May 5, 2011
By Chris Deliso in Skopje
Editor’s note: With fears of a North African immigrant inundation leading the French and Italian presidents to call for reform in the EU’s Schengen visa system, and newer EU members Romania and Bulgaria preparing to join the Schengen Zone, more scrutiny is falling on the perceived role of Western Balkan countries – most of which now enjoy liberalized non-visa access to Schengen member states – in contributing to illegal immigration.
With a population of only 2 million, Macedonia would seem an unlikely threat to EU stability in this light. However, worries over how to handle a possible “alarming” future illegal migration trend persist, as the following Balkanalysis.com exclusive report reveals.
EU Document Description
A draft document leaked by an official of the EU delegation in Skopje, meant for internal use only and to be completed by Monday May 9th, examines the impact of visa liberalization on Macedonia.
The draft document, provisionally entitled Local Schengen Cooperation (LSC) Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 2010-2011 Report, gives an overview of activities carried out since visas were abolished in December 2009, and points out some of the challenges perceived to lie ahead for the EU in this area. (Note that since it is a draft document, some items may be deleted, amended or expanded upon in the final version; direct quotes cited herein may thus not appear in the final version).
The internal document notes that five LSC meetings (four in 2010 and one in 2011) “have been held since the entry into force of the Visa Code.” On December 19, 2009, visas were abolished for Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, meaning that any of their citizens having biometric passports could travel in Schengen countries without a visa for up to 90 days per six-month period (though they could not seek employment). Albania and Bosnia were granted similar privileges the next year, while Kosovo alone remains frozen out.
Interestingly, while 16 EU member states have consular offices in Macedonia (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, United Kingdom), “no representational arrangements are known to have been concluded between member states for the purpose of examining applications and issuing visa[s] on behalf of a member state not present in the country.”
Thus, with no “external service providers” for application collections, the European Union Delegation has been tasked with coordinating local Schengen cooperation meetings, the report adds.
Structure of Work, Priority Meetings and Relevance for Intelligence Interpretation
The draft document goes on to describe the structure of LSE meetings in Macedonia. It notes that the meetings, regularly-held at the EUD headquarters and chaired by the EUD’s Head of the Political and JHA issues, Information and Communication section, are “generally well attended.” Given Macedonia’s small size, such meetings are never required outside of the capital, Skopje, it adds.
Another point regarding EU structure and methods to note here is that while “some member states share these minutes with their capitals… some draw up their own reports for their headquarters.”
In this regard, identifying which specific missions tend to fall into which category would be of use for any intelligence analysts trying to interpret the degree of text interventions – and motivation behind such actions, in order to better understand the relationship between the local missions and ministry-level decision-makers, and the motivations of each in depicting local scenarios for policy and sometimes personal goals.
Significantly, the last LSC meeting (held on 3 March 2011) “was partly dedicated to the issue of the high flow of asylum-seekers from the country into Schengen states. Officials from the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs were invited to present the measures taken by local authorities to reverse this trend.”
This again indicates the EU’s overarching concern with visa-liberalization abuses by locals. In this context, it has to be remembered that in the immediate aftermath of Macedonian visa-free travel, Belgium was inundated by busloads of primarily ethnic Albanians and Roma who had been falsely told that they merely had to demand asylum upon arrival in order to receive lavish social benefits in the EU.
Although Macedonian authorities quickly discovered the lucrative scam behind the operation – which was well-publicized by local media, leading to a sharp decrease in asylum-seekers – the events so alarmed the EU that Belgian officials were dispatched to the wilds of the Lipkovo region – a truly historic, unprecedented event – in order to personally explain to the locals that they could no longer pretend to be in need of asylum, in order to simply escape their rural existence.
EU Local Practices in Dealing with Monitoring Post-Liberalization Developments
Since April 2010, the internal document continues, regular LSC meetings conducted between the 16 member states in Macedonia and the EU Delegation allowed these parties “to discuss and exchange information on implementation of the visa free regime, migratory risks, number of asylum applications of country’s citizen registered, ways of transport, etc.”
Exchanges of monthly statistics on visas issues have been exchanged between EU states- another security loophole in what is already the leakiest ship in this landlocked country.
Further, “monthly statistics on types of visas issued and/or refused in a unified format are exchanged on a monthly basis and compiled by the EUD. It was agreed that MS consulates will exchange information within LSC on selection of external service providers, accreditation of commercial intermediaries and withdrawal of such accreditation, cooperation with transport companies, etc. on ad hoc basis. Information on cases of false or forged documents is exchanged.”
