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"Belgium has to react" to fleeing Roma

Two weeks after most European Union (EU) countries dropped visa requirements for travelling Slovaks, Belgium announced that it would re-impose the travel restrictions "as soon as possible". Slovak Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner said that 99 Slovak Roma had applied for asylum in Belgium since the visas were dropped April 10.
"The number of asylum seekers increased immediately," said Belgian government representative Johan Vande Lanotta April 24 for the Slovak daily paper Pravda. "It's obvious that the increase has been caused by the fact that the visas were discontinued. Every time we have dropped visas [for Slovakia] the numbers of asylum seekers has increased.


Migrating Slovak Roma, pictured here during a 1999 flight to Finland, are once again causing concern in Europe.
photo: TASR

Two weeks after most European Union (EU) countries dropped visa requirements for travelling Slovaks, Belgium announced that it would re-impose the travel restrictions "as soon as possible". Slovak Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner said that 99 Slovak Roma had applied for asylum in Belgium since the visas were dropped April 10.

"The number of asylum seekers increased immediately," said Belgian government representative Johan Vande Lanotta April 24 for the Slovak daily paper Pravda. "It's obvious that the increase has been caused by the fact that the visas were discontinued. Every time we have dropped visas [for Slovakia] the numbers of asylum seekers has increased.

"We will do it [implement visa requirements] as soon as possible," he continued, adding that the only effective deterrent to the Roma migrations was a visa regime. "It's not the tool we prefer, but reality dictates that it's the only choice we have in fighting the migrations. Belgium has to react."

The announcement came as Ján Figeľ, Slovakia's chief negotiator for EU entry, was visiting Brussels to discuss EU accession with representatives of the European Commission. Figeľ was also scheduled to meet with the Belgian Foreign Affairs Ministry to discuss the Roma situation.

"This could become a big problem," said Pavol Lukáč of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) in Bratislava. "We had a very short period without visas, and problems arose. This could complicate our relations with western countries, and it could complicate completion of the Movement of Free Persons chapter [in the acquis communautaire, a list of requirements EU candidate countries must satisfy before entry]."

Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda phoned his Belgian counterpart Guy Verhofstadt on April 23 to discuss the situation. Dzurinda has in the past urged western countries to cut back the relatively lucrative financial assistance doled out to asylum seekers, saying that for Slovak Roma the money encouraged "financial tourism".

Since January, the Belgian government has provided limited financial assistance to the Roma. "They have changed their system so that today they only offer about 150 Slovak crowns ($3) per week while the Roma wait in camps to be sent back," said Lukač. "Going to Belgium had become a very big business, but they've changed that."

Belgium still covers travel expenses for return trips to Slovakia. Roma exoduses to countries such as Finland and Denmark have tapered off dramatically since these countries began returning asylum-seeking Roma immediately upon their arrival.

Visas for Slovaks were dropped April 10 when the unified visa policy of the European Union went into effect. On March 25, the EU had added Slovakia to the 'list of safe countries', meaning that visa regimes were no longer necessary.

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