In welcoming foreigners, Slovakia forgets the basics, like saying “Hi.”

While Slovakia has, on the paper, committed to a number of ambitious goals regarding the integration of foreigners, there is still a long way to making this a reality.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

While there are approximately 80,000 foreigners in Slovakia, this number is likely to rise given societal demographic changes and economists’ suggestions that the country might need a new labor force. But what exactly is the state doing to support social cohesion and to make sure newcomers become part of society?

Integration might as well be one of the most confusing terms in public policy. While it is clear, that migrants should accept the norms of a host country, otherwise a conflict-free coexistence might be difficult, full assimilation is rarely possible. By migrating one gains a new identity, but never fully loses the original one. 1

Integration is thus a search for mutual accommodation.

In Slovakia, social cohesion is still perceived mainly in economic terms – as solidarity between the wealthy (individuals, regions) and the poor. Yet cohesion is a much broader concept with a cultural dimension.

While stakeholder engagement in decision-making is a precondition for social cohesion, in Slovakia, relations between the majority and minorities are often regulated in hierarchical terms. It is the majority who determines which rights minorities can have and how they engage in decision-making.

Social cohesion is an important theme in most European countries. Regarding migration, the Council of Europe (CoE) used the term “mutual accommodation” to underline that integration is a two-way process. Already in 2009, the CoE had called for policies that would encourage the elimination, “of mutual suspicions and create an institutional environment, that would enable cultural diversity to be a basic factor of progress leading to a content life for all inhabitants.” 2 Successful integration requires equal access to rights, and a possibility to pursue friendships across ethnic and cultural lines. 3

Importantly, the approach has to be intercultural, i.e. should encourage positive interactions between diverse cultural groups. While conflict cannot always be avoided, mechanisms for conflict resolution should be adopted to avoid potential alienation.

From documents to policy

Slovak policies are based on a number of framework documents adopted at the EU level. Starting with Tampere (1999) and followed up by The Hague and Stockholm programmes, the EU adopted a number of joint guidelines on migrant protections and common European policies that asked for the coordination of member states. Integration was viewed as a two-way process, and one that should strengthen cohesion. The EU framework has gradually developed into one that prioritizes solidarity and responsibility, while also responding to the needs and respecting the rights of both EU citizens and migrants. 4

At the same time, the framework documents highlight the importance of local and regional authorities, and the need to adopt specific supportive measures, like offering language courses and assistance accessing the labor market, as well as combatting discrimination. The most important Slovak strategy document regarding migrant integration, “Integration Policy,” was adopted in January 2014. 5

The document drew heavily from the intensive engagement of experts from non-governmental sector, who often substitute the role the state should play in migrant research and support. The strategy, in line with EU framework documents, emphasizes migration’s positive aspects and its importance in national development. It supports a multi-stakeholder approach, including close cooperation between the government and NGOs, media and research institutes. It also puts emphasis on the engagement of migrants and the organizations that represent them. 6

Yet, the strategy’s implementation has been problematic. Very few of the proposed measures regarding education, the labor market, housing, cultural integration and civic participation, have been put into place since 2014, because the strategy was not underpinned by financial resources. Real political commitment to address this issue has been lacking, and individual ministries have shown only limited eagerness to implement proposed measures, until now.

Labor market integration: moving away from the “migrant as burden” paradigm

A changing demography is not unique to Slovakia. Most European countries have seen decreasing birthrates and aging populations. Decreasing fertility rates have been observed since the ‘90s and this trend will probably continue. Parenthood comes at a later age because of young people’s changing value systems, and as a consequence of longer occupational preparations in an effort to find stable place in the labor market. 7

In Europe, fertility rates are currently 1.3 children per every woman, while a satisfactory societal reproductive rate would be over two children per every woman. Demographic estimates for Slovakia suggest that even if we factor in the most optimistic predictions of increased fertility, it would not be probable that it could reach 1.5 children per every woman by 2020. 8

Life expectancy in Slovakia for men is 73.3 and for women, 80.5. 9 Yet while the country’s population is not aging as fast as the rest of Europe, by 2050 that age will have increased to 81.3 – 85 for men and 85.5 – 89 for women. 10

This is likely to pose a number of challenges. Economist Vladimír Baláž of the Slovak Academy of Sciences says that by limiting migration, Slovakia is committing a “demographic suicide”. Baláž argues that by 2030 the country will see a 400,000 person decrease in people of a productive age. He argues: “To maintain the current ratio of economically active people and retirees, we would need at least 10-15,000 migrants per year.” 11

Yet, while the trend is upward, the actual numbers don’t yet match this expectation: in 2015 the number of migrants rose to 8,000, up from 5,000 the previous year.

