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Refugee camp defies local opposition

ROHOVCE - The Interior Ministry's Migration Office (MÚ) says it is determined to go ahead with plans to open the country's fourth refugee camp despite opposition from local residents in this western Slovak village of 1,027.
Rohovce inhabitants voted at a municipal referendum September 22 to reject government plans to construct the facility. The camp, planned for several months already, is designed to cope with the growing number of refugees crossing Slovakia's borders, and would house between 140 and 200 people.
Rohovce mayor Dezider Pálffy said October 2 that he still hoped the government "will consider the results of the referendum, and make a new decision based on it."


The Defence Ministry has donated a Sk23 million building to house refugees, but local residents don't want it.
photo: Martina Pisárová

ROHOVCE - The Interior Ministry's Migration Office (MÚ) says it is determined to go ahead with plans to open the country's fourth refugee camp despite opposition from local residents in this western Slovak village of 1,027.

Rohovce inhabitants voted at a municipal referendum September 22 to reject government plans to construct the facility. The camp, planned for several months already, is designed to cope with the growing number of refugees crossing Slovakia's borders, and would house between 140 and 200 people.

Rohovce mayor Dezider Pálffy said October 2 that he still hoped the government "will consider the results of the referendum, and make a new decision based on it."

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and an anticipated US retaliatory strike on Afghanistan, Slovak authorities have been braced for an influx of Afghan refugees. Afghans make up the majority of refugees in Slovakia: of the 4,008 people who applied for asylum in Slovakia between January1 and August 31 this year, 2,018 are from the central Asian state.

Even before the attacks on America, Slovak authorities had been struggling to deal with a rising tide of refugees. While the figure for asylum applications stood at more than 4,000 at the end of August, the figure for the whole of last year was 1,556.

While some Rohovce residents have expressed fears over large numbers of Afghans being housed at the camp, Bernard Priecel, head of the MÚ, said that the refugee house, an unused army building given to the MÚ by the Defence Ministry, was being opened for other reasons.


Rohovce Mayor Pálffy also fears refugees might spread disease and increase crime.
photo: Martina Pisárová

"The camp was built because of the advantageous location of the village [which is close to both the Hungarian and Austrian borders, where refugees try to cross from eastern to western Europe] and the fact that we were able to obtain the Sk 23 million [$49,000] building from the Defence Ministry for free."

The camp should be open by the end of October, Priecel said.

Many of the villagers remain wary of those it will house. Of the total 531 who voted in the town referendum, only 13 agreed to have the camp in their village.

"We don't want the camp here," said construction worker Alexander, 60, as he sipped a beer in a pub during a lunch break. "We are scared of what can happen if they let them [the refugees] go out [of the camp]. There'll be more petty crime, thefts and so on, and when they start mixing with the locals, diseases will spread around, even venereal diseases," he said, his friends nodding their agreement.

"We've never had anything like this here. People simply don't know what to expect. It's natural they are worried," said Mayor Pálffy. He added that because of a lack of "any information about the refugee camp, I'm worried that their [refugees'] presence could raise crime levels, like [illegal] money changing and perhaps even prostitution, and they could also spread various diseases".

According to a May 2001 survey carried out in Slovakia by the Focus agency, in which 1,020 representative sample respondents took part, 63% believed that refugees contribute to increased crime rates, and 60% thought refugees spread various diseases. At the same time, 67% of respondents believed Slovakia should help refugees, while 73% thought that refugees cost the state a lot of money.

Officials with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Slovakia have complained in the past that local media have done little to lower tensions among residents of towns and villages housing refugee camps.

"Negative reactions from locals when refugee camps are opened in their towns aren't unique to any part of the world," said Mária Čierna, spokeswoman with the UNHCR in Slovakia. She added, though, that Rohovce residents had nothing to fear from the camp's opening.

Refugees at the Rohovce camp will undergo a 30 day quarantine period. After that they will be transferred to other camps to be housed for a longer time.

"When they arrive, they'll be photographed and we'll take their fingerprints. I can assure you that these people haven't come to the country to commit crimes," Priecel said. The camp will also be under an eight-man 24-hour security guard.

Since 1993 only three refugees have been investigated for criminal activities. One was sentenced for beating up a drunk driver who hit his daughter.

However, Pálffy maintains that information on the camp has been scarce from central government authorities, adding to residents' concerns.

"My biggest concern is safety for villagers, that means strict hygienic and public security measures. What happens when they let them out after 30 days?" he asked.

But government officials remain defiant of the Rohovce residents' wishes. Interior Minister Ivan Šimko told the Sita press agency September 7, that "there are simply certain unpopular facilities which every state needs, such as the refugee camps".

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