The European Parliament has given the green light to Kosovo visa liberalisation, enabling Kosovar citizens to travel visa-free to the Schengen Area for 90 days starting from January 1, 2024.
This decision is expected to bring considerable changes to migration trends from Kosovo to the EU but also prompt a new socio-economic dynamic.
As travel barriers lower for Kosovars, new opportunities that benefit the eager “young Europeans” to explore the EU and what the Member States have to offer, are expected to emerge.
Additionally, the 27-nation-bloc, which could use a fresh perspective and new workers, can witness changes as labour shortage has become a fairly common phenomenon across the Union.
Visa Liberalisation to Ensure Increased Mobility & Travel Opportunities for Kosovars
Starting on January 1, 2024, Kosovo passport holders can travel to countries that are Members of the Schengen Area, excluding Spain. The visa waiver agreement enables Kosovars to stay in the zone for 90 days every 180 days, but those planning to work, study or remain in a Schengen country must apply for a long-term D visa.
Before the agreement, Kosovar citizens had to apply for a visa to travel to the zone, and the application process could be lengthy, inconvenient and often expensive, as the costs can reach €150 while the minimum wage in Kosovo is around €260.
Based on the experiences of other countries in the Western Balkan region, the post-visa-liberalisation period is characterised by an increased interest in visiting the EU and migrating to the zone, which in some cases even became an issue for specific Member States.
According to a report by the European Migration Network, which has in focus the impact of visa liberalisation in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, the number of asylum applications from visa-free countries applicants increased following the removal of visas for the nationals of these countries.
In addition, the same report reveals that the number of nationals from visa-free countries that were overstaying in the Schengen zone was also on the rise, representing a challenge for the Member States.
While several EU countries reported increased criminal activities after the visa liberalisation agreement with these eight third countries, most Member States did not report any issue with illegal employment after introducing visa liberalisation.
Arian Zeka, the Executive Director at the American Chamber in Kosovo, warns young Kosovars that every attempt to take advantage of visa-free travel for emigration purposes can backfire on their rights to travel towards Schengen in the future. In addition, the Balkan country is categorised as a safe third country, indicating that asylum seekers most likely won’t receive a positive answer if they apply for asylum in Europe.
“The shrinking workforce will increase the difficulties of operating Kosovar businesses, and the need for alternative options for the workforce will rise. However, I would like to express optimism that this will not happen and that visa liberalisation will be an opportunity for citizens to move within the Schengen area accordingly to the criteria that define this right,” Zeka explained.
According to Zeka, visa liberalisation will bring many advantages to Kosovars, such as maintaining close family relations, as the Kosovar diaspora in the EU reaches millions.
Rise in Temporary Labour Migration to Be Expected
The impact of visa liberalisation is expected to be felt specifically in the number of workers that will migrate to EU countries for temporary work, with seasonal positions being more attractive.
Visa liberalisation can simplify the procedure for a third-country national to go on short trips to explore employment opportunities in a Member State though it doesn’t make them eligible to apply for residency permits based on employment grounds. In order to be legally employed in any of the Member States, obtaining a national work visa before travelling to that specific country is essential.
According to data from Eurostat, the number of residence permits for remunerated activities from visa-free nationals has risen significantly in the last few years, representing 71 per cent of all total residence permits granted under such claims in 2017.
Due to a constant increase in the visa-free nationals from the Western Balkans in Germany, the government has established a legal labour migration scheme called the “Westbalkanregelung”, which is open to nationals of this region that had not received asylum seeker benefits in Germany in the following 24 months of applying for a permit.
This means that Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia nationals could obtain a residence permit for employment easier, valid until the end of 2020.
On the other hand, Kosovo might experience a decrease in the number of workers, and, in general, migration can be enhanced during the post-visa liberalisation period.
Burim Piraj, General Manager at MEKA Shpk, one of Kosovo’s leading meat production businesses, says that the beginning of 2024 can be tough for many local businesses, especially those that didn’t prioritise workers’ wellbeing.
“In the second half of the year, positive changes are expected, as workers that were headed to Europe will return to never leave the country again,” he believes.
Meanwhile, Piraj calls on employers in Kosovo to take measures to keep youngsters in the country by offering them better working conditions. Amongst others, he suggests that the government should raise the minimum wage in the country to €400 and introduce the eight-hour workweek with the weekends off.
“Workers should be paid on time, and employers should start paying health insurance for their workers accordingly to the law,” he points out, also adding that all of these measures have to be implemented before September 2023 in order to prevent labour shortage that threatens all businesses in Kosovo next year.
A study by SchengenVisaInfo.com has revealed that as of August 2023, around 37.7 per cent of respondents are considering moving to the EU – 76.6 per cent of which in the first year of free-visa travel, with the main reason being related to employment, representing 76.5 per cent of all answers.
Germany, France and Switzerland are the top destinations among respondents, accounting for 55.3 per cent of the total answers, while 78.7 per cent of respondents claim that better living conditions are their main drive.
In addition, 78.7 per cent of all respondents say they are ready to leave their current job if they are offered another work opportunity in the EU.
Visa Liberalisation Expected to Impact Kosovo’s Economy & Remittances
Mirdon Hoxha, a Kosovar national, has been offering his expertise as an IT consultant at Raiffeisen Bank in Vienna for two years now after being hired in his home country and starting his professional career there.
When asked what pushed him to make the decision to leave Kosovo, he says that better working and paying conditions have been one of the reasons but not the main drive.
“There are many barriers we as Kosovars have, such as low life quality, poor health sector, lack of law protection for workers and citizens’ rights, a poor structure and non-efficient public transport, and not being able to buy online from international markets. For me, the main barrier for leaving the country has been lack of free movement to European countries,” Hoxha concludes.
He might become one among thousands of Kosovar youngsters moving to Europe in search of a better life and working conditions, with these numbers expected to soar in the next years.
According to a spokesperson for European Commission, Kosovar citizens that will be eligible for an EU Blue Card, as the Directive expected to be transposed in November 2023 claims, will be able to benefit from flexible admission conditions as well as enhanced rights.
“When implemented, the Youth Guarantee would also increase the support to young people in the region by offering quality opportunities for employment education and training. This should also increase the appeal of young people, who are some of the likeliest to leave, to seek and find opportunities in their home economies,” the spokesperson said for SchengenVisaInfo.
She also pointed out that one of the ways how skilled workers migrate for employment reasons is by sending remittances back to their home countries, which has a positive impact on their economy.
Returning to their home country brings new knowledge, skills, and expertise from abroad, which can contribute to the development of local industries, innovation and labour market advancement.
Brain Drain Concerns
The Kosovar population is seriously threatened by brain drain – the phenomenon of skilled workers leaving the country for better working conditions in more developed countries.
Seb Bytyci, a Researcher at the University of Winchester says, points out that the Kosovar government should improve public services in an effort to increase life quality in the country and workers in the public sector to be compensated accordingly to their jobs as well as have other benefits such as health insurance.
“Health is the most affected field, but also other fields where there are skills that are required in Western countries. This has a negative impact on Kosovo because the departure of educated people from the field of health further affects the weakening of health services and the increase in migration. Brain drain also affects the reduction of purchasing power, which weakens savings,” Bytyci says for SchengenVisaInfo.com.
Brain drain in the Western Balkan countries is a growing concern for all six governments, who are witnessing their skilled workers heading towards Europe, especially healthcare workers and medical staff.