Independent MP Róbert Fico has launched a populist appeal to cut benefits to asylum-seekers.
Speaking at a January 15 press conference to introduce the bill, Fico proposed that "citizens who travel for speculative reasons to a foreign country with the aim of demanding political asylum there would, on their return to Slovakia, have their social benefits payments stopped for 12 months." The amendment, Fico said, aimed to reduce the number of Slovak Roma who demand asylum in foreign countries.
Following the migration of over 360 Slovak Roma to Helsinki in early January to demand political asylum, the Finnish government decided on January 13 to re-impose a visa requirement on Slovak nationals. Norway and the United Kingdom also currently have visa requirements for Slovaks, imposed after similar waves of Roma migration in 1998 and 1999.
Fico, a member of the Slovak parliament, said that the Roma were economic migrants rather than political refugees, and that in demanding asylum they were seeking to take advantage of lax EU asylum laws - a view that has been advanced by both Slovak and European authorities.
However, Fico has distanced himself from his more moderate colleagues in his radical approach to solving the 'Romany problem'. European parliamentarian Jan Marinus Wiersma, when told of Fico's proposal, called it "a little silly." Vincent Danihel, the Slovak government plenipotentiary for solving the problems of the Roma minority, said the amendment should be barred from parliament. "This bill should be refused by the [parliamentary] legislative council," he said. "It's against the legal code, against fundamental human rights, as well as with the European Convention on Human Rights. I trust that the Honourable Member will in the end not submit the law for debate."
But Fico, who has been accused of using the Romany issue to raise the political profile of his new Smer party, said he would not be dissuaded. "I'll do everything I can to get support in parliament," he said. "I don't see it as discriminatory at all, and it certainly is not an attempt to put Smer on the map."
The amendment has received its warmest welcome from the far-right opposition Slovak National Party. As nationalist MP Rastislav Šepták said, "we think it's reasonable that if someone emigrates from the state and then harms it, he loses the right to benefits. It's not right that gypsies have more money than whites for social handouts and benefits for their very many children."
The main HZDS opposition party has not yet discussed Fico's proposal, and thus was unable to say whether it would support the initiative in parliament. Given the negative reactions of the four ruling coalition parties, however, it seems unlikely that Fico's bill will receive the required majority in the 150-seat parliament, where the coalition controls 92 seats.
Roman Kováč, caucus leader of the largest government party, the SDK, said the amendment would likely be rejected by a majority of his party's members. While the SDK agreed that the Social Benefits Law needed an overhaul, he said, and was preparing an amendment to the law itself, "the SDK will not support [Fico's proposal] if it discriminates against Romany citizens, national minorities, or simply citizens who travel and use their constitutional right to demand political asylum." Kováč added he agreed that citizens not physically present on Slovak soil should not receive benefits.
Gyula Bárdos, member of parliament for the Hungarian Coalition, called Fico's proposal "tendentious, discriminatory and populist - it's a tool he is using to increase the profile of Smer." None of the party's 14 members would support the amendment, Bárdos added.
But cutting benefits to the Roma may actually be the softer side of Fico's politics. In support of his proposal, Fico said on January 15 it would be necessary to create "basic order" on three levels.
First, the state should no longer simply hand out benefits in the form of money, but in clothing, food and other material needs of Romany families. Second, child benefits for school-age children would be paid only for children attending school. And finally, Fico proposed that specific data be compiled on criminal behavious and employment in the Roma community, in order, he said, "to better understand their needs."
Asked if he would be seeking votes in the Roma community for his Smer party in the 2002 elections, Fico was for a moment silent, and the question was fielded by Iveta Lišková, a Smer member sitting at Fico's side. "Really, we have nothing against the Roma," she said.