Roma claim a crackdown on the flow of asylum seekers into the EU has effectively barred them from leaving Macedonia.by Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska 27 June 2012
SKOPJE| Djengis seems an unlikely candidate to seek asylum abroad. The 30-year-old Rom from Kumanovo in northern Macedonia is a working man, with a job doing manual labor, and a family man, the father of two. But when he tried to cross the border in mid-June to visit his brother in Serbia, he was turned back.
“I said I was planning to stay at my brother’s house for two weeks,” Djengis recalled of the encounter at the Tabanovce crossing. “The officer said I needed 1,000 euros, that I was supposed to have this money since I’m traveling to a foreign country. Then he said there’s some notation in the [border control] records, according to which I’m not allowed to leave Macedonia.”
Djengis said he was not shown physical proof of his supposed status or given a written explanation as to why he was barred from crossing. “If we [Roma] are not allowed to travel,” he said a week after the incident, “why does the state ask us to pay for passports?”
Ostensibly, Macedonian Roma, like their compatriots, are indeed free to travel, without visas or fees, not just to neighboring Balkan countries but throughout most of the European Union. In December 2009 the EU lifted a visa requirement in light of improved border-security measures such as biometric passports, under which citizens of Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro can stay in Schengen countries for up to three months as tourists, provided they do not work.
By the following March, organized “asylum” tours had sprung up. Travel agencies in Macedonian towns with majority Roma or ethnic Albanian populations offered to help people resettle in the EU, primarily in Belgium, Sweden, and Germany. Asylum applications in the EU skyrocketed, according to Eurostat figures cited in a report by Skopje think tank Analytica. The Belgian and Swedish governments responded swiftly, sending all asylum seekers back to Macedonia and threatening to demand the European Commission reinstate the visa requirement.
Brussels got the message. In November 2010 the EU warned Macedonia, and Serbia as well, that it would suspend visa liberalization unless they checked the asylum wave. Macedonian authorities tracked down and closed the sham travel agencies and strengthened border controls. On a recommendation from the Interior Ministry, the criminal code was amended to make it illegal to seek asylum without solid proof of cause, such as political repression. Many of the Roma who sought asylum had cited economic reasons.
According to a November 2011 statement on the Macedonian government’s website, the ministry has also enhanced border controls “by using the method of risk analysis,” essentially creating a profile of “so-called false asylum seekers.” The upshot, some Roma activists and human rights groups say, is that many Macedonian Roma have been effectively barred from leaving the country, based on this profiling by border agents.
Asmet Elezovski is the president of the National Roma Centrum in Kumanovo, one of the few organizations in the country that provides detailed information about the rights and obligations of those traveling without visas. Kumanovo is located just 13.5 kilometers (8.4 miles) from the Serbian border, near the Tabanovce station, and Elezovski said he has compiled files on about 20 cases of Roma being denied a crossing because of border guards’ presumptions.
Elezovski said he is no supporter of Roma going abroad to seek asylum on false grounds, but he asserts that few are doing so. He does acknowledge that some use their three months abroad “to earn some decent money, so that they can live throughout the year.” The average monthly wage in Macedonia is 330 euros ($412).
“The majority of Roma are living on the edge of poverty, or even below that,” Elezovski said. “Why can Roma people from other countries enjoy the liberty of free movement and the Roma from Macedonia are suddenly a threat?”
The Skopje office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights also says it has received dozens of complaints from Roma about hassles on the border. In some cases, police confiscated passports without explanation.
“This is a violation of human rights, especially the right of free movement,” said Kiril Efremovski, a spokesman for the office. “I think the law on border surveillance should be revised, and there must be a campaign to raise awareness and respect basic human rights in situations like these.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski said border controls have become more rigorous in the wake of the EU threats to restore visa restrictions, but he said guards are following procedures put in place “as a preventive measure we took as a state, so that we can prevent people who have no grounds to seek asylum in foreign countries” from doing so. He said the ministry does not keep statistics on the ethnicity of citizens stopped at the border: “We see them all as Macedonian citizens.”
The tracking the ministry does indicates that fewer people overall are being turned back, Kotevski said. Only 30 people have been halted at the border in the last two months, he said, compared with an average of more than 300 per month in 2011 and early 2012.
Some domestic and international rights groups dispute that the situation has improved. One of the most vocal critics is Samka Ibraimovski, a member of parliament from the Party for the Total Emancipation of the Roma and former director of the Reception Center, which works with asylum seekers within Macedonia. He has been photocopying the passports of Macedonian Roma denied border passage and filed an appeal on their behalf last month with the Constitutional Court.
Ibraimovski said that according to accounts he has heard of border encounters, the only recent change is that guards have stopped stamping “AZ” – for azil, the Macedonian word for asylum – in the passports of people who are turned back.
“Previously those people had the AZ stamp and two parallel lines across the stamp,” Ibraimovski said. “Now they’ve invented a new code. There’s no stamp with AZ, just the two parallel lines.” He maintained the change was made in response to international criticism of the border protocol, to make it appear that fewer people are being rejected.
The issue also brought a delegation from the European Roma and Travelers Forum to Skopje in late May to discuss the matter with Macedonian authorities. The Strasbourg-based organization advises the Council of Europe on Roma issues.
“We didn’t believe this was happening, but I became firmly convinced that [Macedonia] is engaging in a policy of discrimination when it happened to my mother at the beginning of May,” said Robert Rustem, the forum’s general secretary.
“She was coming to visit me in France. She was stopped by police officers at the Skopje airport, who said she couldn’t leave the country. She was told there’s some note in the system about her passport and they must take her travel documents,” he said. “I had to confirm to the Macedonian authorities that I’m employed in France, that my mother has enough money to travel, and, most importantly, that I would complain to the Council of Europe about the situation.”
Rustem said the forum would consider applying to international courts if cases such as his mother’s continue to occur. A longer-term solution, he said, is an EU system of temporary work permits, so that Roma would not feel the need to permanently resettle or be constantly suspected of wanting to do so. Macedonia already has several such bilateral agreements with individual countries, mostly for seasonal labor such as harvesting crops.
Back in Kumanovo, Djengis said he plans to stay home for a while. He managed to avoid the dreaded AZ stamp when he tried to visit his brother, by hiding his passport and showing border agents only his government-issued identification card – sufficient documentation to travel, under an agreement with Serbia. Still, he said he is afraid to try again anytime soon.