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Slovakia Finds Itself in Eye of Illegal Migration Storm

Zyad, a refugee, left his wife and two children in Syria and embarked on a journey across Turkey and the Western Balkans a month ago in an effort to reunite with other family members in Germany, making a stopover in Slovakia.

“We’ve been in Slovakia for two days,” he told a local newspaper in Nové Zámky, a Slovak town situated some 30 kilometres away from the nearest border crossing with Hungary, at the end of August.

Thankful for the food provided, he went on to share some of his experiences of the past several weeks. “When they caught us [in Greece], they beat us,” he recounted.

Like so many other illegal migrants who have crossed the 655-kilometre-long Slovak-Hungarian border in the past year, the Syrian – who has since left Slovakia – is believed to have chosen Slovakia as one of the transit countries on his way to Germany because of the “confirmation letter about the possibility to stay in Slovakia”, documentary proof issued to migrants by the country’s Foreigners’ Police.

In addition, Austria has imposed temporary checks on the border with Hungary and Slovenia until November 11. Germany has taken a similar step on its border with Austria, making the journey of illegal migrants through the Western Balkans to Germany even more complicated.

In Slovakia, illegal migration has been constantly increasing this year, with the document blamed for a third of migrants now arriving in Slovakia illegally. The police detained 17,529 foreigners in the first seven months of this year, an increase of 15,611 detained foreigners compared with the same period in 2022. On September 3, the figure stood at more than 27,000.

“Of them, two Syrians have applied for asylum,” Police President Stefan Hamran said.

The document – which neither legalises the stay of illegal migrants in Slovakia nor in the Schengen Area but is for the purpose of registration only – and rising illegal migration have become the subjects of heated debate in Slovakia, often permeated with disinformation, among politicians ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for September 30. Some put the blame for the increased illegal migration in Slovakia on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose government is accused of allowing thousands of migrants to cross the border.

Abas, another Syrian refugee, also obtained the confirmation letter. Last week, the Polish authorities detained a group of illegal migrants, including him, as an Uzbek smuggler was attempting to drive them to Berlin in a Fiat van. The Polish Border Guard drove them back to Skalité-Zwardoń, the first Polish-Slovak border crossing, as a local Slovak paper reported.

“We have to wait here for two or three hours before a car comes to pick us up and we continue our journey [to Germany again],” Abas said.

Municipalities, particularly in southern Slovakia, and politicians are complaining that the interim technocratic government and the police are reacting to the problem late, criticising them also for a lack of communication.

Populists surf the illegal migration wave

Almost a year after the previous Slovak government built a temporary tent town for illegal migrants near the Czech-Slovak border, the problem with illegal migrants has become visible again following a visit and a press briefing of leaders of the populist Smer party in Veľký Krtíš.

The town, which lies less than 20 kilometres away from the Slovak-Hungarian border, has become the symbol of increased illegal migration in Slovakia just like the town of Kúty, in western Slovakia, last year. An emergency situation has been declared in Veľký Krtíš due to the illegal migrants.

“Even God does not know who [of the illegal migrants] is a terrorist or who has what infectious disease,” Robert Fico, the leader of the Smer party, said in early September.

The party of the three-time former prime minister, who is remembered for his anti-Muslim rhetoric of several years ago and was ousted from office in 2018 after the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée, is likely to come first in the upcoming election, public opinion polls suggest, despite the fact that 42 people linked to former Smer governments have been convicted of corruption or other serious crimes in recent years.

Despite his anti-immigration views, Fico went on to compare a manufacturing hall in the outskirts of Veľký Krtíš, rented from a private company by the Interior Ministry, to a “stable” and a “concentration camp” over the poor conditions that some 700 migrants are forced to endure, waiting days for the document from the understaffed Foreigners’ Police.

But it was his anti-migrant narratives, reinforced by some of the mayors and other populist and far-right parties, that have been quickly picked up by disinformation networks. It has since described migrants as thieves who enter people’s fenced gardens by force, steal their fruit from trees or swim in their pools.

Yet no crime or misdemeanour has been committed by any illegal migrant recently, say the police.

