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Bereft Of Hope And Faith, Kosovo's Youths Stream Abroad

Hungarian police guard Kosovar migrants after they illegally crossed the Hungarian-Serbian border in early February.
Hungarian police guard Kosovar migrants after they illegally crossed the Hungarian-Serbian border in early February.

PRISTINA -- Pristina's downtown bus station is packed every evening. And as each outbound bus pulls out, a little bit of Kosovo's future disappears around the corner.

The bus station is just the first stage of a journey for the tens of thousands of Kosovars who are leaving the impoverished country.

Most of Kosovo's would-be emigres take the night bus from Pristina to the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Then they make their way to the northern Serbian city of Subotica, about 20 kilometers from the Serbia-Hungary border.

From there -- either on their own or with the assistance of paid human traffickers -- they try to cross over into Hungary to pursue the dream of a better life in the European Union.

"I can't get a job," says Fatos Hasolli, an engineer in his mid-20s from Fushe-Kosova, who was waiting to board a bus earlier this month.

"There is no chance for me to get a job because everything here depends on having influential connections. There is no hope, and the only sensible thing to do is to head somewhere where you might be able to find work."

Many stay in Hungary, but some, like Hasolli, plan to go farther west.

"I think in Germany it is better," Hasolli says. "We have the education. We have some experience, and we can work anywhere. I don't have anyone waiting for me there, but I'm sure I can make it on my own."

Kosovar Migrants, Fleeing Poverty, Stream Into Hungary
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WATCH: Kosovar Migrants, Fleeing Poverty, Stream Into Hungary

Kosovo marks the seventh anniversary of its declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17. But it remains Europe's poorest country. Thirty percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million citizens live in poverty, 10 percent in extreme poverty. Unemployment is more than 30 percent, while per capita GDP is just 3,000 euros.

The exodus of young Kosovars is alarming. The government says 26,000 Kosovars applied for asylum in EU countries in 2014, although the total number of people who have left is certainly higher.

"Kosovo's citizens have lost their trust in this country's institutions," says Emrush Ujkani, a professor of European law at Pristina University. "These institutions no longer have the power to stop the migration."

But fleeing to the EU is a risky step and most asylum seekers can expect their applications to be rejected and to be returned home even poorer than when they left.

Increased Numbers

Nonetheless, the European Commission said on February 11 that the number of migrants from Kosovo who are seeking asylum has jumped by 40 percent since December. The outflow seems to have peaked in December and January, but remains high.

The precise cause of the sudden uptick is unclear. Ibrahim Rexhepi, an analyst with the Center for Social and Strategic Studies in Pristina, says there have been stories in local media recently about job opportunities in some EU countries. In addition, in September 2014, Serbia and Kosovo signed a bilateral agreement on freedom of movement that seems to have encouraged out migration.

Also, Rexhepi says, traffickers have reduced the fees they are charging to get Kosovars into the European Union.

"The smugglers working with transport agencies have dropped their prices for this journey toward Western Europe," he says. "Before, it cost a couple thousand euros, whereas today, one can be smuggled for 200 or 300 euros."

That makes a big difference for people like Flamur Gashi, a Pristina native in his early 20s, who left the capital on February 1 with just 400 euros in his pocket. He spoke to RFE/RL by telephone on February 16 from a migrant shelter in Nuremburg, Germany.

"We are expecting [the German authorities] to issue us some papers, some kind of work permit, if we can find a job here," he said. Although when pressed, he admitteed that no officials had promised such documents.

Gashi said the asylum seekers will be interviewed three months after filing their application. In the meantime, the German government provides them with some financial support.

Fitim Abdullahu, an electrical engineering student from the city of Vushtrri, about 25 kilometers from Pristina, also joined the exodus out of the country this month.

"Everything is heading toward destruction, ruin," he told RFE/RL at the Pristina bus station on February 1. "This is why I have decided to leave. I have interrupted studying for my master's degree. I want to leave."

The government is scrambling to come to grips with this growing problem. President Atifete Jahjaga was in Vushtrri on February 6, less than a week after Abdullahu left.

"Kosovo has no people to lose," Jahjaga told a small gathering of locals on the street. "Our state will be seven years old on February 17. I am with you. All these concerns and issues are my concerns too. You should not leave. You should stay. The easiest thing to do is to turn our backs on Kosovo. It is more difficult to stay and find a solution together."

But it was a hard sell for the desperate crowd.

"Find me a job and I will not go," one man shouted back to her. "I am planning to leave tomorrow. But if you find me a job, I will stay."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague

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