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Evaluation of Group 484's Initiative, “Towards the White Schengen List”

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Background Information: Group 484

“Through its activities in Serbia and the region of Southeast Europe, Group 484, together with migrants, local population, and especially with youth, and in cooperation with organisations and individuals that foster similar values - has been building up a society in which diversity and rights of everyone are respected.”[1]

Group 484 is a non-governmental organization founded by Jelena Santic in 1995 to support the 484 refugee families that had fled their home country, Krajina, during Operation “Storm” led by Croatian Army and were seeking safety in Serbia.[2]  The organization started as primarily a group of “enthusiasts who provided humanitarian, psychosocial, legal and informative assistance to refugees,”[3] to displaced persons in the Balkans and has grown into a highly regarded and dependable center for education and research about forced migration and refugee studies.  Part of Group 484's mission is to work with and empower local communities, youth, and to respect and encourage diversity among peoples.

Background Information: “Towards the White Schengen List”

Although Group 484's programs extend much further than the boundaries of Serbia today, this particular project began in 2005 as a movement for “visa liberalization” within Serbia with the aim to be included in the European Union's Schengen White List.  The project grew, in 2008, into a regional effort including Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Romania as well.  The initial project proposal combined two key components: “1) Identifying opportunities for creating the Western Balkan regional response to migration issue and visa liberalization process with the EU, and 2) Empowering national and regional stakeholders of the Western Balkan region in the field of visa liberalization for regional cooperation, implementation of EU standards and national legislation in the field of migration management, and developing migration policies.”  The White Schengen List is comprised of 22 European Union states that have a uniform visa policy and thus the citizens of these nations can freely and easily travel between the borders of these nations.  G484 used the guidelines and documents designated by the EU that countries needed to meet in order to be included on the list to design a program that would promote awareness about the issue of migration and forced migration and to facilitate policy changes both nationally and regionally.  In order to become a part of the Schengen List, countries must meet guidelines that are split up into two categories.  The first refers to the country's ability to secure and check its borders, level of visual surveillance, and coordination of visa policy.  The second part refers higher security measures needed to target illegal migrations that require police cooperation and the complete abolishment of checks at common borders (of countries who are on the list).  The ability to travel beyond the boundaries of one's own nation and the freedom of movement between surrounding countries is not just important during times of war or national crises, but it is also a valued luxury that improves the economy and state of being of the general population.  The inability to travel freely and easily between neighboring countries within the West Balkans and the rest of Europe has severe political consequences according to research that G484 did in order to justify the “Towards the White Schengen List.”  For example, an argument could be made that the success of political parties in Serbia that promote overtly intolerant and xenophobic agendas have gained such a large following because of the inability for anyone, especially the young people in the country who are the most politically active, to travel outside of the borders of Serbia in a safe and accessible way.[4]

G484 identified a number of areas that needed deep reform in Serbia in order for them to reach a visa policy that would meet the EU's standards and focused their programs on addressing the following issues:

1)  Establishment of a unified and effective visa regime – This is part of a country's foreign policy, which serves to regulate relations with other countries

2)  Establishment of an efficient asylum system

3)  Signing and implementation of readmission agreements with EU countries

4)  Combatting illegal immigrants

5)  Integrated Border management

6)  Enhancing regional cooperation with the EU

7)  Establishment of rule of law and fight against corruption with the EU[5]

Initial Problems that “Towards the White Schengen List” Aimed to Address

One of the resounding obstacles that G484 had to overcome in order for this project to be successful is the general lack of knowledge amongst both political elites about visa liberalization and migration studies and amongst Serbia's youth about the benefits of being able to travel to other European nations freely.  Thus a large part of the this project was a campaign to educate the public and to encourage and empower the younger population in Serbia to pressure the politicians to act.  In 2004, research conducted by the “Strategic Marketing” polling agency revealed that 70% of university students in SaM (Serbia and Montenegro) had never travelled outside of their country.[6]  G484 researchers found that this lack of ability to travel abroad manifested itself into a general feeling of isolation amongst SaM citizens and disillusionment with the idea of SaM ever becoming a member of the EU, “low standard of living, high unemployment rate, existence of organized crime and slow pace of reforms in the judiciary, police, and state administration, as well as other problems faced by the state administration, as well as other problems faced by the state create an impression among citizens that no progress whatsoever is being achieved and that the European future of the country is just a dream which will never come true.”[7]  The goal of the “Towards the Schengen List” project was to turn this dream into a reality and thus G484 had to work with every aspect of the Serbian society in order to portray that this was an achievable goal. 

Additionally, prior to this project, the researchers and activists in G484 recognized that there was a lack of professional knowledge on migration and the very little research that did exist was not centralized or organized in a useful way to policy makers or citizens to access.  Thus, G484 was tasked with the responsibility of consolidating established professors and policy-makers into a regional institution where information could be shared and research could be readily accessible.

