A two-day meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers beginning today (25 October) in Luxembourg is set to “expedite” a safeguard clause, allowing visas to be re-introduced for Western Balkan citizens who abuse the asylum system of EU countries.
The interior ministers of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands recently wrote a letter to the European Commission complaining about fake asylum-seekers from the Western Balkans.
Putting in place a safeguard clause would allow EU countries to curb the abuse by reintroducing visas for the nationals of the countries concerned.
The Schengen member states lifted visa requirements for the nationals of Western Balkan countries in 2009, except for Kosovo (see background). Since then, several EU member states have seen waves of asylum applicants at their borders, mainly ethnic Roma and Albanians.
These people are often referred to as “fake asylum-seekers”, as they are perfectly aware that they will not be granted asylum but nevertheless take advantage of the assessment period for their applications during which they are provided with free accommodation and some pocket money.
The European Commission is expected to present its third report since visas were lifted. According to sources from the Cypriot EU presidency, the Commission report confirms the increased number of fake asylum-seekers.
“It is high time to re-visit this file,” a diplomat said.
The UK, which is not a Schengen member and has not opened its borders to travellers from the Western Balkan, says that it has been affected since the Schengen countries removed the visa requirement.
Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the situation, a Home Office spokesperson said: "At the Home Secretary's request, we will examine the scope and consequences of the free movement of people across the EU … We have raised consistently the problem of the abuse of free movement at meetings of the Council of Ministers, and we are working with other European member states to curb that abuse."
A diplomatic source said that the Cypriot EU presidency would need to see with the Commission how the safeguard can be put in place.
“The developments are putting pressure on us to expedite the temporary suspension mechanism,” the diplomat added.
Bad news for Bulgaria, Romania
Another issue at the ministerial meeting is the “state of play” on Bulgaria and Romania's compliance with Schengen legislation. The two EU newcomers have been prevented from joining Schengen in spite of the Commission’s assessment of their readiness for two years now.
Although no decision is expected, the Cypriot source said that “more than one country” opposed their bid.
The Netherlands has requested two positive reports under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) set up in January 2007 to help Bulgaria and Romania adapt to EU standards.
MEP Cornelia Ernst from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left commented:
"In a letter sent to the Council at the beginning of October five Member States - including Germany and France - demanded the reintroduction of visa requirements for citizens from several western Balkan countries."
I urge ministers, in their debate on this today in Luxembourg, to take into account that 30,000 asylum applicants this year from these countries certainly does not constitute a "mass influx" - quite the opposite. Secondly, by far most of the applicants are Roma who are discriminated against on a daily basis in their home countries and make up the poorest part of their respective societies. Third, the reintroduction of visa obligations in fact only helps organised crime by providing business opportunities for traffickers and forgers," Ernst added
The European Commission decided on 16 July 2009 that citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia should be able to travel to the Schengen area without visas starting from 19 December 2009.
On 8 November 2010 the EU lifted visa requirements for citizens from Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, an unprecedented monitoring mechanism has been set up which could reintroduce visas for several Western Balkan countries should difficulties arise.
Several EU countries were affected negatively by the visa liberalisation policy. In particular, a wave of asylum-seekers from Macedonia and Serbia, mainly of Roma or Albanian ethnicity, hit Sweden, Belgium and Germany.
Council of the EU
- Justice and Home Affairs: Background note, 25-26 October meeting in Luxembourg