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While Welcoming Some Refugees, Germany Is Also Expelling Migrants Back to the Balkans

Germany is expecting to receive more than 800,000 migrants in 2015. Unlike refugees from Syria or Iraq, however, people from the Balkans might not last in the European Union for long.

by Katie Engelhart
Sep 15 2015, 2:40pm

A migrant reception center hosting Balkan Photo by Matern Boeselager

They have been waiting here, in the suburbs of Munich, for seven months. Their asylum papers, they say, could arrive any day — or maybe never.

The latter option is more likely. Sisters Ridona, 16, and Alma, 18, from Kosovo, are precisely the kind of asylum-seekers that Germany most emphatically wants to keep out: those from the Western Balkans. In all likelihood, the girls will soon be on a chartered flight back to Pristina, accompanied by German police.

Already this year, EU countries have repatriated some 13,000 Kosovars, according to Kosovo's interior ministry. About as many Albanians have also been sent home. Europe is receiving floods of migrants, but it is expelling many too.

Here in Trudering-Riem — on a quiet street, near a quiet park, some 30 minutes east of central Munich — the regional government of Upper Bavaria administers a migrant reception center that is populated by Balkan families. 

The migrants live in a large purpose-built container unit that is fenced off from the street. On a recent afternoon, a gaggle of small children were playing outside with hula-hoops. Men sat in the shade, in the corner of the yard, looking bored.

"Even if they take me back to Kosovo," said Ridona, who is thin and angular and defiant, "I will come back… I want to live in the place I was born."

Related: So You've Made it to Germany: On the Ground in the New Refugee Mecca

The migrant reception center outside Munich in Trudering-Riem. Photo by Matern Boeselager.

Ridona and her sister, along with two other siblings, were born in Munich. Their parents, both Kosovar, were given refuge in Germany during the Balkan wars of the 1990s — as were hundreds of thousands of others from the former Yugoslavia. 

Their mother worked at a local hotel and their father served food at McDonalds. "We didn't have social [welfare] here," the girls insisted. "Our parents always worked." They stayed for seven years.

But eventually, things calmed in Kosovo. After a NATO aerial bombing campaign, Serb forces withdrew from the territory and, in 1999, fighting ceased. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. By then, Ridona and Alma and many others had been forced to leave Germany. "The police one day came and said we had to get out."

Now, the girls want back in. And they are joined by a rush of others from Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. According to official figures, nearly 80,000 people from Albania and the former Soviet Union sought asylum in Germany in the first half of this year: up from 19,500 over the same period in 2014.

Around 40 percent of those who arrived in Germany last year were from the Western Balkans. After Syrians, Kosovars and Albanians make up the second and third largest groups of asylum seekers in Germany.

But these migrants are frequently overlooked in international broadcasts — for unlike refugees from Syria, Iraq or Eritrea, they are unlikely to last long in the European Union.

Now, the German government, which expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers and refugees this year, at a cost of 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion), is piecing together a new national strategy meant to discourage Balkan migrants from coming — and to expel, very quickly, those who do. Controversially, the state of Bavaria is constructing refugee centers that are exclusively for Balkan people. The German news agency Deutsche Welle recently referred to them as "deportation camps."

Meanwhile, a growing number of critics accuse Germany of denying due process to Balkan citizens — and unfairly prejudicing their asylum applications. In Germany, "the rhetoric towards Syrian refugees is good; it's not questioned that we should take them in," said Wiebke Judith, of Amnesty Germany. "But concerning people from the Balkans, the rhetoric is exactly the opposite."

Early this month, Berlin announced that it would classify Kosovo, Albania, and Montenegro as "safe countries of origin": a distinction that could make it more difficult for their citizens to be granted asylum. Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia were deemed "safe" last year.

The announcement follows a street-level push. In August, Germany's Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) ran advertisements in the Balkans warning refugees not to try their luck in Berlin. One four-minute video shows downtrodden migrants being escorted back to their home countries by national police. 

"Quite a few people have believed the false promises of scam artists that it's easy to stay in Germany," a narrator reads. "Do not ruin yourself and your families financially and economically."

Those who do arrive will be "processed very quickly, in a few weeks," Bavaria's Interior Ministry spokesperson Stefan Frey told VICE News. That way, "we can send them on and have the shelters free for those that are really persecuted."

Migrants arriving at Munich's central train station are dispersed around Germany, according to an internal quota system for resettling refugees. Photo by Matern Boeselager.

In about 99 percent of cases, the German government will reject the asylum applications of West Balkan migrants — on the grounds that the travelers are not fleeing war or persecution, but rather crippling poverty, unemployment, organized crime, corruption, flailing welfare systems and little promise for financial betterment of any sort.

This explains why, today, German leaders and commentators confidently use the term "migrant" to refer to the ongoing influx of people — at the same time that journalists and academics abroad engage in heated online debates about whether the term "refugee" is more appropriate and sensitive. In Germany's view there is a refugee crisis enveloping Europe, but there is also a migrant problem.

Related: Disturbing Video Shows Migrants Being Thrown Food 'Like Animals' in Hungarian Camp

Ridona and Alma know that their chances are slim but, for now, they're prepared to "wait and wait and wait" and see.

The girls say they now live in a tiny room with their two other siblings and their parents: a closet-like space with six beds packed tightly together. They also say that for the last seven months, they have not been able to go to school — even after visiting all the schools nearby and pleading to be let in.

A spokesperson for the Bavarian Interior Minister said that asylum-seeking children are required to attend school within three months of arriving in Germany. He said that he could not comment on this specific case.

