In an attempt to avoid the re-introduction of visas for Serbian nationals travelling to the Schengen area, Belgrade said it was ready to pay Western countries for the extra cost incurred by "fake asylum seekers" on their territory.
Belgrade is feeling the heat over allegations that its nationals are abusing the EU's generous asylum system.
The interior ministers of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands wrote a letter to the European Commission complaining about fake asylum-seekers with Serbian passports seeking to enter their territory.
They asked for a safeguard clause to be put in place allowing them to reintroduce visas for Western Balkan nationals who abuse asylum.
The issue is expected to be discussed at the 25-26 October Justice and Home Affairs Council.
Economic migrants are not asylum seekers, EU says
Michele Cercone, spokesperson to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, called the situation “extremely worrying”. He was categorical that the people applying for asylum from the Western Balkan countries were economic migrants, not asylum-seekers.
“The problem is that, according to the rules that we have in the EU, any person who files an asylum request has to see his case assessed at various levels and at various degrees,” Cercone said. He added that the abusive requests also created a backlog and blocked genuine asylum applications in many EU countries.
The EU lifted visa requirements for the national of Western Balkan countries, except Kosovo (see background), in 2009. Since then, several EU countries 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 they nevertheless take advantage of the assessment period for their applications, during which they are provided with free accommodation and some pocket money.
Paying the bill
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Da?i? said in Belgrade that the possible abolition of the free-travel regime for Serbians would punish citizens who had nothing to do with the fake asylum applications.
"Should certain countries dare make such a move, I think that it would seriously affect ties between Serbia and the EU," Da?i? said, adding Belgrade stood ready to pay the extra costs incurred by Serbians who fraudulently apply for asylum.
"This is about less than 10,000 asylum-seekers in all of Europe. We will pay the costs for those 10,000, because that would be less damaging than the [re-introduction] of visas," Da?i? said, quoted by the B-92 news website.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told the daily Bild that Berlin would advocate re-introducing visas for Serbia and Macedonia because of the dramatic number of asylum-seekers coming from these countries. According to the German Interior Ministry, 1,395 Serbian citizens and 1,040 Macedonians had applied for asylum in September alone.
Da?i? stressed that the issue could not disappear overnight since the motivation was chiefly economic. He also said that forcing Roma and ethnic Albanians, who account for 90% of asylum-seekers, out of the buses at the Serbian border would be a violation of their human and minority rights.
The prime minister also said that the Serbian authorities had requested a list of people who had left the country to seek asylum in the EU. He told reporters that "everything will be done so that the visa liberalisation is not abolished", and that this will be a subject during his talks with EU officials.
A working group set up to deal with the fake asylum-seekers issue is scheduled to meet on Tuesday (16 October) or Wednesday, he announced.
Tanja Fajon, Slovenian MEP, and member of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats said in a statement:
"I am following with great concern the recent statements and demands of several EU Member States' officials to reintroduce visa requirements for the people of Western Balkans. This would be a great step back in the reintegration of the accession countries and a big blow to the European vision of Western Balkan citizens. The number of asylum seekers is somewhat substantial but the situation is not as worrying as some are arguing and certainly not impossible to control."
We have to do everything in our powers that the visa liberalisation is not abolished! Free travel was the most tangible achievement for the countries on their way to the EU. It would be more dangerous to close the door and put the region into isolation than to lead a close dialogue and joint efforts with all sides to combat the problem - the economic situation, which is forcing people to leave the countries," Fajon 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.
- BETA, the EurActiv partner agency in Serbia: Citizens not to be blamed for false asylum seekers
- B 92, Sebia: Serbia prepared "to pay asylum seekers costs"