Europe hit by scores of Western Balkan asylum seekers

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Officials are considering removing visa-free travel for Western Balkan citizens as growing numbers of asylum-seekers from these countries hit the borders of Sweden, Belgium and Germany.

Almost a year ago, the EU removed visa requirement for the citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, but now some Western officials say the decision should be reversed. 

In the German state of Bavaria, the number of asylum seekers coming from these countries has risen drastically over the past year, said Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Hermann, quoted by the Serbian press agency Tanjug. 

If the numbers continue to grow, the EU could consider reversing visa liberalisation schemes introduced at the beginning of 2010, Hermann said on Tuesday (19 October).

So far this year, there has been 130 Serbian and 260 Macedonians asking for asylum in Bavaria compared to 59 in total last year, Hermann said.

In Sweden, the National Migration Board (Migrationsverket) was forced to rent camps and other temporary accommodation to deal with an acute housing shortage, the Swedish press reported.

About 4,000 Serbian citizens have asked for asylum in Sweden this year, compared with only 421 in same period last year. 

In September alone, 1,410 Serbian citizens arrived in Sweden, putting a strain on the local authorities to provide services such as health care.

The spike in the number of asylum seekers from the Western Balkans stems from the granting of visa-free access to the EU's Schengen area to citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, the Swedish press notes.

Serbia appears to have taken the message that visa liberalisation, which was seen as a major achievement of the pro-European government, could backfire. 

According to Belgrade daily Blic, Serbia will introduce special measures of control at border crossings in order to prevent abuse of the 'no visa' regime. Interior Minister Ivica Dacic is quoted as saying that there was no threat of visa regimes being re-introduced at the moment.

The asylum seekers are mainly of Roma and Albanian ethnicity and their asylum requests are based on economic considerations, Blic writes. However, since their country of origin, Serbia, is seen as politically safe, they will all be returned there on the basis of the readmission agreement between Serbia and the EU. 

But the measures to contain asylum-seekers do not seem to work smoothly. 

According to reports, the Serbian police recently sent back to Macedonia a bus carrying passengers who intended to request asylum in Germany. The rejected Macedonian travellers went to protest in front of the Serbian Embassy in Skopje, claiming that Serbia had violated their rights.

Dacic said the greatest number of asylum seekers were Roma from Vojvodina and Albanians from southern Serbia and Sandzak. He stressed that it is very important that these people are informed in advance that they stand no chance of getting asylum in any EU country.

He noted that false asylum seekers can create the impression that the population from this region wants to emigrate for political reasons, while in fact their only motivation is economic.

According to other reports, some of the asylum seekers are in fact perfectly aware that they will not be granted asylum but they take advantage of the assessment period for their applications, during which they are provided with free accommodation and some pocket money.

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Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström sent a letter yesterday (20 October) to the authorities of Serbia and of FYR Macedonia, her spokesperson Michele Cercone told the press on Thursday.

In her letter, the commissioner calls on those authorities to take measures to prevent their citizens asking for asylum in the EU. The motivation of the majority of the asylum seekers is economic, Cercone said, and therefore their demands could not be heeded.

Cercone said that the wave of asylum seekers was a repetition of a previous one at the beginning of this year and several EU countries had registered a substantial increase of demands from nationals of Serbia and Macedonia.

In addition, a high-level expert mission, led by Belgium and including Commission officials, visited Skopje on 20 October and is in Belgrade today (21 October), with the task of contributing to finding a a "quick solution to the problem".

Cercone hinted that re-introducing the visa requirement was not seen as appropriate, as a majority of citizens would be "penalised" as a result of "localised" and "specific" problems, which in his words could be solved.

Asked by EURACTIV whether some of the asylum seekers were not simply taking advantage of the asylum procedure to spend the winter in well-heated accommodation centres in the West, Cercone said that indeed, the member countries could benefit from putting together systems whereby asylum demands were processed in an accurate and speedy way.

"Indeed, in the countries that succeed in putting in place efficient asylum procedures with quick procedures, we witness a decrease of the attempts to abuse or profit from the asylum procedure," he said.

The EU decided that from 19 December 2009, the citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia who hold biometric passports should be able to travel to the Schengen area without visas. They are allowed to travel to the Schengen area for up to 90 days per six-month period.

For the time being, visa requirements remains in place for citizens from Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European Commission and the Parliament have given a favourable opinion and if the member countries decide to give their green light, their citizens could travel without visas to the Schengen area before Christmas.

Kosovo is not covered by the Commission's initiative either. The former Serbian province is a 'sui generis' case, as it is not recognised by five EU countries (Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia).

Today, the Schengen border-free area consists of 25 member states: 22 EU countries (all except Bulgaria, Romania, Ireland, the UK and Cyprus) as well as three associated countries: Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Denmark has signed the Schengen agreement, but has kept its freedom not to apply certain measures. The UK and Ireland decided to stay outside the Schengen area.

Last March, Belgium and Sweden received waves of ethnic Albanian and Roma asylum seekers from Macedonia and Serbia. They were returned by bus to their countries of origin.

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