The far-right Republika party, led by MEP Milan Uhrík, filed a criminal complaint against some Interior Ministry officials with the General Prosecutor’s Office for the alleged mishandling of the situation.

“We’re not going to wait until they [migrants] rape or stab someone,” the MEP said, criticising the government for providing food and medical help to migrants for free.

On the other hand, Smer and Hlas, a party formed by Smer renegades in 2020 and led by former prime minister Peter Pellegrini, argue that the police should be detaining illegal migrants until they are properly identified, even if that’s for months.

However, police chief Stefan Hamran responded that, “we cannot detain them just because we need to identify them”, pointing to a decision by a Czech court. In 2020, local police sent a group of Afghans to a refugee centre for 90 days because they did not have any identification on them, a move the court ruled was unlawful.

The police have 24 hours to process information about an illegal migrant. In the manufacturing hall or outside a Foreigners’ Police branch, they willingly wait for the confirmation letter even if it takes more than a day.

Smer and Hlas cast doubt on whether 96 per cent of all illegal migrants are genuine refugees. Indeed, Hamran has admitted the police identified two men who have links to terrorism. One of them comes from Iraq and will be deported in the near future; the other was previously deported from Germany, but had made it back into the EU. Both parties are calling on the government to reintroduce border checks with Hungary.

“When the Poles decide to send all elephants from its circuses and zoos to Slovakia, should we just watch? No, we will stop them at the border and not a single one will pass,” Pellegrini said, criticising the government and the police for not carrying out border checks at the Slovak-Hungarian border. “We should behave like a sovereign country.”

Meanwhile, Fico blames President Zuzana Caputová, interim Prime Minister Ľudovít Ódor, and Migration Office Head Ján Orlovský for the problem with illegal migrants, claiming that they have carried out a “Soros’s migration policy”, referring to the Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros, who is a bête noire for populists across the region. Ódor, for example, lectured at the Soros-founded Central European University. Orlovský served as head of the Bratislava-based Open Society Foundation, which used to be a member organisation of Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

Letter that attracts migrants

Conversely, Fico refuses to bear any responsibility for the aforementioned confirmation letter, which his government introduced in 2018 and is blamed for attracting so many illegal migrants to Slovakia. Instead, Fico argues that the police have been issuing these documents illegally because they are, in Fico’s words, supposed to be only given to those illegal migrants who can identify themselves and are confirmed to be refugees.

On September 13, the former prime minister and populist Igor Matovic parked his car right behind members of the Smer party during their press conference, using megaphones to blame Smer for the current wave of illegal migrants. This led to a brief scuffle between Matovic and Robert Kaliňák, the former interior minister for Smer.

The police disagree with Fico, arguing that it is their legal obligation to issue these documents to illegal migrants who do not apply for asylum. Slovakia is the only country that issues such a document following the identification and registration of migrants.

“For me, it is perverse reasoning if politicians who introduced this obligation are criticising us for its implementation,” Hamran said.

Reportedly, illegal migrants believe that this document allows them to stay in the EU, which is untrue. With this document they can move around Slovakia until some are deported. In the case of Syrians and Afghans, this is a distant possibility because of the unstable political situation in their home countries. Other illegal migrants can face deportation only after the Slovak government cancels the emergency situation declared in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. The measure is set to be abandoned on Friday, September 15.

It is the parliament, not the government, that can scrap the obligation for the police to issue confirmation letters for illegal migrants and can make it an option instead. Last week’s attempt to do this failed and future attempts are not expected to work out either. The police themselves demanded the change in May, unsuccessfully.

Hamran, who is constantly attacked by Fico and Pellegrini because of the police investigating and prosecuting people from the times of Smer governments, has also reminded the two politicians that it is “meaningless” to call for the protection of the Slovak-Hungarian border. The Slovak police force lacks almost 2,000 officers and the border is almost four times longer than the Hungarian-Serbian border, which serves as the EU’s external border.

