Amid criticism, Macedonia takes legal and public education steps to retain its visa-free regime.
By Biljana Lajmanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 11/08/12
Most Macedonian citizens judged to be seeking fake asylum are returned at the Macedonia-Serbia border. [Reuters]
Under a direct EU threat to have its visa-free status suspended, Macedonia has undertaken measures to return its citizens to the border who attempt to seek asylum, or cannot justify their travel to the EU.
Macedonia is also raising awareness about visa policies and the consequences of abuse.
Some Roma in Macedonia -- one of the most numerous ethnic groups seeking asylum in the EU -- claimed the border measure is discriminatory.
"There are 57,000 Roma in Macedonia, and nearly 10,000 are seeking asylum. ... Everyone has the right to decide if he wants to stay here or not," Samka Ibraimovski, Party for Full Emancipation of the Roma MP, told SETimes.
The Macedonian Interior Ministry said of the thousands of citizens travelling to the EU, it returned 4,700 people over the past year based on their inability to prove a justified travel purpose, not ethnicity.
"The ministry does not keep statistics about the ethnicity of those returned from the border. Every citizen of the Republic of Macedonia, regardless of ethnicity, is equal before the law," Ivo Kotevski, spokesperson for the ministry of interior, told SETimes.
Kotevski said authorities act in accordance with the Schengen Code and Macedonia's Law for Borders Oversight, under which they have the right to assess the pretext under which people claim to be travelling.
Macedonian law has been partially harmonised with EU regulation and the Schengen Border Code.
The EU granted Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro a visa-free regime in December 2009, after which a wave of "asylum seekers" descended on EU countries in search of a better life.
Most were soon returned home because the EU determined their asylum demands were unjustified. But because of the misuse of the travel regime, the EU threatened the three countries with loss of the visa-free status and required them to introduce strict steps to stop the asylum wave.
New travel rules were introduced in Serbia and Montenegro as well, but there have been no official complaints there.
"From year to year, the Macedonian government institutions more assertively are addressing the existential problems the Roma face -- from education to employment. They can not be solved overnight, but the efforts to improve matters are visible," Mustafa told SETimes.
The ministry of internal affairs organised public discussions to increase awareness.
"They have an educational character which showed citizens the benefits of visa liberalisation and the illegal tactics by travel agencies and certain individuals which have manipulated citizens for material or other benefits," Mustafa said.
But the Macedonian authorities are taking tougher measures against fake asylum seekers, with punishment including loss of passports to prison time for trip organizers.
In the first case involving four people convicted of organising travels for fake asylum seekers last month, the perpetrators were sentenced to four years in prison each.
The measures have significantly reduced the number asylum seekers, allowing Macedonia to keep the visa-free travel regime. In 2010, there were 6,400 who requested asylum, so far this year the number dropped to 2,200.