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Bolting from the Balkans – Asylum Applications Surge

Last year saw a large spike in asylum requests to EU countries from citizens of the Western Balkans according to a report from the European Commission. Accompanying this has been an increase in illegal border crossings at the Western Balkan / EU borders as well as an increase in the detection of illegal stays by Western Balkan nationals.

In the first nine months of 2014, asylum appeals from the Western Balkans have soared by 40% reaching 47 485 applications. This follows fairly steady increases ever since 2009 when the visa liberalisation regime between these countries and the Schengen area was first implemented. At the same time, the recognition rate for these asylum applications has been falling, a reflection in part of the fact that states of the region are now commonly regarded as “safe countries of origin” by the main destination states.

Germany has become the preferred option for asylum applications from all the Western Balkan states. In the first nine months of 2014, Germany received 75% of EU asylum requests from these states. If anything the situation is even more extreme in Kosovo, the only state in the region not to benefit from a visa liberalisation agreement with the members of the Schengen area. Up to 20,000 Kosovars are believed to have attempted an illegal crossing of the Serbian-Hungarian border, with a popular final goal again being to claim asylum in Germany and other EU states.

These numbers have provoked a predictable backlash in Germany, with increased rhetoric and action  being targeted at asylum seekers. Recently, the Internal Affairs Minister, Thomas de Maizière declared Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania “safe countries of origin” in a bid to accelerate the process of deporting failed asylum applicants from these states.

The reasons behind this surge in asylum appeals are not fully understood, but it seems fair to suggest that socio-economic conditions that give little cause for optimism, with for example the unemployment rate in Kosovo hovering at around 30%, play a role. And the surge has had its victims. In January, a Kosovar man was found dead in Hungary, having frozen trying to make the journey to Germany.

How have these issues affected the region’s relationship with the EU? The Commission has called on the Western Balkan countries to take decisive moves to curb these numbers.

“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”

It suggests that this could be done through measures including:

–          Increased targeted assistance to minority populations; and

–          Strengthening operational cooperation and information exchange with other affected states

Kosovo, meanwhile, has its own set of concerns. Kosovo’s European Integration Council has recently voiced concerns that these spikes in illegal migration would jeopardise its bid for visa liberalisation as well as future steps aiming at European integration. Recent comments from the EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopolous, have however praised the Kosovar response to the illegal migration figures, saying that recent awareness campaigns seemed to have significantly reduced such attempts. He went on to say that Kosovo was “walking the last mile towards visa free status”. In another encouraging sign for Kosovo, EU Foreign Affairs Chief, Federica Mogherini, emphatically stated that Kosovo is “sovereign”, despite the refusal to recognise it as such by several Member States.

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