Companies are already having a hard time finding employees and some of them are comparing the situation with the one in 2008 when they looked for welders as far away as Vietnam. A number of companies cannot increase production because they do not have enough labor, thus economists are increasingly supportive of the notion that the labor market needs more migrants. 12

Presently, conditions vary depending on a migrant’s country of origin, immigration status and type of work (employment/entrepreneurship) pursued. It is rather difficult to navigate through the complex web of laws regulating foreigners’ activities in the labor market.

If a migrant comes from a non-EU/EEC country, they must obtain a residence permit with the purpose of employment/entrepreneurship along with a work permit. 13

However, an employer cannot staff a foreigner in a position if there is also a Slovak applicant. If a foreigner comes from EU/EEC country, they do not need a residence or work permit, but the employer has to submit a so-called information card to the labor department. 14

Refugees can work under the same conditions as Slovak citizens, but people who are still waiting for their asylum decisions can neither work nor run a business for the first nine months after beginning the procedure. 15 Business owners often say they are discouraged from employing foreigners because the legal framework is too complicated.

The 2014 Integration Policy is a push to simplify the administrative burden that comes along with accessing the labor market, avoid brain waste (migrants taking jobs below their qualification levels), and attract a qualified labor force from abroad. Most of the measures contained within seem to be focused on social protections and the elimination of migrant labor exploitation, while highlighting women and children’s specific vulnerabilities as well as health handicaps. But while employment and social issues seem to be the most comprehensively addressed issues in the strategy document, very few measures have been adopted since 2014 that would attract new people from abroad, or contribute to migrants’ labor market integration.

Much of the policies and discourse have revolved around the need to, “protect the domestic labor market,” and so what has prevailed is a perception of foreigners as a potential burden on the labor market or social/welfare system.

Yet migrants, including those seeking international protection, can make a significant contribution to the labor market’s development. Restaurant or hotel owners, for example, offer jobs to local populations, and this certainly contributes the economy in regions with higher unemployment. This is one more reason integration policies are important – they also send signals to the host society that migrants are not a burden.

Integration in education: more than asking people to learn the language

Education is important for foreigners’ integration, and thus education policy has a strong potential to influence migrants’ successful integration into society and the labor market. Let’s just take one segment of the migrant population: school-aged children.

The right to an education is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 16 of which Slovakia is a signatory. All children of foreigners (be they migrants or refugees) have to attend schools, where education is provided under the same conditions for Slovak citizens. 17

The quality and accessibility of education has important impacts on the further success and integration of migrant children. This includes instruction in the host country’s language – something usually provided by the state. Education creates social capital, and school is a space where children meet their peers and get exposed to different environments. In a way, it is a micro-society: children can create bonds that outlive school.

For parents, schools can provide a platform through which they can make contacts with other parents and communities. For this to happen, education cannot be segregated according to cultural or social backgrounds.

However, the Slovak education system still does not enable foreigners’ children to fully take advantage of its integration potential. While the foreigners are not segregated (like many Roma), they are met with number of obstacles. 18

On the one hand, the law guarantees that foreigners will not face discrimination and that they’ll have access to the same education conditions citizens have. 19 Yet on the other hand, it is rather vague about specific measures that guarantee that access – e.g. language education.

Research carried out by the Centre for Research of Ethnicity and Culture (CVEK) in 2011 showed the education system’s total unpreparedness for serving foreign children. 20 Integration assistance is often left to schools, or to individual teacher’s capacities.

While these children clearly have special educational needs, the state is not able to provide services, like the addition of teaching assistants. Slovak is rarely taught as a foreign language and existing language courses are considered insufficient. So foreign children are enrolled in lower grades, and there is no possibility for flexibility (enrollment in several grades simultaneously, appropriate to their achievement levels). Also teachers are not provided with specialized teaching methods or expert support. 21

Thus, while the law is technically fulfilled, foreign children receive a lower level education than citizens, and do not in fact have equal access to education.

In everyday practice, everything depends on teachers and their willingness to spend extra time with children beyond what is prescribed. For instance a teacher at a school in central Slovakia created a picture dictionary for a student of Chinese origin, and taught her Slovak after school, by putting stickers with Chinese signs and Slovak translations on the school walls so the girl could learn the language more quickly. She also gave her the opportunity to teach the other children things she was more knowledgeable about.

At another school something completely opposite happened. The school, citing the law, approached one student under “with the same conditions” principle: the teachers left her to catch up on her own with material she was not even familiar with yet. She was expected to adapt, but she could not do it alone. Eventually, as a consequence of her teachers’ indifference, she resigned from school.

