Impact of visa liberalisation on countries of destination (EMN)

This EMN study aims to identify challenges, best practices and positive experiences in different Member States and Norway on the impact of visa liberalisation. The study covers Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries which have successfully concluded visa liberalisation dialogues according to the relevant action plans and roadmaps.

Background information

The visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (2009), Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (2010) as well as Moldova (2014), Ukraine (2017) and Georgia (2017). They resulted in granting visa-free travel to citizens of these countries. This study analyses the policies and practices of EU Member States and Norway following changes in migration flows raised by visa exemptions in the mentioned third countries. The scope of the study includes the period 2007-2017 and focuses on the immediate years prior to and after the visa waiver agreements entered into force.

EU synthesis report

This report presents the main findings of the EMN Study on Impact of Visa Liberalisation on Countries of Destination. As of 2018, five Western Balkan and three Eastern Partnership countries benefit from visa-liberalisation to the EU Schengen area, following a series of visa liberalisation roadmaps and action plans: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Georgia, Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. The report explores the impact of visa liberalisation in specific areas (e.g. tourism, legal migration, bilateral cooperation) and looks at trends in irregular migration and other issues that have been observed in the EU Member States and Norway as countries of destination during the period 2007- 2017. 

Key learning points of the EU synthesis report include: 

1. The main direct impacts of visa liberalisation included an immediate increase in short-term travel to the countries of destination from visa-free countries and an immediate reduction in the workload of consulate staff. The new visa-free regime also led to an increase in border control activities by EU Member States and Norway to avoid the misuse of visa liberalisation.

2. One of the main indirect impacts of visa liberalisation related to the facilitation of access to the labour market in specific Member States. Following visa liberalisation, which has made it easier for third-country nationals to travel to the EU and Norway to explore employment opportunities, there has been an increase in the number of residence permits issued to nationals of the eight visa-free countries (mostly for remunerated activities). Another indirect impact relates to higher levels of cooperation during return and readmission procedures with visa-free countries.

3. Following visa liberalisation, there has been an overall increase in the number of asylum applicants from visafree countries, most of which have received a negative decision. Some of the measures adopted by Member States to cope with the high number of asylum applications included the designation of visa-free countries as safe countries of origin (allowing an accelerated asylum procedure), information campaigns and cooperation with the national authorities of visa-free countries.

4. There has been an increase in the number of nationals from visa-free countries detected as overstaying their maximum period allowed after visa liberalisation and 12 Member States reported this as a challenge. However, it was not possible to establish a clear link between visa liberalisation, irregular stay and overstay and less than half of the Member States implemented any specific measures to combat this phenomenon.

5. Most Member States did not report any specific challenges in the area of illegal employment after visa liberalisation was introduced. Only a few Member States adopted measures specifically targeting nationals from visafree countries.

6. There was little evidence of a link between visa liberalisation and the facilitation of irregular migration. Several Member States adopted additional or new measures to counter the activities of facilitators after visa liberalisation, including reinforcing bilateral cooperation, strengthening penalties for facilitation of irregular migration and setting up joint police investigations. Similarly, available data cannot establish a clear link between visa liberalisation and any increases in smuggling and trafficking in human beings.

7. After visa liberalisation was introduced, several Member States observed an increase in criminal activities. All eight visa-free countries were asked to reinforce their actions to fight against such activities, particularly against organised crime groups. This phenomenon is closely monitored and failure to cooperate with EU Member States and Norway in this area could lead to the suspension of the visa-free travel to nationals from the eight countries subject of this study.

The EMN inform and an EMN flash can be uploaded on this webpage. The full synthesis report as well as the national contributions from other Member States can be found on the website of DG Home of the European Commission via this link

Belgian report

The main findings of the Belgian report were the following: 


