Two years ago, Milica Zivkovic and her husband Zeljko were fed up with Serbia. Instead of continuing to make do with poorly paid jobs that often enough depended on the goodwill of the ruling party, Zeljko got a commercial driver’s license. In early 2019, he found a job in the city of Hof in the German state of Bavaria, where he rented a large apartment, as he was planning for his family to follow him to Germany soon.
As early as November 2018, his wife applied for an interview at the German Embassy in Belgrade for herself and their two children, but she was not able to submit her application for family reunification.
Read more: Balkan bottleneck: Germany overwhelmed by ‘enormous increase’ in work visas
And that situation went on for many, many months. “I feel terrible,” Milica told DW as late as June 2020. “It’s as if I’m not waiting outside the door to Germany, but the door to a madhouse.” The separation was like torture for the family, she added.
A psychologist at a clinic in the southern Serbian town of Nis confirmed that the Zivkovics’ 7-year-old son was impulsive and defiant, a reaction to the fact that his family is separated. The 4-year-old daughter could not control her urination as a result of the psychological strain of waiting for the family to move to Germany, according to another doctor.
The Zivkovic family has been separated since the start of 2019
For Milica, the wait for an appointment to apply for family reunification was an odyssey through forums and Facebook groups where people with similar problems exchange information. Several thousand people from the Western Balkans who work in Germany live apart from their families for years because the German authorities issue work visas much faster than those for family reunion.
DW had access to two dozen electronic applications for family reunions, and in some cases, both parents were already working in Germany. The children were left behind to live with their grandparents.
Read more: Opinion: EU’s ‘no’ to Western Balkans could spark conflict
The individual stories differ, but they are all similar in one respect: All of the applicants are desperate and they are all angry at the sluggish German authorities. “I’m going to start buying lottery tickets — the chances of winning are similar to those of being granted a German visa,” one man wrote in a Facebook group.
But demand in six Western Balkan countries far exceeds the capacity of the visa offices despite staff increases, the German Foreign Ministry said.
This has to do with the so-called Western Balkan regulations, under which citizens of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have been granted permits to work in Germany since 2016, even without job qualifications. After some debate, the German government now intends to extend the special permits until 2023. In addition to qualified workers, up to 25,000 untrained workers from the Western Balkans are to be allowed to come to Germany every year.
Akbulut says a double standard is at work
The Foreign Ministry admits to a glitch that has been causing problems for many families from Serbia: In 2019, new categories for family reunification of certain groups of workers were introduced. At the time, embassy staff “regrettably erroneously” advised some people not to register for a new appointment. This meant that newly registered applicants were able to get appointments much faster than those on old waiting lists.
Then, restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the German embassies in the region for several months. However, despite an economic slump in Germany, there is continued demand for workers from the Balkans.
But what about their families? Article 6 of the German constitution says after all that “[m]arriage and the family shall enjoy the special protection of the state.”
There’s clearly a double standard at work, according to Gökay Akbulut, migration policy spokeswoman for the Left Party in the German parliament. “Families who live in Germany benefit from the high priority given to families in this country, but this is not true for the families of many migrant workers,” she says.
Read more: Lost in Belgrade: Iranian refugees head to Serbia as tourists
Akbulut, who also came to Germany as a child with her family, feels reminded of the era of the “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) or “Vertragsarbeiter” (contract workers) actively recruited by former West and East Germany for years starting in the 1950s and 1960s respectively. “To this day, people from abroad are supposed to come to Germany mainly to work and make up for the shortage of skilled German workers,” she said. “Family reunification is still not a priority.”
Polat says Germany’s bureaucratic visa system makes it less attractive to immigrants
Germany cannot be an attractive for migrants if every visa application is like a “walk through a bureaucratic maze,” said Filiz Polat, the Green Party’s migration policy spokeswoman. “Labor migration can’t be a matter of cherry-picking; we can’t expect people to work here while putting up with restrictions on their own family lives,” Polat told DW.
For much more than a year, Milica Zivkovic was able to visit her husband in Hof only on a tourist visa. When DW spoke to her for the first time in June this year, she had lost all hope.
Read more: Just like the professionals – How young people in the Western Balkans are shaping the future
At the end of July, however, she was at last told she would be able to apply for a visa for herself and the two children in the coming days. She was not holding her breath, however. “This can only be a beginning,” she said. “The question is, how long will we have to wait after that, and will they need additional documents…”
But even so, she now sounds more optimistic than a month ago. When she shared the good news with her fellow sufferers on Facebook, however, some were surprised, and others were outraged — they have been waiting even longer than Milica Zivkovic and still haven’t heard a word.
The Kosovo conflict intensified at the end of the 1990s. Ten thousand people were displaced. When all efforts to bring peace to the region failed, NATO started air strikes on Serbian military bases and strategic targets in Serbia on March 24, 1999. After 11 weeks, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic finally backed down.
Protests against Belgrade’s attempts to undermine the rights of the Albanian majority in Kosovo began in the mid-1980s. The 1990s saw a massive increase in Serbian repression. Ibrahim Rugova (l.), who took the reins of Kosovo’s political movement in 1989, called for non-violent resistance and sought to convince Slobodan Milosevic (r.) to change course — to no avail.
An armed resistance formed in Kosovo, in which the self-proclaimed Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) began a brutal guerrilla war. The UCK undertook violent attacks on Serbia as well as against Albanians it considered to be collaborators. Serbia retaliated by torching houses and looting businesses. Hundreds of thousands of people fled.
The war grew increasingly brutal and Serbian forces stepped up attacks on civilians in an attempt to destroy the UCK and its supporters. Scores of people fled into the forests. Thousands of Kosovo Albanians were loaded onto trains and trucks to be transported to the border, where they were thrown out without passports or other personal documents that could prove they were from Kosovo.
In February 1999, the USA, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and Germany convened a meeting of warring parties in Rambouillet, France, in an attempt to establish autonomy for Kosovo. Kosovan representatives accepted the proposal, yet Serbia was unwilling to compromise. The negotiations collapsed.
On March 24, 1999, NATO began bombing military and strategic targets in Serbia and Kosovo in an attempt to end violence against the Albanians. Germany also participated in the bombing. “Operation Allied Force” became the first war in NATO’s 50-year history — one conducted without the backing of the UN Security Council. Russia harshly criticized the intervention.
Beyond military targets, NATO also bombed supply lines, train tracks and bridges. Over the course of 79 days and nights, allied forces flew more than 37,000 sorties. Some 20,000 missiles and bombs rained down on Serbia. Many civilians were killed: “collateral damage,” in the words of NATO.
Industrial sites were also targeted. In Pancevo, near Belgrade, NATO bombs hit a chemical and fertilizer factory. Massive amounts of toxic substances were released into rivers, the ground and the skies — resulting in grave health risks for the nearby civilian population. Moreover, Serbia accused NATO of deploying uranium-enriched munitions as well as cluster and fragment bombs.
State television offices in Belgrade were attacked in an attempt to deprive Slobodan Milosevic of his most important propaganda tool. Although the Serbian government was warned of an impending attack in time, Belgrade withheld that information. Sixteen people were killed when the site was bombed.
NATO bombs in Kosovo inadvertently hit a group of Albanian refugees, killing an estimated 80 people. NATO also claimed that the accidental bombardment of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was another case of “collateral damage.” Four people were killed in the misguided attack, leading to a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington.
In early June, Belgrade signaled that Slobodan Milosevic might be prepared to surrender, prompting NATO to end its campaign on June 19. The final toll of the war: thousands of dead and 860,000 refugees. Serbia’s economy and large swaths of its infrastructure were destroyed. Kosovo was put under UN administration.