So equal conditions are not always enough. Individual teachers may be ready to handle the situation if they only have a few foreign children in their class, and if they have been trained in special needs education. If the number of children grows though, the state’s role will become more relevant.

It is difficult to evaluate the concrete impacts having no supportive measures has on foreign children, as there has been no such research on the topic. According to all available statistics, there are currently only 500 foreigners in Slovak high schools, and this low number suggests that some do not continue from elementary school. A high school education is crucial in the creation of social capital, and it leads to higher living standards and a healthier lifestyle. 22

But Slovak integration policies do not sufficiently reflect current research findings. Although the policies state that education is important, the 2014 Integration Policy only proposes one measure for elementary and high school-level education: “to create a teacher’s training program for teaching Slovak as a foreign language.” 23

All other measures in the policy are focused on language education for foreign adults and the recognition of their qualifications and education certificates.

Cultural integration starts with saying “Hi”

Cultural integration is a process of balancing respect and the recognition of diversity on one hand, and the shared values so important for social cohesion on the other. Thus it is important to support a mutual dialogue. There are a number of studies that show that migrants feel more at ease and acclimate more readily when met with friendliness and recognition from people with whom they come into contact with everyday. A UK study found that migrants consider being recognized and greeted by neighbors in the street to be of utmost importance. 24

While cultural integration is extensively addressed in the 2014 Integration Policy and there have been a number of state subsidy opportunities in recent years, one could hardly argue that migrants now feel like full-fledged members of society.

Research carried out by IVO/CVEK in 2015 shows that while migrants do live in Slovakia, they are largely invisible in society. 25

Although there are no substantial conflicts between ethnic Slovaks and migrants (representatives of state institutions say: “we do not have a problem with foreigners”), people live side by side, but not together. A friendliness is lacking. While many foreigners are well integrated in the labor market and their children attend school, they are not full members of society.

Foreigners usually only attain visibility if they enter the public space – open a restaurant, sell ice-cream or offer salsa classes. A mutual sharing of private spaces and deeper bonds with the rest of society is still lacking, as the IVO/CVEK research illustrated.

Role of local governments: recognizing “our people”

While the state creates an integration framework and should provide the financial and expert support, integration itself takes place in the town, where people reside and work, where their children go to school and where they practice hobbies. It is the neighborhoods and friendships that really enable sense of engagement and belonging.

Migrants can bring economic activity and development, new ambitions and new ways of thinking and behaving, but without successful integration, segregation, xenophobia, poverty and conflict can result.

While the Slovak Integration Policy also emphasizes regional and local governments’ role, 26 the state provides no support for the implementation of a strategy, and thus communication between municipalities is insufficient and the prioritization of migrant integration suffers as a consequence. 27

In 2014-15 the Association of Towns and Municipalities of Slovakia (ZMOS) in partnership with CVEK carried out a project meant to help local governments create their own integration strategies. However, it became clear after a series of trainings, that representatives from more than 20 local governments knew almost nothing about the foreigners residing in their municipalities, interpreting a conflict-free coexistence as evidence of successful integration. This invisibility may be the product of migrants’ large reliance on their own social networks, in lieu of placing demands on local authorities.

Our further cooperation with seven pilot towns illustrated the barriers migrants still face, but municipalities can help them. These pilot towns proposed their own local policies and created their strategies that would make life easier for immigrants. They organized meetings with newcomers, and the town mayors expressed their appreciation for the foreigners and their contributions. Once again embodying the symbolic importance of a recognition and a greeting.

Recognition is an inevitable condition for the emergence of trust between two entities. And without trust, host societies and local governments can hardly map the barriers to integration the migrants face and then respond with appropriate measures. When the municipality representatives realized this, they started calling the foreigners that resided in their towns “our people” (našinci).

The towns involved ended up adopting needs-based measures – some focused on language education or positive press, while others focused on coexistence and the creation of community centers. Some decided to create a point of contact that foreigners could reach out to in time of need.

The number of foreigners in Slovak towns (especially in the smaller ones) is still rather low, and thus integration strategies do not require many resources. They are mostly aimed at preparing local communities for life in a more diverse world. This type of philosophy, based on migrant needs and focused on the strengthening of social cohesion, is also relevant for the integration of other disadvantaged groups.

The basic principles of integration – an equal access to resources, a sense of belonging and shared values, and participative decision-making – are basic preconditions for cohesive societies. Minorities and newcomers’ integration cannot only be a one-sided demand for their “assimilation” or conformity to the lives of the majority. All societies change, and insisting on the preservation of the status quo means you must deny progress and not take advantage of its potential.

