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PRESEVO, Serbia/BERLIN (Reuters) - From a dusty car park in the Serbian border town of Presevo, ethnic Albanians leave every Saturday in packed buses for western Europe, using their precious freedom to enter the EU without visas.
For many of the passengers, visa-free travel to most European Union countries offers the hope of leaving a life of unemployment and poverty behind. A powerful group of EU member states, however, wants to take this freedom away.
Last year, Arsim Memishi made a similarly mind-numbing bus journey from Presevo to Germany, and on to Sweden. An affable 36-year-old graduate, he could have been a tourist. Instead, he was looking to escape and he tells the kind of story that is arousing hostility in the wealthy nations of western Europe.
Arriving in the Swedish city of Malmo, Memishi became one of almost 60,000 people from the western Balkans to seek asylum in the EU since 2009-10. In these years the bloc lifted visa requirements for people from most of the countries that emerged from Yugoslavia's bloody collapse.
"I told the authorities that I'd been living with my girlfriend but we'd separated and that her brothers were looking to kill me," he said. "The real reason was to get documents and start working. After 12 years without a job, your will is broken."
Memishi was deported after 10 months of living off the Swedish state and selling scrap metal for extra cash. Now he is back home in Presevo, and some in the EU are saying "enough".
Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden are leading a push for the visa regime to be restored in the Schengen zone, which comprises most EU countries as well as non-members such as Switzerland and Norway. The issue is on the agenda of the EU's justice and home affairs council this week.
Asylum figures for Serbia alone put the country - a candidate for EU membership - in the same league as Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 6,000 Serbian and Macedonian citizens have applied in Germany so far this year, outnumbering Afghans and feeding resentment among German taxpayers who are already footing much of the bill from the euro zone debt crisis.
Rights groups, however, say that restoring visas would hurt the EU's standing in the volatile Balkans, where the pull of membership has helped to silence the guns, reconcile foes and drive reform since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
It also risks further marginalizing the ethnic Albanian and Roma minorities, who make up the overwhelming majority of the asylum seekers.
Of the ex-Yugoslav nations, Slovenia is already in the EU and Croatia will join next year. At the other end of the scale Kosovans, who are mostly ethnic Albanians, still need visas. But that leaves countries such as Serbia and Macedonia which remain outside the bloc but whose citizens can enter without a visa.
The European Stability Initiative thinktank warned the EU on Wednesday against making a "fundamental and strategic mistake".
The lifting of the visa regime was "the most significant decision made in the past decade to further the integration of the Western Balkans", it wrote. Re-imposing the requirement "would be a bad blow to the EU's credibility in southeast Europe."
Visa-free travel is for many the most tangible benefit of EU integration. It is also highly symbolic: long queues at foreign embassies became synonymous with the indignity and isolation felt by ex-Yugoslavs after the collapse of their joint state, whose balancing act between East and West had provided them with a coveted passport that allowed many to roam the world.
The Balkans hemorrhaged people as Yugoslavia collapsed, with about 700,000 leaving Serbia alone. With peace, the exodus slowed and the EU tightened visa regulations.
Then in 2009 it told Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro that their citizens could travel without visas for up to three months within the Schengen zone - part of the long process of accession to the bloc. Albania and Bosnia followed in 2010.
That year, the number of asylum seekers from Serbia and its former Kosovo province shot up 50 percent to almost 30,000.
In 2011 the United Nations ranked Serbia - taken together with Kosovo - fourth behind Afghanistan, China and Iraq in the number of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries.
So far in 2012, over 14,000 people from Serbia and Macedonia have requested asylum within the Schengen zone.
"The huge inflow of Serbian and Macedonian citizens must be stopped immediately," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said this month. He called for asylum seekers to receive less cash support and for applications to be dealt with more quickly, to discourage them from trying in the first place.
"The quicker this happens, the less right they have to state funds," he said. "Visa-free travel must not lead to abuse of the asylum rules. This will strain the readiness of Germans to help the truly needy and persecuted."
The majority in Germany are Roma. Their numbers have climbed again as winter approaches, when many Roma try to escape squalid shanty towns made of little more than scavenged cardboard and tin sheeting.
"Their aim is to survive the winter and come back in time for the spring," said Zoran Sajikovic, a Roma member of the local council in the Serbian town of Leskovac.
The asylum process in Germany can take months, in which time applicants are given accommodation, food and financial support amounting to around 350 euros ($460) per month after the Constitutional Court ruled in July that a previous sum of 225 euros was too little.
This compares with the 160 euros a month which Memishi now earns as a part-time school teacher. The average monthly wage in Serbia is higher at around 380 euros - for those who can find work. Unemployment has reached 25 percent and is far higher among ethnic Albanians and Roma.
An economic downturn in the region is fuelling the flight.
"I have a wife and three kids, no work, no money and I live in a shack," said Seladin, a Roma man in a suburb of the Macedonian capital of Skopje. "It takes some time until they deport you, but they give you a roof over your head, some food, even money. Chances are the winter will pass before I'm back."
Rights groups say the western alarm is motivated by discrimination, and ignores the Roma plight in the Balkans. An estimated 250,000-500,000 Roma live in Serbia, most of them on the very margins of society.
"They have a right to an examination of their (asylum) application, in which the racist discrimination in their home countries is fully considered," German refugee rights group Pro Asyl and German Roma groups said in a joint statement.
Serbia has ordered police to step up border checks, and Macedonia has clamped down on bogus travel agencies that officials say offer fake return tickets and hotel reservations to fool border guards.
Posters in airports and train stations warn that a rejected application will mean deportation and a travel ban.
Tough measures, however, risk stirring hostility in a region still recovering from conflict. The European Stability Initiative warned of the risk of "ethnic profiling and open discrimination" at border crossings.
"Europe should have expected this," said Belgzim Kamberi, a human rights activist in the Presevo Valley, Serbia's poorest region and an impoverished backwater since an ethnic Albanian insurgency was quelled there a decade ago.
"This is no-man's land," he said. "You can't stop them from leaving and looking for a better life if you cannot offer them a better life here." ($1 = 0.7651 euros)
Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Kole Casule in Skopje, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; editing by David Stamp