Asylum Seekers

YPolice escort the first bus carrying failed Serbian asylum seekers back from Belgium on March 11. (Photo: Sasa Djordjevic/ AFP-Getty Images)

The tension caused by the revealing of the rising numbers of Macedonian citizens who have sought asylum in E.U. countries since the beginning of the year seems to be calming down. Recently the first buses of unsuccessful would-be émigrés returned from Brussels. Belgium was the prime destination for the wave of migrants who thought they could get a better life in the rich European Union by filing for asylum. The buses also carried Serbian citizens.

Paid by the Belgium government and escorted by Belgium migration officials, they brought the first group of disillusioned refugees back to their homes. More buses are to follow from Belgium, and likely from other European countries as well. This seems to appease the political tension inflamed in past weeks by the media reports of an alleged massive flight of mostly Macedonian and Serbian citizens seeking asylum in the European Union.

In early March, at an urging by the Belgium government, the European Commission (EC) informed the public of the increased number of citizens from Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro filing asylum claims in Belgium's capital Brussels. In a sharp reaction, the EC reminded the governments of the countries that recently benefited from visa liberalization to inform their citizens of the entitlements and obligations arising from the visa-free regime. EC spokesperson from DG Justice, Freedom, and Security Michele Cercone assessed the phenomenon as migratory pressure motivated by economic reasons, underlining that the chances of actually getting an asylum are very small for most seekers.

Since the beginning of the year, migration authorities in Brussels have noticed the increased numbers of asylum claims mostly by citizens from Macedonia and Serbia. Numbers quoted by the media differed, but by some estimates, around 400 Macedonians citizens claimed asylum in Belgium since the beginning of the year, a number substantially higher compared to previous years. Another media source has reported over 300 asylum applications from Serbian citizens, mostly Albanians and Roma from the south of the country, in February alone. The numbers have risen in other countries too. Reportedly, there were around 160 asylum requests by Macedonian citizens in Switzerland in February, three times more than in the whole of 2009. Similarly, according to Macedonian media reports of Swedish migration authorities' estimates, around 1,000 Roma from the region, mostly from Serbia, but also from Macedonia and Montenegro, have entered Sweden by buses. Many of them thought they could get asylum and government assistance.

Media investigation in Macedonia soon started to unravel the puzzle. Something did not make sense. With the visas gone, "regular" illegal migrants could enter the European Union as tourists and simply stay there unnoticed for years—behavior typical of illegal migrants. The hopeful refugees would load off the bus in Brussels, and first thing they would go to the migration office to declare their presence and ask for asylum—action very unbecoming of an economic clandestine.

Journalists quickly got the core of the matter. These people, usually the poorest of the poor, people of low education, were lured by swindlers into thinking they could actually get government social support in E.U. countries if they asked for asylum. In such a case, they were told, the rich E.U. government would give them apartments to live in and a monthly check. The investigation led journalists to several travel agencies, usually without licenses, which charged the desperate around 100 euros for a ticket to Brussels. For many of these people 100 euros was likely their life savings. Following reactions from the E.U. and media reports, the government quickly reacted and cracked down on the illegal "travel agents."

Belgium's Prime Minister Ives Leterme arrived in Macedonia on March 8 to help personally in dispersing the untruths over his country's asylum policies. He said Belgium did not give political asylum on economic grounds. He also asked Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to help convey the message to Macedonian citizens. The next day Belgian officials, led by Secretary of State for Immigration Melchior Wathelet, visited the region of Lipkovo, in the north of the country, from whence many of the asylum seekers originated.

The Macedonian government also took on a media campaign to avert citizens from false promises. For several days, government ministers sent appeals through the media. The combined action yielded fruit, and the asylum bus tours to the European Union stopped. The first bus of returnees is to be followed by others. Authorities have launched an investigation, and hopefully charges will be brought against frauds who sought quick profits by deceiving the poorest of the poor.

Governments in the region and in the European Union have been fighting professional migrant smugglers and human traffickers for years. It is a difficult struggle against skilled and organized opponents. This was amateur night. From this point of view, all the political drama and the strong statements made in Brussels about the possible political repercussions that could be brought on the Balkan countries in response to this major abuse seem a bit exaggerated.

Media got the credit for revealing the scheme, finding the organizers and dispelling the lies that misled the poor. However, Alexandra Stiglmayer, part of a Berlin-based think tank, pointed out that some media were over-blowing the situation. "There has been abuse of visas in the past, and it is clear that there will be abuse of visa-free travel. What is unfortunate is that some media are exaggerating this," said Ms. Stiglmayer. She said that some media were inflating the number of asylum applications.

"This is an administrative problem, not political", said Pavel Gantar, chairman of the Slovenian Parliament. Slovenia was a strong proponent of visa liberalization for the Balkan countries.

This was the first big public test for the visa-free regime for Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro, which started on December 19, 2009. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania are expected to soon follow suit and be allowed visa-free travel as early as 2010. Some commentators indicated that the asylum-seekers episode might reflect negatively on these countries' hopes to get their visas dropped.

This article was published in Italian by Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso:

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