Minister fears new Roma flight

Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner angered Slovak Roma leaders when he said that were a new wave of Romany asylum-seekers to swamp western countries, it might result in every European Union country requiring visas of travelling Slovaks.
Pittner made the statements March 17 after returning from Brussels, where he had attended a session of the Council of Justice and Social Affairs Ministers of EU countries. He reported that Slovakia had been added by the EU to a list of 'safe countries', meaning that EU member states would not require visas of Slovaks. But another Roma exodus, he warned, could provoke the EU to issue a blanket visa for Slovaks visiting any member nation.

Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner angered Slovak Roma leaders when he said that were a new wave of Romany asylum-seekers to swamp western countries, it might result in every European Union country requiring visas of travelling Slovaks.

Pittner made the statements March 17 after returning from Brussels, where he had attended a session of the Council of Justice and Social Affairs Ministers of EU countries. He reported that Slovakia had been added by the EU to a list of 'safe countries', meaning that EU member states would not require visas of Slovaks. But another Roma exodus, he warned, could provoke the EU to issue a blanket visa for Slovaks visiting any member nation.

It was a warning that few felt the Interior Minister should have issued. Alexander Patkoló, the head of the Roma Initiative of Slovakia (RIS) political party, condemned Pittner's statements, saying that they encouraged intolerance towards the Romany minority in Slovakia.

He also accused Pittner of demeaning the Roma by "irresponsibly" focusing on their possible financial motives for seeking asylum (i.e. per diem allowances which asylum applicants receive, the chance of winning asylum in a richer country) while ignoring the "discrimination and persisting racial intolerance faced by the Roma minority".

Non-Roma analysts agreed that the minister's statements had been ill-advised, not so much because they misrepresented reality, but because they could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov from the Bratislava-based think tank Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) said that Pittner's statements had been accurate but inappropriate.

"Pittner's expectation [that a future Roma exodus could result in an EU-wide visa regime against Slovakia] is realistic," he said. "But it was not a good idea to basically predict a wave of Roma asylum seekers to western countries. This is a very sensitive topic, and it could now be abused by people who may want to organise an exodus."

Mesežnikov added that Pittner's public fears of another Roma migration could be seized on by leaders of the minority to "blackmail" the country.

"Now Roma leaders can use this for blackmail," he said. "They can say, 'If you don't cooperate with us and follow our suggestions, we will try to go to EU countries'. Politicians should avoid making statements about concrete steps if they haven't occurred yet. To predict future steps is not a good idea."

When asked if a future Roma exodus could affect Slovakia's EU aspirations, Mesežnikov said "Any problems with the 'Roma issue' could complicate the general direction of Slovakia."

Slovak Roma first began applying for asylum in western nations in large numbers in 1997, when several hundred Slovak Roma travelled to Great Britain. That nation slapped a visa requirement on Slovaks in 1998, followed by several other EU nations over the next several years which had become targets for asylum-seeking Roma.

According to IVO sociologist Michal Vašečka, a renewed Roma exodus could not only complicate Slovakia's western ambitions, but also lead to a serious backlash against the Roma in Slovakia.

"Relations between ethnic Slovaks and the Roma are so bad today that they cannot get any worse," he said. "But if Slovakia does not receive an EU invitation when it expects to get one, the Roma will be blamed. They will be the scapegoat."

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