‘I want to live not just survive’: Kosovo and its chronic brain drain problem

In the summer of 2017, Gzim Olluri graduated with a journalism diploma from the University of Pristina.

A few weeks later, Olluri was in Zagreb, applying to the Croatian authorities for a work permit so he could take a job on a construction site.

“When I submitted the documents they said: ‘How can you work in construction with a diploma in journalism?’,” Olluri recalled.

Now 29, Olluri has worked on sites ever since, joined by his two brothers – both in their 20s – who have also left Kosovo to find work elsewhere in Europe.

Kosovo’s State Agency of Statistics reported that 49% of young people were unemployed in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the issue even more acute, with the economy contracting by 8%, according to the World Bank, and thousands of jobs lost.

Even if you can find work in Kosovo, Olluri says, the conditions are so bad it is impossible to remain at home.

“You will have long working hours, no days off, no contract, no insurance, no benefits – just maltreatment,” he said.


Not that conditions in Zagreb are much better. Olluri’s working day starts at 6 am and consists of hard manual labour over 12 hours on various construction sites in the Croat capital. The little time he does have free, he says, he uses to read in the city library.

“I only have some two hours to read during the day but sometimes I struggle and cannot go because I get exhausted from heavy work,” he says.

Olluri’s dream is to reach Germany, where he hopes to continue his studies and continue his career in journalism. In that, he is not alone. Germany’s embassy in Pristina issued 25,000 visas to Kosovars during 2019 and 2020, the German Press Department of the Federal Foreign Office told Euronews.

More than 200,000 Kosovo Albanians live in Germany, many of which first migrated during the 1990s and after the war with Serbia in 1999. But thousands have followed in the years since, even after the 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.

Between 2015 and 2019, according to State Agency Statistics, more than 170,000 people left Kosovo to western Europe, mostly to Germany, which amounts to around 10 per cent of Kosovo’s overall population of 1.7 million.

Kosovo Albanians have always migrated and formed large communities in European nations as well as in the US, Canada and Australia.

Recent political events in Kosovo have raised hopes that the tide of young people abroad can be stemmed after a new anti-establishment party that is supported largely from Kosovo’s diaspora won the recent snap elections.

But despite the landslide victory of Vetëvendosje [Self-Determination] in Kosovo, which won over 50 per cent of votes in February, trends on migration will continue, experts say.

“I expect that there will be an improvement but however a large chunk of society feels excluded and they have immediate necessities, so it will be difficult to halt the trend of migration,” said Artan Mustafa, a Pristina-based social policy researcher.

‘Challenge the norms’

Mustafa says that migration is an emancipatory phenomenon and not always necessarily connected with a poor socio-economic environment.

“Part of our society goes abroad just to go beyond the norms of the society that limits them and they want to challenge conservatives norms of our societies,” he said.

That said, Mustafa believes that significant reforms in social insurance, housing policy, job creation and the redistribution of wealth could help to slow the numbers of young Kosovars moving abroad.

Vetëvendosje’s key promises in the February elections centred around employment and social justice. A new government is expected to be formed on March 22.

Vetëvendosje particularly found support among the youth and members of the Kosovo diaspora.

For Olluri, who was among the 75 per cent of members of the Kosovo diaspora who supported Vetëvendosje in the recent elections, despite high expectations, healing the wounds of misgovernance, nepotism and corruption in these 20 years will be an uphill challenge for a Vetëvendosje led government.

“I cannot blame the incoming [Albin] Kurti government if it will not bring the improvement immediately on the employment scheme, as it is difficult, but I expect to have real changes in the justice sector, rule of law and bringing more equality,” he said.


Asked if he would consider returning if reforms come into force quickly, Olluri does not rule it out but he is less optimistic about returning to Kosovo in the short-term.

”I cannot return without having some sustainability as I have no way to sustain and only a miracle would return me there. It’s hard to see your friends who graduated and are still looking for a job,” he says.

“We have to become alchemists to find a job,” Olluri ended.

Since he left for Croatia in 2017, Olluri has returned to Kosovo at least two times for holidays and sends money to his parents.

He is not alone. Between €700-900 million of remittances are recorded annually from Kosovo’s diaspora and largely Kosovo’s economy depends on the remittances of Kosovars living abroad. Kosovo’s overall budget is just above €2 billion.

“It remains essential for each of us to contribute to the state-building,” Olluri says.

Kosovo’s population is the youngest in Europe with half of the population under the age of 25.

Rronë Kryeziu is among this large chunk of Kosovo society. Kryeziu, 22, did not think of leaving Kosovo for another country before she completed her third year of dentistry studies at the public University of Pristina.

In her fourth year of her studies and two years before completing her bachelor’s, she is seriously thinking of Germany as her next destination.

Her ambitions are clear: she wants to continue her further specialisation in Germany and continue her life there and she is already learning basic German. In Kosovo, many of those taking German language lessons are incoming health professionals.

Kryeziu often discusses leaving the country with her colleagues. When she does, she feels sad.

“It’s very bad that the state invests a lot for us for 6 years and we serve other countries. Certainly, it’s bad,” she said.

But the 22-year-old said that her determination to leave is not only to advance professionally in Germany but also due to the dire financial state that the students of medicine face after completing their studies.

“You finish six years at university, and by then you are 24 and you are completely dependent on your family. You get to 30 and most of your life you are dependent on the assistance of your parents,” she says.

For her, finding a job in Kosovo after completing university as a dentist does not offer a health professional a dignifying life and one has to constantly struggle to keep their head above water.

“The generation of our parents faced the issue of survival but I do not agree with just surviving—I want to live not just survive,” she said.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.


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