting in a room full of asylum seekers and some German officials in an asylum center in Germany. There I was volunteering as an Albanian/German interpreter for the asylum center that was dealing with a large number of asylum requests from Kosovar and Albanian citizens. “Tell them they have almost zero chance of getting asylum here,” the German official said to me. “We want to try our luck anyway,” the asylum seekers replied.
As I was translating the concerns of these asylum seekers, who had come to Germany to work and not to sit in asylum centers, one of them shouted: “I do not want asylum, I want to work! Translate it!”
That year, Kosovo and Albania were among the countries whose citizens made up the largest number of asylum seekers in Germany — comparable with countries at war in the Middle East. Albania was ranked immediately after Syria, and was followed by Kosovo, leaving Iraq and Afghanistan behind in terms of the number of asylum seekers at that time.
The increased number of asylum seekers stemmed from various factors including unemployment and lack of prospects in the Balkans, a great deal of misinformation from traffickers that Albanians could work in Germany and the fact that the asylum system there provided higher monthly allowances than the average salaries in Kosovo and Albania.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, many Balkan citizens faced a lack of prospects in their country on one hand and a lack of legal migration channels to Western countries on the other. These citizens from the Balkans, and especially those from Kosovo and Albania, tried the only “possible” migration strategy, namely the illegal one through the asylum channel. The wave of asylum seekers from the Balkans, although worrisome, did not in itself spark an immense public discussion or emergency situation in Germany.
However, the pressure to find solutions for asylum seekers from the Balkans became more urgent in August 2015 with the number of migrant arrivals in Europe increasing and Germany’s decision to open the borders for those affected by wars in the Middle East. Compared to the asylum seekers form the Balkans, this new refugee situation was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
In circumstances whereby the German state was accepting war refugees, asylum seekers from the Balkans coming from relatively safe countries of origin were not a priority, but rather overburdened the asylum administration, which was already trying to deal with the number of refugees and migrants from the Middle East.
So, within Germany, there were both refugees and the so-called economic migrants. These circumstances pushed German policymakers to differentiate between refugees fleeing war and migrants fleeing from severe socio-economic situations in their countries of origin; they decided that no matter how difficult the socio-economic situation of a migrant’s country of origin, it could not be a reason for obtaining asylum. However, this did not change the fact that asylum seekers did not see the future in their countries and would often still try to migrate to another European country after being repatriated to the Balkans by the institutions.
The Balkans: A safe region without prospects
In this dilemma, German political parties agreed in the Autumn of 2015 that Balkan countries would be categorized as ‘safe countries,’ which would speed up the asylum process for citizens from these places. With the new regulations, asylum applications of citizens from the Balkans would be examined in an expedited procedure, they would receive smaller allowances from the state, and in the case of asylum refusal — which occurred in the majority of cases — asylum seekers would not be allowed to re-enter EU countries for several years.
At the same time, in October 2015, the political spectrum agreed to enhance legal employment opportunities to citizens from Balkan countries, with the so-called Westbalkanregelung (The Western Balkans Rule). According to this rule a citizen from the Balkans can receive a contract from a German company as long as no German or EU citizen has applied for the same job. In this way, German and EU job seekers would not be harmed, and German companies that face unskilled labor shortages could reach out to Balkan citizens.
The Western Balkans Rule was an innovation in asylum policy, as it opened the job market to unskilled workers, who were not required to have prior qualifications or language knowledge. Legal ways to migrate to Germany had already existed, but only for skilled workers eligible for what is known as a blue card visa. However, most of the asylum seekers from the Balkans were people with only primary or secondary education, therefore an opening of the market to unskilled labor force was crucial for these people, but also for German businesses in certain sectors which were having a hard time finding workers.
The new regulation saw 101,000 work contracts awarded to applicants from the Balkans between the end of 2015 and September 2017, with 37 percent of them (37,241) providing jobs to Kosovar job-seekers. Most of these were in construction, health services and gastronomy.
The so-called Balkan asylum problem — which saw more than 33,000 first-time asylum applications in Germany by Kosovars alone in 2015 — pressured German policymakers to rethink its asylum policy as well as its migrant policy for job seekers lacking university education. With the opening of the labor market at the end of 2015, many of the asylum seekers turned into part of Germany’s workforce, and there were a much reduced 1,300 first-time asylum applications by Kosovars in Germany last year.
However, thousands of other job seekers continue to be in line waiting for visa appointments at the German embassies of the Balkan states. In Prishtina, the average waiting time for a working visa is more than 12 months because the embassy’s limited capacity to cope with the huge number of visa requests from Kosovar citizens. This waiting time is often too long for employers, who often withdraw contract offers.
In this context, the ruling coalition in Germany is already discussing new forms of migration opportunities.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn has stated that he is seeking to cover the need for extra caregivers to help fill a national shortage in Germany with staff from the Balkans, especially from Kosovo and Albania, where according to him there are many qualified professionals who could potentially work in Germany.
Meanwhile, German Labor Minister Hubertus Heil has proposed that migrants should be given a six-month job search visa, thereby effectively eliminating the bureaucratic problem with labor contracts and the waiting that currently exists with the Western Balkans Rule. Through this scheme, job seekers need to contact a company in Germany from Kosovo, and if they receive a contract they often need to ask the German company to wait for more than a year until they receive the required visa.
By the end of this year, the ruling coalition in Germany is expected to pass the Law on Migration, which will facilitate labor migration in Germany for certain occupations — precisely which occupations it will include is still up for debate. Of course, such a law will likely have a direct impact on the Balkan countries, especially on Kosovo, where more than 50 percent of young people are unemployed and migration is seen as the easiest form of economic survival and social mobility.
Although 2015 was a sad year for Kosovo with the image of whole families migrating illegally into Western Europe, this migration demonstrated the inequality between the Balkans and Western Europe. According to the scholar of income inequality Branko Milanovic “The flight time between Vienna and Belgrade is about an hour, but the income gap between the two cities is probably around 4 to 1. This is equivalent to losing 30 percent of your income every 15 minutes.”
In addition to inequality, 2015 also demonstrated how Balkan citizens had next to no real chances to migrate legally for work on the rich side of the European continent.
The partial opening of the German labor market was a policy that has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Balkan citizens, transforming tax spenders into taxpayers, because it gave them what they had been looking for a long time — jobs, not asylum.
Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.