PRISTINA/TIRANA (Reuters) - Kamer Perquki knew his chances of being granted asylum in Germany were slim after 16 years of peace in his native Kosovo, but they have just got much, much worse.
Germany is stepping up deportations of asylum seekers from Kosovo and other Balkan nations to help make way for some of the tens of thousands of people fleeing civil war in Syria and other conflict zones to seek sanctuary in western Europe.
But even as Germany, the migrants’ top destination, moves to put Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro on a list of so-called ‘safe countries’, many in the Balkans say they will not give up their dream of a new life in western Europe.
Perquki, 23, was one of about 180 Kosovars deported from Germany on Tuesday alone.
Recounting his experiences in Germany, he said: “A very nice police officer told me, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s no war now in Kosovo and you have to free up the place for others, such as Syrians’.”
Fighting in Kosovo ended in 1999 with the withdrawal of Serbian forces following a NATO aerial bombing campaign. The territory declared full independence from Belgrade in 2008, yet just in the six months to March 2015 some 70,000 Kosovars sought asylum in the European Union - more than any other nationality.
That number, up sharply from just 6,000 for the whole of 2013, partly reflects a relaxation of entry rules by Serbia, which Kosovars must cross to reach Hungary, the eastern outpost of the EU’s passport-free ‘Schengen area’.
The increase may also have been prompted by the first signs of the mass exodus of refugees from the Middle East via the Balkans that has gathered greater momentum during the summer and turned into a full-blown crisis for the EU.
Kosovars and others are often spurred on by relatives and friends already living in the EU, by local media reports of labour shortages there and by social benefits that are far more generous than average salaries in the Balkan region.
But western Europe has been growing steadily more impatient with the asylum claims from countries long at peace which all aspire to become full members of the EU in the coming years.
The EU has returned some 14,000 Kosovars since January, Kosovo’s interior ministry said.
“What people are telling us is that Germany is now processing their cases much faster,” said Valon Krasniqi of the ministry’s Citizenship, Asylum and Migration department.
“Those who choose not to return voluntarily will not be able to visit EU countries for a period of up to five years.”
Up to 800,000 Kosovars are estimated to be already living and working in western Europe, mainly Switzerland and Germany – part of an exodus that began in the late 1990s. The remittances they send home provide a vital shot in the arm for Kosovo’s economy, still mired in corruption and poverty.
Western Europe is also a big magnet for Albanians and Roma from Serbia, all keen to escape grinding poverty and sky-high unemployment at home.
Germany received 37,000 asylum requests from Albanian citizens in the first eight months of 2015, suggesting they too may be trying to capitalise on the migrant crisis that has overwhelmed border police across the Balkans as the tide of Middle East refugees swells.
As well as Germany’s clampdown, migrants from the Balkans must also now contend with a 175-km fence Hungary is building along its southern border with Serbia designed to keep them all out.
Viktor Orban’s right-wing government also plans to increase penalties for those illegally crossing into Hungary.
Yet just like the much more desperate Syrian refugees now pouring into Europe, the Kosovo and Albanian migrants seem unlikely to be deterred by such measures as the lure of life in western Europe remains too strong.
Ervin, 23, an Albanian, spent two weeks in Germany in August, trying to join his parents, brother and sister who had sought asylum there five months earlier, before being deported.
His family, who remain in Germany for now, received 300 euros per month to cover living costs, now capped at 900 euros for the whole family of four - still far more than they had ever managed to earn back home.
The Albanian government says such generosity only encourages Albanians - and others in southeast Europe - to make the trip, even if they know they may eventually be deported back home.
“They went to make money to buy a piece of land (in Albania),” Ervin told Reuters. “In Germany they were given a home but could not work. Food was half-price. Even if they stay for just six months, they might make the money for the land. Or we can pay a year’s worth of rent.”
Others who get deported may still have at least one relative who manages to stay and who can then send money home.
“When the police came for us my husband escaped,” said Rufije Omuri, 45, from Kosovo, who was deported this week with her three children.
“If he doesn’t find a job there and send us money I don’t know how we will live,” she added.
Unlike other countries in the Balkans, Kosovars do not enjoy the right to visa-free travel for up to three months in Europe’s ‘Schengen zone’. Some Kosovars are just waiting for their country to win that right and then plan to head west legally.
Others, like Enver Fazliu, have no intention of waiting that long.
“I’m just waiting for my wife to give birth and I’ll immediately go to Germany through Hungary,” said Fazliu.
Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Gareth Jones