Visa Regime Fails to Keep Balkan Immigrants at Bay

Eleonora Veninova Skopje, Belgrade, Turin and Wiesbaden

As tight restrictions on travellers fail to stop illegal immigrants, the point of the visa system is being called into question.

The same sight presents itself outside Western embassies in Skopje every weekday morning; dozens of people, waiting patiently for visas to visit relatives in Amsterdam, drive a truck containing exports to Germany, or meet a potential business partner in Milan.

Some have travelled overnight from towns outside the Macedonian capital, or are back here for their second visit, having failed to bring the right documents the first time.

Even if they produce all the documents required to enter the Schengen zone of the European Union – covering everything, some say bitterly, down to the applicant’s shoe size - it is no guarantee of success. EU states retain the right to deny anyone a visa.

“We have to travel to the Netherlands because my sister is ill,” says one young woman, clutching a bunch of documents, anxiously waiting for her parents. “We called to set an interview, but they said we can only apply in two weeks’ time,” she adds. “That may be too late. My parents have come the 90 km from Kratovo three times already and all in vain…”

Many others in the queue have similar stories. The strict regime imposed by EU countries on the so-called “Western Balkans” is especially frustrating for older people who remember the days when a Yugoslav passport guaranteed travel around the world.

The controls were imposed during the 1990s after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, when Western countries sought to stem the tide of refugees and illegal migrants seeking to leave the conflict zones of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. In the chaos that ensued, the region had also become an easy route for criminal gangs to smuggle into the EU people desperate for work and a safe haven - a lucrative business.

Today, the situation in the region is much more stable and its governments are jumping through hoops to meet the requirements for closer integration with the bloc. But travelling to the EU, whose member states now completely encircle the Western Balkans, hasn’t got any easier.

For the vast majority of ordinary people who want to move legitimately as well as freely, improvement of personal documents and tightening of border controls have yet to be met with any meaningful cutting of red tape. In the meantime, sophisticated criminal networks and a high demand for cheap labour in the EU keep the illegal routes open.

Riza’s journey

Take Riza, a 31-year-old ethnic Bosniak from the remote town of Berane, in Montenegro. He left Yugoslavia in 1999 to avoid conscription into the Serbian-led army during the Kosovo conflict – a conflict that he felt no part of.

Setting off with a group of ten other men from various ex-Yugoslav republics, united only by their determination to escape their fractured home country, he first travelled to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, where he applied for refugee status in Germany. After a month of fruitless visits to the embassy, he fell in with human smugglers and paid them to get him into the EU.

“We travelled for almost a week, mainly by bus and different trucks through Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia,” Riza recalls. “We slept in improvised tents hidden in the woods or sometimes in the back of a truck. After hours of walking on foot we crossed the border into Italy through the woods”.

The smugglers left him and his colleagues near Venice, where he and two others paid a taxi driver to take them to Milan, from where they took a train to Lyon, in France, their preferred destination.

But the French police caught them on the train and sent them back to Italy. Riza tried once more to enter France by train from Italy, but then gave up on France, instead getting an acquaintance to pick him up in Milan and drive him to Frankfurt. In Germany, he was more successful. Today, he lives with his wife and child in Wiesbaden, where he has obtained permanent resident status.

Riza has been joined there by a friend, Edin Beganović, another Bosniak Montenegrin from Berane. Edin left home in 1992, aged only 18, with 1,000 German marks - worth 500 euros - that he stole from his father, along with his brother’s passport. He entered Germany illegally through the Czech Republic before reaching Wiesbaden, where his relatives helped him to regularise his status.

The two men’s stories are typical of the more than 23,600 people from Serbia and Montenegro who entered Germany illegally in 1998 and 1999 alone.

According to Germany’s Office for Migration and Refugees, the number of registered illegal immigrants in Germany is now about 100,000, way down on the high point during the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s. In 2003, German police registered only 2,573 illegal immigrants from the Western Balkans.

But this official figure probably underestimates the real number of illegal immigrants still moving annually from the Balkans to Germany, many of whom are never caught, noticed by the authorities, or registered.

Unable to enter Western Europe legitimately, a steady stream of people from the Balkans heads for Western countries each year, making use of “alternative”, criminal channels, to reach their destinations and find work.

A useful weapon against illegal migration?

EU governments insist that the current tight visa regime, while far from perfect, serves a purpose. The insecure borders of Balkan states, their poorly reformed judicial systems and their endemic political corruption are arguments for why strict controls on the movement of people into the EU from the region remain necessary, officials say.

But the large number of illegal migrants from the Balkans – and other countries - has prompted some migration experts to question the continuing worth of a tough visa regime.

They argue that visas and rigid immigration policies have failed to curb the phenomenon of illegal migration and only help smuggling rings. They say the current regime in fact rewards those who slip into EU countries illegally, while making it difficult for legitimate visitors to obtain entry.