This article is a shortened and edited version of a study originally published in Slovak and available in full-text here.


  1. Baubock, R. – Heller, A. – Zolberg, A. (eds.) (1996): The challenge of diversity: Integration and Pluralism in Societies of Immigration. Aldershot: Avebury.
  2. Council of Europe (2009): Institutional accommodation and the citizen: Legal and political interaction in pluralist society. Trends in Social Cohesion, Nr.21.
  3. Ager, A. – Strang, A (2008) Understanding Integration: A Conceptual Framework, Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 21, No. 2.
  4. EUR-LEX (2005) The Hague Programme: Strengthening Freedom, Security and Justice in the European Union, (accessed March 7, 2017); EUR-LEX (2010) The Stockholm Program: an Open and Secure Europe Serving and Protecting Citizens, (accessed March 7, 2017); EUR-LEX (2005) A Common Agenda for Integration: A Framework for integration of Third-Country NAtionals in the European Union, (accessed March 7, 2017); EUR-LEX (2008) European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, (accessed March 7, 2017); EUR-LEX (2011) European Agenda on Integration of Third-Country Nationals, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  5. Ministerstvo práce, sociánych vecí a rodiny (2014): Integračná politika Slovenskej republiky, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  6. Ministry of labor, social affairs and family (2014): Integration Policy of the Slovak Republic, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  7. Bleha,B. – Šprocha,B. – Vaňo, B.: Prognóza populačného vývoja Slovenskej republiky do roku 2060, Bratislava: Výskumné demografické centrum, 2013, s.9.
  8. Bleha, B. – Šprocha, B. – Vaňo, B.: Prognóza populačného vývoja Slovenskej republiky do roku 2060 , Bratislava: Výskumné demografické centrum, 2013, s.22.
  9. Eurostat, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  10. Bleha, B. – Šprocha, B. – Vaňo, B.: Prognóza populačného vývoja Slovenskej republiky do roku 2060 , Bratislava: Výskumné demografické centrum, 2013, s.41-42.
  11. Baláž, V. (2015): “Pácha Slovensko demografickú samovraždu?‘ SME, November 24, 2015, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  12. INEKO (2016): Správa z hlavných výstupov seminára, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  13. Zamestnávanie cudzincov s miestom výkonu práce na území Slovenskej republiky od 1.1.2016, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  14. Zákon o službách zamestnanosti a o zmene a doplnení niektorých zákonov 5/2004.
  15. Zákon 480/2002 o azyle a o zmene a doplnení niektoých zákonov.
  16. Convention on the Rights of the Child, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  17. Zákon č. 245/2008 o výchove a vzdelávaní (školský zákon).
  18. Gažovičová, T. (2011): Vzdelávanie detí cudzincov na Slovensku. Potreby a riešenia. Bratislava: Centrum pre výskum etnicity a kultúry a Nadácia Milana Šimečku.
  19. Zákon č. 245/2008 o výchove a vzdelávaní (školský zákon), paragraf 146, odst. 2.
  20. Centrum vedecko technických informácií (2015): Štatistiká ročenka školstva. Základné školy, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  21. Gažovičová, T. (2011): Vzdelávanie detí cudzincov na Slovensku. Potreby a riešenia. Bratislava: Centrum pre výskum etnicity a kultúry a Nadácia Milana Šimečku.
  22. UNHCR: Secondary education for refugee adolescents, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  23. Ministerstvo práce, sociánych vecí a rodiny (2014): Integračná politika Slovenskej republiky, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  24. Ager, A. – Strang, A (2008):` Understanding Integration: A Conceptual Framework, Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 21, No. 2.
  25. Hlinčíková, M. – Chudžíková, A. – Kriglerová, E. – Sekulová, M. (2015): Migranti, prítomní a (ne)viditeľní, , Bratislava: Centrum pre výskum etnicity a kultury a Inštitút pe verejné otázky.
  26. Ministerstvo práce, sociánych vecí a rodiny (2014): Integračná politika Slovenskej republiky, (accessed March 7, 2017).
  27. Hlinčíková, M. – Chudžíková, A. – Kriglerová, E. – Sekulová, M. (2015): Migranti, prítomní a (ne)viditeľní, Bratislava: Inštitút pre verejné otázky, Bratislava: Centrum pre výskum etnicity a kultúry, Inštitút pe verejné otázky.
Elena Gallová Kriglerová

Elena Gallová Kriglerová

is a sociologist and the managing director of the Centre for Research on Ethnicity and Culture. In her work, she focuses primarily on the rights of children from minority communities and their access to education. She has authored and co-authored a number of publications dedicated to these topics, which are available at