{gallery}newsletters/17/2/1{/gallery}No official statistics exist regarding the number of citizens who have traveled from BiH to the Schengen zone under the new visa-free regime.  Although no incidents have been registered, just prior to the opening of the borders, a group of Roma from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) were arrested by the German police and charged with illegal entry.  Germany responded to this incident by threatening to reintroduce visa requirements for citizens of BiH. 

Written by: Aner ZUKOVIĆ and Vedran VOJINOVIĆ

There is no credible information about how many BiH citizens have traveled to Schengen countries, nor how many of them have since returned.  Officially, there are no records of abuse in relation to the EU decision to offer a visa-free regime to BiH’s citizens.  The BiH Ministry of Security reports that one can not yet speak about abuse because Schengen’s doors have only been open for one month.     

The general requirements which apply to non-EU citizens for entering Schengen countries remain in place.  This means that border services may request information related to personal finances or logistical information such as addresses from BiH citizens upon entry.  Any BiH citizen considered a threat may be denied entrance.  Secretary of the Ministry of Security, Bakir Dautbašić, stated that there have been cases in which entry to the EU was denied.  However, this occurred because several individuals attempted to use their old passports.  Others were denied access due to prior bans on entering the EU.  At the border crossing in Slovenia, individuals whose vehicles were deemed unfit for winter road conditions were not allowed to enter.     

Statistics in Six Months

{gallery}newsletters/17/2/2{/gallery}The Schengen zone consists of 25 countries. These include most EU member states, with the exception of the United Kingdom and Ireland.  Non-EU countries such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are also parties to the Schengen treaty.  The zone was established in 1985 following the signing of the Schengen Agreement.  The treaty came into force in 1995.  The Schengen Agreement allows for relaxed cross-border movement for citizens of the signatory countries and improved police and security cooperation.  As a result of Schengen, extradition processes may be conducted more quickly and police and judiciary structures enjoy stronger coordination.     

“It is still too early to speak about abuse. We have no information about the number of people who were returned to BiH, who worked in Schengen countries illegally or whose asylum applications were denied. That information will not be available before June or July,” said Dautbašić.

In early December 2010, German police arrested a group of several dozen Roma from Vlasenica and Bijeljina.  These individuals had entered German illegally and applied for asylum.  Their asylum applications were rejected and the group was deported.  As a result of this incident, Germany threatened to reimpose the visa regime for BiH citizens.  The European Commission released a statement warning that an unacceptably high number of asylum and immigration requests from BiH could result in the temporary suspension of the visa waiver regime for the entire Western Balkan region.  Despite the fact that these individuals were victims of human trafficking, it was made clear that a wave of asylum seekers from BiH would not be granted access to the EU.       

At a meeting in late 2010 attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, SDA President

Sulejman Tihić and BiH Presidency Member Bakir Izetbegović, Merkel warned that Germany might request that Brussels reimpose the visa regime for BiH citizens.  Germany was one of the countries that opposed visa liberalization for BiH and Albania. 

Following visa liberalization for Serbia and Macedonia, a similar phenomena regarding asylum requests occurred in the countries on the “White Schengen” list.  In October 2010, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom sent a letter to the home affairs ministers of Serbia and Macedonia.  Malmstrom requested that Serbia and Macedonia “immediately take necessary steps to the resolve the asylum seeker issue.”

She continued, noting “some EU members have again noticed an alarming increase in number of asylum seekers from your countries. The trend is extremely concerning and might jeopardize the entire visa liberalization system in the Western Balkans. The EU might take appropriate action in case the trend continues.”

Are asylum seekers the greatest security threat to the EU?  Some home affairs ministers claim that “right-wing movements” currently gaining momentum in BiH are even more troubling.  Dautbašić conceded that asylum seekers are an issue.  However, he finds it disconcerting that criminals are now capable of visa-free travel.  According to Dautbašić, the critical security threat to the EU that originates in BiH are individuals involved in serious criminal activities such as human trafficking and money laundering. He noted that “right-wing movements” cannot be ignored and that institutions must take preventative measures. 

Border Police Prepared and Equipped

“We are aware of the risks and are ready to cooperate with the police services of any country, especially the EU, in combatting terrorism and all other forms of criminal activity,” said Dautbašić.

Following visa liberalization, the BiH Border Police and Service for Foreigners Affairs increased their readiness levels.  BiH Border Police Director Vinko Dumančić gave a statement to Dnevni Avaz in which he emphasized that “the Border Police are fully prepared for implementing the visa-free regime for BiH citizens traveling to Schengen countries.” According to Dumančić, “the Border Police are trained and equipped for implementing the biometric system. We will do our job well, just as we have in the past.”

BiH began the visa liberalization process in early 2008 when the European Commission first indicated its willingness to begin talks with regional countries.  The process was initially marked by a relaxation of the visa regime and followed by a complete visa waiver.  Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia were granted a full waiver on December 19, 2009.  BiH and Albania followed their neighbors’ lead in October 2010 when the European Parliament voted in favor of introducing a visa-free regime.

France and Denmark were the only countries to request additional guarantees in order to prevent a wave of Balkan immigrants into the Schengen zone.  These conditions were met and liberalization followed shortly thereafter.  BiH Ambassador to the EU Osman Topčagić stated that BiH “has met the majority of these conditions through fulfilling 174 requirements from the Road Map as well as through concrete activities, especially by our police agencies, recently after the publishing of the European Commission’s report.”  In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Topčagić went on to comment that these conditions “are what some EU member countries are emphasizing.  They want to see us continue addressing these issues and prove that we will work in cooperation on the security of their citizens and our’s to contribute to the joint safety of Europe.”