Bosnians, Albanians rush to get visa-free passport
Sarajevo: Thousands of Albanians and Bosnians have been rushing to get biometric passports since the EU's decision to lift visas restrictions for their countries, opening access to most of western Europe.
"We have been imprisoned for so long, because Bosnia was the largest prison in Europe," said Amir Ramic, preparing to wait for hours in front of a police station in Sarajevo to apply for his biometric passport.
The 37-year-old waiter plans to celebrate the New Year with his brother who has emigrated to Sweden as the document will allow him to travel throughout the 25-nation Schengen zone from mid-December.
On Monday, the European Union approved a visa-free regime for Bosnians and Albanians who want to travel to the Schengen zone countries.
But they will need a biometric passport for the trip, which is restricted to a maximum three-month stay.
"This is the best news since the end of the war," said Ramic, referring to the conflict that devastated Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.
In Sarajevo, the local police stations which issue the passports have been swamped with would-be travellers.
"If this continues, we will hire more staff next week. It can not go on like this any more," police official Dusan Popovic said.
According to him, from an average of around a hundred demands for passports per day in September, police were now struggling with five times that number since the EU decision to waive the visas.
"This is the best thing that has happened in 20 years," said Rifat Selimovic, a 27-year old mechanic.
As a child, he said, he had lived for seven years in Germany, where his family had fled during the war, and he regretted their having returned to Bosnia. He would not, however, use his new travel freedom to try to settle in Germany or another EU state, he said.
"I have a family and I live here," he said cheerfully.
"But the first thing I will do is to go and watch a Champions League match in Germany," he added.
Proudly examining her new blue passport, 40-something Sabina, who did not want to give her last name, sighed "I'll finally breathe oxygen!"
In Banja Luka, meanwhile, the capital of the Serb-run entity in Bosnia, the number of requests for passports had doubled, said officials.
"I have a boyfriend in Italy," said 24-year-old Radenka who did not want to give her second name.
"Until now I was unable to visit him. I hope that I will go often now. We will get married and I will stay to live there. There is no future here."
Albania experienced a similar rush on new passports.
Before the EU's decision, an average of 3,500 biometric passports was issued every day, Deputy Interior Minister Fedrinand Poni said.
"Since the visa liberalisation was announced, more than 6,000 people now submit a demand" for a new passport each day, he added.
"For years I wanted to visit my brother in Greece, but each time the visa was denied without explanation. Now, with the new passport, I am free to go," said Arjana Nasi, a 29-year old baker in Tirana.
Almost 800,000 Albanians live in Greece and there is a Greek minority in southern Albania.
Before the visa system was relaxed, some Albanians even took on Greek sounding names to facilitate their entry into their neighbouring country, a longstanding EU member.
But now, said Nasi: "The doors are opened. Albanians do not have to change their name any more in order to obtain a Greek visa. They can keep their name and cross the border with dignity."