* Jump in Balkan asylum seekers since EU lifted visa regime
* Albanians and Roma try to escape poverty, discrimination
* Germany leads calls in the EU to stem influx
By Matt Robinson and Alexandra Hudson
PRESEVO, Serbia/BERLIN, Oct 24 From a dusty car
park in the Serbian border town of Presevo, ethnic Albanians
leave every Saturday in packed buses for western Europe, using
their precious freedom to enter the EU without visas.
For many of the passengers, visa-free travel to most
European Union countries offers the hope of leaving a life of
unemployment and poverty behind. A powerful group of EU member
states, however, wants to take this freedom away.
Last year, Arsim Memishi made a similarly mind-numbing bus
journey from Presevo to Germany, and on to Sweden. An affable
36-year-old graduate, he could have been a tourist. Instead, he
was looking to escape and he tells the kind of story that is
arousing hostility in the wealthy nations of western Europe.
Arriving in the Swedish city of Malmo, Memishi became one of
almost 60,000 people from the western Balkans to seek asylum in
the EU since 2009-10. In these years the bloc lifted visa
requirements for people from most of the countries that emerged
from Yugoslavia's bloody collapse.
"I told the authorities that I'd been living with my
girlfriend but we'd separated and that her brothers were looking
to kill me," he said. "The real reason was to get documents and
start working. After 12 years without a job, your will is
Memishi was deported after 10 months of living off the
Swedish state and selling scrap metal for extra cash. Now he is
back home in Presevo, and some in the EU are saying "enough".
Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and
Sweden are leading a push for the visa regime to be restored in
the Schengen zone, which comprises most EU countries as well as
non-members such as Switzerland and Norway. The issue is on the
agenda of the EU's justice and home affairs council this week.
Asylum figures for Serbia alone put the country - a
candidate for EU membership - in the same league as Iraq and
Afghanistan. More than 6,000 Serbian and Macedonian citizens
have applied in Germany so far this year, outnumbering Afghans
and feeding resentment among German taxpayers who are already
footing much of the bill from the euro zone debt crisis.
Rights groups, however, say that restoring visas would hurt
the EU's standing in the volatile Balkans, where the pull of
membership has helped to silence the guns, reconcile foes and
drive reform since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
It also risks further marginalising the ethnic Albanian and
Roma minorities, who make up the overwhelming majority of the
Of the ex-Yugoslav nations, Slovenia is already in the EU
and Croatia will join next year. At the other end of the scale
Kosovans, who are mostly ethnic Albanians, still need visas. But
that leaves countries such as Serbia and Macedonia which remain
outside the bloc but whose citizens can enter without a visa.
The European Stability Initiative thinktank warned the EU on
Wednesday against making a "fundamental and strategic mistake".
The lifting of the visa regime was "the most significant
decision made in the past decade to further the integration of
the Western Balkans", it wrote. Re-imposing the requirement
"would be a bad blow to the EU's credibility in southeast
Visa-free travel is for many the most tangible benefit of EU
integration. It is also highly symbolic: long queues at foreign
embassies became synonymous with the indignity and isolation
felt by ex-Yugoslavs after the collapse of their joint state,
whose balancing act between East and West had provided them with
a coveted passport that allowed many to roam the world.
The Balkans haemorrhaged people as Yugoslavia collapsed,
with about 700,000 leaving Serbia alone. With peace, the exodus
slowed and the EU tightened visa regulations.
Then in 2009 it told Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro that
their citizens could travel without visas for up to three months
within the Schengen zone - part of the long process of accession
to the bloc. Albania and Bosnia followed in 2010.
That year, the number of asylum seekers from Serbia and its
former Kosovo province shot up 50 percent to almost 30,000.
In 2011 the United Nations ranked Serbia - taken together
with Kosovo - fourth behind Afghanistan, China and Iraq in the
number of people seeking asylum in industrialised countries.
So far in 2012, over 14,000 people from Serbia and Macedonia
have requested asylum within the Schengen zone.
"The huge inflow of Serbian and Macedonian citizens must be
stopped immediately," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter
Friedrich said this month. He called for asylum seekers to
receive less cash support and for applications to be dealt with
more quickly, to discourage them from trying in the first place.
"The quicker this happens, the less right they have to state
funds," he said. "Visa-free travel must not lead to abuse of the
asylum rules. This will strain the readiness of Germans to help
the truly needy and persecuted."
The majority in Germany are Roma. Their numbers have climbed
again as winter approaches, when many Roma try to escape squalid
shanty towns made of little more than scavenged cardboard and
"SURVIVE THE WINTER"
"Their aim is to survive the winter and come back in time
for the spring," said Zoran Sajikovic, a Roma member of the
local council in the Serbian town of Leskovac.
The asylum process in Germany can take months, in which time
applicants are given accommodation, food and financial support
amounting to around 350 euros ($460) per month after the
Constitutional Court ruled in July that a previous sum of 225
euros was too little.
This compares with the 160 euros a month which Memishi now
earns as a part-time school teacher. The average monthly wage in
Serbia is higher at around 380 euros - for those who can find
work. Unemployment has reached 25 percent and is far higher
among ethnic Albanians and Roma.
An economic downturn in the region is fuelling the flight.
"I have a wife and three kids, no work, no money and I live
in a shack," said Seladin, a Roma man in a suburb of the
Macedonian capital of Skopje. "It takes some time until they
deport you, but they give you a roof over your head, some food,
even money. Chances are the winter will pass before I'm back."
Rights groups say the western alarm is motivated by
discrimination, and ignores the Roma plight in the Balkans. An
estimated 250,000-500,000 Roma live in Serbia, most of them on
the very margins of society.
"They have a right to an examination of their (asylum)
application, in which the racist discrimination in their home
countries is fully considered," German refugee rights group Pro
Asyl and German Roma groups said in a joint statement.
Serbia has ordered police to step up border checks, and
Macedonia has clamped down on bogus travel agencies that
officials say offer fake return tickets and hotel reservations
to fool border guards.
Posters in airports and train stations warn that a rejected
application will mean deportation and a travel ban.
Tough measures, however, risk stirring hostility in a region
still recovering from conflict. The European Stability
Initiative warned of the risk of "ethnic profiling and open
discrimination" at border crossings.
"Europe should have expected this," said Belgzim Kamberi, a
human rights activist in the Presevo Valley, Serbia's poorest
region and an impoverished backwater since an ethnic Albanian
insurgency was quelled there a decade ago.
"This is no-man's land," he said. "You can't stop them from
leaving and looking for a better life if you cannot offer them a
better life here."