If there was any event in Europe that could have been foreseen, it was the Kosovo exodus which happened before our eyes this year. It is already taught at schools that the youngest population in Europe is that of Kosovo, and university professors have been warning us for ten years or more that the demographic changes in the former Serbian province will inevitably lead to the emigration of a large part of the population.
The Kosovo demographic explosion is usually illustrated by three numbers. While Kosovo had less than half a million inhabitants when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was created in 1918, its population grew to one million in the 1960s and reached two million by the early 1990s. After a slight decrease due to the departure of Serbs, censuses showed again an abrupt increase in the number of inhabitants. Fecundity rate, i.e. the total number of offspring a woman gives birth to in her lifetime, has been over 2.2 for years. Kosovo can be considered today a huge city spreading over a whole state.
Today it seems that after the accession to independence of Kosovo in 2008 the decision makers of the world considered the problems of the newly born state as definitely solved. They were lavish with promises. Kosovo’s leaders thought they found helpful partners in Europe, but after a time there was an ever widening gulf between words and the sad reality. The striking contrast was probably grasped the most precisely by the words of a refugee interviewed by the Serbian paper Blic, who said that he and his fellow countrymen were promised to eat their dinners with golden spoons, and now they were eating the ground with their bare hands. One can understand that after being misled by a series of empty promises, masses of Kosovars decided to leave their country for the independence of which they were ready to take up arms fifteen years ago.
The Berliner photographer Christophe Gateau visited the Pristina bus station and shared his experiences with the Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet. He saw throngs of people scrambling for tickets to Subotica and sometimes coming to blows, inveighing before TV cameras politicians whom they accused of bringing their country to ruin. Most of them boarded the buses only with their wallet and a small bag; while saying goodbye to their parents, fathers tried to keep their family together in order to arrive to Subotica without losing one another. Gateau said politicians addressing the crowds at the bus station were trying in vain to stop them.
For instance, the government has declared that the debts of the citizens will be partially cancelled, and job-creating programmes will be soon launched. But this won’t remedy the present situation: those who have decided to leave are using their remaining money to buy bus or train tickets and pay the refugee smugglers at the border.
At the Kosovar–Serbian border they perform a crossing that is probably unique in Europe: the Kosovar border guards examine their passports, while on the Serbian side they do not have to present them. In the case of children even birth certificates are accepted, drawn up in thousands by local authorities in the last weeks. That is quite sufficient: Serbia considers Kosovars its own citizens, since Belgrade refuses to recognise the independence of their country. Refugees receive only a printed document which enables them to stay on Serbian territory for 15 days.
The Kosovar crisis comes in handy for Serbia: in recent months more than 60,000 passport applications have been sent to Belgrade by Kosovo Albanians wanting to renew their Serbian citizenship. This is because the citizens of Serbia do not need visas to enter EU countries; many Kosovars abandon their national pride and turn to the country which has been their ancestral enemy. When Serbian Interior minister Nebojša Stefanivić informed the press of the data, he declared that in his view these people considered Serbia as their own country. Obviously that’s not so, since the refugees do not have the slightest intention to remain in Serbia: after crossing the border they head for Subotica via Belgrade.
Whether because Serbia wanted to show the world that these people were its own citizens or because authorities proved impotent to stop the flux of refugees, the police didn’t interfere until the reports of Norbert Sinkovics, a journalist of the Serbian section of Radio Free Europe, had spread all over the world. According to Sinkovics, taxi drivers were waiting for the buses at the Subotica station and drove the passengers for 30 euros to Palic where refugee smugglers had taken over a hotel and made it a base for illegal migrants. After the intervention of the police, the migrants were taken to the nearby village of Bački Vinogradi by taxi drivers who were unwilling to go any farther.
A few kilometres from the border, Kosovars can get instructions from the smugglers for the price of 200 euros. Smugglers usually do not lead people to the border line; they only show them the direction where it is relatively easy to get through. Refugees prefer to cross the border between Palic and Bački Vinogradi, since this is closest to Subotica, and they want to leave Serbia as soon as possible. The only natural obstacle is the channel of the rivulet Körös, which has expanded to become a five-metre-large ravine, where smugglers have thrown branches in the water to make the crossing easier. Refugees often get wet to the skin when they fail to keep their balance on the branches, and they have to change clothes on the opposite bank if they don’t want to catch cold.
Sinkovics says Serbian border guards proved to be rather lenient towards the refugees in the last weeks, and it was only after the news spread by the media that they decided to take measures, together with their Hungarian and German counterparts.
Those who are caught crossing the border illegally have to pay a penalty of 5,000 dinars (approximately 42 euros) to be released immediately. Thus they can make another try a few hours later, as many of them do.
People in Kosovo say they are starving and cannot feed their children if they are unemployed. Those without connections are unable to get jobs, even if they have professional skills. The refugees interviewed were mostly heading to Germany or Austria. As a vast number of Yugoslavs had been working in these countries at the time of the Titoist regime, most Kosovars have a family member or friend there whom they can rely on (solidarity is a lot stronger between Albanians than between the members of any other nation). Voivodina Hungarians who served in the Yugoslav army used to recount that when they got a parcel from home, they immediately drew aside from the others to see what their parents or relatives sent them. Serbian and Croatian soldiers did the same. The Kosovars, however, always shared the homemade food with one another. These are certainly distant memories for the refugees, but Kosovar solidarity has remained the same: they believe that their relatives or friends living in the Western countries will help them, for instance by giving them jobs in their business.
The control of the Serbian–Hungarian frontier was made more severe last week: the number of Serbian border guards was significantly increased and police units were also dispatched to the region. But the Kosovo refugees who disappeared in the thickets are already on the territory of the European Union.