"I would study anything," said Alma, who was enrolled in a specialty math school back in Kosovo. "In Kosovo, if you don't have money you get bad grades. You have to pay the teachers for good marks."

Police meet train of migrants arriving from Hungary at Munich's central train station. Photo by Matern Boeselager.

In upcoming weeks, the government of Bavaria — which receives the bulk of Germany's migrants — will begin fast-tracking refugee applications from Syrians. It will also fast-track asylum applications from Balkan citizens.

Stefan Frey, of Bavaria's Interior Ministry, told VICE News that many Balkan migrants know very well that their applications will be denied — but that they come anyway, in order to milk the German welfare system. After all, the food, shelter, and 140 euros ($158) a month that asylum-seekers receive here, while their cases are reviewed, is often more than they would be bringing in back home. 

Youth unemployment in Kosovo hovers at around 60 percent. And those who have paying jobs often work hard for very little. Some migrants send their German government-provided money back home, to help their families — or to fund more journeys to Munich.

Indeed, some migrants from the Balkans speak pretty decent German — apparently because they come to Munich every year, or every few years, to lodge fresh asylum applications.

Melita Sunjic, from the Belgrade office of the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, has said much the same — particularly of Balkan Roma migrants. "Usually refugees want swift asylum procedures," she told theBBC. "But in this case, they complain they're too short. Roma people tell me they know they're not going to get asylum — but at least they're safe and warm."

Blarim, a 31-year-old from Kosovo, who is also living in Munich's suburbs, admits that many of his friends come to Germany "for economic reasons."

Blarim himself came for medical care. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma cancer. "The treatment in my country was completely bad… All the doctors are corrupt," he told VICE News. 

"Even if you have money, you have problems, because there are contraband medications." Blarim said that he received chemotherapy from doctors in Pristina, but that the treatment failed. He stole from his own small business to buy his medication.

Eight months ago, Blarim traveled to Munich, after hearing that Germany gives free medical care. By then, he had lumps in his neck and armpits that felt like boiled eggs — buried so deep that he couldn't straighten his neck. The day that Blarim arrived, he was ushered to a German hospital, where he stayed for five months.

He has since been discharged, cancer free, and moved to a suburban apartment, which the Bavarian government pays for. He receives check-ups each month and money to keep him going.

I asked him what he likes best about Germany. "I like everything in Germany. The people are very human." And if he is sent back? "I'll kill myself."

Blarim, 31, from Kosovo, arrived in Germany eight months ago for medical treatment. He wants to stay. Photo by Matern Boeselager

Critics of the German policy towards Balkan migrants accuse federal authorities of discriminating against Balkan asylum-seekers — and fueling national hysteria about "asylum cheats." The refugee support organization Pro Asyl has also described this policy as institutionalized discrimination.

"We find it inappropriate and also dangerous," says Amnesty Germany's Judith. "It strengthens existing stereotypes and prejudices and might encourage right-wing groups to escalate situations as we've seen in Heidenau," she said, referencing the eastern town in which protests against a new refugee home erupted in violent street fights with police.

Debate is fiercest when it comes to Balkan Roma peoples, who are also entering Germany in great numbers. A number of organizations that work with Roma populations argue that they continue to face hostility and persecution in the Western Balkans — albeit less than they might encounter in countries like Hungary.

But German state governments see things differently. Frey, the Bavarian Interior Ministry spokesman, insists that the uptick in Balkan migrants "is not about the all-encompassing 'Roma problem.' That is not the case. They are not being persecuted there in our sense of the word."

This dispute reveals a question that underlies the whole asylum-review process: How does one differentiate, cleanly, between those who deserve asylum and those who don't? The letter of the law is not always clear — and even the distinction between economic migrant and political refugee can be blurry. 

If a Roma person is very poor, and travels to Germany because they are poor, they will likely be deemed an economic migrant. But if his poverty is the result of long-standing discrimination and prejudice towards Roma people, it may be something more.

Related: Germany Enacts Border Controls After Overwhelming Influx of Migrants and Refugees

In the meantime, Germany's Balkan migrant-repelling plan shifts into place.

Under the new scheme, Western Balkan asylum applicants will not be moved into more permanent housing, but will remain in preliminary reception centers. Their asylum applications will be reviewed more swiftly — ideally, in a matter of weeks — and those denied will be more swiftly expelled.

The German state of Bavaria will also end its practice of doling out cash payments to asylum-seekers — and will instead provide in-kind donations of food and clothing.

Likewise, Balkan leaders themselves are stepping in. Albanian officials have proposed setting up a "joint center for exchange of information in the Balkans" to examine the problem. The proposal will likely be received warmly. A number of Balkan countries are currently vying for EU membership — and, presumably, the flight of highly skilled young people from their capitals doesn't look good.

Migrants receive basic medical checks outside Munich's central train station. Photo by Matern Boeselager.

Back in Trudering-Riem, the migrants are waiting. "This is supposed to be a short-term facility," Mehdi Demiraj, a 46-year-old who arrived in January, told VICE News. "We've been here for seven months now."

Did he know if would be like this? "Not at all. They tell you all kinds of bullshit at home, about there being possibilities and work here… I never thought it would be so difficult."

Mehdi says he left his wife and two young boys back in Kosovo, with the intention of sending for them later. But recently, his wife asked whether she should join him — and he told her "there's no use in coming." In this misery, there's a sign that Germany's contentious masterplan for keeping Balkan migrants out is working.

Matern Boeselager contributed to this report.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart

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