  • In Belgium, there was a particular strong increase in the number of refusals of entry at the external border for Albania since 2011 (462 cases in 2011) compared to the years preceding 2011 (17 cases in 2010, 3 cases in 2009). A similar evolution was noticed for FYROM (87 refusals of entry  in 2010 compared to 5 in 2009) and for Serbia (99 refusals of entry in 2010 compared to 16 in 2009). The number of Moldavian nationals refused entry at Belgian external borders increased from 18 persons in 2014 up to 135 refusals in 2017. For Georgia there was an increase from just one refusal of entry in 2016, compared to 32 in 2017 and for Ukraine 55 persons were refused entry at the airport in 2017, compared to 23 persons in 2016.
  • In Belgium, a sharp increase in the number of asylum applicants was noticed in the years succeeding the visa waiver agreement of applicants coming for FYROM (from 305 in 2009 to 1,740 in 2010), Serbia (1,020 in 2009 to 2,220 in 2010), Albania (from 245 in 2010 to 1,290 in 2011) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (from 145 in 2010 to 540 in 2011). The number of applicants coming from FYROM decreased gradually since 2011 onwards and amounted around 250 applicants in 2017. A similar trend was noticed for Serbia (decrease from 2,220 applicants in 2010 to 230 in 2017) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (from 540 in 2011 to 45 in 2017). For Albania however the number of applicants for international protection did not take a similar decrease and continued to be high (880 applications in 2017). The vast majority of the applications lodged by applicants from the Western Balkans were unfounded and rejected. For the Eastern Partnership countries, no impact was registered in Belgium for Ukraine and Moldova. For Georgia on the other hand, the number of applications for international protection rose significantly since the visa liberalisation.
  • For Serbia an increase from 225 persons found in irregular stay in 2009 up to 460 persons in 2011 was noted. For FYROM, it concerns an increase of 70 people found in illegal stay in 2009 to 125 persons in 2011. For Albania there was an increase from 145 persons apprehended in irregular stay in 2010 to 600 persons in 2012 and for Bosnia and Herzegovina an increase was noted from 70 cases in 2010 to 125 cases in 2012. For Georgia and Ukraine the visa waiver agreement date is too recent to assess a possible impact of the visa liberalisation on the number of persons found in irregular stay, since the fact that the number of people in irregular stay manifests itself mostly a few years after the visa liberalisation.
  • In particular for Albania and Georgia the percentage of persons involved in public order issues on the total number of persons found in irregular stay is notably high, about 36% of the Albanians apprehended in irregular residence in 2017 were involved in public order issues and no less than 66% for Georgians apprehended in irregular residence in 2017.
  • In recent years, about 10% of the total number of final convictions for human trafficking in Belgium concern Albanian nationals.


  • Ukraine (19,246 visitors in hotels and other accommodation facilities in 2017) and Albania (11,449 visitors in 2017) are important for Belgium in terms of tourism, in particular in recent years.
  • Except for Ukraine, who was the 48th export trading partner of Belgium in 2017, none of the other countries in scope of this study is among the top 50 of most important Belgian import or export trading partners. For some countries such as FYROM, Bosnia and Herzegovina, one can notice a substantial increase in the total value of incoming and/or outgoing trade over the past ten years, with a growth particularly in recent years making it difficult to link it directly to the visa waiver agreements. Also for Serbia there was a substantial increase and what is more is that for Serbia the strongest increase took place in the years right after the visa liberalisation, but causal relations are difficult to establish.
  • During the past ten years, the number of first residence permits issued for employment related reasons to nationals from the eight visa exempted countries in scope of this report was rather limited. Only for Ukraine, and only in 2015 and 2017, more than 100 first residence permits were issued for employment related reasons. Also the number of residence permits issued for educational reasons are very modest.
  • Diplomatic relations and cooperation improved, in particular in the field of return and readmission.  There is obviously a clear link between visa liberalisation and readmission agreements. For all the countries in scope of this report, a readmission agreement was concluded preceding the visa liberalisation.


  • A series of information and prevention campaigns were organised in FYROM, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Georgia with a view to discourage asylum applications for economic reasons and pointing out the risks of irregular stay. 
  • The concept of safe countries of origin was introduced into Belgian legislation and the first list adopted in 2011 included the following seven countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYROM, Serbia, Montenegro and only two countries who are not visa exempted: Kosovo and India. In 2016, Georgia was added to the list of safe countries of origin, anticipating on the upcoming visa liberalisation.
  • A substantial increase in the number of voluntary returns and implemented forced returns took place. In particularly for Serbia (from 38 returns in 2009 to 123 in 2011) and for Albania (from 95 in 2010 to 420 forced returns in 2012) the increase was remarkable. The number of forced returns for both countries is still very high to this day, with Albania being the leading country over the past four years for which the most enforced returns were organized for all nationalities (visa-exempt countries and others). Ukraine is the most important country for voluntary return for the past four years when taking into account all nationalities (visa-exempted countries and other third countries).
Publication Date:
Fri 29 Mar 2019
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