The EU lifted visa requirements for citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in December 2009, and a year later for those of Albania and BiH.
By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 19/09/13
The European Parliament's revisions to the EU visa regulations are expected to be approved by EU justice and home affairs ministers. [AFP]
A European Parliament vote to allow the 28-nation bloc to temporarily re-impose visa requirements for Western Balkan countries and other non-member states is aimed at ensuring that visa-free travel does not lead to abuses, European officials said.
The EP voted 328-257 on September 12th on amendments to the Union's visa regulation of 2001. The measure is expected to be approved by EU justice and home affairs ministers in early October.
EU officials said the mechanism would be triggered only as a last-resort measure in the event of sudden and substantial increases in irregular migrant numbers or unfounded asylum requests.
"The new visa waiver suspension mechanism will contribute to preserving the integrity of the visa liberalisation processes and to build credibility vis-à-vis the citizens," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said after the EP adopted the changes. "It will allow, under strict conditions and after thorough assessment by the [European] Commission, for the temporary reintroduction of the visa requirement for citizens of a certain third country."
The EU lifted visa requirements for citizens of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in December 2009, and a year later for those of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
The move was followed by a sharp increase in the number of asylum applications from the five countries, however. In 2010, a total of 30,000 claims were recorded, up from less than 10,000 in the preceding 12-month period. The number then fell to about 25,000 in 2011 to peak at 43,000 last year, according to the European Stability Initiative (ESI), Europe's think-tank for Southeast Europe and enlargement.
According to BiH Council of Ministers data, more than 900 of the country's citizens filed asylum applications in Western Europe in the first seven months of this year, an increase of 20 percent from 2012. Those seeking false asylum in the EU mainly cite poverty and the inability to find employment in BiH as a reason.
Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are among the worst affected among the EU countries by the increase in the number of asylum seekers from the five Western Balkan countries.
Some voiced regret at the EP's decision.
"These measures are to simply shorten the asylum procedure in the countries that are affected," Alexandra Stiglmayer, senior analyst at ESI's office in Brussels, told SETimes. "All of the countries that are affected… have rather long procedures of two to three months at the first instance without appeal and what attracts people is that during that time they have accommodation, food, medical care, some small pocket money, and many of them also work on the black market."
Non-EU member Switzerland, which has also been affected by that problem, shortened the procedure to less than a week last year, after which the number of asylum claims fell to a tenth of what it used to be, Stiglmayer said. In Germany, where the duration of the application processing procedures was reduced to nine days at the end of 2012, "the number of asylum-seekers fell from 6,000 per month to 1,000," she said.
Predrag Simic, professor of political science in Belgrade and Serbia's former ambassador to France, also expressed concern.
"The European Union does nothing to help the Balkan countries solve the problem of false asylum-seekers, and these countries cannot themselves stop people who want to go there for economic reasons without their human rights being violated," Simic told SETimes.
Mersel Biljali, professor of international public law at the University FON in Skopje, said the measure "contains a clear political message for the countries that got visa liberalization."
"Namely, the message to the countries is to find an efficient mechanism within, inside them, which will prevent further occurrence of asylum-seekers who also caused economic effects in the countries where they went," he told SETimes.
Correspondents Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo, Biljana Pekusic in Belgrade and Marina Stojanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.
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