18 July 2012 – If you type words such as “exit controls” or “travel bans” into any search engine, the results will inevitably include countries like Pakistan or China,  which can hardly be labelled democratic. And yet, these words have recently experienced a new, sad revival in a place in Europe, the Balkans. 

Under the influence of the European Union, the Western Balkans countries have reintroduced exit controls that concern their citizens and third country nationals alike. The controls result in often arbitrary travel bans on the suspicion that persons wishing to leave these countries are actually “false asylum seekers.” This derogatory term refers to those citizens of Balkan countries who have claimed asylum in the EU in recent years.

Visa liberalization lies at the origin of this situation. Generally perceived as a positive development due to its association with freedom of movement, visa liberalization has actually turned into the opposite for several thousand Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians, Bosnians and Montenegrins. Under pressure from the European Union, their countries have adopted a legislation that enables exit controls.

The recent complaints from countries such as Belgium, Sweden, or Luxembourg over an increase in asylum requests from Western Balkans have added a new layer of repressive legislation filtering out those who are likely to use their trip abroad to file an application for asylum. In May 2011, the Serbian government adopted a new law strengthening the powers of the Serbian border police. Its purpose is to “protect the interests of the Republic of Serbia and of its citizens, or to prevent the abuse of the European Union’s visa-free regime towards the Republic of Serbia”.

Macedonia is already one step further: On 28 September 2011, the Macedonian Parliament adopted an amendment to its Law on Travel Documents which states that rejected asylum seekers can be deprived of their passport for a year. Even before this change, Macedonian citizens suspected of intending to seek asylum in the EU had their passports stamped at the borders and thus rendered useless as a travel document.

While the Bosnian authorities kept silent about measures taken to reduce the number of Bosnian asylum seekers, Albania has started prosecuting rejected asylum seekers on charges of carrying false documents. Even the small Montenegro, whose Minister of Interior Ivan Brajović boasted less than two years ago that no single Montenegrin citizen had requested asylum in the Schengen area, filters out potential asylum candidates at its borders.

The European Commission, which otherwise presents itself as a champion of human and minority rights, has remained silent about the human rights violations caused by these measures. The Commission told my organization that it “does not have competence to assess the legislation concerning third country nationals according to standards set by international human rights”. On the contrary, the European Commission has emphasized the need for these countries to adopt additional measures in order to reduce the population outflow.

The increase in border controls and travel bans has worked very selectively, targeting first and foremost the Roma who are deprived of their right to travel on flimsy grounds. In January, a Roma couple from Macedonia was denied the right to visit their relatives in the neighboring Serbia. They were told that their marriage is invalid, and that they needed a letter of invitation. In another case, a border guard simply told a Roma family that he received orders to stop their travel from the Ministry of Interior.

The Macedonian Minister of Interior, Gordana Jankulovska, explained that the controls were performed based on the profiling of potential asylum seekers, and elaborated based on the information received from the EU. This information targets in particular people coming from certain regions, and also turns Roma into the focus of border controls.

According to the political discourse and the media, Roma, and to a minor extent other ethnic minorities, are commonly seen as those abusing the EU visa-free regime by seeking asylum. They are also the targets of public information campaigns that often do nothing more then spreading confusion and fear.

In Serbia, Ivica Dačić, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, said that he would meet with the representatives of the Roma and Albanian communities and inform them that “no one from those communities will be able to leave the country without a return ticket, the financial means to support their stay and a justification of their journey.”

The announcement, made on Ederlezi, the traditional Roma spring celebration, did not produce any public outcry. In both Macedonia and Serbia, Roma NGOs are involved in public information campaigns, something that limits their reactions to such insults. The Serbian League for the Roma Decade  went so far as to condemn in a public statement the “phenomenon of false asylum seekers,” claiming that the rights of nobody living in Serbia were threatened to an extent that would justify the need for political asylum.

The Committee of Ministers from the Council of Europe has just adopted a resolution on Macedonian ethnic minorities that labels the employment situation of Roma unacceptable, and claims that many projects for the improvement of their living conditions are abandoned in early stages or not even begun. The Committee of Ministers also concluded in a resolution on Serbia adopted a year ago that discrimination against Roma remains widespread in the country.

However, in the EU Roma asylum seekers are seen, not as people escaping discrimination, but primarily economic refugees. “Two waves of asylum claims indicate that claiming asylum in the EU is part of the Roma seasonal migration,” according to a document by Frontex, the European border security agency. The Serbian Minister of Interior Ivica Dačić, similarly said that the Roma and ethnic Albanians would go to Western Europe to spend the winter.

Should the fact that a few thousand people in need have applied for asylum be a valid cause for alarm? The president of the Roma Council, Dervo Sjedić answered a question about the increase in the number of asylum seekers by saying that he cannot understand how 70 people—the number of estimated asylum seeker from Bosnia since December 2010—can put the visa liberalization in danger. “The main problem seems to be that these people are Roma,” he added.

On a slightly different note, the Serbian ombudsman Saša Janković noted that the visa liberalization bears major challenges in an economic context marked by strong disparities. He also added that Europe might not always be ready to face these challenges without discrimination.

Author: Karin Waringo, Chachipe a.s.b.l.

Published at: Roma Transitions