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Green cards: Frustrating but feasible

Eight months after the latest amendment to the Law on Foreigners, getting a residence permit is more difficult than ever for non-Slovaks wanting to live and work in the country. Although police officials say the changes were intended to ensure everyone knows exactly what documents they need when applying for a Slovak 'green card', those who have been through the process say it is now so complicated that even the police themselves can't meet their deadlines for processing applicants.
"The law says the police have 60 days to issue a green card after applicants submit their documents, but I know people who submitted in August and haven't yet got their cards," said a local residency consultant who asked not to be identified. "The border and aliens police now require so much paperwork that they can't even handle it themselves."


Police colonel Michal Kutlík says the new law introduces few changes.
photo: Tom Nicholson

Eight months after the latest amendment to the Law on Foreigners, getting a residence permit is more difficult than ever for non-Slovaks wanting to live and work in the country. Although police officials say the changes were intended to ensure everyone knows exactly what documents they need when applying for a Slovak 'green card', those who have been through the process say it is now so complicated that even the police themselves can't meet their deadlines for processing applicants.

"The law says the police have 60 days to issue a green card after applicants submit their documents, but I know people who submitted in August and haven't yet got their cards," said a local residency consultant who asked not to be identified. "The border and aliens police now require so much paperwork that they can't even handle it themselves."

This year's amendment to the 1995 law, which took effect April 1, introduces the by-now-infamous 'Paragraph 8', in which foreigners applying even for a simple renewal of their one-year dlhodoby pobyt ('long-term stay') status have to supply proof that they do not owe any money to the Social Insurance company, to the pension fund, the unemployment insurance fund or the tax office - all this in addition to previous requirements that they prove they are up-to-date on their rent payments and their status with the Labour Office. Foreigners also must supply proof they have no contagious diseases by visiting a Slovak hospital and sitting another round of blood and urine tests, a requirement previously only made of people applying for first-time permits.

Despite the unhappiness of foreign applicants, the police say that little has actually changed in the law, and that many of the rules are aimed at deterring the thousands of illegal immigrants who pour through the country every year on their way to the European Union (EU).

"Compared to the previous law, this amendment specifies exactly what foreigners need to be given permission to reside in Slovakia," said police colonel Michal Kutlík, head of the alien police division of the Border and Aliens Police Office. "Many foreigners from EU countries in particular think that the free movement of people, capital and labour power which occurs in EU countries is also valid for non-EU countries such as Slovakia. This is not true.

"In the last five years, Slovakia has become a major transit and destination country for illegal immigrants. Statistics show that the number of these immigrants has increased manifold," Kutlík continued, adding that in tightening restrictions, Slovakia was trying to stem this tide.

Ignorance

While few foreigners object to the aims of the law - slowing illegal migration, ensuring that foreigners pay their taxes and meeting EU norms - many say that the methods employed are self-defeating.

Kutlík, for example, noted that "many problems often arise from the fact that foreigners are not sufficiently informed of the rules that apply to them on Slovak territory". By writing into the law demands for insurance and tax documents that were formerly only "internal guidelines" of the Interior Ministry, he said, all applicants would now be able to read what they needed in black and white.

But many foreigners, accustomed to the 1995 legislation, have been unpleasantly surprised when renewing their green cards by the new set of rules and the increasingly inflexible attitude of the police.

Pieter Jaegers, the Dutch founder and owner of the Dolphin water company in Slovakia, said that he had gone to the police as usual to renew his card within 14 days of its expiry - the term set by the police - and had discovered the fortnight was barely sufficient to assemble the extra papers he now needed. "They changed the procedure," he complained. "I had to put forward declarations from the tax office and so on, to show I had 40,000 crowns [$800] in my account - I was suddenly given a laundry list of all the organisations I had to visit. It was inconvenient, frustrating and time consuming."

The residency consultant reported that many similar cases had occured recently. "Many foreigners, having lived here a while and having learned Slovak, had begun to do the green card process themselves. This year, many of them have discovered they need new documents, and some have not assembled them all in time, meaning they have had to start the process of getting a residence permit again from scratch."

In addition to the new documents required, the police have apparently toughened their stance on the rule that foreigners applying for a residence permit for the first time submit their documents at the Slovak embassy in their country of origin, rather than doing it on Slovak soil.

"The amendment clearly states that the residency application has to be filed from abroad. No exceptions are allowed, except by the Interior Minister himself in individual cases," said Kutlík.

Police are also paying closer attention to whether or not foreigners actually live where they claim to live, something Kutlík explained as serving two aims: keeping track of the whereabouts of foreign nationals, and cutting down on the number of illegal - and thus untaxed - rental contracts signed with Slovak landlords. "If we allow you to live in a flat which you rent in conflict with the law, then we are legalising this situation... Some people may call this bureaucracy, but on the other hand we have to protect interests which are stated in other laws."

But as the complications mount, expats are appealing to the police to employ simpler methods in reaching their laudable goals.

"I wouldn't say these rules are a barrier to investment, but they're under-the-nails irritating. It sometimes brings you to the edge, wondering 'Do I really want to continue [living and working] here?' I think once you have a permit, the prolongation process should be easier," said Jaegers.

James Wager, Finance and Administration Director of a joint venture between the US firm US Steel and the until-recently-Slovak steel firm VSŽ, said he too was hoping the process wouldn't be too painful for the 20 foreigners who would be arriving in November to staff the new US Steel Košice, the offspring of one of the most important investments to date in Slovakia.

"When I first came to Slovakia three years ago, it was a very long, involved process," he remembered. "I hope it will be expedited this time around when the new company is formed. It's a long bureaucratic procedure, but if the investment is worth it it's a barrier we can overcome."

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