It would, in fact, cost huge amounts of money to patrol the Slovak-Hungarian border. For example, Hamran said, Czechia paid 800,000 euros a week for patrolling the 255-kilometre Czech-Slovak border due to increased illegal migration last year and earlier this year. Despite this, all illegal migrants returned by Czechia to Slovakia based on a readmission agreement, managed to get across the Czech-Slovak border in the end.

Like Czechia, Slovakia could in theory return illegal migrants to Hungary, but the government there refuses to take them back. Therefore, the Slovak police are helping their Hungarian colleagues patrol their territory, hoping to return illegal migrants to Serbia before they cross the Slovak-Hungarian border. The Slovak police chief stressed that the situation on the Hungarian-Serbian border is critical and migrants manage to cut and get through a fence built by Hungary in 2015 despite thousands of border guards protecting the EU’s external border there.

“Slovakia, Turkey, Austria and Czechia have helped protect this border. Where are the other EU member states?” asked Hamran.

Some politicians blame Orbán

Unlike Hamran, who blames most EU member states for the lack of help given to Hungary, some politicians have pointed a finger at the Hungarian prime minister after his government released some 1,400 people smugglers from local prisons. Hamran has claimed that this was done due to capacity reasons.

Slovakia has detained almost 400 smugglers since 2021.

Responding to the release of smugglers by Hungary, former Slovak prime minister Eduard Heger said, “I’m having déjà vu.” He referenced Orbán supporting former Czech premier Andrej Babis in his campaign ahead of the 2021 parliamentary election, when Babis bet on people’s fear of migration in his campaign. Heger’s party, Demokrati, as well as several smaller democratic parties think that Orbán is doing this to help Fico in the upcoming election.

However, Parliamentary Speaker Boris Kollár from the populist Sme Rodina party likens such claims to conspiracy theories. Acting Foreign Minister Miroslav Wlachovský is convinced the problem lies in Hungary no longer being longer able to deal with illegal migration on its own.

“I communicate with my Hungarian partner but we haven’t discussed migration,” said the minister, adding that a solution might come out of the late September meeting of EU interior ministers.

On the other hand, President Caputová was shocked by Hungary’s decision.

“It is a fact that should not be overlooked, because the number of migrants we have in Slovakia were previously in Hungary, and the fact is that they reach us without any problems,” the president said on September 4.

Regardless, Slovak political leaders agree that it is necessary to negotiate with Orbán and to pressure him to honour, say, readmission agreements. The Eurosceptic leader of the liberal SaS party, Richard Sulík, went as far as even suggesting that Hungary should be expelled from the Schengen Area if the country won’t follow the rules of the EU’s visa-free region. Sulík also wants to see asylum centres established outside the EU.

“Europe is not for everyone who wants to have a better life,” Sulík recently said. “It cannot absorb a billion people from Africa.”

Citizens form patrols

In recent days, President Caputová has admitted that the government appointed by her should have communicated over the issue of illegal migration earlier than the campaigning politicians.

At the same time, she underlined that the cabinet has been working on key measures for several months. For example, up to 500 soldiers a day have started helping the police. They are driving migrants to more than 13 places around the country where they are registered. The Foreigners’ Police are operating in a “limited mode” at branches until the end of September in order to register the rising number of illegal migrants faster.

Compared with last year, roughly a quarter of the migration route through Hungary has turned towards Slovakia, said an Interior Ministry official citing information from Hungarian partners. “This is the right time to act,” said Ódor, the acting prime and interior minister.

However, the Hlas party began warning about the rising illegal migration as early as mid-June, pointing to complaints from people living in the south and their growing fear of the groups of migrants.

Some municipalities did not wait for the government and police to act. After complaints from locals about being woken up by migrants in the middle of the night, the small village of Vyškovce nad Ipľom, near the border crossing Šahy, decided to form small citizen patrols.

“When a group of foreigners come and they can communicate in English, we tell them that they are in Slovakia. We’ll call the police and report how many have come and whether there are women and children among them,” Mayor Ágnes Antal Nyustin told a local newspaper last week.

The patrol then accompanies them to a bus stop next to the village and they wait for the police to arrive.

Source : Balkan Insight