“There is no evidence that the visa regime has any benefit, because visas do not stop immigration,” Rainhart Kloucek, of the Pan-European Union of Austria, based in Vienna, says.

“What we have created with the so-called Schengen border is a new Iron Curtain, although the technical equipment controlling the Schengen border is much better than the old Iron Curtain ever was.”

Lorenzo Trucco, from the Association for Legal Study of Immigration in Turin, which provides legal assistance to immigrants in Italy, agrees. He disputes “theories of invasion from Eastern Europe, should visas be abolished”, claiming that if people are given the liberty to come and go when they choose, “they won’t come illegally”.

The possibility of getting a job relatively easily is certainly a major incentive for young people from the more impoverished Balkan states to try their luck in the West – whether or not they have the right papers.

According to Riza and Edin, the illegal immigrants stick together and help each other in their new country. “Finding a job on the black market is not easy, as you have to know someone,” Edin explains. “It is usually ‘our people’ [ex-Yugoslavs] who live here legally who offer us jobs – Germans, very rarely.”

We’ll do the jobs that you won’t

The jobs that are usually undertaken by immigrants are the ones that domestic nationals don’t want to do. Most are in construction, domestic service, agriculture and factories. For women, the choices are fewer. Often it comes down to “working as waitresses or prostitutes”, Edin maintains.

Germany’s immigration policy has two focuses. It concentrates first on firm control of national borders, with frequent checks on trains, stations, harbours and airports, and second on employers, with a view to deterring them from using illegal immigrants.

But Edin says many employers easily evade this form of supervision. There is often an agreed scenario, just in case things go wrong, and the police swoop. “The deal with the boss is that if you get caught, you won’t turn him in as your employer, but will invent a completely different boss, someone who doesn’t exist,” he explains.

Holk Stobbe, of Zoom, an association that monitors employment policies in Germany, says the official drives to penalise employers who make use of illegal workers are often futile. “The demand for migrant workers will only decline when migrant workers… are granted the same labour rights … and tariff privileges as other workers,” he asserts.

Recently, the European Commission passed a proposal to penalise employers making use of illegal nationals. But Stobbe says this move will be equally ineffective. “The reasons why people migrate persist, regardless of whether there are sanctions against employers or not,” he argues. “More controls will only increase the pressure on undocumented migrants to work for low wages in bad jobs.”

While most young jobseekers from the Balkans have traditionally tried to make their way to Germany and Austria, a growing minority is heading for Mediterranean countries, such as Italy and Spain, drawn by their growing economies and more liberal migration policies.

Italy, Spain and Portugal have all had legalisation campaigns at regular intervals, under which some categories of illegal immigrants have been able to obtain either a permanent right to remain, or citizenship.

Albanians have long headed to Italy, mainly on account of its geographical proximity, and make up a large proportion of the 200,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants there today, according to European Commission figures of May 2007.

Around 12,000 Albanians move there annually. By comparison, the countries of the former Yugoslavia account for about 3,600 migrants to Italy a year.

Compared to many other European countries, Italy is relatively tolerant towards newcomers and the public generally has a positive opinion of their effect on the economy. Under a 2002 law, a quota system has been established that allows several thousand illegal immigrants to regularise their status annually - if they can show they have a secure job with an Italian company.

However, Michele Curto, from Terra del Fuoco, an organisation that works with immigrants, insists the Italian provisions are less generous than they sound; few illegal immigrants are in any position to prove they have a regular job, he asserts. As for those seeking to enter the country, they do not benefit from the quota system at all. “How can people from Africa find a job here, when there is no such possibility [of seeking a job] through our embassies?” he asks.

Curto says the system is abused on a wide scale, with employers pretending to offer jobs to immigrants living abroad when in fact those potential immigrants have been working in Italy for years already.

“These illegal immigrants have to go back to their home countries, so that they can collect the necessary documents there,” Curto explains. “After receiving them, they then apply again for a visa and work permit in Italy – as if they have never worked in Italy before!”

The smugglers – down but not out

To achieve a visa-free regime with the EU, the governments of the Western Balkans know they have to do more to secure their borders and crack down on corruption and organised crime.

All have had to sign readmission agreements, introduce integrated border control systems, issue new biometric identity documents, adjust their laws on aliens and asylum and align their visa policies with those of the EU. Apart from these specific demands, the Western Balkan countries also need to register significant progress in the field of the rule of law, judicial reform, and the fight against organised crime and corruption.

The countries in the region are all at different stages in this uphill struggle. Macedonia was the first to start issuing new biometric passports in April, for example, but has not yet set up an integrated border control system.

Serbia is well behind Macedonia, though its role as regional laggard has brought it certain benefits. “As Serbia was the last country to start these negotiations [on visa facilitation], it has drawn from the experience of the other countries in the region,” says Ivana Đurić, of the EU office of the Serbian government.

