In March 2010, over 400 Macedonian asylum seekers arrived in Belgium. Many had sold off their possessions, some had borrowed money, and all were convinced life would somehow be better. All were ethnic Albanian. Many have since returned to Macedonia. Most are now considerably worse off.
Sadat Zejnulovikj is one such man. He borrowed the equivalent of several thousand euros to move his family of wife and two infants, seeking asylum in Seraing – a rather destitute industrial town near Liège in Belgium. He thought he had left behind him a life where jobs are scarce and discrimination against ethnic Albanians rampant.
In Kumanovo, where Sadat and his family are from, the segregation between the Albanians and Macedonians is tangible. Kumanovo is Macedonia’s third largest city. Streets in the back neighborhoods divide the two ethnicities in half - with Macedonian houses on side, and Albanian on the opposite. Now, he’s returned to the small flat above the car wash in Kumanovo. He shares it with his brother and his family. Unable to find work and in considerable debt, he still hopes to return to Belgium.
“I can’t think of anything else to do. I don’t know what to do,” he said when asked why he would want to return. “Even the car wash is not hiring.” That was in December 2010, eight months after he left Seraing.
In December 2009, just before Sadat left for Belgium, Macedonia had embarked on visa liberalization. Those seeking asylum could now simply step onto a bus or board a flight to Brussels. Around the same time, a rumour spread that asylum seekers would be entitled to some financial aide while their applications were being processed. In Brussels, Muhamet Cela, head of a local Albanian mosque, said nobody knows exactly how the rumour started. He denies that it originated in the large Albanian diaspora living in the city. Many ethnic Albanians, from throughout the Balkans, were granted asylum in Belgium during the wars that ravaged the region in the 90s.
Sadat gets caught up in administration
Sadat is worried for the safety of his family. On his asylum application, he claimed that men armed with AK-47s have made repeated threats to his family over an obscure property dispute. Sadat could not or did not want to provide details when queried about the men and their threats.
Macedonia, compared to its Balkan neighbours, has one of the highest proportions of people struggling financially. According to a 2010 Balkan Monitor survey, 72% of Macedonians manage their household income ‘with difficulty’ or ‘with great difficulty.’ The level of overall life satisfaction was also the lowest in the region according to the report. And more than half think they could find better opportunities abroad.
When Sadat first arrived in February 2010, his wife’s cousin in Seraing helped him find an apartment. Perhaps the old steel works would hire him. All he had to do was wait it out or so he thought. Sadat handed over three months’ rent to the landlord, stayed two months, and left without ever seeing his deposit again. Rent was 480 euros a month he says.
Sadat’s apartment was in this building in Seraing
But that was before he had been caught up in an administrative nightmare. Indecision and bickering between the public social welfare centre (CPAS) and Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Fedasil) issued in nothing but broken promises for a man led to believe that a better life for his two children would be possible. Fedasil is Belgium’s institution in charge of housing asylum seekers in any number of Belgium’s overcrowded reception centres. “Fedasil didn’t have room for us,” says Sadat adding that the institution had nevertheless been helpful. “They told us to rent an apartment and that CPAS would pay for it. All I had to do was show CPAS my housing contract.”
His state-appointed lawyer, Julien Delvenne, had only met with Sadat once. “He already left before I could complete his file,” he says. According to Delvenne, his client should have “in principal” been entitled to financial support because he had arrived with two infants.
Seraing’s steel industry
Sadat pushes a yellow post-it note across the table. On it, in French, is written ‘social welfare’. He points his finger at the sum, 967.72 Euro written next to it. Sadat says this was the sum he was told his family was entitled to every month until their asylum application had been processed. He went to CPAS regularly to discuss it he says. But when asked, CPAS denies ever telling him he was entitled to any financial aid. “We do not give any aid to asylum seekers,” says Michele Boulanger, the director at CPAS in Seraing. Boulanger had sent Sadat a letter dated March 22 that his request for financial support had been formally rejected.
The news came as a blow. Sadat was quickly running through his borrowed savings. With a three-month deposit in the landlord’s hands, and two months rent including utilities and food, Sadat realized that he would either have to return to Macedonia or become destitute. He borrowed some more money and bought four return tickets to Skopje.
Boulanger’s letter essentially sealed Sadat’s fate. According to the letter, the centre was unable to provide any financial assistance because the state’s authority (Conseil de Ministres) had yet to deliver any decision on giving asylum seekers money. In other words, Boulanger deferred the decision. But in other areas of Belgium, CPAS was giving some financial aid to asylum seekers. Why should Seraing be any different?
Sadat’s lawyer, Delvenne, quickly responded to Boulanger with a letter dated March 29. The letter states that Fedasil had informed Sadat that because they could not house him he would be entitled to financial aid from CPAS in Seraing until a definitive decision had been made on his case, or until a reception centre had sufficient room for the family. Before Delvenne received a response, Sadat had already packed up and was on his way home.
Today, the front door of the apartment on Rue du Marais in Seraing still has Sadat’s name scribbled below the bell. A neighbour, an elderly man who has spent his entire life working in the town’s steel factory, says it is mostly young people who now occupy the place. When Sadat was living there, the old man said, rubbish had collected in large piles in front of the building. Someone had called the police to investigate. The rubbish was finally cleared. But Sadat, and several other people, had each been fined 12 euros.
“I don’t know why all the rubbish was there or whose it was,” he says in an apologetic voice. “We had come for a better life.”
The blame game
Macedonian authorities were quick to blame unscrupulous tour operators. But at the bus station in Kumanovo, Flori, a bus tour manager for Euro Tours AG says it’s nonsense, although they did experience a massive surge in business. “The first time people left, there were so many,” he says of those making the one-way 36-hour bus trip to Brussels. “People left for Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy. But most went to Brussels,” he explains, adding that many were families with young children.
Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian MEP who was instrumental in pushing through visa liberalisation, is not persuaded. According to her, “People were manipulated by agencies, by networks in Macedonia. They were selling a dream. It was a like a ticket to a better future for them,” she told me last March. Two months later, the European Commission decided to initiate legal proceedings against Belgium in the EU's Court of Justice for not having fully implemented the EU Asylum Procedures Directive. The directive lays out EU rules on the minimum standards required under procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status.
This didn’t faze prospective asylum seekers from Macedonia. In October, around 100 Macedonians - mostly of Roma origin - came to Brussels to seek asylum. Shortly afterwards another MEP in the European Parliament working on Balkan migration issues - speaking under the condition of anonymity - said he believed the Macedonian government were all too happy to see the ethnic Albanians leave. “They are probably condoning the exodus. Why else is it that only the minorities are leaving?” he questioned.
“We don’t know for sure why now,” said Ivo Koteski, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry of Macedonia in a telephone interview. “We can only assume that people don’t know what visa liberalisation means,” he added.
Such statements apparently have nothing to do with the validity or otherwise of the asylum seekers’ claims. Perhaps, grouped among those individuals and families just seeking a better future, there are also legitimate asylum seekers.
As for Sadat, he’s still looking for a way out. He says he’s trying to pay off his debts. So far, his friends and his family have been understanding. Jobs, though, are scarce and the little wages he could potentially earn at a car wash, will not pay off his massive debts any time soon.