By Igor Jovanovic
Faced with mounting abuse of the EU’s three-month visa-free regime in the Schengen Zone, interior ministers adopted a proposal Tuesday (December 13th) that would allow EU states to temporarily suspend the visa-free regime to Western Balkan states.
The EC prepared the new mechanism because of a growing number of false asylum seekers who overstay their three-month visas and pose a burden on the EU member states’ budgets.
“If the mechanism is adopted [by the European Parliament], the member states will have the possibility to suspend the visa-free regime of third countries, not only in the Western Balkans, initially for half a year. Then, there is the possibility to extend it to nine months. Finally, it is possible to place a country back on the ‘black’ Schengen list,” Visa Liberalisation Rapporteur Tanja Fajon explained.
Fajon said relevant EU bodies are now discussing the conditions, which will be placed in the mechanism.
She added that the mechanism would be enforced when all the details are agreed on and adopted in the European Parliament and Council, most likely next year, and that member states are in a “great hurry”.
The visa-free regime for Schengen was granted to Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia in December 2009, and to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania in December 2010.
So far, the biggest problem has been the arrival of false asylum seekers — mostly Roma — from Serbia and Macedonia to Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Certain EU countries recently complained of a large number of Albanians overstaying their visas. They come from southern Serbia and western Macedonia via specially organised bus tours. Some destroy their passports and seek political asylum, without any grounds to do so.
“These people are not looking to avoid work through asylum. This is their survival strategy. They can’t provide fuel and food for their families before winter and opt for departure to EU countries where they will somehow manage to get through the winter even while staying in collective accommodations,” Danilo Rakic, of the Serbian NGO Group 484, told SETimes.
Rakic explained the increase in asylum seekers is particularly pronounced when seasonal work ends, before the onset of winter.
“They no longer have a means to earn for their families and invest all their money to travel to EU countries,” he said.
Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic met with the Roma community representatives in Belgrade on Wednesday. Afterwards, Dacic said he wasn’t concerned visas would be re-introduced for Serbian citizens any time soon.
He, however, announced measures to prevent such a scenario. “We will start controlling borders, to prevent exit from the country in a manner that jeopardises Serbia’s interests.”
Roma community representative Esref Ramadani called on the Roma not to leave the country needlessly.
EurActiv Serbia editor Maja Poznatov told SETimes the new mechanism should not be perceived as being a set of measures against the Western Balkans at a time of important EU internal re-organisation.
“The EU institutions mainly view the visa-free regime for Western Balkan countries as a positive move, despite the problems it has brought, but the EU will not allow the regime to be abused, especially when its members are facing an inflow of illegal migrants,” Poznatov said.
Rakic argues that the number of asylum seekers will not decline solely because of the control measures announced by Dacic.
“In the short term, an information campaign should focus on the communities that produce the most asylum seekers. In the long term, efforts should be invested in improving their economic situation,” he said.
To solve the problem, according to Rakic, EU countries also must do their part.
“For example, the practice of seasonal employment of Balkan citizens in the EU can be renewed to improve the economic position of the endangered population and return migration into a legal framework. We encourage the Serbian government to start bi-lateral talks on this matter with the EU states,” he said.