European diplomats in Yerevan presented on Friday details of new, stricter visa rules for citizens of Armenia and other countries planning to travel to the European Union.
Under the rules effective from April 5, consular services of EU countries making up the Schengen zone will not consider visa applications from those Armenians whose passports were issued more than ten years ago and/or will expire less than three months after their planned return home.
Armenian passports are normally valid for ten years. However, a police authority issuing them can extend their validity by five years with a special stamp, sparing passport holders the need to apply and wait for a new travel document.
Frederic Grapin, France’s consul-general in Yerevan, acknowledged that the Schengen zone countries have decided to stop accepting such passports because of the Armenian authorities’ failure to introduce new passports containing biometric data this year.
Speaking at a joint news conference with fellow consular officials from Germany and several other EU states, Grapin also announced that Armenians seeking to enter the Schengen zone will have to sign special statements in which they will pledge not to overstay their visas. He said that such documents would be used by EU immigration authorities in possible legal action against visitors refusing to return home.
Another rule announced by the diplomats will obligate the EU consulates in Armenia to explain, in writing, reasons for turning down visa applications. “This change will help to improve the transparency of the process of issuing visas to Armenian travelers and citizens,” said Grapin.
Armenian nationals seeking Schengen visas already need to submit a long list of documents, including information on their employment, monthly income and bank accounts. The French consulate also requires passports and, if applicable, death certificates of applicants’ family members along with their translated copies certified by notaries.
These requirements will be toughened further despite Armenia’s inclusion in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program that offers six former Soviet republics closer ties with the bloc in return for political and economic reforms. EU officials have said before that one of the concrete results of the scheme will be the liberalization of visa rules for partnership countries.
The strict visa rules are the result of large-scale illegal immigration to the EU from Armenia and other ex-Soviet republics that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Armenians are believed to reside illegally in France, Germany and other European countries.
In an annual report released on Friday, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 6,000 Armenian citizens, the vast majority of them living in the EU, asked for a political asylum last year. Most of them claim to be victims of politically motivated government repression. Others say they were harassed by the Armenian authorities because of their non-traditional religious beliefs and sexual orientation.
EU immigration bodies frequently ask Armenian human rights groups to assess the credibility of such claims. “I have been working with Belgium’s immigration service for many years,” said Mikael Danielian of the Armenian Helsinki Association. “I also receive similar inquiries from the United States, Germany and Norway.”
Danielian agreed that most of the asylum requests are unsubstantiated. “Political figures, sexual minorities and Jehovah’s Witnesses are indeed harassed, but they don’t leave Armenia,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are in prison, sexual minorities are trying to find a way of integrating into the society, while the opposition, as you know, is fighting.”
Just how so many illegal immigrants managed to receive EU visas in the first place is another question. There has long been a widespread view in Armenia that just about anyone can buy a Schengen visa with a lavish kickback paid to a consular official through local intermediaries. EU missions there have always denied that.