Will the EU reimpose visas for travellers from Balkan countries?
The Economist | Jan 5th 2013 | from the print edition
“FAKE asylum seekers”, warns a poster in Belgrade airport, “risk everything.” It is three years since Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins got the freedom to travel without a visa to Europe’s 26-member Schengen zone. Bosnians and Albanians received it a year later. They see it as the single most valued prize in the European integration process.
The five Balkan countries may not be allowed to keep it. The reason is surging numbers of asylum seekers, especially from Serbia and Macedonia. In 2009, before visas were lifted for them, 9,860 of their citizens applied for asylum in the European Union (EU). In 2012, with incomplete data to October, the figure stood at 33,530 (see chart). Serbian citizens in Germany made 10,412 applications and Macedonians 6,012. Serbs topped the list of asylum seekers there, well ahead of Afghans and Syrians.
“The increasing abuse of the asylum system is not acceptable,” said Hans-Peter Friedrich, the German interior minister in October. “The huge inflow of Serbian and Macedonian citizens must be stopped immediately.” In October six EU interior ministers demanded faster action to allow the suspension of visa-free travel.
What the figures do not show is that officials estimate that 95% of the asylum seekers are poor Roma. Life maybe tough back home, but there is no overt persecution. In Serbia and Macedonia, Roma are better integrated into society than in most other countries. These asylum applicants know they won’t get it. From 2009 to 2011 of 19,650 Serbian applicants in Germany, Sweden and Luxembourg only 15 were allowed to stay. But they are trying their luck thanks to “the wide availability of information about benefits for asylum seekers”, says a new report by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a think-tank.
During the months of waiting while authorities decide whether a claim is bogus or genuine the state provides applicants with money, accommodation, health care, schooling and so on. Given that in Macedonia the average monthly wage is €330 ($436) it clearly makes economic sense to head north for a few months.
Visas could be reimposed for Serbs and Macedonians this year. If this happens, says a Serbian official who asked not to be named, this would be seen as “rejection and punishment” and harm already falling support for joining the EU. Even worse, it may incite reprisals against Roma.
Tanja Fajon, a Slovene member of the European Parliament, believes some EU politicians are using the controversy to score political points, especially in Germany, which has elections this year. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, says that the visa-free regime needs to be protected but that action should be taken at “both ends of the problem”.
Although Macedonia has now begun stopping some people leaving if they don’t have a certain amount of money per day for a trip, such tactics teeter on the racist and the illegal. The obvious answer, argues Gerald Knaus, the head of ESI, is that Germany and other countries should speed up decisions on asylum applications from safe Balkan countries. After the Swiss did this the numbers applying tumbled. But when in July 2012 the German Constitutional Court ordered a threefold increase of benefits for asylum-seeking families, numbers surged.