Escaping the Balkans? After visa liberalisation

A reflection of stop sign; a photo by Alf Thomas

The EU accession process has brought a variety of changes to citizens of the Western Balkans, perhaps the greatest of which has been the easing of visa restrictions. Though freedom of movement is something most Europeans take for granted (at least since the Schengen treaty was implemented) for the majority of Balkan citizens this was until recently far more problematic (more detailed, country-specific analysis can be found in the CITSEE working papers. But in December 2009 Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia joined Europe's visa-free regime, and in November 2010, the same privileges were granted to citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since then, citizens of these countries have been allowed to travel to the EU for up to three months. They thus joined Croatian citizens who haven’t been subjected to visa restrictions, which in turn made the Croatian passport a very valuable asset. Whilst visa-free travel has been of obvious benefit to people in the region, whether in terms of trade, education, or in purely personal terms (e.g. visiting relatives in other EU countries), even before it was implemented various European tabloid newspapers were predicting that most tired of right-wing tropes, a massive wave of immigrants heading for the gates of Western Europe, who were going to drain the countries’ welfare systems and, in some cases, even bring disease.

Though this has, unsurprisingly, not come to pass, there was nonetheless concern when a number of EU states, such as Holland, Austria, Belgium, Germany and France reported high levels of asylum seekers from Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo in late 2010, and as of recently from Bosnia-Herzegovina, many of whom were from impoverished regions of those countries, and in many cases also members of one of these countries’ ethnic minorities (e.g. the Roma or ethnic Albanians). Though some countries (particularly Belgium) have characterised this as a ‘flood’ of asylum seekers, and called for immigration controls, it has been suggested that this is more to do with systemic inadequacies in their treatment of asylum seekers (e.g. insufficient staffing and provision of accommodation) rather than an overwhelming increase in the numbers of asylum seekers.

So far, the EU’s main response has been to introduce a “post-visa liberalisation monitoring mechanism”, which according to Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU's commissioner for internal affairs, will only be utilised in “extraordinary circumstances to temporarily stop the visa free regime”. In many ways this seems a reasonable response, albeit one which is vague about what might constitute ‘extraordinary circumstances’.

But perhaps the major issue is the factors that are driving emigration from the Balkans, in particular the reasons why, as Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dačić admits, the majority of asylum seekers from Serbia, Macedonia and other countries are primarily from ethnic minorities. It is estimated that up to 10,000 Serbian citizens sought asylum in other EU states in 2010 alone. In sharp contrast to this, Albanians made zero claims for asylum according to Lulzim Basha, the Albanian Minister of the Interior. Apparently, there were almost no asylum seekers from Bosnia-Herzegovina either. The explanation for this vast discrepancy may lie in the kind of reports coming from Macedonia and Serbia of under-investment and neglect in predominantly minority regions of these countries. Poverty is the main reason behind these desperate and largely unsuccessful attempts to gain asylum. There have also been reports of so-called ‘agencies” motivating these people, usually poorly informed about the asylum policies in the EU, to emigrate in turn for a considerable sum of money. On the other hand, one can also notice fears in the Western Balkans countries— some characteristically blaming the minority members —that the rise in asylum-seekers might lead to a re-introduction of visa restrictions. Since visa liberalisation has been one of the EU’s main instruments of pressure on these countries to reform their administrative and security capacities, it will be extremely interesting to follow further developments.


* Photo by Alf Thomas.