Can the wizards and witches fix Slovak asylum and migration policy?

While many Slovak citizens, including the country’s president, have shown solidarity with refugees over the past few months, the current government’s policies aim to create obstacles instead of solutions to Europe’s refugee crisis. Can Slovak asylum and migration policy achieve a fairytale ending?

Photo: CreativeCommons/Taymtaym

In early September 2015 a group of refugees 1 placed in the Slovak detention facility in Medveďov locked themselves up in protest against local detention conditions. They demanded free passage to Germany; the police responded with force instead.

When later in October, a group of Syrians temporarily relocated to Gabčíkovo municipality objected to the conditions of the housing facilities they were placed in, the Minister of the Interior Robert Kaliňák dismissed their critique, reminding them that they were not “in the hotel Sheraton Arabella.” 2

The reference to “Arabella” is specific to the Czech and Slovak context. Arabela – with a single “l” in Czech and Slovak – was a highly popular fairytale series, named after its main character, Princess Arabela, dating back to the early 1980s. The 13 episodes take place alternately in the “Kingdom of Fairytales” and the “Land of Humans,” or literally “the Humane World.” The residents of the latter know nothing of the former until several magical items are discovered, enabling the characters to move between places. 3

The idea of people, or fairytale heroes, moving from one place to another, as well as the confusion and enrichment that result when discovering the homeland of the respective “other,” are central to Arabela. Whether its creators intended this or not the series is a story about migration. Yet the fairytale was certainly not on the minister´s mind, since he spoke to parts of the local constituency and not the refugees. Meanwhile, the way the refugees and those aiming to help them are being treated in Slovakia is far from any kind of a fairytale story.

Welcome to the kingdom of non-obligatory solidarity

A lot has been written on what some perceive as Eastern Europe’s “compassion deficit.” 4 While researchers still disagree whether V4 societies are far less welcoming to refugees than other parts of Europe, 5 the “Kingdom of Slovakia” can serve as the perfect example of how unfavorable local factors for attracting migrants combined with disadvantageous policies create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, as the PM Robert Fico puts it, refugees or migrants simply “do not want to stay in Slovakia.” 6

Admittedly, the number of migrants residing temporarily or permanently in the country has increased ever since Slovakia joined the EU in 2004. Still, only some 76,715 foreigners live in Slovakia today – a share equaling some 1.42% of the total population. 7 The more obvious reasons for the low number of foreigners residing in the country are the oft-cited difficulty in learning the Slovak language or the absence of migrant or expat communities. Less obviously, the kingdom’s own “magicians,” i.e. the policy makers in decision-making positions, seem to have conjured up additional invisible barriers to immigration.

For a long time, migration was not an issue of interest for the ruling authorities. Some initial considerations were anchored in the 1993 “principles” of migration policy, 8 yet it was not until 2005 that the country adopted a first “conception” of migration policy; 9 and not until 2009 that it adopted the first conception of integration policy. 10 It took five more years for both of the conceptions to be transformed into a proper migration 11 and integration 12 policy as such, and eventually also concrete actions plans. 13 As a result, the Slovak migration and integration policies have proven rigid and inconsistent, and for migrants often confusing. 14

Moreover, a landlocked country sharing just a short Schengen border with Ukraine, Slovakia is stripped of much of its responsibility towards the most vulnerable group of today’s migrants: refugees coming from the south. The Dublin Regulation, stating that the country through which a refugee first enters EU territory is primarily responsible for processing his or her asylum application, works in Slovakia’s favor, even though readmissions to the countries of first entry prove complicated in practice.