Furthermore, many people in Serbia held the belief that if visa liberalization were to take place in Western Europe, that there would be a huge flood of migrants from Eastern Europe fleeing economic and political crises and thus imposing an extra burden on the state.  Disproving this type of fear in society is particularly difficult because it is not just an issue of educating the public on the realities of migration, but the campaign also requires an inherent re-working of a national framework and convincing of a entirely new idea.  Activists in G484 had to, also, combat against opposition groups who were purporting faulty data about the rate of migration and the feelings of fear that Serbian citizens held.  However, G484 was able to successfully circumvent these opposition groups and leaders because they partnered with local organizations and garnered support from over 200 stakeholders who had a vested interest in seeing the “Towards the Schengen List” project succeed.

Additionally, they had to cater to and convince a myriad of different interests groups and organizations to support this cause for many different reasons, but still portray a unified, comprehensive image of their goal.  For example, national governments were primarily motivated by the international pressure of meeting the EU's standards while NGO's were primarily concerned with addressing the issues of forced migration in a timely and efficient manner.  Incorporating so many different groups of society to work to achieve one goal is incredibly difficult and was a significant obstacle for G484. 

Thus, G484 needed to implement programs in Serbia that educated the general public and politicians on the benefits of being on the White Schengen List and empowering individuals and institutions that would work to make the necessary policy changes that would lead to visa liberalization. 

Implementation of Group 484's Programs

Research:

“Towards the Schengen List” grew out of a series of previous programs that G484 administered with assistance from the Balkan Trust for Democracy including  Strengthening cross-border cooperation in the Western Balkans regarding migration management and Migration and Development: Creating regional labour market and labour migrants circulation as response to regional market demands.  Through these previous projects important first steps were made that led to the success of the final “Towards the Schengen List” project, first of which was the organization of a regional team of experts that would be tasked with researching migratory movements in Southeast Europe.  This team published their findings and produced 700 copies of the publication as a tool for advocacy and spreading knowledge about migratory practices.[8]  This, combined with the incorporation of 200 stakeholders, was the beginning of a mass movement to change national opinion and push politicians to reform visa system policy.  Additionally, as stated in the project proposal submitted by G484 to the Balkan Trust for Democracy, “The most important lesson learnt from the project was that the positive aspects of migratory movements can not be achieved until Western Balkan countries remove visa barriers among themselves.”[9]  Definitive and objective research was essential to convincing interest groups and stakeholders to get involved in ways that would benefit themselves and the society at large and helped to narrow G484's programs in the future.

In order to dispel fears that there visa liberalization would cause a massive influx of Eastern Europeans in the Western Balkan region, the Schengen List project provided a system of monitoring the implementation of Road Maps, guidelines provided by the EU, and organized a team to provide in-depth analysis of migration potential into the WB region.[10]  These findings were presented at an EU Summit in Thessaloniki which drew even more attention and support from international actors and stakeholders.

Media:

G484 recognized that it was extremely important for this initiative to come from the ground up and make sure that not just the politicians and policy-makers be educated on this topic but that general citizenry become aware of the benefits or else the objective would be fruitless and pointless.  The people of whom would directly benefit from this project would have been left in the dark and the project may not have succeeded at all.  For this reason, part of these early programs was working with local and national media outlets in order to reach out to the public – Radio Television of Serbia, Deutche Welle, International radio of serbia, newspapers, etc. and a website was developed as a central location to learn more about migration in Southeast Europe and the initiative to bring Serbia and other countries in the WB region closer to the White Schengen List. 

Methodology of Project Implementation

“Towards the Schengen List” was an 11 month project, starting with the formation of teams in different countries in order to conduct research on migration.  In the first two months of the project G484 worked with established and trusted organizations to identify one person in each country (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro) to lead a research team, “about implementation of European and international standards in migration management in the context of white Schengen list criteria (Road Maps), in their respective countries with a special emphasis on cross-border and inter-sector aspect.”[11]  These teams would later serve as the foundation for National Roundtable Discussions and function as the institutional centre for civil society groups to develop and continue evaluating and monitoring the country's visa system.

The next step (month III) in G484's methodology for implementing this program was to hold a “Consultative Meeting” with the national research teams in order to reinforce the EU criteria that each country needed to meet in order to be on the Schengen List. 

In the fourth and fifth months of the project, fieldwork in Serbia and Romania was collected on migration potential and determinants of citizens in the WB region through the use of surveys in order to dispel fears of massive movements in Southeast Europe. Research continued until the eighth month of the project which culminated in the organization of National Round Table discussions in 5 countries, the goal of which was to familiarize and unify the knowledge on migration in the WB region and to produce policy recommendations for potential visa system reforms.  These roundtable discussions led to presentations by each country at a Regional Conference conducted by G484 and lasted for 2 days with 60 participants including the research team members, EU officials, and member of other international organizations and embassies.  This conference was given a lot of media attention in each of the participating countries which helped to promote the problem and the ways in which G484 was trying to solve that problem.

Finally, the “Towards the Schengen List” project concluded with a publication entitled, “Western Balkan Towards White Schengen List,” that compiled the vast research done nationally and internationally about migration between these countries and policies that liberalize visa systems.  The production of this final research paper in a single, consolidated publication that anyone could access was the first time that such information had been recorded and made available to the people living in the WB region. 

