The American embassy in Belgrade radiates with an ominous feeling, a perfect marble block hidden behind a tall iron fence, guarded by armed soldiers. When we got there, around fifteen people were already queuing in front, shivering from the cold, waiting to be called upon to pass the multiple levels of security. In the moments when we were able to avert our thoughts from the cold, my wife and I were looking at each other with frightful gaze and thinking, "This is it, all or nothing!"
For my family, America was not even a candidate country when thinking about potential destinations for emigration. It just happened. However, for many people from Serbia, or from the Balkans in general, the U.S. offered a sanctuary in the search for a better life. Thousands of miles away, across the ocean, and even further because of the rigorous immigration laws, America was not as easily accessible as Western Europe. Yet, in the last years of my undergrad studies, friends and classmates started having experiences with trips to the U.S., mostly through the Work & Travel program. According to available data, more than 100.000 people between 18 and 30 participates in this exchange every year.[i] Envisioned as a program for full-time students to work for a few months over the Summer in the U.S. and then spend a shorter period traveling around, participating in a "cultural exchange," it often becomes a way to reach American soil and stay there. Even if you do not know anybody who has done this, you probably know somebody who knows somebody. To that, we need to add cohorts of Balkan youth toiling on cruise ships for months at a time, often disappearing into the night of illegal immigration as soon as the boat docks in a U.S. harbor. And the fact that a certain number of young people are ready to venture into the utmost uncertainty of an unlawful residence in a foreign country – with nothing more than a dream of better future – speaks volumes about the conditions in which they live their lives in the Balkans.
Another way our region is losing its people to the U.S. is through the Green Card Lottery. A legal means of emigration, yet random and without any guarantees for the outcome, no matter how invested the participant is. From the inception of the program in 1995, up to 55.000 visas are distributed each year to randomly selected candidates from countries that historically did not have a significant migration to the States (except for Canada, Mexico, a few South American countries, India, China, and Vietnam, among others, residents of most states are eligible).[ii] What makes this path to U.S. residency very uncertain and elusive is the lack of defined selection criteria (event though you can read many theories online) and the immense competition. More than 23 million people applied for the 55.000 available visas in 2018 alone. As far as countries in the region go, Albania leads the pack with more the 5% of the total population applying on average each year; Kosovo and North Macedonia are in a close second with 2-5%, while the rest are just below 2%.[iii] However, one statistic is quite striking – the percentage of used visas among those drawn. You can find different data online, but the estimates are that from the 300-500 visas awarded annually to Serbian citizens, less than 20% is used each year.
That stems from the fact that those drawn are often uninformed about how arduous and costly the process is, or from the fact that this – completely legal – way of immigration comes with no guarantee for the future life in the new country. Those lucky enough to be drawn, and at the same time able and prepared to spend the next year in the process will be met by sizeable expenses. The application, the visa, health checkups, and vaccinations are just a portion of the total cost measuring in hundreds of Euros even before you see the embassy door. Though aware of the fact that this is an investment that will potentially repay quickly, the applicants often do not have the financial means to proceed forward. To that, of course, you need to add the cost of airplane tickets, accommodation, and the overall cost of living until you find your first job. In Serbia, in which the average monthly salary in 2020 is gravitating toward 500 Euros (according to the official statistics), the sum needed for this undertaking amounts to multiyear savings.
Naturally, the experiences of those who go through emigration vary greatly, no matter which mechanism they employed. There are testimonies of complete failures and disappointments, fairy-tale scenarios of success, and a lot of stories of an average life, somewhat better than the one at home. Be that as it may, the necessary piece of each story is the effort invested. No matter what the starting point – a legal permanent residency or illegal immigration – there is probably no person who will say that there was not a time when they wanted to give it all up. That is the part of the story that is not much different from life back home. What is different – and at the same time the reason behind the growing numbers of emigres from the Balkans – is the percentage of success stories. What pushes and ultimately keeps our people "outside" is the potential for a reward commensurate to your work and effort. Balkan people's illusions that they are never going to reach a certain level of well-being or a level of personal and professional satisfaction and realization are disappearing more and more – as soon as we cross the border. We should have no illusion that there is a place in the world wholly deprived of corruption, or some intolerance for strangers, or that there is a place where integration is easy. What is waiting out there is not a fairy-tale world. No, it is just the possibility to truly live off your work, and not survive. That life comes with a lot of obstacles in the road, but rarely with walls that you can never go over or around.
In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans.
After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration.
The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region.
You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.