At the same time, the Slovak “magicians” have proven their skill in ignoring further “EU spells” that would advise a more human-rights based approach towards refugees. The country only applies basic standards when it comes to processing asylum claims. 15 Slovakia has granted international protection to 1,282 persons out of the 58,000 applicants over the last 20 years, 16 and with its average 2% approval rate is far below the EU’s 45% standard. 17 It should thus not surprise that less than 200 people applied for asylum here since the beginning of 2015. 18

Despite the very low numbers of migrants, asylum seekers or refugees in its territory, the refugee crisis has fueled tensions here the same way it has in neighboring countries. Apart from the Sheraton Arabella reference, the Minister of the Interior Kaliňák played the role of a skilled fortune-teller when he claimed that 90% of the incoming persons were young men, stipulating they were not in need of protection. 19 Trying to top the magical skills of his minister, the “main magician” PM Fico who recently self-identified as a “pragmatic social-democrat,” 20 claimed that 95% of those incoming were economic migrants and not refugees. 21 Later, probably inspired by Hungary’s razor fence “example,” he went on to suggest that Slovakia should eventually build “barriers to navigate” refugees alongside its borders. 22

The ruling elite’s perceptions seem to resonate with significant parts of Slovak society. A June 2015 opinion poll reported that 70% of Slovaks disagree with receiving refugees on the basis of the EU relocation quotas. Some 63% of the respondents saw refugees as a security threat.  23 The most recent December poll confirms the trend, with 70% expressing “serious concerns” relating to refugees coming to Slovakia. 24

In line with the domestic polls, the government opposed any of the European Commission’s refugee redistribution proposals, which Kaliňák described as a measure of “obligatory solidarity,” and as such “extremely harmful.”  25Again, PM Fico is not lagging behind his minister. In his opposition to quotas, Fico does not seem afraid, even risking an open conflict with EU institutions or other member states. At the end of November, he even announced his wish that Greece leave Schengen for their failure to protect the EU border; 26 and a few days later, his government filled a lawsuit against the September 2015 quota proposal, that suggested Slovakia take in some 802 refugees.  27

As a counter-proposal, the country has declared itself ready to relocate a mere 200 persons from Italy or Greece over a three-year period. 28 However, Fico’s government has asked that the incoming refugees be Christians only. When grilled by the international media about the discriminatory nature of the requirement, the Ministry of Interior’s spokesperson, Ivan Netík, explained, “we don’t have any mosques in Slovakia,” then mused, “so how can Muslims be integrated if they are not going to like it here?“

While his explanation finally earned Slovakia a mention on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight television show, 29 the public shaming did not change the government’s attitude much. More recently, Slovakia announced that it intends to voluntarily relocate an additional 150 Christians from Iraq, whom PM Fico claims to be “in need of help and protection.” 30The sudden change in rhetoric shows that the fear mongering strategy may easily backfire, as the government will eventually need to “enforce” some domestic solidarity in order to prevent the country’s complete isolation within the EU.

After all, the situation partly backfired already when the government announced it would temporarily relocate some 500 refugees from Austria to the Slovak municipality of Gabčíkovo, as compensation for not participating in the EU redistribution scheme. 31 In a local referendum in August 2015, 97% of Gabčíkovo residents who participated, voted against hosting the refugees, even for a six-month period. 32 While PM Fico stated that the government “won’t ignore [the outcome],” 33 Minister Kaliňák had already dismissed the voting, calling it unconstitutional. 34 The relocation started in September.

Two months later, Gabčíkovo’s long-term request to be reclassified from a village to a town suddenly passed in Parliament. Whether this was part of the deal, remains unclear. 35 The incident, however, shows that the fear mongering strategy is unlikely to hold in the long run, as the government is hardly able to “compensate“ each of its refugee-opposing citizens. Meanwhile, the situation for the refugees, who are already in the country and the NGOs assisting them, remains serious. 

The kingdom’s fortresses

Slovakia ranks among the countries along the Western Balkan route to Europe who are detaining refugees for entering their territories without valid travel documents. Apart from two residence centers, one integration facility and one arresting center, there are two detention facilities in Slovakia, both officially administrated by the Ministry of the Interior (MI) and run by the Office of the Border and Foreign Police. 36 One is located in Medveďov, and the other in Sečovce; both able to accommodate between 150 and 200 persons. 37

The legal situation of the persons held in detention facilities is often complex and at times confusing even for the NGOs working with them. Typically, if entering Slovakia without valid documents, refugees are primarily detained to be identified. During this process, if it can be substantiated that they have passed through another EU member state, the detention purpose varies, and they may continue being detained in order be readmitted to the country of first entry.

