BUJANOVAC, Serbia – Azra Ajeti's fellow Gypsies have been buffeted by accusations of filing bogus asylum claims in the rich EU, but she says there's nothing phony about her family's life of misery. "We are starving," said the woman from this impoverished southern Serbian town. "Life here is a disgrace."
Ajeti's son was among some 60,000 people from Serbia and other Balkan countries who have sought asylum in Western Europe since the EU allowed visa-free travel from their nations three years ago. Many EU and local officials describe the exodus as little more than a fraud in which mostly Gypsy migrants cross over knowing their asylum requests have no chance, their main goal to obtain the food, lodging and, in some cases, living expenses worth hundreds of euros (dollars) per month they are entitled to while awaiting an answer.
As a result of the continued surge, the EU states with the most Balkan asylum requests — Germany, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg — are moving toward re-imposing visas for Serbia and Macedonia, the two countries that send the most asylum applicants.
Many seekers, however, cite racial discrimination in their home countries as the reason for their flight, saying it constitutes legitimate grounds for asylum.
"Everybody wants to leave," Ajeti said while selling old clothes that she picked out of garbage cans on the dusty streets of Bujanovac. "If I had money for a bus ticket, I would pack up and go right this instant."
She said she deserves asylum because she has not received promised social aid — some euro 100 a month for her 18-member family — for the last five months. She also says police chase her from the dirt pavement where she sells her merchandize, "only because we are Gypsies." Her son's asylum bid in Sweden was rejected earlier this year and now he's back home.
Here, like in much of the Balkans, Roma live in makeshift settlements made of cardboard homes, sometimes facing harassment from right-wing extremist groups. They mostly live from begging or humanitarian aid, and on the little money they earn collecting scrap metal and other material from garbage dumps.
"Call them fake or real asylum seekers," said Galip Beqiri, a local ethnic Albanian party leader, "these people are leaving not because they are happy but because they are desperate."
EU states reject 99 percent of Balkan demands for asylum, ruling that the applicants do not fulfill the criteria of being politically, ethnically or religiously persecuted. But while their requests are under review, asylum seekers are allowed to stay in the countries where they are seeking a haven — eating up funds that could help those in perhaps more dire straits, such as asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq.
"It is unacceptable that we have two times as many asylum applicants from Serbia than from Afghanistan," Ole Schroeder, secretary of state in the German interior ministry, recently told reporters.
Serbia's border police chief, Nenad Banovic, was also highly critical of the Balkan exodus: "Asylum has become a profession." He added that those who are rejected in one EU country often go to another where they start the process all over again.
Part of the problem is a lengthy asylum review procedure in many EU countries. Germany has become the most popular country for Balkan asylum seekers because it provides unusually generous living expenses and spends the longest time processing applications — up to 14 months.
The Brussels-based European Stability Initiative, a think tank which has closely monitored the Balkan asylum seekers, said in a recent report that a key reason most asylum seekers now choose Germany is because this summer its Constitutional Court, under pressure from rights groups, increased monthly benefits from €120 ($155) for a four-member family to €420 ($550) — more than the average monthly salary in most of the Balkans. If the asylum seekers buy their own food and clothing — instead of relying on EU handouts — that sum increases to €1,100 ($1,400).
Since raising the monthly benefit in July, the number of asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia has jumped from about 1,000 a month to 4,000 in September.
The EU-based think tank said that Germany could immediately reduce its numbers of asylum applicants by enacting stricter rules seen in some neighboring countries.
In Austria, for example, only 380 Balkan nationals asked for asylum in the same time-frame even though it's closer to the Balkans. Austria had already in 2010 put all western Balkan states on a list of "countries of safe origin" — meaning seekers from those countries are unlikely to be victims of ethnic, political or religious abuse — and decides on the asylum claims within a week, the group said. The same goes for Belgium, once the favorite destination for Balkan asylum seekers, which in June decided to shorten the decision process from at least six months to 15 days.
The sudden influx has triggered alarm in Germany, which is at the forefront of the process to reinstate the so-called Schengen visas.
"Germany advocates the abolishment of visa-free travel ... if they (Serbia and Macedonia) are not capable of stopping this misuse," Hans Peter Uhl, Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union parliamentary speaker for interior affairs recently told the Associated Press. "This year, we have a surge of 72 percent in comparison to same period last year. If the number is broken down, the surge is almost exclusively rooted in ten thousand Roma (Gypsies) from Macedonia and Serbia."
"If you look at those 10,000 asylum requests placed in this year, you will see not a single one was approved," he said. "For none of them the conclusion was made they were racially, politically or religiously persecuted. All had to leave Germany."
Sweden gives asylum seekers pocket money of about euros 100 ($125) a month per person for those who get free food and about euros 260 ($ 330) a month for those who buy their meals. The asylum process usually lasts between three and six months. Belgium and Holland pay applicants for work they do while seeking asylum, and a lump payment when they agree to leave.
At a meeting last month, EU interior ministers urged western Balkan nations to halt the migration stem or face restoration of travel visas.
"If they want to belong to Europe, they must ultimately take care of these people," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said after the meeting. "They have to do things so that these people don't feel discriminated against."
Serbian authorities say there is little they can do to stop people from traveling abroad without violating their basic human rights.
"If we were to start pulling Roma passengers out of buses on the border, we would be crucified," Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said recently.
There have been several arrests of alleged organizers of EU-bound trips, tougher border controls and a public campaign advising people their trip would be in vain. But this has little effect in Bujanovac or other poor regions in the Balkans. Busloads of people still leave regularly, with people hoping to reach the EU.
Balkan minority groups, such as Roma and ethnic Albanians, are among the worst hit by the economic crisis that has gripped the region impoverished by wars and international isolation. Rights groups also say Roma are treated as second-class citizens in most of the Balkans, with little hope of finding regular jobs.
"Roma experience persistent discrimination across the region," Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
Kenan Rasitovic, a member of the local Gypsy council in Bujanovac, said simple poverty should qualify them for asylum.
"Those people are just looking for ways to survive harsh living conditions and widespread poverty," said Rasitovic. "Regular income is practically nonexistent here."
Jovana Gec from Belgrade, Serbia, Konstantin Testorides from Skopje, Macedonia, and Damir Skaro from Berlin, Germany, contributed.