So, thousands of Kosovars are getting on buses to Germany, filing claims for political asylum, and being accommodated in German shelters. The trend started in 2014, and has skyrocketed in 2015. Tens of thousands of Kosovars have applied for political asylum in Germany in the past two years. Considering Kosovo has a population of only 1.83 million people total -- half the size of Berlin -- these are gigantic numbers.
So, what has happened in Kosovo to prompt this wave of emigration? Has there been a recent crisis?
The answer is no. Kosovo is classified by the World Bank as a lower middle income country. According to the World Bank (which keeps good numbers regardless of what you think of its policies) Kosovo's Gross National Income per capital has increased 60% in the last decade. Average life expectancy has risen by 2 years over the last decade, to 70.8. That is close to the average for developing countries in Europe, and four years longer than the entire group of lower-middle income countries. Its poverty rate is 29.2%, down from 45% in 2006. Kosovo receives millions of dollars in development aid from a number of sources.
I visited Kosovo for over a week in 2010. A friend of mine was a development worker there, and gave me plenty of tips. Kosovo is easy to get around in because it's so small, but has some dramatic mountain scenery. It was very easy to chat with people, because Kosovars love Americans because of the role the US played in achieving independence. Main streets in Prishtina are named after George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and there is a massive sculpture of Bill Clinton downtown. Most younger Kosovars are trying to learn English, and many have learned it pretty well. Kosovo was the only country in Europe I've ever visited where being an American earned me spontaneous hugs, handshakes, and free gifts in stores. Like everyone in that part of the world, Kosovars are generally extremely friendly and hospitable.
Kosovo is quite safe. I like to wander around alone in cities, and I could do this everywhere I went without any problem. The only place that felt a bit sketchy were in the north, where I went to visit Gracanica, a monastery whose magnificent Orthodox cathedral whose interior is covered with 14th-century frescoes. There were a few UN or OSCE security guards there to prevent intercommunal violence, but they looked bored. If you wander into one of the few remaining Serbian enclaves in Kosovo, you'll know it, because the colors of the Serbian flag are everywhere, and you can buy pork. Serbs stared at me a bit in Gracanica, but only with curiosity. Needless to say, I didn't go around telling everyone I was an American up there. Kosovar politics are corrupt, just as they are in virtually all countries in that general region. Many political parties are based around shady millionaires or former paramilitary captains from the liberation war. Some parts of the country are still mined.
Most Kosovars are Muslim, but not at all fanatical about it. Many will say they were forced to convert by the Ottomans, and so their heart really isn't in it. Kosovo has its own kind of rakia, just like every other country in that region. And just like every other country in that region, they insist theirs is the only drinkable version and the others are horse piss. You see very few headscarves, and women in summer wear skimpy clothing. If you make the mistake of thinking that means they're available for a one-night stand, you will be immediately corrected by a brother or cousin. Bridal boutiques are literally everywhere; you get the very strong impression this is a country in which young people's only chance at regular sex is getting married.
Overall, Kosovo is about in the middle in terms of developing countries I've visited. It has all the problems developing countries have -- and there are a lot of those -- but it's not falling apart or in crisis. Starvation and malnutrition is rare, and there is an educational system that functions at a primitive level. If you can possibly afford it, you try to send your kids to private school -- just like in other countries in the region. Nevertheless, illiteracy is disappearing among younger generations, as is the literacy gap between men and women.
So, to sum up: Kosovars are not leaving their country because of war, starvation, epidemics, ethnic cleansing, or other similar issues. There is simmering low-level ethnic conflict between Albanian and Serbian ethnicities, and minorities such as Sinti and Roma do very poorly compared to the majority, which is the case in all socieities. Kosovar is not poor, it's lower-middle-income and making slow but steady progress. It is also received hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid, although there's a lively debate about whether that's done much good.
The reason Kosovars are traveling to Germany and claiming asylum is that (1) their country is relatively poor, compared to wealthier Western European neighbors; (2) Western Europe is incredibly easy to reach by plane, bus, or even informal taxi (g); (3) they have been told they will get 'welcome money' from Germany (false) and a monthly stipend of €140 while they're here (true). They have nothing to lose. If their asylum claim is rejected, as it will be, they may be able to escape repatriation any number of ways, either legally or through concealment. Odd jobs or petty crime may well earn them more money here than they could get at home. And there's always the one-in-a-million shot (almost literally one-in-a-million) that they will actually get asylum or another grant of legal status. If they are repatriated, they will simply return to whatever high-rise they lived in with their families before. I don't blame them for trying to get to Germany. I might even try this in their situation. But, in my view, that doesn't mean Germany has any moral, ethical, or legal obligation to grant them permanent legal residency status.
Here are some pictures I took on my trip to Kosovo. Interesting place! Info in hover text.