In Germany, where a dramatic increase in asylum applications has been registered this year, much of the public and media attention has been devoted to refugees from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
But more than 40 percent of the asylum applicants registered in Germany during 2015 originated from a conflict-free, neighbouring region – the Balkans.
Some 167,287 citizens of Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina applied for asylum in Germany between January 2014 and September 2015, including 110,716 this year alone. In the first nine months of 2015, the combined total of asylum applicants from Albania and Kosovo (79,848) surpassed the number of applications from Syrians (73,615), while there were more applications by Serbs (22,958) than by Afghans (16,360).
“The economic situation in these countries is poor,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said of the Western Balkan countries, in a recent interview with the newspaper Bild. “It’s understandable that people are seeking a better future somewhere else. But that’s not a reason to grant asylum.”
In the past few years, German authorities have consistently rejected 99 percent of all asylum applications by people from the Balkans. Despite this, tens of thousands of mostly young Balkans continue to leave their safe-but-poor homelands for a chance at a new life in Europe’s strongest economy.
Djordje Buric, a 32-year-old asylum seeker from Serbia, is one of them.
Buric spent the first three decades of his life in Belgrade, before realising that for the sake of his children’s future, he had to attempt to build a life elsewhere.
“We finished school [vocational college], me and my wife also,” he explains. “I finished school for waiters, and she finished school for bakery. But in Serbia, it is very difficult to find jobs at this time. What can I do? Go to the shop and steal milk for my kids?”
Now, Buric lives with his wife and two children in a refugee facility on the outskirts of Neuhardenberg, a small German town near the Polish border. The Burics arrived in Germany in December 2013, after an 18-hour bus ride.
The family spent several months in temporary-stay refugee facilities, until they were allocated to Neuhardenberg in April 2014. German authorities have rejected their asylum applications, but Buric has appealed and their cases are currently pending.