However, the legality of this practice can be seriously questioned. Not only does the UN 1951 Geneva Convention state that refugees can be pardoned for entering a country “irregularly,” meaning without valid documents, due to their exceptional circumstances and particular need for protection when in flight. 38 Also the UNHCR has declared numerous times that following the 1951 provisions, detention of foreigners should only be used in very exceptional cases as a means of last resort and not as a regular practice. Detention is particularly redundant in situations where other, less severe means of achieving the same purpose, like attaining a persons’ identification, are available. 39 Likewise, the detention purpose vanishes in cases where the authorities know or should have known that readmission cannot be implemented within the required delay. This would certainly be the case for all re-admissions to Hungary, who recently announced they would not be accepting any more refugees on the basis of the Dublin Regulation. 40

The Human Rights League (HRL), a local NGO and the main implementing partner of UNHCR in Slovakia, is also regularly monitoring the detention facilities’ overall human rights conditions. In their reports to the UNHCR, the HRL has repeatedly criticized the facilities’ administration for rigid rules, the seizure of refugees’ cell phones, or for the insufficient number of employees able to communicate with the refugees in English. 41 It was, however, unlikely that the legal and practical systemic deficiencies would have grasped the public’s attention, if the refugees had not decided to go on strike against them.

Bearing Medveďov

On Thursday, September 3rd, hearing in the news how refugees were welcomed in Germany, a group of about 40 Medveďov detainees locked themselves up in the facility dining room in protest against their continued detention. Some 50 other detainees joined the protest, while requesting free passage to Germany, where they believed they would receive better treatment. What happened next could only confirm their perception. Instead of mediating the situation, the facility’s administration called the Slovak special police units to intervene. 42 What followed was to become a subject of controversy for the upcoming weeks and months.

Probably the most comprehensive account of the events was published only some three months later by the daily, Denník N, that managed to obtain video recordings from the special forces intervention and the security cameras placed in the facility. The footage shows the policemen approaching the dining room and refugees shouting “deport” can be heard. The police are accompanied by a person who is more or less able to interpret their requirements in English, and the refugees seem willing to cooperate with the facility administration and the special forces. They follow the given orders, one of them explains their demands in decent Slovak, then the record gets cut.

The footage from the security cameras that follows shows the police entering the housing units, shouting “lay down!” in Slovak, while the interpreter cannot be located in the crowd. The refugees appear confused. They gather in front of their rooms, kneel down and put their hands behind their backs, while the police continue to shout in Slovak, pushing some of them back into their rooms. The end of the video sequence shows some of the refugees being forcefully taken away from the housing unit with their hands behind their ears. 43 No footage from the physical intervention in the dining room or in the refugee’s private rooms is available to corroborate the oppositional claims made by the refugees and the police.

The police dismissed allegations of the excessive use of force immediately after the incident. Police Chief Tibor Gašpar acknowledged that special units resorted to “grips and holds as means of coercion,” and that they handcuffed about 45 of the 90 refugees protesting, in order to bring them back to the housing unit. The police claim to have communicated intensely with the protestors prior to the intervention. A doctor was called to the facility to treat “minor injuries.” The police also claimed to have found metal items, shards from broken mirrors and other objects in the refugees’ possession.  Later, in response to the HRL’s official inquiry, the authorities admitted to also having used “punches and kicks in self-defense, as a means of overcoming resistance and averting an attack.” 44

For their part, HRL employees were already trying to reach the facility the following day on Friday, as some of the refugees repeatedly called asking for help. However, the administration told them they would only be allowed entry the following Monday. In the meantime, Denník N, was able to get in touch with three men who reported severe beatings by the police, resulting in numerous injuries. The men said that the facility’s administration told them they could not be seen by a doctor until Monday. 45 Things were all the more surprising for the HRL employees who finally reached the facility that Monday, only to find that the police had brought most of the protesting refugees to a nearby train station the night before, and even bought them train tickets to Germany. 46