The countries are also expected to show concrete results in curbing the efforts of the people smugglers, trafficking immigrants from the Middle East and beyond into Western Europe through the Balkans. In Macedonia, two major court cases involving smuggling of immigrants have been completed this year, sentencing 65 people involved to a total of 260 years in prison.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, office in Macedonia, the number of people being transited across the country in recent years has declined. Since 2000, the IOM has registered a total of 771 cases of human trafficking in Macedonia. The biggest number of cases was in 2001 but a sharp decrease was recorded in 2005 when only four victims were registered.

But in spite of recent setbacks, the smuggling gangs remain active, thanks to their own, highly successful form of cross-border cooperation. According to Riza: “A local person in each country is responsible for his part of the route.

They are coordinated and have excellent cooperation; there are no issues of nationality, ethnicity or anything of the kind. Money is all that counts.”

Hard cash is indeed the motor powering this resilient industry. Edin recalls that in the 1990s, illegal migrants were each paying gang masters about 500 German marks – about 250 euros - to traffic them from the former Yugoslavia to the EU. “Many people did it at the time, mostly Albanians and Serbs,” he adds. “I, myself, even transported people from the Czech Republic to Austria through the woods for a month,” he goes on.

The fees for obtaining false documents are far higher. Dealers charge from several hundred to as much as 3,000 euros for a falsified EU passport, Schengen visa or EU travel document. “The dealers usually take a photo, scan it and replace it on a passport with a Schengen visa,” a former airport policeman from Skopje confides. “They use a couple of names over and over again, and the airport police know them but they are also involved [in the scams], so they let them pass”, he goes on.

“The policeman gets a call to let someone through on a certain day. The next day, he takes the payment, which can be up to 700 or 800 euros. After, it is divided between superior officers and the commanders. Everybody gets a part.”

Edin recalls buying a false Slovenian passport, ID and driving license for about 800 euros in Serbia, which he used to travel to Germany from Greece, having chosen the latter as his embarkation point “because it is safer like that – they don’t have such strict controls in Greece as they do in other EU countries”. He travelled by car to Thessaloniki and got on a flight to Frankfurt using his new Slovenian passport.

Travelling by air on falsified travel documents is the “cleanest” way to enter the EU illegally. The land crossings are cheaper but less safe and are used mostly by traffickers and human smugglers bringing in migrants from places further east, such as Kurdistan, India and China. Many of these men are fooled by the traffickers, and end up spending two or three years working in Albania or Macedonia before they ever get to the EU, according to Kire Todorovski, of the Macedonian government’s Commission to Fight against Trafficking and Illegal Migration.

“They need to pay off the money for the transport, so they have to work for the smugglers, earning barely enough to survive,” he adds.

We don’t want “easier” visas, thanks

In September 2007, the European Commission signed an agreement for visa facilitation with Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. Designed to take effect from January 2008, it will make it simpler for certain categories of people to obtain visas, including long-term, multi-entry, visas, to the EU.

“The implementation of this agreement will provide the Commission [with an opportunity] to start a dialogue on possible non-visa regimes for the Western Balkans’ citizens in the future”, Franco Frattini, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Home Affairs and Security said, after the signing ceremony in Brussels.

While this is good news for the region, Ditmir Bushati, an Albanian expert in international law in Tirana, warns that the change is less of a breakthrough than it may appear. Bushati points out that there is a distinction “between facilitation of the procedures for the issue of visas and actual liberalisation”. What a lucky few from the Western Balkans are being offered now is easier access to visas - not their abolition.

Agneza Rusi, in charge of EU affairs in Macedonia’s foreign ministry, says that while Balkan states, including Macedonia, need to work harder to meet the EU’s conditions, they should not accept easier visa procedures as their final reward. “Facilitation for us is just a transition phase; we do not want visa facilitation, we want visa liberalisation,” she stresses.

“The Balkans and especially Macedonia is no threat to Western Europe,” Rusi adds. “We are at the bottom of the list for asylum and illegal migration. We try to explain to them [the EU] that their fears are unreal, that we are no threat, and show them how frustrating it is for young people who can’t travel anywhere.”

Doris Pack, a member of the European Parliament and Balkan specialist, agrees. She describes the visa regime, especially as it applies to the Balkans, as counterproductive – both for the region and for Europe. “It hinders ordinary citizens from crossing borders to the EU and builds a kind of wall around it,” Pack says, adding that it also denies young people outside the “wall” the chance to form any perspective of the EU.

“Almost 80 per cent of young citizens of Southeast Europe have never been in the EU, so how can they have a European vision?”

Fellow Bio


Eleonora Veninova

Eleonora Veninova from Skopje, Macedonia, is a journalist for Sitel TV, a national channel. Additionally, she works for Cre8ive 8 Production, producing documentaries and short promotional clips for the British Council