Nearly 800 people, predominantly Roma, have been sent home by Macedonian border authorities
It sounds like a bad joke. A Macedonian family of five is on its way from its home town to Belgrade to attend the wedding of a close relative. Their car is packed with traditional wedding dresses and gifts for the young couple. Yet, at the Tabanovce border crossing, when a Macedonian border guard picks up their passports, he claims that they want to go to Surcin, the Belgrade airport, and board a plane to the European Union.
The guard alleges that they are false asylum seekers, like those that have been getting Macedonia into trouble with the EU. The family denies it. After all, they have left two school children behind so of course they will return to Macedonia after the wedding. But their protestations are to no avail as the border guard stamps their passports to signify a travel ban. The family is sent back home.
Cases like this one – which was reported by the non-governmental organisation network ARKA – have become frequent since Macedonian citizens have been granted a visa waiver for short term travel to the EU. One month ago, the internet magazine Balkan Insight
quoted the spokesman of the Macedonian police, Ivo Kotevski, who claimed that 800 people had been turned back at the border.
Macedonia's Minister for the Interior Gordana Jankulovska has been even more specific. At a meeting of the Salzburg Forum, a ministerial gathering which brings together ministers from eight central and east European states, she announced that 764 people had been prevented from leaving Macedonia between April 29 and June 27. She claimed that the purpose of this "energetic measure" was to prevent people from abusing the visa-free regime – in 2010, 7,550 Macedonian citizens applied for asylum in the EU.
The problem is that the Macedonian authorities do not have any legal basis upon which they can issue a travel ban. In response to a request we were told that the measure is based on article 15 of the Macedonian Law on Border Surveillance, which borrows elements of the so-called Schengen Borders Code. But while the latter defines the criteria upon which third country nationals can be refused entry into the Schengen area, Macedonia has actually started to prevent its citizens from leaving their country, which is entirely different.
What is even more worrisome about these measures is the fact that, as in the above case, they seem to affect predominantly Roma people. Macedonian Roma are often dark-skinned; it is easy for border guards to pick them out and isolate them. When we investigated, one of the few consular officers who agreed to reply to our questions and did not pretend not to know, told us about one case, an example of the manifest abuse in the visa-free regime with the EU – several Roma were travelling together on a bus to a wedding, but were allegedly able to inform the border guard of their exact destination. He also referred somehow prudishly to "problems we have in certain regions of the country" and the fact that Macedonia was unable to do more to combat poverty.
As a result, for Roma, travel has become some kind of a lottery. Many of those who are returned at the border will try again. This is why the Macedonian authorities have started stamping their passports. But there is no legal basis for this travel ban, which actually infringes international human rights law. This is why my organisation, together with others, has written to the Macedonian government
and urged the government to abandon this practice. And the Macedonian government has not yet finished setting up of its arsenal.
Last month, the former Minister of Justice, Antonio Milooski, presented a draft proposal for a reform of the criminal code, which would make the abuse of the visa free regime a criminal offense. While the current proposal targets travel companies, which can be sanctioned even if there is no evidence for their involvement in the alleged abuse, another proposal aims to sanction those who applied for asylum "under false reasons", as the Macedonian news agency INA reported, citing sources close to the government. These sanctions could include the temporary confiscation of the passports.
As the former Macedonian Minister of Justice explained in a meeting with EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström, the Macedonian government "expects that these measures will root out this unwanted and unpleasant phenomenon". This is, in the end, the most worrisome element in the whole story: the fact that these violations of fundamental human rights are occuring under the auspices and eventually with the involvement of the EU. The EU has already sent its representatives to the region.
They hammer into the heads of governments: "Roma migrations could affect the enlargement process" as the commission's director for the Western Balkans, Pierre Mirel, was recently quoted by Serbian media. Or, in the case two weeks ago of Robert Liddell, head of the political section at the EU delegation in Skopje: "If in the current climate the next accessions are associated with migratory issues, then we increase the risk of rejection."
Conscious about the implications, the Macedonian, just like the Serbian, government is still negotiating with the commission over what measures they can take without impinging on human rights standards. It would be good, if these negotiations were open and if they brought in real safeguards and not just a bogus protection.Dr Karin Waringo is president of Chachipe, an advocacy group aiming to enforce Roma rights