Faced with an influx of refugees from Kosovo, Germany has initiated a fast-track procedure to speed up asylum claims - and deportation. Will that deter those seeking to flee poverty and hopelessness?
In Kosovo, where about 40 percent of the population lives in dire poverty, hope for change has dried up, Nate Tabak says, "People are leaving the country because the economy is in terrible shape - only one third of the workforce is employed." Meanwhile, Tabak from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network based in Kosovo explains, the huge successful diaspora is a "constant reminder of the better opportunities in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe."
Over the last few months the economic crisis has triggered a mass exodus of tens of thousands of impoverished ethnic Albanians. Ignoring their prime minister's deperate plea that the future of their country would be brighter if they stayed, some 20,000 people have left Kosovo so far this year, many of them heading to Germany in search of a better life. But here, poverty and a lack of opportunities don't qualify a person for political asylum - and so more than 99 percent of all claims filed by Kosovars have been denied, leading to mass deportations.
New fast-track procedures
To deal with the influx of asylum seekers from one of Europe's poorest countries, Germany this week introduced fast-track procedures, following a decision by its federal interior ministers: As of Wednesday, any asylum claim filed by a refugee from Kosovo will be processed within two weeks - down from an average of four months, according to a spokeswoman for Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).
This follows similar procedures introduced for refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia. However, this does not mean that those whose claims have been rejected are automatically deported, as they can appeal the decision within a week - and court cases can drag on for weeks, even months, the BAMF's spokeswoman concedes.
In the four federal states which have the greatest influx of refugees from Kosovo - Bavaria, Lower-Saxony, Baden-Wuerttemberg and North-Rhine Westphalia - the office tasked with processing asylum claims "will bundle all our forces on claims from Kosovo." This effectively means that for the coming weeks the office's employees will deal exclusively with claims from Kosovo. The measures, the spokeswoman stressed, are temporary, but, she adds, "at this point we are unable to give a concrete end date."
"Others will have to wait many more months"
Bernd Mesovic from the refugee organization Pro Asyl strongly condemns the government's move: "This means that other cases will pile up, so that other refugees have to wait for many, many more months until their claims are finally dealt with." It is not unusual, he adds, for "regular" asylum seekers who are not considered a priority to have to wait in limbo for up to two years. Syrian refugees are also given fast-track procedures.
According to Mesovic, the fast-track procedures were mainly introduced to send a political signal to Kosovans planning to leave their country and to rebut rumours that any asylum seeker can find a lucrative job in Germany. "Obliviously that's just not true, particularly for Kosovans." But, the human rights activist says, it might take "quite a while for people to become aware of this." He points to the dire situation in Kosovo, a country "on the brink of collapse." Given the lack of political and economic opportunities, "people obviously clutch at every straw."
Friends of his, Kosovars who have been living legally in Germany for decades, tell him of distant relatives and friends, who call them out of the blue. "And they just don't want to believe it when they're told that they can't come to Germany illegally and just walk into a well-paid job."
Record number of deportations
And so, Mesovic says, it's likely that many desperate Kosovars, fed up with their country's economic and political quagmire, will continue to make their way to Germany - only to be quickly deported back to their country. "The government will probably try to make the deportations as fast and high-profile as possible, so as to deter even more people."
Last year, the German authorities deported a record number of asylum seekers. According to government figures released following a request by the left-wing party Die Linke, 10,884 people were deported in 2014. That was the highest number since 2006. And, according to figures quoted by Bild newspaper, Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees forecasts an increase in refugees seeking asylum in Germany this year. Accordingly, faced with multiple crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, the office predicts a fifty-percent rise in 2015, reaching some 250,000 cases - that would constitute the highest number since 1994.
And, according to journalist Nate Tabak back in Kosovo, it's likely that many of them will continue to be Kosovars. He's not convinced that Germany's new asylum procedures will deter many from leaving their country.