22nd Oct 2016


Balkan asylum seekers and the spectre of European hypocrisy

During the first half of this year, an average 25 Bosnian citizens requested asylum in Belgium every month. In August, their number increased to 81. The number for September is likely to be even a bit higher. This is still a small share of the more than 2,000 asylum requests Belgium receives every month. However, it led the Belgian embassy in Sarajevo to warn about a “sharp” and “alarming” increase, which is a “worrying and a serious issue”.

Ahead of a meeting with the interior ministers of all Western Balkan countries this week in Ohrid, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom echoed Belgian anxieties when she mentioned in a letter to them “a tangible increase in the overall number of asylum applications” and demanded that they undertake "additional measures to address the situation promptly and effectively." There is now talk among some member states that unless Balkan leaders find ways to “solve” the asylum problem, the EU might reverse its decision to allow Balkan citizens visa-free travel to the Schengen zone.

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  • The asylum seekers are almost exclusively Roma and almost none of their applications has been successful (Photo: mpd01605)

Reversing the most significant decision taken in the past decade to further the Balkans’ European integration would be a disastrous blow to the EU’s credibility in the region. Such a move, founded on a profound misreading of the asylum issue, would also be unfair. European member states are all too willing to blame Balkan countries, it appears, even when the actual responsibility for the crisis rests with themselves.

But how did we get here? Between December 2009 and December 2010, the EU lifted the Schengen visa requirement for Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. This followed a rigorous visa liberalisation process during which the five countries had to implement far-reaching reforms in the areas of passport security, border control, the fight against illegal migration, organised crime and corruption, and human rights. It was a win-win situation in terms of increased security for everyone and a perfect illustration of the power of strict and fair EU conditionality.

Following the removal of the visa barrier, thousands of Serbians and Macedonians (but not Bosnians, Montenegrins or Albanians) travelled to the EU to submit asylum claims. With 17,715 applications, Serbia became the country with the third-largest number of claims in the EU in 2010; Macedonians filed 7,550 claims. EU member states, their asylum systems under strain, had every reason to be concerned.

Three things are important about this development. First, the asylum seekers are almost exclusively Roma. Second, almost none of their applications has been successful. Although the situation of Roma in the Balkans is a cause for concern due to poverty and discrimination (as it is in EU member states such as Slovakia, Hungary or Romania), this is not a sufficient condition for asylum. Only 2.2% of all claimants from Serbia and Macedonia received protection in the EU in 2010, and many just on humanitarian grounds (usually to receive specialised medical treatment unavailable in their home countries).

Third, 85 percent of the asylum claims were submitted in just three EU countries, Germany, Sweden and Belgium. They have advanced asylum systems, are relatively wealthy and host sizeable Balkan communities. However, Austria, France and the Netherlands, which have exactly the same characteristics, recorded no significant increase in asylum requests.

There is an explanation. The asylum procedure for Balkan nationals in the first three countries lasts two to five months. In Austria, France or the Netherlands, it lasts only up to two weeks.

'Paid holidays'

While they await the decision of the asylum authorities, claimants receive accommodation, food, clothes, medical care and free schooling of their kids. For some Roma, this is an attractive prospect. Even if their asylum claim is rejected in the end, the costs – a bus ticket to northern Europe is 60-80 Euro – might well be worth it. “It is paid holidays in the EU,” one asylum worker told us. The length of stay can also be extended. An appeals procedure in Germany added as many as six months to the process last year. This is not what the asylum system was created for and it crowds out genuine asylum seekers – but it is not illegal to try.

Initially, there were even more benefits to applying in Germany and Belgium. Until October 2010, the two countries offered assistance to rejected asylum seekers from the Balkans who returned home voluntarily. In addition to having their return trip paid for, a family of four could receive €1,800 in Germany and €750 in Belgium.

From the beginning, the EU has placed the blame on Serbia and Macedonia, demanding that their governments fix the problem and prescribing a series of measures. Serbia and Macedonia have been asked to let all their citizens know that their asylum claims would have little chance of success. Although they have run extensive information campaigns, such campaigns have missed the point. If the real motivation is not to obtain asylum (although one can always hope) but to enjoy the benefits during the procedure, people will continue to file claims.

