The plight of millions of people escaping the eminent dangers in their home countries have been exploited by nearly all political parties across Europe. Although not physically present in Slovakia, migrants and refugees have become a regular part of our lives here, even partially influencing outcomes of 2016’s national parliamentary elections.
Throughout 2016, the government always approached the migration and the refugee crisis with much talking, but little outcome. This despite the fact that Slovakia held its first EU presidency in 2016, and nominated a candidate for the UN’s Secretary General. In both instances, migration and asylum were considered priority and Slovakia was expected to deliver. The Slovak government’s leadership fell short of expectations and its potential.
Under the rotating EU presidency, Slovakia declared itself an honest broker committed to identifying compromises that might be reached between member states regarding EU asylum and migration policy reforms. Moreover, the Slovak presidency raised expectations by promising to present their own alternative version of the EU’s mandatory relocation plan by the end of their term. 1
However, at the end of 2016, member states remained divided on the migration and asylum agenda, and Slovakia’s “flexible (effective) solidarity” proposal did not bring the divisions much closer 2
As Malta, one of the main points of entry for migrants and refugees, has assumed the EU Presidency this year, relocation mechanisms will be pushed for, and the discussions on comprehensive reforms of the EU’s asylum and migration policies are almost certain to be lengthy and drawn out.
The relocation of 100
In June 2016, hoping to show good will before assuming the EU presidency, Slovakia announced it would follow through with a promise made a year ago to voluntary relocate of 100 persons from Greece and Italy. 3
However, by the end of the year, Slovakia had only relocated 9 persons – 3 mothers with children 4 – and the fate of the remaining 91 people remains to be seen.
Internationally, Slovakia had high hopes that its Foreign Affairs Minister, Miroslav Lajcak, might become the new UN Secretary General. In order to campaign, participation in the invitation-only Leader’s Summit on Refugees in New York was required, but invitations were dependent on a country’s pledge to effectively contribute to solving the global refugee crisis. Therefore, Slovakia pledged to offer university scholarships to 550 refugee students by the end of 2021; and if the high demand for the pilot student scheme implemented in 2016 for 33 Syrian refugee students, is any indication, the prospective scheme for 550 students seems doable. 5
Neither announcement on relocations or scholarships provoked significant public or political counteraction, and this demonstrates something about how Slovaks approach the whole issue: when the asylum and migration agenda is securitized and refugees and migrants presented as a de-humanized mass and threat, negative emotions run high; but, when the agenda focuses on helping real people, the Slovak public seems to be accepting and supportive.
Similar reactions were noticed when NGOs and activists created a civic initiative, Plea for Humanity, and started distributing aid to people on the move; or when public collections are held to provide help to individuals. Regrettably, politicians and stakeholders (the only exception being President Andrej Kiska) have not taken advantage of this proactive approach, and largely remain wary of shifting their public attitudes about refugees and migrants into a more positive light.
Only Kiska presents a conciliatory approach
Therefore, when it comes to the public debate on refugees, it is only President Kiska who constantly presents a conciliatory, constructive and sensitive approach. Other leaders have resigned on raising public awareness by providing objective information and constructive proposals. Due to a persisting and significant lack of expertise on asylum and migration across the political spectrum, most leaders have their views massively influenced by hoax, prejudice or simply misinformation.
So raising public awareness is largely seen as a job for NGOs, who are expected to build public support for refugee issues, but lack the support of political leaders, and are sometimes even attacked by them. Similarly, public statements made by government advisory bodies, such as the Committee against Racism (VRAX) housed by the Ministry of the Interior, have condemned ethnically motivated attacks, but these condemnations have not been backed by the minister or prime minister.
This schizophrenic attitude can be seen in all other issues related to refugees and migrants in Slovakia as well. Currently the domestic labor market is stretched to its limits, and a larger work force is needed, therefore companies are strongly pushing for more open and flexible foreign labor and business schemes, 6 but are met with strong resistance from the Ministry of Employment, Social Affairs and Family, which puts protection of Slovak workers first. Almost after a year of work, new Amendment to Act on the Residence of Foreigners is working its way through Parliament, expected to be in force at April. The amendment would transpose EU Directive on Seasonal Workers, EU Directive on Intra-Company Transfers and amend rules related to Blue Card holders and start-ups. 7
But, work on new amendment, in relation to transposition of yet another EU law is already under preparation. Given the fact that migration has become hot topic in public discourse, one would expect that any legislative changes to most important laws would be under constant public scrutiny with lively discussions. Yet, new laws and changes, with significant impact on migration in practice, did not attract interest of all those ‘experts’ who otherwise do not miss a single opportunity to get what it takes out of popular narratives on migration.
Will 2017 be another year of limbo?
In relation to refugee integration, across-sectorial coordination group, which was based on Plea for Humanity and formed following Prime Minister Fico’s direct orders in autumn 2015, was not re-installed after 2016 elections. The official integration program for refugees – the first of its kind in Slovakia – was supposed to be approved and published by governmental decree at the end of 2016, but is now slated for the end of 2017. So for the time being, the integration of refugees will continue to depend on available EU funds, and will lack the systemic approaches offered by the state and municipalities.
Hopes raised in 2015 and early 2016 that the most pressing policy issues related to refugees and migrants would be proactively dealt with in Slovakia are now being dashed. In reality, the few steps taken have been reluctant, limited in their scope and have lacked strong, committed leadership. It seems like there is no vision or a courageous enough leader to propose or implement any real deliverables that would both help refugees and comfort an anxious public at the same time. It remains to be seen if 2017 will be just another year of waiting, or if it will be the year that Slovak asylum and migration policy is finally ushered into the 21st century.
- “Riešenie migračnej krízy možno dosiahnuť viacerými spôsobmi,“ Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic, October 14, 2016, http://bit.ly/2jaBIVI (accessed January 12, 2017); “Slovakia outlines alternative migration plan,“ Politico, November 16, 2016, http://politi.co/2jaEN80 (accessed January 12, 2017). ↩
- “Slovenský návrh efektívnej solidarity nepresvedčil,“ EurActiv, November 18, 2016, http://bit.ly/2ifR23D (accessed 12 January 2017). ↩
- “Prijmeme ďalších utečencov, hlavne matky s deťmi,“ Pravda, June 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/2iJRqUe (accessed January 12, 2017). ↩
- “Slovensko prijalo v rámci relokácií Ďalších šesť utečencov z Grécka,” Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic, November 11, 2016, http://bit.ly/2jaBxcY (accessed January 12, 2017). ↩
- “Slovensko prijme utečencov zo Sýrie a dá im štipendiá,“ TV Noviny, January 4, 2017, http://bit.ly/2jz0afV (accessed January 12, 2017). ↩
- “Dovoľte nám zahraničných pracovníkov, žiadajú firmy,“ Asociácia zamestnávateľských zväzov a združení SR, June 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/2iJWDLX (accessed 12 January 2017). ↩
- Ministry of Interior, Press Release, http://bit.ly/2owqKvN (accessed January 12, 2017). ↩