German jitters over the spiking asylum claims by Roma from Serbia and Macedonia has got some in the EU talking about reinstating the visa requirement for those countries. This would be a major blow for the union’s integration efforts toward the Western Balkans, as Gerald Knaus and Alexandra Stiglmayer of the European Stability Initiative write.

They quote the German interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, as saying, “We have to send a clear signal to the relevant countries: people who are really persecuted will be accepted, economic refugees won’t.”

Deutsche Welle paraphrased Friedrich as saying most of the asylum seekers don’t qualify for political asylum. Rather, they are fleeing poverty and economic ruin in their home countries.

That sounds fairly dire to me, certainly not grounds to summarily send them back to such an economic disaster zone. Well, maybe his meaning got pumped up in translation.

A faction of member states led by Germany, Sweden and a few others are now calling for the visa rules to be tightened. One proposal is to allow visa requirements to be re-imposed if asylum claims rise by 50 percent over a six-month period, according to EUObserver.

Knaus, usually a canny observer, and co-author Stiglmayer pick out the holes in these arguments, but their counterproposal leaves almost as many questions unanswered.

As they write, the European Commission’s suggestion that Serbia, Macedonia and Albania mount public awareness campaigns to dissuade potential asylum seekers is disingenuous, while the recommendation to increase border checks raises hackles. After spending the past 20 years celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain and crying up the wonderful things that come from a borderless society, now we want these poor, backward neighbors to stop their citizens leaving the country, because they are poor, uneducated, or brown-skinned?

“As almost all the asylum seekers are Roma, it is hard to avoid ethnic profiling and open discrimination if this [‘exit controls’] were systematically implemented,” they write.

But Knaus and Stiglmayer’s Gordian-knot-cutter – “The best way forward for reforming visa requirements” – amounts to much the same thing. Tangled grammar makes it hard to tease apart their argument, but the gist of it is that all countries that enjoy visa-free travel to the EU be declared “safe countries of origin” – those with good enough regimes so that returned asylum seekers will not be in danger.

Knaus and Stiglmayer write that processing times were cut drastically in Austria and the Netherlands when they enlarged their “safe countries” lists. Presumably, the western Balkans are on those lists. Belgium compiled its official safe country list, for the first time, a few months ago. Asylum requests by nationals of those countries are to be handled within 15 days. The list isn’t long: the four Balkan states that enjoy visa-free travel to the Schengen area, plus Bosnia, Kosovo, and India. Belgium was one of the first countries to complain about rising numbers of Balkan asylum seekers when the no-visa regime took effect.

What safe country lists do is shift some of the vetting process back to the source countries, and that is as it should be. But in the short run, this amounts to “exit controls,” or racial profiling at the borders. Knaus and Stiglmayer seem to argue that western Balkan countries should be given another chance to step up human-rights protection before this new, all-EU safe country list comes into effect. That simply shunts their “best way forward” years into the future.

It’s pretty clear that a large majority of these asylum seekers don’t qualify for political asylum under the international refugee convention or EU law. Indeed, they are “economic” migrants. Yet, people motivated primarily by economic concerns can be political refugees at the same time. When you have virtually no chance of finding a better than menial job – ever – because you lack the education and training, and you lack education because of deep-seated prejudices against your kind sharing classrooms with “white” kids, isn’t that something like persecution? What could be more political?

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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