When finally visited by HRL representatives in Germany, the refugees reported that the police had insulted, shouted at and severely beaten them – some on the head – and had even jumped on them while they were lying on the ground with their hands over their ears. A clear link between the refugees’ removal to Germany and the altercation cannot be established, however the facility administration claim the refugees’ detention purposes had vanished and they needed to be removed. The timing is all the more dubious, however, since the week following the protests, the HRL was planning to officially record the refugees’ previous allegations that the police had robbed them. 47

Immediately after the incident, Ombudswoman Jana Dubovcová issued an investigation into the special force’s conduct. Following the inquiry, she classified the primary consideration for police intervention as legitimate, albeit unprofessional. She stated more specifically that from the moment the police handcuffed the refugees and searched their rooms and bodies, the intervention had been disproportionate, as these measures violated the refugees’ right to their integrity of person, their right to privacy and their right to humane treatment. 48 She added that an intervention involving numerous policemen, with no actual interpreter present, resulting in several detainees’ injuries, cannot be deemed necessary or proportionate. Following the incident, she also suggested improvement measures for the facility. While the police claim these have been implemented, the Office of the Ombudswoman stated to the V4 revue that the Ombudswoman is not convinced this was really the case.

Detaining people on shaky legal grounds, using special forces to intervene in the disciplinary “dirty work,” then later allowing – even aiding – those people to undertake what they were asking for from the beginning, all the while presenting the measures as a coherent policy to the general public, is surely a trick that even so-called “second class sorcerers” from the Arabela series could be proud of. For the HRL, the story has a follow-up.

The Human Rights League’s banishment

First indices of possible trouble began to emerge prior to the October 21st governmental meeting relating to the extension of financial support to NGOs working with refugees. It was again Denník N bringing first the information that the MI asked the UNHCR Regional Representation for Central Europe to suspend its cooperation with the HRL and replace it with another implementing partner. Although a clear link between the two events was not officially articulated by the authorities, Denník N reported that this was likely a result of HRL’s critique of police conduct in Medveďov. 49At last, the HRL was awarded financial assistance together with other NGOs, while most mentions of the HRL, including the replacement request, were also cut out of the final, approved meeting material. What was left was the following consideration: “In many cases, which can be substantiated, the Human Rights League exploited its position in order to issue non-constructive criticism of police actions.” 50

A week after the government’s meeting, on October 27th, the Office of the Border and Foreign Police announced that it had canceled its cooperation with the HRL. It was, however, not the police unit’s chief, Ľudovít Bíró, who thereafter explained the decision, but minister Kaliňák. Kaliňák said the HRL’s statements were “counter-productive to the work it should have been doing,” since the HRL was “creating some affairs” instead of doing “its work.“ He argued that the HRL’s primary responsibility for delivering legal aid to asylum seekers was not being met at Medveďov, because none of the detainees had actually filed an asylum application, meaning they were “illegal migrants.“ He thus concluded the HRL was not properly using funds received from the MI, and the MI would need to examine how far this had violated the law. He finished, however, by stating that he did not want to interfere with the matters anyway, because in the end they were ”technical“ and not “political.” According to the minister the Office of the Border and Foreign Police, “must have had their reasons” for cancelling the cooperation. He announced the organization to replace the HRL, would be chosen by the Office of the Border and Foreign Police together with the UNHCR. 51

Communicating with the V4 revue in early December, the HRL’s chair, Zuzana Števulová, said the organization was ready to discuss the criticism, but pointed out that the authorities had not officially contacted them, which she described as “unfortunate.” She explained that the HRL and UNHCR were supposed to conduct regular meetings with the police in order to clarify potential misunderstandings, but no such meetings had taken place since the beginning of the year. Števulová added that the HRL was unaware of any investigation being launched against them. She explained that the main financing partner in matters concerning the independent monitoring of asylum and detention facilities is the UNHCR, for whom it conducts activities on the basis of a bilateral agreement. Thus she argues that since the HRL did not have such an agreement with the MI, it could not have misused the funds it was not receiving.

