Balkan exodus overwhelms EU

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BUJANOVAC, SerbiaAzra Ajeti’s fellow Gypsies have been buffeted by accusations of filing bogus asylum claims in the rich European Union, but she says there’s nothing phony about her family’s life of misery.

“We are starving,” said the woman from this impoverished southern Serbian town. “Life here is a disgrace.”

Ms. Ajeti’s son was among about 60,000 people from Serbia and other Balkan countries who have sought asylum in Western Europe since the EU allowed visa-free travel from their nations three years ago.

Many EU and local officials describe the exodus as little more than a fraud in which mostly Gypsy migrants cross over, knowing their asylum requests have no chance. Their main goal is to obtain the food, lodging and, in some cases, living expenses worth hundreds of dollars per month to which they are entitled while awaiting an answer.

As a result of the continued surge, the EU states with the most Balkan asylum requests — Germany, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg — are moving toward reimposing visas for Serbia and Macedonia, the two countries that send the most asylum applicants.

Many seekers, however, cite racial discrimination in their home countries as the reason for their flight, saying it constitutes legitimate grounds for asylum.

“Everybody wants to leave,” Ms. Ajeti said while selling old clothes that she had picked out of garbage cans on the dusty streets of Bujanovac. “If I had money for a bus ticket, I would pack up and go right this instant.”

She said she deserves asylum because she has not received promised social aid — about $127 a month for her 18-member family — for the past five months. She also says police chase her from the dirt pavement where she sells her merchandise, “only because we are Gypsies.”

Her son’s asylum bid in Sweden was rejected earlier this year, and now he’s back home.

‘Asylum has become a profession’

Here, as in much of the Balkans, Roma live in makeshift settlements made of cardboard homes, sometimes facing harassment from right-wing extremist groups.

They mostly live from begging or humanitarian aid and on the little money they earn collecting scrap metal and other material from garbage dumps.

“Call them fake or real asylum seekers,” said Galip Beqiri, a local ethnic Albanian party leader, “these people are leaving not because they are happy but because they are desperate.”

EU states reject 99 percent of Balkan demands for asylum, ruling that the applicants do not fulfill the criteria of being politically, ethnically or religiously persecuted.

But while their requests are under review, asylum seekers are allowed to stay in the countries where they are seeking a haven — eating up funds that could help those in perhaps more dire straits, such as asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq.

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