23rd Mar 2023

Czech presidency floats Western Balkan visa-free travel ban over irregular migration

  • Hundreds of Cubans entered the EU via the Western Balkans so far this year, compared to 36 last year (Photo: Enrico Strocchi)
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Growing numbers of Cubans, Indians, and Turks coming via Albania and Serbia to claim asylum in the EU has prompted talk of suspending Western Balkan visa-free travel.

The fact that Serbia and Albania never fully aligned their overseas visa-waiver lists with the EU, despite themselves enjoying visa-free travel to the bloc "contributes to the growing number of irregular migrants entering the EU via this route," the Czech EU presidency warned in an internal memo dated Tuesday (11 October) and seen by EUobserver.

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"Nationals from Turkey, Tunisia, India, Cuba and Burundi, in particular, enter legally (visa-free) by air in Serbia (and from some of these countries also in Albania) and a very high number moves irregularly further towards EU member states," the memo said.

"These are unusual nationalities on the route and there is a risk of a growing trend," it added.

The largest numbers by far still come from Afghanistan and Syria, with over 60,000 detected trying to clandestinely enter the EU in January to August this year, compared to 51,000 for the whole of last year.

But the number of people coming via the Western Balkans from Burundi (259 so far this year compared to zero last year) also rose steeply. The number of Cubans (339 vs. 36), Indians (4,469 vs. 557), Tunisians (5,777 vs. 842) and Turks (6,186 vs. 1,652) likewise rose.

"Indian nationals are arriving irregularly in the EU almost exclusively via the Western Balkan route. The same applies to Cuban nationals," the Czech memo said.

"As far as Tunisians and Turks are concerned, the arrivals are increasing significantly on the Western Balkan route while they are stable or decreasing on other routes," it noted.

The trend was putting new pressure on neighbouring EU states Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia. Hungary has built an anti-migrant wall on its border and was not mentioned.

But Croatia and Slovenia, for instance, which did not see a single asylum application from Burundi, Cuba, or India last year, had more than 1,700 in total so far this year.

The Czech paper outlined a number of ideas for reducing the numbers.

These included diplomatic pressure for Albania and Serbia to align visa waivers and take back more irregular migrants. They also included sending EU border guards to Western Balkans states and pressuring airlines to prevent "abuse".

But if all else failed, Prague, which holds the EU presidency until the end of the year, proposed suspending visa-free travel from Albania and Serbia.

"In case diplomatic efforts would fail, the EU needs to also be prepared and consider a list of other measures that could be used, including also in the context of the visa suspension mechanism," the memo said.

The Western Balkans problem comes seven years after the so-called migrant crisis of 2015, when more than 1 million refugees entered the EU irregularly, most of them via south-east Europe.

That figure was dwarfed by the fallout from the Ukraine war, with some 4.31 million Ukrainians having obtained "temporary protection" in the EU since Russia invaded in February.

A separate Czech EU presidency memo, dated Monday, warned that some 744,000 Ukrainians still in the country would likely leave their homes this winter due to damaged housing and heating infrastructure.

Ukraine fatigue

With normal winter temperatures in Ukraine as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius, "the lack of warm accommodation may cause people to leave for Europe and could lead to an increased influx of refugees during the winter period," the memo said.

But at the same time, "many temporary accommodations [in the EU] are sub-optimal and heating is becoming very expensive," it added.

"EU citizens may find it more difficult to continue providing temporary shelter in their own homes. The negative economic outlook and soaring energy prices will only encourage such decisions," it said.

The EU refugee-fatigue was being fuelled by Russian and far-right hate speech on the internet, the Czechs warned.

"To avoid that Ukrainian displaced persons become the target group of social tension and outright hostile reactions from EU citizens, member states with the support of the [EU] Commission would need to ramp up campaigns to counter disinformation," it said.

By contrast to the strong focus on reducing asylum applications from Cuba or further afield, the Czechs urged EU capitals to show kindness to Ukrainians.

It noted people should be allowed to come and go across the Ukrainian border, as the tide of the war ebbed and flowed, without losing their EU asylum rights.

But some 50,000 Ukrainians in total who were initially allowed to stay in Europe had already had their status revoked by various member states, the Czechs said.

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