Politicians from Germany and other EU members called on Brussels to revoke visa-free travel to the bloc from Serbia and Macedonia. They say there is no reason for the increase in asylum applications from the Balkans.
Citizens from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro haven't needed a visa for trips to the European Union since 2009. That has also applied to passport holders from Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2010. Many of them have used their ability to travel freely in the EU to apply for asylum, according to the European Commission, mainly in Germany, Sweden and Belgium. A large number of the applicants are Roma and Sinti.
Governments in the countries that have seen an increase in asylum application have said this development is not what they intended when they decided to open their borders. German Deputy Interior Minister Ole Schröder said there have been clear abuses of the visa-free travel policy.
"People are not being persecuted against in their home countries," he said when arriving for a meeting of EU interior and justice ministers in Luxembourg on Thursday (25.10.2012). "We have an acceptance rate that is practically zero."
Serbiais a "safe country"
German officials are permitting those who cannot travel back to their home countries or who are in need of medical treatment they could not get at home to stay in Germany. All the rest of the asylum applicants "have to be brought back to their home countries as quickly as possible," Schröder said.
The jump in asylum applications makes it difficult for countries to deal with applicants from outside the Balkans, according to Swedish Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy Tobias Billström.
"It puts an extreme stress on our asylum systems in a situation in which people, let's say from Syria, are trying to escape bloodshed and perhaps the most violent conflict on this planet, are pushed back because they cannot have an asylum application assessed in a quick enough time," he said. "Manifestly unfounded applications are simply squeezing out those who are in real need of shelter."
Schröder said he found it "absurd" and "simply unacceptable that we have two times as many asylum applicants from Serbia as from Afghanistan."
Germany a "magnet" for asylum seekers
In light of the increase in asylum applicants, Berlin wants to speed up asylum processing. One means of doing so is classifying Serbia and Macedonia as "safe countries." That would mean people from those countries would not have a right to asylum.
Germany is a "magnet" for asylum seekers, according to Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, because it offers cash assistance. That is an aspect of asylum law German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he wants to change so asylum seekers from "safe countries" would see reductions in the aid they are paid. "In Austria, we do not have these problems, thank God," Mikl-Leitner said.
Schröder commented that "the right to asylum is not there to be able to work in Germany." He said he also wants to be able to take legal action against those who bring people to Germany, often disguised as travel groups, with the intention to seek asylum.
But an EU-wide rule would be more effective than whatever steps Berlin takes on its own. That's why Germany and five other countries, including France, want a temporary stop to visa-free travel for citizens from Serbia and Macedonia.
Reinstating visa regulations
Such a step, however, could only be taken with the approval of the European Parliament. And parliamentarians are divided on the issue. German conservative European parliamentarians Monika Hohlmeier and Manfred Weber spoke of an "untenable situation" that needed to be addressed by lifting - even without parliamentary approval if necessary.
Green politician Barbara Lochbihler, however, told German public broadcaster WDR that this was the "completely wrong approach and an unsuitable policy." She added that businesspeople and students from Balkan countries would also be affect by such a change in visa law.
Cornelia Ernst of the Left party said tens of thousands of asylum applications per year in the EU does not qualify as a "massive flood" and that "the overwhelming majority of applicants are Roma who are subject to massive discrimination in Serbia."
Put focus on minority rights at home
Sweden's Billström said he agreed with Ernst's analysis of the situation but not the conclusions she drew.
"It's a question of the countries that want to get visa liberalization to start talking about and thinking about minority rights because, obviously, we did not do that enough before we entered into this process," Billström said. "
The European Commission has commented on the poor treatment of Roma in Europe. A report presented by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said educational opportunities for children and access to the labor market need improvement. She suggested improving border controls along the EU's borders with Balkan countries to fight against trafficking.