By Igor Jovanovic
As a direct result of the increasing number of asylum seekers to EU countries, Serbia may be removed from the white Schengen list and visa-free travel to EU countries, which was put into effect only in late 2009.
Some EU countries have threatened to request Serbia’s removal from the list unless it can exponentially reduce the number of false asylum seekers.
This is a major blow for the ruling coalition led by Serbian President Boris Tadic, which had based its platform largely on the success stories of European integration.
In December 2009 the EU lifted visa restrictions for citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, allowing them to travel freely in the Schengen zone, which covers a majority of EU countries.
Visa-free travel was the most visible achievement of Tadic’s pro-European coalition, which plans to base its campaign for the spring 2012 parliamentary elections on the expectation that Serbia will be granted EU candidate status by the end of this year.
When the visa restrictions were lifted, Serbian authorities had to swallow bitter pill: the plan did not apply to Serbian citizens living in Kosovo. Now, Belgrade will have to take additional unpopular measures to preserve the visa-free regime, endangered by the flow of asylum seekers Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Luxemburg.
EU alarm bells were sounded when Belgium sent an official letter to the European Commission, complaining about the increased number of false asylum seekers from Serbia. According to Belgian media, an average of 200 Serbian citizens have sought asylum in Belgium every month since the visa regime was lifted.
In Sweden, the National Migration Board was forced to rent camps and other temporary accommodations to deal with an acute housing shortage, as some 4,000 Serbian citizens have asked for asylum in Sweden in 2010 alone.
Earlier this month, Serbian authorities arrested some 20 police officers suspected of taking bribes from Kosovo Albanians to provide them with new Serbian biometric passports.
According to Serbian authorities, 95% of asylum seekers are members of the Roma and ethnic Albanian communities, while others come from Serbia’s Sandzak region. Most are economic asylum seekers. Initially, these false asylum seekers traveled to EU countries with the help of various tourist agencies; however, most of those agencies have since been closed down by Serbian authorities.
Officials in Belgrade have vowed to do everything in their power to resolve the problem, in an effort to hold on to the visa liberalization package for the rest of its citizens. They have also pledged to take back all false asylum seekers in accordance with agreements on readmission signed with EU member states.
This, however, will not be enough, and additional measures will be necessary. Some of those measures will find themselves standing perilously close to the edge of constitutional acceptability and human rights.
Belgrade is currently preparing changes to its Criminal code, which will reclassify the organization of illegal migration as a special criminal act. The Interior Ministry is considering temporarily confiscating the passports of false asylum seekers and introducing measures to prohibit them from leaving the country. It has also announced that the jurisdiction of Serbian border police will be increased, allowing them to investigate anyone suspected of attempting to seek false asylum in the EU.
Serbian police recently sent back to Macedonia a bus carrying passengers who intended to request asylum in Germany. Shortly afterwards, the deported Macedonians held a protest in front of the Serbian Embassy in the capital Skopje, claiming that Serbia had violated their rights.
Still, it is unlikely that the Serbian authorities will be able, any time soon, to realize the most efficient measure for preventing false asylum seekers from entering EU: improving the economic situation. At the same time, what will necessary appear to be decidedly repressive measures will not halt illegal migration and could harm the ruling coalition’s standing ahead of parliamentary elections.