The EU in the end of 2009 took the decision of liberalizing the regime concerning visas by the citizens from several Western Balkan countries. It is also, widely discussed in Brussels, that after Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and Fyrom, Bosnia will also have a visa-free regime by mid-2010, followed perhaps by Kosovo within a couple of years.
Although the decision was unanimous and motivated by wider political calculations, it has already led to a number of problems, relating to an exodus of population from the Balkans to Northern European countries mostly.
A wave of applications for political asylum from citizens of Fyrom and Serbia has already caused concern to the governments of Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden following the removal of the Schengen visas.
The Belgian authorities noticed that an alarming large number of citizens from these countries were arriving en masse and filling applications for asylum so as to prolong their stay in the country, hoping to remain, by taking advantage of the loopholes of the local legal system.
Almost all applicants were members of the Albanian and Roma minorities that are despair by unemployment rates in excess of 50% in their localities thus looking for opportunities to establish themselves in other more developed states.
The number of asylum applications during the first two months of 2010 was twice the total number of last year, prompting the Belgium government to send a special group of officials for consultations with their counterparts in the Balkans in order to stop the influx of immigrants. Moreover, deportations were forced by Brussels, although it is already made public that a number of applicants were able to hide into the large urban centers by employing themselves in the informal economy that is able to offer working opportunities to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, often in shadow activities involving contraband and other unlawful actions.
Furthermore, it has been made known through the local Balkan media, that since the liberalization of the visa regime, a “street-mechanism”, has been established that offers organized travel services for groups of aspiring asylum -seekers, that are willing to pay up to 1,000 per person so as for the managers of tourist agencies and transport companies, to arrange travel and documents necessary for the filling of an application once the group arrives in their country of choice. The involvement of state officials is more than certain in such cases as experience has showed numerously in the past. So far the authorities in Skopje have closed down two travel agencies who were involved and operated without any formal license. In one, named «Sky Vim-AB», the owner was proved to be the brother of Amnti Bajram, a Member of Parliament of the ruling party, who consequently denied his involvement in this kind of business. Due to the EU pressure the local police authorities it is said they have initiated operations in order to uncover the network of people involved in the mass transfer of immigrants.
The Belgian Minister for Migration, Melkior Vatle, who visited the region, stressed the need “to start investing in order to improve the lives of the people” as “Belgium does not give asylum to anyone from now on”.
The visit of Vatle in the deprived areas was meant to notify in person the villagers and convince them not to migrate because Belgium is no in the position of offering a better alternative and those that propagate such immigration, are proving false information to them.
The largest problem is concentrated in the region of Lipkovo, which is mostly Albanian populated in Fyrom, with unemployment rates exceeding 60%, and with other developmental issues, such as the lack of clean-drinking water system.
In South-West Serbia in the valley of Presevo in Serbia, which is also the region of a substantial number of Albanians, there was a trend of asylum seekers once visa was lifted for the EU. The Belgium Embassy in Belgrade was forced to inform officially that asylum requests were to be denied and that visa should only be used for short-term tourist purposes.
The phenomenon has caused concern in other European countries such as Switzerland, France and Sweden, and according to official figures the number of asylum-seekers from Serbia and Fyrom exceeded recently the traditional source-countries such as Eritrea and Nigeria. Moreover an unidentified number of Albanians from all Western Balkan countries has already entered the EU via Italy and Greece and unofficial estimations by local journalists, predict that the number of people that will take advantage of the abolition of the visa, will exceed 200,000 people by the end of 2010, and they will permanently establish themselves in EU states.
The above correlate with recent revelations that tourist agencies in Pristina advertise to the locals the opportunity to buy visas or even foreign passports, a dubious practice that nonetheless promotes a wider dynamic towards mass immigration from that area in other more prosperous ones within Europe. The current global recession, has affected naturally the whole of the region which saw its GDP decreasing and the unemployment rates soaring, combined with higher criminal and social exclusion rates.
A sure prediction is that these issues, although they were dealt rather swiftly by Belgium, they will surely occupy in the near future the authorities of other EU countries that will have to face an increasing immigration wave from the Balkans, in addition to the one being experienced by the movement of populations from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.