Ethnic Albanians flee poverty after EU visa move
The EU's decision to drop visa requirements for Macedonia on 19 December 2009 has led to a mass exodus of ethnic Albanians from the war-impoverished region of Likove to Belgium. Nobody is entirely sure how many have fled. But the schools are emptying. Entire families have sold their possessions, uprooted, and purchased the €100 one-way bus ticket to Belgium.
The promise of better life, of opportunity, has lured hundreds to an enterprise doomed to failure.
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"Better to sleep in a bus station in Brussels than here in Likove," said one villager.
Villagers have reportedly been told by relatives currently in Belgium that Belgian authorities will grant them asylum. The Macedonian government claims unscrupulous tour operators are spreading lies about Belgium's immigration policy. Tour operators deny the charge. The most likely cause is a combination of discrimination, extreme poverty, state neglect and disinformation.
In 2001 the region was entangled in war, leaving many traumatised and destitute. The lack of development and investment since then has caused despair.
"We have two lakes in the region but the villagers have no water. Instead the lake water is pumped to the nearby town of Kumanovo," said Sadula Duraku, the mayor of Likove, who claims economic discrimination.
Likove is Macedonia's poorest region and with near total unemployment. Even the fields to grow crops lie barren. Everyone in the region is ethnic Albanian - Macedonia's largest ethnic minority. Kumanovo is Macedonia's third largest city.
Forty-two children are no longer in school, according to Mr Duraku. The children, along with their parents, have simply packed up and left for Belgium.
"We will build the infrastructure to supply water to the villagers in the region and reconstruct the roads," Macedonia's deputy prime minister, Abdulaqim Ademi, said. He could not give a date and said that he is waiting for funding, however. The region has been without running water for years.
Mr Ademi said that Belgian authorities have officially registered 350 asylum claims from the region. However, not everyone fleeing to Belgium has sought asylum. It is probable that many more people have made the trip. While most have left for Belgium, others have gone to Sweden, Denmark and Germany, according to one tour operator.
In the meantime, villagers struggle to survive on less than €20 a month. The lucky ones receive extra from remittances by family members living abroad. The road leading into Likove from Arcancinovo is littered with tonnes of garbage piled metres high. The waste burns in small isolated fires, the black smoke and stench are a blight for the region, which is surrounded by snow-peaked mountains and green valleys.
Aside from media reports, there is no state-sponsored information campaign to inform villagers that Belgium will not grant them asylum, said Macedonia's minister for labour and social policy.
According to Mr Ademi, himself an ethnic Albanian, people have lost hope. The state has not invested in the region. Many buildings, like the former post-office, are empty shells - bullet-ridden and gutted from the six month war which ended nine years ago.
Flori, the co-manager of the Euro Tours bus company in Kumanovo, said that from the end of January to the beginning of February around 300 ethnic Albanians left for Brussels. Euro Tours operates just two buses.
One of Euro Tours buses had just arrived from Brussels in the late evening on 1 March. Around 25 ethnic Albanians who had left for Belgium just a week earlier were on the bus. The 36-hour journey back home had visibly crushed their spirits.
"All lies. It's all lies," said one distraught mother of two, who did not reveal the source of her information regarding the prospects for asylum in Belgium. "I'd rather sleep in my house than walk the streets in Brussels," she added, before rushing her children into a waiting vehicle.