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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 March 2006, 12:59 GMT
Visa queues frustrate Balkans
By Penny Johnson

Queuing outside the Austrian Embassy
Long queues, paperwork and no guarantee of a visa at the end of it
Croatian nationals now no longer need a visa to visit the UK. But what of the other countries of the former Yugoslavia?

Every morning lines of people stretch along certain streets in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

The days of queuing for bread may be over here, but the people of the Western Balkans still have to wait.

They do not want much - to go on holiday, visit friends or family, study or work abroad, opportunities which are taken for granted by most people in Europe.

However, for anyone from Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia or Albania, getting a visa is no easy matter.

No guarantee

First a long wait outside an embassy must be endured.

Once inside, a prodigious amount of paperwork is needed - a letter of invitation, proof of income and occupation, birth certificate, proof of address and sometimes even bank statements.

The EU visa is the worst - it's putting people off travelling because it's such a hassle
Milos Pavlovic

At the end of all this there is still no guarantee a visa will be issued. Any query and it is back to the end of the queue and another day spent waiting in the cold.

Even with a successful application, the process takes weeks and costs money. Last minute mini-breaks are not an option.

Everyone who has travelled to Europe has a tale of visa-queue woe. Milos Pavlovic, 27, a student says: "It's a real hassle getting hold of all the documents. They ask for some pretty impossible things.

"The EU visa is the worst... It's putting people off travelling because it's such a hassle.

"It takes weeks to get all the documents together, then you get to the embassy and wait and then they tell you 'Oh, we're sorry your application has been declined and we're keeping your money'. It's ridiculous."


These stringent restrictions are a relic from the 1990s, when the Balkan wars and sanctions against Yugoslavia were in full force and there was a fear of refugees flooding into the rest of Europe.

Rajko Bozic, reading Stories from Visa Queues
Rajko Bozic: We want to make things easier for applicants
The wars are now history and the countries of the former Yugoslavia are now democracies, yet the freedom to travel is more restrictive than it was under communism.

Few people outside the countries concerned are aware of these difficulties.

This week the Citizen's Pact for South Eastern Europe is launching a book of short stories called Stories from Visa Queues. It is full of Kafkaesque tales of bureaucracy and rejection.

It is part of the Visa Awareness Campaign which was set up four years ago with the aim of liberalising visas within the Western Balkans and eventually abolishing them altogether.

"We want to make it easier for people who are applying," says Rajko Bozic, communications officer for the Citizens Pact.

"Even though you have all the necessary documents there is no guarantee that a visa will be given to you. You may need to travel several times to the capital which costs a lot and takes time."

'Vicious circle'

The result is a generation of young people whose only experience of other cultures and countries is what they have seen on TV or at the cinema.

Recent statistics show that in Serbia more than 75% of people under 25 have never travelled abroad.

Without being able to leave their own country, people have no comparisons to make. They have no incentive to see that life can be better.

Mr Bozic points out that kind of cultural isolation can only have negative effects. He wonders why anyone would want to be part of an EU they cannot visit, and why they should make any efforts towards reform.

He adds that the resentment caused by the visa issue is leading to a vicious circle.

"We are full of self-pity and we have no initiative because we're left behind - and we're left behind because we have no initiative and we're full of self-pity. We want to break this cycle."

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