The ever-convenient culprit of “Balkan organised crime” also entered the picture. Serbia and Macedonia were asked to investigate whether bus companies, travel agents or “organised networks” peddled false promises of asylum, luring ignorant Balkan citizens into going to the EU. However, where are the lucrative profits that would make this a matter of interest to bus companies or “organised networks”? Bus tickets to Brussels or Berlin are cheap, the information about asylum systems available though the diasporas. Not surprisingly, Serbia and Macedonia did not find evidence of any criminal conspiracies.

Serbia and Macedonia have also been asked to improve conditions for Roma. Although this is a sensible request, it is a long-term objective that will not solve the problem at hand.

Border control through ethnic profiling?

More insidiously, however, Serbia and Macedonia have been asked to control people at the border. As almost all the asylum seekers are Roma, it is hard to avoid ethnic profiling and open discrimination. The EU has found a bureaucratic disguise for this, requesting that Serbia and Macedonia help implement the Schengen Convention. Under the Convention, EU border police are obliged to prevent persons lacking “documents justifying the purpose and conditions of the intended stay” or “sufficient means of subsistence” from entering the Schengen zone. However, this is a duty upon entry, not upon exit, and Serbians and Macedonians are not EU border guards. Why do Hungarian and Slovenians do what they are supposed to do anyway?

What the EU demands amounts to profound hypocrisy. After all, one of the conditions for lifting the visa barrier was for the Balkan countries to provide access to travel and identity documents for all citizens, and another one to implement Roma policies.

Solution: reduce asylum procedure length

The solution to the crisis is obvious. The length of the asylum procedure must be radically reduced – not only for claimants from the Western Balkans, but from all countries that receive visa-free travel after a visa liberalisation process based on conditionality. If the procedure and the benefits remain attractive, every visa-free travel agreement risks breeding a wave of asylum claims.

Even today, every EU member state can prioritise claims or channel them through an accelerated procedure. Since last year, Germany and Belgium have done so for claims from Balkan nationals. (They have also cut return assistance for them last autumn.) Sweden has been trying to reduce the waiting period for all claimants. Since June of this year, the number of Serbian and Macedonian asylum claims has dropped significantly in all three member states. The problem is not intractable, it seems.

Simultaneously, the EU should declare all countries benefiting from visa-free travel following a formal liberalisation process “safe countries of origin.” Under EU asylum legislation, claims from citizens from safe countries of origin can be prioritised and dealt with under an accelerated procedure. There are precedents. In 1997, EU member states negotiated a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty under which they agreed to treat each other as safe countries of origin. The Asylum Procedures Directive, which was adopted in late 2005, mentioned Romania and Bulgaria – not yet EU members at the time – as safe countries of origin. The same directive also allowed member states to compose their own lists of safe countries.

Austria and France have done just that. By including all the Balkan countries on their lists, they have been able to expedite the procedure for the region’s citizens. While not all member states using the concept provide the necessary procedural safeguards, it is possible to do so and some do. It is also possible to receive protection even though one is from a safe country: Austria’s recognition rate of Serbian and Macedonian claims was 5.8% last year, and France’s 6.2%.

The Asylum Procedures Directive is currently being amended. It would make sense if the Parliament or the Council put forward an amendment declaring countries that have undergone a visa liberalisation process “safe countries of origin.”

If adopted, this would go a long way towards preventing a new influx of claimants following every visa liberalisation agreement. Just as importantly, it would restore the credibility of a very successful policy. The visa liberalisation process turns neighbouring countries into partners that help protect the EU from external threats. The removal of visa barriers improves the EU’s image, fosters economic development and leads to more commerce and people-to-people contacts. It would be a great mistake to replace strict and fair conditionality with a populist appeal to countries to violate the very principles the EU had asked them to respect.

The writers founded and run the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank that has closely followed the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans.


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