A sad story from the edge of Europe last week: fifteen Kosovar Albanians died trying to cross the border between Serbia and Hungary. The border there is a a river, the Tisza, which is a large and swift-flowing tributary of the Danube. The Albanians were illegal immigrants trying to move from Kosovo into the EU. Their boat capsized and most of them drowned. The immigrants seem to have been family groups, and the dead include at least two children.
Kosovo declared a national day of mourning last week. Serbia, which still claims Kosovo as part of its territory, made no official statement.
It’s a very sad incident that points to some realities in the region.
1) Kosovo still has major problems. The economy is weak, and unemployment is ridiculously high. Therefore, Kosovo is full of people who desperately want to get out to the EU. It is exporting large numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
The new EU visa rules have done nothing to help this, since they specifically excluded Kosovo. It is difficult for a Kosovar to travel to Europe legally. So, inevitably, they turn to smugglers. Unfortunately, many of these are criminals, irresponsible, incompetent, or all three.
2) Despite past war and current bad relations, Kosovo and Serbia are still closely intertwined. The immigrants had no trouble crossing into Serbia, and seem to have spent a little time there before attempting the river crossing. It has been alleged — without confirmation — that some of the smugglers were Serbian.
The Serbia-Kosovo border is quite porous. Much of the border region is rural, rugged, or both. A tremendous amount of regional trade crosses it every day, grey, black and white. (Kosovo runs a huge trade deficit with Serbia, and so is a major source of euros for Serbia’s economy.) Even while the bridges in Mitrovica are still patrolled by symbolic “bridge watchers”, people and goods move across much of the border as if it hardly existed.
3) Serbia is continuing with its policy of claiming Kosovo’s territory while trying to pretend that the two million Albanians who live there don’t exist. Serbia’s formal position is that the Kosovar Albanians are Serbian citizens. But when fifteen “Serbian citizens” drowned trying to cross a river from Serbia to Hungary, the official response has been… complete and total silence.
Had the dead been ethnic Serbs from Kosovo, then Serbia would have been the one declaring a day of national mourning, and elected officials would have been standing in line to speak at the funerals. Official Kosovo… well, no mourning. But I suspect they would at least have made a public declaration of sympathy. That’s not because Kosovar Albanians are nicer or more empathetic than Serbs, but because they’ve consistently been a bit more adroit and thoughtful in their public diplomacy.
4) Anti-Albanian bigotry has become pretty much hardwired into Serbian public life. It’s not that Serbia’s elected officials are clumsy at diplomacy (though many of them are). It’s that stating sympathy for Albanians would be politically difficult in Serbia.
The reverse is… less true; while K-Albanians don’t love Serbs, they haven’t made anti-Serb sentiment a key element of their pubilc discourse. There are several reasons for this, but one is just obvious and simple: the Albanians won. So they don’t feel the same need to dwell, dwell, dwell on the conflict.
Also — as I’ve discussed elsewhere — K-Albanians have much more contact with Serbs and Serb culture than Serbs do with Albanians. If you live in Kosovo, you’ll at least pick up Serbian TV and radio broadcasts encounter bilingual streets signs in Prishtina and the major towns. If you live in Serbia, you can go through life without ever encountering a single word of Albanian. So it’s a bit easier for Serbs to demonize Albanians as an alien, criminal, almost demonic “other”.
5) It’s easy to point out that current EU immigration policy is inhumane and stupid. Pointing out what should replace it is more difficult. But here’s a thought. The Kosovars seem to have paid several thousand euros each to be smuggled across the border. And they weren’t desperately poor or uneducated — apparently, most of the adults had high school degrees, some had college, and all spoke some languages (Serbian, German, English).
And they weren’t Senegalese or Kyrgyz. Kosovo is culturally European. Very poor European, but European. It’s not some alien land of veiled women, polygamy, hereditary autocrats and honor killings. Given the chance, Kosovars integrate into western or central European society just as well as Ukrainians or Poles. (Or — perhaps a better analogy — as Sicilians, Greeks or Portuguese did, a generation or two back.)
Again, it’s not clear what the answer is. But forcing these people onto an overloaded raft on a dark, cold river at night doesn’t seem the best possible outcome.