It is estimated that 550,000 people make up the Kosovo diaspora. Almost three-quarters of them live in Germany, Switzerland, and Serbia.
Kosovo Albanian migration to Western Europe happened in three waves. The first, during the late 60s and early 70s, consisted mostly of unskilled guest workers from rural areas. The second, in the 80s and early 90s, comprised better educated professionals from urban areas. The last exodus of Kosovars, most of them refugees and asylum seekers, left during the Kosovo war between 1998 and 1999.
Neither the number of jobs nor the amount of available agricultural land have kept pace with Kosovo's growing population during the last decades. For many people migration provided the only hope of escaping poverty. In sayings, songs and poems, work migration has come to be equated with suffering. "He who first went out on the migrant trail,” goes one saying, “may God never give him peace!"
As one poem goes:
The father is a stranger in his own house,
Damn the black migration!
Child after child is born,
And the father is not there to call.
In economic terms remittances from abroad have helped fuel a construction boom in Kosovo, also increasing the number of retail shops, cafes, taxis, car mechanics and petrol stations. Relying on worker remittances alone doesn’t produce sustainable growth, however. In fact, rural Kosovo has been trapped in a vicious circle of underdevelopment and migration. According to Jane Jacobs, an economist:
"Remittances, while they last, do alleviate poverty in abandoned regions, just as any forms of transfer payments from rich to poor regions alleviate poverty while they last. The money buys imports for people and institutions which they would otherwise have to go without, but that is all it does… It does nothing to convert stagnation to development."
However, transfers have provided a lifeline that has kept many rural families above the poverty line. Recently, changes in immigration policy in important host countries like Germany have put an abrupt end to migration. Since 1999 more people have returned to Kosovo – voluntarily or by force – than were able to leave. While in 1999 around 30 percent of all Kosovar households received remittances in cash or in kind from relatives abroad, this number has dropped to 15% in 2006. The estimated value of remittances dropped from €166 million in 2003, to €123 million in 2004.
The high dependence on remittances has also helped to preserve one of Europe's oldest and most conservative institutions: the traditional patriarchal household.