Today the Commission published its fifth assessment of the functioning of the visa-free scheme with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The fifth post visa liberalisation report on the Western Balkans shows that more measures are necessary to maintain the integrity of the visa-free scheme and to address potential abuses of the EU asylum system.
"The European Commission remains committed to maintaining visa-free travel for citizens of the Western Balkans countries. The benefits of visa liberalisation have been very visible in terms of enhancing people-to-people contacts and business opportunities. However, the misuse of the visa-free travel scheme for seeking asylum in the EU must be addressed systematically and through proper allocation of resources. Our report formulates a set of recommendations to tackle the push and pull factors of irregular migration so I, therefore, strongly call for the full support and engagement of all participating countries",said Dimitris Avramopoulos, Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship.
Asylum abuse by citizens of the visa-free countries in the Western Balkans remains a considerable concern.
The number of asylum applications submitted in the EU and Schengen-associated countries by nationals of the five visa-free Western Balkan countries has been steadily rising since visa liberalisation was achieved, peaking in 2013 at 53 705 applications. Figures for the first nine months of 2014 are 40 % higher than for the same period of 2013.
At the same time, the asylum recognition rate across the EU and Schengen-associated countries continued to fall for all Western Balkan visa-free citizens, indicating that the overwhelming majority of applications remained manifestly unfounded. The recognition rate was 3.7 % for Montenegrin citizens, 2.7 % for Serbian citizens, and 1 % for nationals of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Meanwhile, 8.1 % of Albanian applicants and 5.9 % of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina received international protection in the EU and Schengen-associated countries in 2013.
Serbian citizens remained the largest group of Western Balkan visa-free asylum-seekers in the EU and Schengen-associated countries (42 % in 2013), followed by citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania (21 % each), citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina (14 %) and citizens of Montenegro (2 %).
Germany remains the largest recipient of Western Balkan visa-free asylum applications, with an increased share of the Western Balkan intake (from 12 % in 2009 to 75 % in the first nine months of 2014).
Each Western Balkan visa-free country must be able to show a sustained downward trend in the number of unfounded asylum applications submitted in EU Member States.
The Commission recommends that each visa-free Western Balkan country take resolute action to address the push factors of irregular migration to the EU:
- Strengthen operational cooperation and information exchange on border management, migration, asylum and readmission with EU Member States, the Commission and Frontex, Europol and EASO;
- Investigate facilitators of irregular migration, and prosecute those who enable the abuse of the visa-free scheme;
- Strengthen border controls in strict compliance with citizens’ fundamental rights;
- Enhance targeted information and awareness campaigns aimed at further clarifying to citizens the rights and obligations of visa-free travel.
The Commission also recommends that the most-affected EU Member States and Schengen-associated countries take steps to address the pull factors of irregular migration. They should consider the following:
- Streamlining asylum procedures for the citizens of the five visa-free Western Balkan countries, for example, by having more staff assess asylum cases in peak periods or by establishing an accelerated procedure that enables the swift processing of applications at peak times or for citizens of particular countries;
- A more cautious and selective use of cash benefits, such as pocket money and financial return assistance, to reduce the financial incentives for asylum abuse;
- Organising high-level visits to the countries concerned and information campaigns, in cooperation with local NGOs and municipalities;
- Strengthening operational cooperation and information exchange, including through liaison officers, with the authorities of the countries concerned.
Following visa liberalisation, some EU Member States experienced an increase in unfounded asylum applications lodged by nationals of the visa-exempted Western Balkan countries. To prevent risks of misuse of the visa-free scheme, the Commission put in place a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the measures taken by the Western Balkan countries towards addressing potential abuses.
Post-visa liberalisation reports aim at ensuring the sustained implementation of the commitments undertaken by the Western Balkan countries prior to the lifting of the visa requirement. Today's report is the fifth of its kind since 2011.
Reports are prepared on the basis of on-spot visits by Commission and Member State experts to verify the progress and quality of reforms relating to the visa-free scheme. They also draw upon reports by each Western Balkan country on the steps taken to address irregular migration, as well as analysis from Frontex, Europol, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) on the latest trends in border control, irregular migration and asylum.
In addition to the regular post-visa liberalisation reports, the EU also introduced a general mechanism allowing, under exceptional conditions, for the temporary reintroduction of the visa requirement for citizens of third countries benefiting from a visa waiver with the EU (MEMO/13/784).
This mechanism does not target any specific third country or region, but applies equally to all countries that benefit or will benefit from visa-free travel to the EU in the future – it therefore also applies to the Western Balkans countries.
No Member State has ever requested the activation of this visa suspension mechanism.
In recent months, the EU faced a considerable increase in irregular migration from Kosovo, via Serbia, to several EU Member States. The Commission is currently conducting a visa liberalisation dialogue with Kosovo and will continue to work with its Government to address the push factors of this recent migratory episode.
Fifth Report on the post-visa liberalisation monitoring for the Western Balkan countries
Commissioner Avramopoulos homepage
Follow Commissioner Avramopoulos on Twitter
DG Home Affairs homepage
Follow DG Home Affairs on Twitter