As the main financing partner, the final choice should be left to the UNHCR. Its regional spokesperson for Central Europe, Babar Baloch, confirmed shortly after the October 21st  cabinet meeting that they still consider the HRL their partner;  52 and according to Števulová, the UNHCR is still “considering matters.” Were the UNHCR to keep the HRL as their implementing partner, it remains unclear whether and how the Office of the Border and Foreign police would be able to fully implement the replacement unilaterally, i.e. by completely restricting the HRL access to facilities. Currently HRL employees are permitted to continue visiting their individual clients, albeit on a voluntary, unpaid basis.

With no clear end in sight yet, the incident can serve as an illustration of how civil society actors who help refugees are increasingly being banished from the “Kingdom of Slovakia,” while the responsible authorities manage to shirk their own responsibility.

Opposing the curse of fear

“Slovakia has never elected a politician who embraced the topic of migration and integration in favorable terms,”  53 HRL attorney and researcher, Alexandra Malangone, wrote for the V4 revue back in June. While it is true that there have been only few political figures vocally opposing the politics of fear over the past several months, it is all the more important that the Slovak President Andrej Kiska, was one of them.

Photos of refugees having a breakfast in the presidential palace and taking selfies with the president, himself, have traversed Slovak social media. 54 In his public speeches, Kiska has also repeatedly reminded Slovaks about the country’s Christian values and the necessity to exhibit compassion to those fleeing war.

Magda Vašáryová, a former actress and a current MP – formerly a member of the Christian democratic SDKÚ-DS, now unaligned – joined “Kiska’s ranks” when in October, musing during a public debate in Prague that if dogs had come to Italy on a boat, people would have immediately welcomed them and taken them in. Receiving increased attention in Czech and Slovak media ever since, 55 she skillfully seized the opportunity, repeatedly criticizing her fellow citizens for not behaving like true Christians.  56

Apart from Ombudswoman Dubovcová, who has repeatedly criticized the police conduct towards refugees, 57 Vašáryová and Kiska may find a reliable companion in Supreme Court Judge Elena Berthotyová, who recently chastised Slovak asylum policies as the strictest in the EU. 58

Apart from these public figures, there is also an army of “foot-soldiers” fighting the day to day battles behind the scenes: the coalitions of NGOs urging the government to help the most vulnerable ones; 59 the Slovak volunteers helping refugees in Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Hungary or most recently, on the Greek islands; 60 those people who issue the “Call(s) for Humanity;” 61 those who join the calls directed at the V4 governments to stop endangering and embarrassing their citizens; 62 those who declare a willingness to welcome refugees into their own homes; 63 and let’s not forget some of the local journalists 64 or dailies criticizing the scope of Slovakia’s contribution towards solving the crisis. 65 However, without a bigger troop of like-minded fellows in positions where decisions are made, individual champions are unlikely to win the larger battle.

There are not many signs that the ruling social-democrats, the SMER-SD party, are ready to turn towards more human rights driven policies. SMER has a long track record of playing the xenophobic or nationalistic card; and Fico has not only used this type of rhetoric against the refugees of today, but also against the LGBTI community and the Roma or ethnic Hungarian residents of Slovakia in the past. 66 In 2006, SMER even entered into a coalition with the nationalistic SNS party, which earned it a suspension from the Party of European Socialists (PES) for two years. In September 2015 PES again discussed suspension of SMER-SD, and although no such conclusion was reached, the president of the the Group of Socialists & Democrats in the EP (S&D), Gianni Pittella, asked PES to re-consider SMER’s exclusion once again due to the  party’s lawsuit against the European Commission’s refugee quotas. 67 Regardless of the naming and shaming, however, the fear mongering is likely to rev up in the near future as the country heads into general elections next March. 68 SMER has already launched a nationwide “We Protect Slovakia” billboard campaign and according to a number of polls, the party is likely to finish ahead of the pack. The crucial question for SMER will thus be whether it will maintain the absolute majority in parliament, enabling it to continue ruling on its own. 69

