Most foreign nationals in Slovakia need not fear planned changes to the residency law, according to police officials in charge of issuing residence documents for foreigners. The changes, which are designed to crack down on foreign criminals operating in the country as well as bring Slovak visa legislation in line with EU requirements, will be sensitively handled to avoid causing needless headaches to law-abiding nationals of countries like the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
The police assurances toned down earlier statements made to The Slovak Spectator on January 3, when a senior official said the new law would require all of Slovakia's 30,000 resident foreign nationals to submit to document controls and present themselves at regional police headquarters to have a visa sticker issued in their passports. Instead, foreigners will have the visa stickers issued this year during the normal process of renewing their residence permits, and will not have to make any extra trips to police stations.
While the changes will still authorise police to make more thorough checks into foreigners with long-term stay permits, Miroslav Samek, chief of the Foreign and Border Police, said that "there will be no searching of foreigners, no midnight or early morning raids, no unannounced visits. Foreigners have reacted to this law like it was some kind of scare crow, to frighten them away from living and working in Slovakia. This is absolutely not the case. There are really few changes."
Marián Čambalík, a colonel with the Foreign and Border police, went a step further. "We are not going to scrutinise the details of Americans, Canadians or EU citizens who are here giving something to the country," he said. According to Čambalík, the new law will simply allow the police to use more discretion on issuing and renewing long-term visas to undesirable aliens. Another intent of the law, he said, was to make sure that Slovak landlords who rented housing to foreigners issued the proper documents - and thus paid the required taxes on their income.
The earlier statements by the foreign police led the American Embassy to contact police officials and inquire about residency requirements. Embassy officials, as well as foreign business leaders, were cautiously understanding of the new measures, but questioned the need for added bureaucracy in an already complicated process.
The law, known as 'Foreign Residence in the Territory of the Slovak Republic', has still not been passed by parliament, but the foreign police have lobbied hard for its implementation by the beginning of February, saying it is a crucial part of their fight against foreign criminal gangs.
Under the old law, police could not expel anyone from the country if their papers were in order - even if they suspected the person of illegal activity. Now, if the police have reason to believe that an individual is involved in crime, they are not required to issue them a visa even if their paperwork is faultless. "The new law will make our job easier in keeping bad elements out of the country," Čambalík said.
Samek confirmed that the foreign police were going to check the documents submitted by foreigners with long-term stay permits against the information registered with the National Labour Office and the National Housing Office. If the police found discrepancies, such as an unreasonable number of foreigners living at one address or addresses that didn't match, they would then call in the foreigner to have the situation explained.
Samek recognised the difficulty faced by foreigners in securing a residence permit, and said "the problem is with those Slovak citizens who are breaking the law, not the foreigners." He said that the foreign police would help "well-intentioned foreigners" secure legal status and give them ample time to solve the situation. "The most we would do is fine a foreigner 500 Slovak crowns [$12] if there was a discrepancy, and although we could fine them up to 50,000 crowns, we're not ever going to do that."
Those foreigners whose documents tallied with records will be issued a sticker rather than the customary stamp in their passports, a change that will be implemented gradually over the year as foreigners renew their visas. "No one has to come in prematurely," said Čambalík. "We'll issue the sticker when they come in naturally to renew."
Jana Vighová, assistant director of ERI, a company that manages work permits for foreigners, said she didn't think the new law would be any more strict. "There have always been checks on foreigners," she said. "But what has happened is that there are now more forms to fill out when renewing your work permit, which is causing some backlog at the police stations." Vighová said that the four-page long-term stay application form, which is available in Slovak, English, French and Spanish, sometimes caused confusion, which was compounded by the reluctance of the police to help foreigners fill out the forms.
"Sometimes it's ridiculous," she said. "You take a lot of time to fill out the four pages, and then someone tells you that you put the number of your street in the wrong column, so you have to fill out the whole application again. It's a waste of time."
It is this endless bureaucracy that frustrates foreigners, a problem which isn't addressed by the new law. "What is difficult is when things change and people in the different places [bureaucratic offices] don't know about it, or they give additional information later and we foreigners have to keep going back to make sure everything is correct," said Peter Radoja, headmaster at the British International School in Bratislava. Radoja has eight to ten teachers a year go through the process of obtaining or renewing the one-year long-term visa.
"I applaud any effort to make the rules clearer. The application in four languages shows they want to make an effort. But when the goal posts keep moving or aren't even there or reappear, then we have no idea what to shoot for," said Radoja.
A US Embassy spokesman said that representatives of the Embassy had recently met with officials of the Border and Foreign Police to talk about the issue. "We hope that through continued contact with Slovak authorities we can ameliorate the frustrations foreigners sometimes experience dealing with local residency requirements," he said.
But a US business representative said the law had to be watched. "Any kind of restrictions that limit the free movement of people has to be looked at," said Leighton Klevana, director of the American Chamber of Commerce. "There haven't been any complaints from businessmen. But we have to wait and see what happens."
by Renata Stoll