Europe seeks to stem flow of Balkan asylum seekers

Wed Oct 24, 2012 11:24am EDT
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By Matt Robinson and Alexandra Hudson

PRESEVO, Serbia/BERLIN (Reuters) - 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 broken."

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.   Continued...