Belgium and Sweden are swiftly returning ethnic Albanian and Roma asylum seekers to their countries of origin, hoping to avert an influx triggered by the recent removal of the visa requirement for Serbian and Macedonian nationals.

Busses carrying 400 asylum seekers left Belgium, heading toward Serbia and Macedonia, local press has reported. The Serbian police confirmed yesterday (11 March) that the first bus had crossed into Serbian territory.

Since the European Union lifted visa restrictions for Serbia and neighbouring Macedonia in December (see Background), Belgium has seen a sharp rise in asylum requests from ethnic Albanians from the Presevo valley and the region around Kumanovo across the border with Macedonia.

Similarly, Sweden registered an increased number of asylum-seekers of Serbian nationality, mostly of Roma ethnicity.

"All 770 people came to Sweden in the last two months, which is equal to the number of people that have come to the country during the entire last year. We are very concerned by the situation," Swedish ambassador in Belgrade Krister Bringeus was quoted saying.

Belgium trapped

In the meantime, as the wave of asylum seekers grew, a legal loophole was uncovered in Brussels which could cost the Belgian state hundreds of thousands of euro. Belgium is legally obliged to pay €500 per day to asylum seekers, for whom it is unable, for technical reasons, to provide shelter while their procedure is ongoing.

"I find this measure horrendous," Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme said on VRT television. It appeared that Belgium has already paid €205,250 to asylum seekers, just because it could not offer them shelter for the night.

"We cannot give political asylum to economic immigrants. It makes no sense," Leterme said.

Bad news for further visa liberalisation

The Serbian authorities appear to be cooperating with the repatriation of their nationals, as the visa liberalisation could also be reversed. The development does not augur well for further visa liberalisation in even more impoverished Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, diplomats admitted.

The first deputy prime minister Ivica Dacic said yesterday in Belgrade that citizens from southern Serbia who left for Belgium and Sweden to seek political asylum "will clearly not get" it and will be returned to Serbia.

He specified that 400 persons, mostly Albanians and Roma, asked for asylum in Belgium and 500 persons did the same in Sweden. Dacic added that he hoped that the development would not harm his country’s visa-free regime with the EU. 

Organised crime, discrimination exposed

It was also announced that Macedonia and Serbia will investigate whether organised crime gangs helped organise the mass departures. The local press reported that in order to gather clients, owners of bus companies had spread the rumour that asylum seekers would get houses, generous boarding and cash once in the West.

Corruption in the ranks of the police is also being investigated. According to reports, cited by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), to obtain the new biometric passports, some of the prospective asylum seekers had paid bribes ranging from €500 to €1,000. Reportedly, hundreds of families had sold their property and bought one-way tickets to the West.

But the reasons for the exodus cannot be explained by manipulation and corruption alone. The ethnic Albanian population in the Presevo valley in Serbia and Kumanovo in Macedonia suffers from unemployment and feels abandoned, if not discriminated against, by the central authorities.

"For them, life is elsewhere," wrote the Macedonian daily Dnevnik.