Kosovo Albanians flee misery for EU promised land

Ismet Hajdari
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A Kosovo Albanian woman hugs her child at a police station near the northern Serbian city of Subotica close to the Hungarian border on February 9, 2015

A Kosovo Albanian woman hugs her child at a police station near the northern Serbian city of Subotica close to the Hungarian border on February 9, 2015 (AFP Photo/Andrej Isakovic)

Palic (Serbia) (AFP) - The town of Palic in northern Serbia is grappling with an exodus of impoverished Kosovo Albanians who are using the small summer resort as a transit point for a better life in the EU.

In recent weeks, hotels and villas scattered around the lakeside town have been packed with ethnic Albanians who must cross through Serbia to reach Hungary, a member of the 28-nation European Union.

A network of Kosovo Albanian smugglers in Palic charges the migrants a hefty price for their desperate journey to the EU promised land -- primarily Germany.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and the predominately ethnic Albanian territory is among Europe's poorest. A third of its population of around 1.8 million people is jobless, and some 40 percent live in dire poverty.

According to Serbian authorities, more than 1,000 illegal immigrants have been detained on a daily basis since the start of February, the vast majority from Kosovo.

According to Hungarian police, nearly 8,000 illegal migrants, mostly from Kosovo, have been apprehended in the past week alone.

A typical journey for the migrants starts in Kosovo's capital Pristina. An AFP correspondent recently undertook the voyage with some 150 passengers packed into three buses heading from Pristina to Palic.

Kosovo Albanians can enter Serbia without visa restrictions.

- 'Our stomachs are empty' -

"We have independence, but our stomachs are empty," said Hasan Fazliu, 27, who was making the 10-hour trip with his wife and his one-year-old son Liridon.

"It is hard to leave your country, but it is even harder to live in it," Ilir Sejdiu, a 20-year-old construction worker said.

Once in Palic, the migrants are at the mercy of Kosovo smugglers working with local criminals, who charge an average of 300 euros ($339) per person smuggled into Hungary and demand exorbitant prices for lodging.

"I am here with my wife and two children for the second night. They charge us 100 euros for the room, and want 980 euros to guide us to Hungary," said Selman, 32, pointing to a villa named Lira where his family was staying.

Inside the villa, the corridors are packed with people. Garbage bags are piled outside.

Local media report that every day some 10 buses with would-be immigrants leave Kosovo.

"We haven't had a single day off since this started," said one bus driver, who refused to give his name.

"My boss said that if he had five buses rather than two, all the seats would be booked a week in advance."

For their part, Kosovo authorities have done little to stem the flow apart from issuing warnings against using Serbia as a transit route to enter the EU illegally.

Serbian authorities have also come under fire for failing to act.

Nearly 450 Kosovo Albanians were arrested within a three-day period this month while trying to cross illegally into Hungary. Serbian officials say they've recently received more than 60,000 requests for Serbian passports.

Kosovo citizens still need a visa to travel in the EU, while Serbian nationals can travel freely in most of the bloc's 28 member states.

The influx of economic migrants has raised tensions in Hungary, with populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowing tougher measures to shut them out.

One senior member of Orban's Fidesz party went as far as calling for illegal immigrants to be jailed until their asylum request is processed.

Last year, 43,000 people applied for asylum in Hungary, compared to 2,200 in 2012 according to official data. In January alone, Hungary received 13,000 asylum requests, the Office of Immigration and Nationality said.