The most important aspect of the implementation of this project was being able to connect a vast number of stakeholders from within WB countries and with international organization in a meaningful way to produce something that has never been done before.  The methodology that G484 adopted in order to carry out this project in a short period of time was deliberate as each step built off of the previous one and introduced visa system reform at a reasonable pace for each state.  In order for this approach to have succeeded, G484 had to establish open and direct lines of communication between all states and foster a community of trust.  Thus working from within the nations at first to extending into the international realm by the end of the 11 months was extremely important not just for acquiring reliable and quality research on migration, but also for building up the capacity of each nation to participate in a regional project as vast as visa system reform and building a community of trust between the participating nations. 

Evaluating the Success of the Program[12]

As a result of Group 484's “Towards the Schengen List” project, the following changes have been made

to visa policy in the WB region:

-  Representatives of the national Governments and civil society are ready for joint work towards visa liberalisation for WB countries.[13]

-  Representatives of the national governments are completely aware of the necessity of further reforms in the area of freedom, security, justice (JHA) with the special focus on migration flows.[14]

- G484 raised awareness about migratory practices in the Western Balkan region as the conference and roundtable talks were broadcasted and covered by numerous newspapers and stations. 

-  More than 400 stakeholders and 20 EU decision makers have been incorporated into this project and thus the level of attention it has received has increased as well as the quality of the product.

- Creating a central institution that combines the expertise of professionals across the region on migratory practices in Europe.  G484 has become the most trusted and reliable organization in Western Europe by international actors and organizations interested in migratory studies.

Areas for Potential Improvement

This project has been overwhelmingly successful and revered amongst the international community not only for the quality of work that G484 has done, but because of how quickly that they were able to gain such great success.  However, there are areas in which more success may have been possible and could be implemented in a different region with an organization addressing a similar problem.  For example, providing services outside of purely research that would assist the general public in sorting out which places that they could travel and how travel benefits them.  G484 reached out to numerous media outlets but didn't offer any direct or institutional support for people who may have been confused or unaware of the extent of the project. 

Applicability: How to Make This a Successful Program Elsewhere

There were many inherent political and economic factors about the WB region and goals of G484 that made this project so successful.  Although it is unlikely that all these conditions will exist in another region plagued with the same visa system crisis, this model has potential to be applied to other regions of the world and would make a big difference in areas that are experiencing incessant warfare or economic crises.  Some of the conditions that need to be met for this project to succeed elsewhere are as follows:

At least a moderate sense of regional identity amongst nations involved in the visa reform process.  In the Western Balkan region, many citizens and politicians already held the belief or had been introduced to the idea of someday becoming a part of the EU.  Although that wasn't exactly the outcome of this project, the ability for the citizenry to imagine and aspire to a more connected region through visa liberalization was not as new or drastic of an idea in the WB region because the idea of becoming more integrated in Europe was already pervasive in these societies.

-  Furthermore, there must already exist a geo-political climate in the region that is conducive for cooperation and open discussion.  The cooperation of nations in the region as a whole is imperative in producing policy reforms that are legitimate and enforceable.

Establishing a standard of visa system policy that can be applied regionally.  G484 chose to model their efforts off of the criteria mandated by the EU because that was important and practical to that region.  However, other regions of the world that are uninterested or unable to meet those criteria could establish a standard, codified model of their own criteria.

Ability to organize both nationally and internationally.  One of the most impressive aspects of G484's efforts in this project was the vast number and range of organizations that were involved in research, support, and administration and became stakeholders in the movement towards the Schengen List.  Thus a group that has the ability to network and connect to people on many levels of society and the international community would see more success in implementing this model elsewhere than a decentralized, smaller organization. 

Connecting with local and international media outlets in order to disseminate information about the project.  Garnering media coverage was important for G484 to educate the public about this initiative and to establish that this was an important and legitimate goal.

Mobilizing interest groups and populations in all socio-economic and political classes of society.  Visa liberalization affects everyone in the society and thus it is important to empower and work with all aspects of society.  G484 was particularly successful at mobilizing the youth populations in the nations that participated.




[1]Unknown. Group 484.  “Background.” http://www.grupa484.org.rs/en/group-484

[2]Unknown. Group 484.  “Background.” http://www.grupa484.org.rs/en/group-484

[3]Unknown. Group 484.  “Background.” http://www.grupa484.org.rs/en/group-484

[8]Group 484.  Balkan Trust for Democracy Application Form.  2008. pg. 4

[9]Group 484.  Balkan Trust for Democracy Application Form.  2008. pg. 6

[10]Group 484.  Balkan Trust for Democracy Application Form.  2008. pg. 8

[11]Group 484.  Balkan Trust for Democracy Application Form.  2008. pg. 10

[12]This information is based on the Final Report in 2009.  Changes may have been made since then.

[13]Group 484.  “Final Report.”  2009.  pg 7.

[14]Group 484.  “Final Report.”  2009.  pg 7.