Western Balkan countries: is the EU visa-free regime at risk?
Poverty and misinformation are the major reasons behind the abuse of the European asylum system by citizens of some Western Balkans countries.
The citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, holding a biometric passport, have enjoyed visa-free travel to the EU Member States (since 19 December 2009), as well as those of Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina (since 15 December 2010). Even though a large majority of travellers from these countries continue to be bona fides travellers, some EU Member States have detected from 2011 an unjustified increase in the number of asylum applications: for example, asylum claims from nationals of both Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the EU rose by almost 70% during 2011 as compared to 2010, according to Frontex’s report entitled Western Balkans Annual Risk Analysis 2012. The same report states that, despite a 20% decrease in relation to 2010, Serbian nationals continued to be the single largest visa-exempt nationality claiming asylum in the EU during 2011. The combined asylum applications from the five visa-exempt Western Balkan nationalities amounted to roughly 95% of all asylum applications submitted by visa-free nationalities in the EU.
The European Commission reported (Third Report on the Post-Visa Liberalisation Monitoring for the Western Countries, 28-08-2012) that the abuse of visa liberalisation and asylum system is mainly due to “lack of health care, unemployment and lack of schooling”, but also “rumours and received wrong information for asylum protection given on economic grounds,” that targets mainly the Roma minority, who often reach the EU along with their families. Although the phenomenon of abuse of visa liberalisation has developed in terms of seasonality and geographical scope, new dynamics have been identified.
In addition to this, the Home Affairs Ministers of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands recently sent a letter to the European Commission asserting that thousands of people from the former Yugoslavia were exploiting the system by claiming asylum with fake passports. The Serbian government reacted by saying that they were ready to compensate EU countries for costs caused by "fake asylum seekers" from their country, with Prime Minister Ivica Dacic stating that suspending visa-free arrangements would punish honest claimants.
In order to fight against abuse within the EU asylum system, it is crucial to improve the economic situation of persons in poverty, avoiding misinformation and detecting false documentation, the European Commission proposed in its Third Report to intensify the investigation into travel agencies and transport companies, to strengthen exit and entry controls, to promote targeted and permanent information-awareness campaigns to clarify rights and obligations of travellers, and to assist minority populations - mainly, Roma communities - in employment and children schooling.
On the other hand, new legal measures are in process, such as the proposal to amend Regulation 539/2001 listing the third-countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing the external borders and those whose nationals are exempt from that requirement. This proposal foresees a visa safeguard clause allowing the temporary suspension of the visa waiver for a third-country whose nationals are exempted from the visa obligation in the event of an emergency situation where an urgent response needs to be given to solve difficulties faced by one or more Member States. Such a mechanism would be a measure of last resort and can be applied to any third-country exempted from the visa obligation.
The recent General Affairs Council of the EU (Conclusions 11 December 2012) has “urged the authorities of the Western Balkans countries concerned to take all the necessary measures against the abuse of the visa free travel regime in order to ensure its unrestricted continuation.” These countries have already adopted some measures, but the European Commission recognized that limited or uneven progress has been achieved regarding the fight against corruption, that efforts against crime should be more effective and integration of the Roma minority is to be improved by long-term measures.
EU technical assistance and funding to fight against poverty in Western Balkan countries, particularly of Roma people, is needed to address the problematic abuse of the European asylum system by some citizens of those countries. But nevertheless, these countries should also make additional efforts to promote integration of the most vulnerable people and to reinforce respect for the rule of law.
José Luis Bazán