BRUSSELS The European Union told Balkan governments on Thursday to curb the number of people from the region seeking asylum in the EU or risk losing the right to travel in the bloc without visas.
Visa-free travel is one of the most tangible benefits of European integration in the region and European governments have used it as a tool to encourage democratic reforms.
But there are growing concerns, particularly in western EU states, about an influx of migrants, many of them Roma, that has followed the relaxation of travel rules in recent years.
"It is time for the Balkan states to address this," EU commissioner for immigration issues, Cecilia Malmstrom, said after a meeting of EU home affairs ministers in Luxembourg. "There are severe concerns," she said.
Malmstrom said EU data showed the number of asylum seekers from the Balkans has increased by 75 percent in the last year.
"Very few of them are actually accepted. It's a microscopic level," she said.
Several EU governments, including powerbrokers Germany and France, have led a push in recent weeks to make it easier to suspend visa-free travel in Europe, saying the benefit is being abused by people who are not legitimate refugees. Rules spelling out how this can be done were preliminarily agreed last year but have yet to be put into force.
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 marginalizing the ethnic Albanian and Roma minorities, who make up the overwhelming majority of the asylum seekers.
The Balkans hemorrhaged 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.
(Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Rosalind Russell)