In addition, “valuable information is exchanged within LSC on asylum claims made by the country’s citizens in member states. Different aspects of this issue such as number of procedures launched, return procedures, ways of transportation, places of origin and socio-cultural profile of asylum-seekers have been discussed. Concerned member states informed about their respective asylum procedures including social benefits offered to asylum-seekers and their particular and ad-hoc return procedures during LSC meetings.
EU Future Plans: Profiling Macedonian Citizens, Exchanging Information, and Forestalling “Alarming Trends”
The most significant part of the document is the fourth and final section, titled “Challenges in 2011-2012.”
It begins by noting that following the abolishment of visas, what the EU considers “a high number of the country’s citizens” applied for asylum in EU and Schengen countries: in 2010 alone, some 7,550 Macedonian citizens applied for asylum in EU member states, “thus ranking as the 9th main country of origin of asylum-seekers.”
However, as was mentioned above, and in fairness to the country, this figure may well be distorted by the initial spike in asylum-seekers drawn in by early scams, and thus not representative of current or future trends.
Regardless, the EU is taking no chances with a country the total population of which would constitute a mere suburb of many large European cities.
The report calls for “further monitoring and exchange of information on the implementation of the visa liberalisation” as being “the main challenges for LSC in 2011-2012.”
This policy is expected to include “exchange of information on some issues (statistics of registered asylum applications on a regular basis, overstays and other breaches of the visa free regime, differences in benefits offered for voluntary return procedures,” as well as “more information on the profile of asylum-seekers.”
These efforts, according to the recommendation presented in the internal document, “should be strengthened in order to improve the capacity to rapidly detect and react to any new alarming trend.”
Final Analysis: Implied Goals, Perceptions, and Possible Oversights in the Security Realm
An objective analysis of this internal EU draft document, in the context of both local diplomatic trends and wider EU policy-making, reveals several things. First, it provides further evidence that the EU, and its member states present in Skopje, have made a dedicated, organized and ongoing effort to deal with issues related to abuse of visa liberalization by Macedonian citizens, and that they will continue to do so.
The document, however, seems to implicitly link, without going into explicit detail, the one-off abuses of liberalization following December 19, 2009 with a long-term possible trend- one that is, in fact, not likely to continue (at least not in the form seen previously).
This has had political ramifications, however: the EU gave Macedonia as a state an embarrassing slap on the wrist, due to the actions of a few, tarnishing its image and slowing its progress towards EU membership. Rectifying this situation became an unwanted political headache, and required time-consuming diplomatic assurances from both the Macedonian foreign minister, Antonio Milososki and Gordana Jankulovska, the interior minister.
However, the document, interestingly enough, makes no mention of terrorism fears or use of the country as a transit zone for radical or criminal elements seeking to enter Europe illegally, nor of the occasional Macedonian complaints of “immigrant-dumping” by Greece.
Nor does it consider the expected new trend – previously predicted by Balkanalysis.com – of a long-term shift in illegal migrant movements into the EU from Turkey-Greece (where the EU’s FRONTEX mission has been making a serious difference) to Turkey-Bulgaria, where border security capacities are weaker. Issues of Bulgarian-Macedonian border susceptibility are not addressed, though admittedly it is possibly not in the purview of the present document to discuss this scenario.
Rather, it seems that in the case of Macedonia, the EU is most concerned with the social issues (abuse of social welfare and medical care, etc.)- issues that have strongly political connotations for the internal debates in fractious and partisan EU countries today.
From the point of view of security, the most interesting detail to emerge from the draft document may well be the admission that “harmonising the list of supporting documents has not been assessed as a priority need in the context of visa free regime with only an insignificant number of non-biometric passport holders. So far, no steps have been taken towards preparing a harmonised list of supporting documents.”
This is interesting because in a country like Macedonia, where the EU and other international actors are constantly pointing out corruption in the public sector and bureaucracy, there are is a plethora of supporting documents out there to regulate.
Control over the dissemination of such documents is thus a weak point. Also, their locally (not universally) recognizable character and basic construction (only passports and personal, state-issued IDs use any degree of technological sophistication) means that the rest can be easily forged by anyone with the requisite skill and determination. This is not even to go into the issue – one that has been highly politicized in the past – of passports said to have been illegally given to non-citizens over the years.
In conclusion, while the EU in Macedonia appears to be trying to find consensus on how to handle visa liberalization-related issues affecting the country, the presently discussed leaked document seems to be marked by an imprecise analysis and several possible oversights.
However, as of Thursday, May 5th, it was still being circulated to EU embassies and consulates in Skopje with requests for additions, and its final form may thus well reflect a broader range of views and topics than those presented in the draft version.