Comprehensive counterproposals to SMER’s migration and integration policy from other political parties are unlikely, as well. While all opposition parties have criticized the quota lawsuit, and the way SMER has managed the crisis, they are strangely united with SMER in their disapproval of the quotas as such, calling it a “false solution.” 70 At the same time, most of the parties or their most vocal representatives are either openly anti-immigrant (nationalistic SNS), 71emphasize the “economic migrant” or “security threat” narratives (libertarian SaS, partly also SDKÚ-DS and OL’aNO), 72 or tend to follow the “save the Christians (only)” line of thinking (Christian democratic KDH). 73

The few that do recognize the humanitarian aspect of the crisis include some MPs of the SDKÚ-DS, KDH and somewhat also the OL’aNO parties. 74 The liberal, multiethnic, Slovak-Hungarian Most-Híd is probably the sole party to maintain a somewhat coherent, human-centered policy line. 75 Yet even its president, Béla Bugar, disagrees with the quotas, and does not oppose building fences in order to “protect” the Schengen border. 76

As a result, there is no real, broad political opposition to SMER’s asylum and migration policies, and thus no momentum that would consistently counter the government’s narratives, calm the crowds and suggest credible and comprehensive alternatives. Consequently, policies are unlikely to change significantly in the short term, or even after elections. As Vašáryová pointed out in several interviews, the crucial question regards the long-run: who will pay the costs of an increasingly securitized society which is becoming increasing paranoid or maybe hysterical?

Who will pay the price, if no savior shows up?

In the final episodes of the Arabela series, Princess Arabela, Petr, her beloved from the Land of Humans, and the whole Kingdom of Fairytales are saved by Fantomas, a quiet outlier who intervenes at the very last moment. In today’s Slovakia, no matter if you are “for” or “against” helping people fleeing war, if you are waiting for “Fantomas” or “the international community” or “the world” to come and solve the crisis, you might be waiting in vain.

Meanwhile, some groups are likely to pay an increased price for the country’s troublesome developments. Following the November Paris attacks, PM Fico announced that Slovakia will impose tighter security measures in detention and asylum facilities and immediately deport every migrant entering the country illegally. 77 He also suggested that Slovak authorities are already monitoring “every single Muslim” in their territories, since “Slovak citizens and their security is of a higher priority than the rights of migrants.”  78

It is not only the rights of refugees and migrants or the position of NGOs which are at stake. The recently adopted anti-terrorism measures, passed despite President Kiska’s partial veto, illustrate that private lives of “regular” Slovaks are likely to be increasingly affected in the future, as the powers of the courts, police and intelligence services is boosted. 79

At the same time, the infringement procedure against the EU’s relocation scheme is likely to make the advancement of Slovakia’s own interests at the EU level more difficult. Slovakia may still rely on Orbán’s Hungary which announced it will also join the lawsuit, and has already passed a number of emergency laws itself. Meanwhile, Poland’s newly elected government does not seem keen on causing trouble within the EU, 80 as it is now focusing on Orbán-azing its own domestic politics. 81The Czech Republic will also not join the complaint, arguing that fighting the one-off redistribution scheme would make it harder to oppose the permanent mechanism currently at discussion. 82

Likewise, during Slovakia’s Council of the EU presidency between July and December 2016 the European public’s eye will be on the country. By that time at the latest, SMER – if still in power – might find itself in a deadlock position between the EU and domestic level politics. 83 Even if the party was to eventually change course or a give-in to EU pressure, the Gabčíkovo referendum, as well as the current Iraqi Christians’ relocation, show that SMER may find it difficult to implement such proposals domestically.

At worst, the situation may result in Slovakia’s isolation within the EU in the long-term, and Slovak citizens could lose some of the most crucial gains from their country’s EU membership, like inclusion in the prominent Schengen club. 84

Thus the answer to the question of who will pay is simple – it is the Slovaks. The good part is they can still avoid paying an overpriced bill. To that end, they only need to leave the illusionary Kingdom of non-obligatory solidarity and join the Land of Humans, or better, the humane world.



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Zuzana Pavelková

Zuzana Pavelková

is an activist and founder of the initiative "Česko vítá uprchlíky" (Czech Republic welcomes refugees). She worked with different civil society organizations and initiatives advocating for refugee and migrant rights in Germany,​ ​France​ and Czech Republic.