- Associated Press - Sunday, November 11, 2012

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.

“It is unacceptable that we have two times as many asylum applicants from Serbia [as] from Afghanistan,” said Ole Schroeder, secretary of state in the German Interior Ministry, to reporters recently.

Serbia’s border police chief, Nenad Banovic, also was highly critical of the Balkan exodus: “Asylum has become a profession.”

He added that those who are rejected in one EU country often go to another, where they start the process all over again.

Part of the problem is a lengthy asylum review procedure in many EU countries.

Germany has become the most popular country for Balkan asylum seekers because it provides unusually generous living expenses and spends the longest time processing applications, up to 14 months.

The Brussels-based European Stability Initiative, a think tank that has closely monitored the Balkan asylum seekers, said in a recent report that a key reason most asylum seekers choose Germany is that its Constitutional Court, under pressure from rights groups, this summer increased monthly benefits from $155 for a four-member family to $550 — more than the average monthly salary in most of the Balkans.

If the asylum seekers buy their own food and clothing — instead of relying on EU handouts — that sum increases to $1,400.

Since the monthly benefit was raised in July, the number of asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia has jumped from about 1,000 a month to 4,000 in September.

Less generous measures

The EU-based think tank said Germany could immediately reduce its numbers of asylum applicants by enacting stricter rules seen in some neighboring countries.

In Austria, for example, just 380 Balkan nationals asked for asylum in the same time frame even though it’s closer to the Balkans.

Austria in 2010 already had put all western Balkan states on a list of “countries of safe origin” — meaning seekers from those countries are unlikely to be victims of ethnic, political or religious abuse — and decides on the asylum claims within a week, the group said.

The same goes for Belgium, once the favorite destination for Balkan asylum seekers, which in June decided to shorten the decision process from at least six months to 15 days.

The sudden influx has triggered alarm in Germany, which is at the forefront of the process to reinstate the so-called Schengen visas.

Germany advocates the abolishment of visa-free travel if they [Serbia and Macedonia] are not capable of stopping this misuse,” Hans Peter Uhl, Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union parliamentary speaker for interior affairs, recently told The Associated Press.

“This year, we have a surge of 72 percent in comparison to same period last year,” Mr. Uhl said. “If the number is broken down, the surge is almost exclusively rooted in 10,000 Roma from Macedonia and Serbia.”

“If you look at those 10,000 asylum requests placed in this year, you will see not a single one was approved,” he said. “For none of them the conclusion was made they were racially, politically or religiously persecuted. All had to leave Germany.”

Sweden gives asylum seekers pocket money of about $127 a month per person for those who get free food and about $330 a month for those who buy their meals. The asylum process usually lasts between three and six months.

Belgium and the Netherlands pay applicants for work they do while seeking asylum and gives them a lump payment when they agree to leave.

At a meeting last month, EU interior ministers urged western Balkan nations to halt the migration stem or face restoration of travel visas.

“If they want to belong to Europe, they must ultimately take care of these people,” German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said after the meeting. “They have to do things so that these people don’t feel discriminated against.”

Serbian authorities say there is little they can do to stop people from traveling abroad without violating their basic human rights.

“If we were to start pulling Roma passengers out of buses on the border, we would be crucified,” Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said recently.