EU interior ministers are debating how to curb the increasing number of asylum seekers from Eastern Europe. The German interior minister is making concrete suggestions how to discourage people from even trying.
So far in 2012, over 14,000 people from Serbia and Macedonia have requested asylum within the Schengen zone, which comprises most EU countries as well as non-members, such as Switzerland and Norway.
More than 6,000 of the asylum seekers from Eastern Europe have come to Germany, outnumbering Afghans, Iraqis or Syrians.
The interior ministers of Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria and the Netherlands, wrote to the EU's executive this week pushing for the speedy adoption of legislation allowing visa requirements to be reintroduced.
Ahead of the EU interior ministers' meeting this Thursday, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich called for concrete measures to reduce numbers. He wants asylum seekers to receive less cash support and their applications to be dealt with faster.
"The huge inflow of Serbian and Macedonian citizens must be stopped immediately. The quicker this happens, the less right they have to state funds," he said.
The asylum process in Germany can take months, in which time applicants are given accommodation, food and financial support.
"Visa-free travel must not lead to abuse of the asylum rules. This will strain the readiness of Germans to help the truly needy and persecuted," said Friedrich.
Visa-free travel for the Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia was introduced in 2009 and 2010. Since then, citizens from those countries, the former Yugoslavia, enjoy visa-free travel for up to three months. The measure was introduced as a step towards eventual EU membership.
The vast majority of the asylum requests from those countries are unfounded according to Michele Cercone, a spokesman for EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.
"These are almost all economic migrants rather than asylum seekers," she said.
At the meeting on Thursday commissioner Malmstrom stressed again that abuse of the asylum system had been "increasing considerably" since the Eastern European countries were granted visa-free travel.
Ethnic Albanian and Roma minorities make up the overwhelming majority of the asylum seekers. Human rights groups in Germany point out that they do face discrimination in their home countries.
"They have a right to an examination of their (asylum) application, in which the racist discrimination in their home countries is fully considered," German refugee rights group Pro Asyl and German Roma groups said in a joint statement.
The think tank European Stability Initiative warned the EU on Wednesday against making a "fundamental and strategic mistake" by reintroducing visas for the Balkans.
The lifting of the visa regime was "the most significant decision made in the past decade to further the integration of the Western Balkans", it wrote. Re-imposing the requirement "would be a bad blow to the EU's credibility in southeast Europe."
Of the former Yugoslav nations, Slovenia is already in the EU and Croatia will join next year. Kosovans, who are mostly ethnic Albanians, still need visas.
In 2011 the United Nations ranked Serbia - taken together with Kosovo - fourth behind Afghanistan, China and Iraq in the number of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries.
rg/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)