Is Slovakia playing hard to get with migrants?

Slovakia welcomes foreigners with utmost caution. The fact that we fear refugees is already notorious – for instance, last year, out of the 441 people who applied for asylum (the lowest figure since the country’s foundation) it was eventually only granted to 15. Far more foreigners come to Slovakia on a voluntarily basis with the intention to work or reunite with their families. Many run their own businesses, while also employing Slovak citizens. Nevertheless, we do a lot to make their relocation difficult.

Photo: Detention Centre in Medvedov, Slovakia (UNHCR/B. Szandelszky/2006)


In June 2014, the number of non-EU nationals with residence permits amounted to approximately 27,000.  Compared to other Central and Eastern European countries, Slovakia annually grants residence permits to only a small number of people – approximately three times less than in Hungary and six times less than in Czech Republic. This can partially be explained by rigid legislative conditions. In order to apply for residence, a non-EU national desiring to voluntarily move to Slovakia must follow a strict bureaucratic procedure defined by the Foreigners Residence Act. This is a complicated, almost draconic legal norm that is additionally subject to frequent amendments. The incomprehensible wording of the act makes foreigners, their lawyers and the police spin their heads.

In the Human Rights League, we are explaining the residence application procedure to people from all around the world on a daily basis. Even experts find it difficult to provide a clear description of the process under which residence applicants must present all documents required, or request their issuance in the country (or countries) where they have lived in the prior three years. They first have to “superlegalize” them (i.e. have them stamped by three or so different authorities in the issuing country including Slovak Embassy) or if they are lucky to come from a “more advanced country of origin”, they only need to have them apostilled (certified by only one office). Applicants then have to mail the documents to Slovakia in order to get them officially translated by a certified translator, who then sends them back sealed with a round stamp and a tricolor string. However, timing is everything – one must not obtain their documents too fast. Otherwise there is a risk that the validity of some of them will expire before the applicant is able to cross several borders and present them personally at the nearest accredited Slovak Embassy, which is often quite a few hours – or even days away.

Stamps, queues and endless paperwork

Foreigners must also be warned that their application may be rejected, even repeatedly so, if their portfolio lacks some detail, or if one or more of the documents surpassed the 90-day expiration period. It is hard to explain to them why the state needs to see a rental agreement not older than 90 days, signed by all contractual parties and notarized, almost half a year in advance of the relocation. It is equally hard to convince a Slovak citizen to rent an apartment to a foreigner and go with him to a notary without fearing that the unfortunate wretch is trying to claim permanent residence. The rental agreement must also include certification of ownership, and this must be an original copy from the land registry, not just a printout from the registry website, which means that someone has to take care of this in Slovakia and send it to the foreigner by mail. Yet the state has spent huge amounts of money on creating publically accessible online databases precisely for this purpose – why they are not being used remains a mystery. If foreigners manage to comprehend the procedure and present the residence application and all the required documents, the embassy then forwards them to the Alien Police for processing. In specific cases, it is possible to apply for a residence permit directly in Slovakia – nevertheless, foreigners must undergo the same torture as if applying from abroad.

Several years ago, it was still possible to submit incomplete residence applications 1  and send the remaining documents by mail. However, the Ministry of Interior amended the legislation, arguing that complete applications would help unburden the police. Yet, no analysis was carried out to substantiate this claim. The actual outcome seems to be more work for policemen. Because foreigners must apply for residence in person, they come to the Alien Police or embassy offices twice, thrice or even four times. Furthermore, those allowed to apply for the permit or its extension in Slovakia are not able make an upfront appointment – their requests are processed in the order determined by a number assigned to them by a queuing machine located on the Alien Police premises. The capacities of the Alien Police are limited, and foreigners quickly come to realize that they must arrive before the doors open in the morning – some finding that even if they spend the night in front of the building, there is no guarantee their turn will come before the end of office hours.

The conditions for granting residence permits also differ procedurally based on the purpose of the application. To ensure “clarity”, the law defines around 30 such conditional categories. With each procedure being so different, navigating the system can be a very trying proposition.

Another obstacle is the money. Every non-EU national applying for a residence permit in Slovakia must prove the availability of funds at the minimum monthly subsistence level for an entire year in advance. Thus a married couple must have a minimum of 4,800 EUR in their account and 7,200 EUR in the case of two children. In addition, foreigners must also consider administration fees (up to 200 EUR per person) and postal fees for the safe mailing of the documents to certified Slovak translators, as original copies cannot be lost. One must also not forget the cost – approximately 30 EUR for one standard page – for the actual translation, and add travel and potential accommodation costs, in the cases where the nearest accredited embassy is in a different country, thousands of kilometers away. A journey to Slovakia can turn out to be pretty expensive.

For immigrants from poorer countries – the majority of global population – as well as for people who are not proficient in legal norms, it is near impossible to satisfy the conditions imposed by the law. Those who want or need to relocate because they are running from danger are then often forced to pay a smuggler, which significantly complicates their prospects.

Are we an unattractive country?

The low number of people applying for residence might indicate that we are an unattractive country, but the truth may be that it is just too difficult to move here. We do not have the slightest idea about how many people are not able to pass through the gates of our embassies; how many give it up after repeated attempts; or how many are those whose outfits do not impress our embassies’ employees. We do not even know how many of those with a permit cease to fulfill its conditions while it is still valid.

However, we know for sure that the complexity of the Foreigners Residence Act drives even the Alien Police employees crazy. In short: the act is making life more difficult both for police and for the migrants. The work at the Alien Police – especially at the busy Bratislava office – is hard, due both to the strictness of the act and the working conditions. Each new police rookie encounters situations that even experienced lawyers would describe as a Kafka nightmare. Yet, all of this plays well into the hands of various intermediaries who profit from the complicated legal norms, charging immigrants high fees for handling their permit applications or queuing for them at police premises.

A few things that might help

The situation could be solved if the state clearly declared whether it is interested in foreigners – and in which ones – instead of impeding them all at every turn by stating too strict conditions. Ideally the law should be amended, all information should be accessible in multiple languages both online and at the Alien Police premises, and all first-contact employees of the Alien Police should, besides speaking foreign languages, undergo a thorough training on the application of the Residence of Foreigners Act. In addition the Alien Police should enable upfront appointments for specific time slots in lieu of queuing, or alternatively, make possible the online submission of applications with the option to send accompanying documentation by mail – at least for the busiest offices, like the one in Bratislava. A lot must change so that our “guests” do not have to spend whole nights in queues, camping on the lawn in front of the Alien Police. However, it is not just the system that must be transformed, it is also our internal attitude.

In many cases the foreign police is aware of deficiencies of the system and it often encounters lack of funding and understanding from other state authorities. Any change of the system will require a much more proactive approach by all institutions involved, not only the Ministry of Interior.

As a country, we can gain a lot if the face that we show to foreigners is friendly and respectful. In the end, we are asking them to be respectful and accommodating too.

Notes:

  1.  The exception was limited to temporary residence applications with the purpose of employment
Zuzana Bargerová

Zuzana Bargerová

works as a lawyer in the Human Rights League and in the Center for Research of Ethnicity and Culture