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Slovakia awaits Kosovo refugees, wins NATO gratitude

Slovakia has readied its camps and prepared housing for the 500 ethnic Albanian refugees it expects to stream in from the war-torn Kosovo region. Now all the country has to do is wait.
Though more than 770,000 refugees have already fled Kosovo, many carrying terrible stories of murder and the destruction of their homes and villages, Slovakia has not yet been sent any refugees from the crisis. Slovak officials say they are waiting for the International Organisation of Migration in Geneva and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to decide when the refugees will arrive.
According to UN officials, one cause of the delay is a desire to keep the refugees in the Balkans so that they will more easily be able to return to Kosovo. But they also said that organising the transfer is a difficult process and that they are working on the problem.


In January, 12 Yugoslav refugees arrived in Slovakia; none have been sent since NATO bombings began.
photo: Courtesy of UNHCR

Slovakia has readied its camps and prepared housing for the 500 ethnic Albanian refugees it expects to stream in from the war-torn Kosovo region. Now all the country has to do is wait.

Though more than 770,000 refugees have already fled Kosovo, many carrying terrible stories of murder and the destruction of their homes and villages, Slovakia has not yet been sent any refugees from the crisis. Slovak officials say they are waiting for the International Organisation of Migration in Geneva and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to decide when the refugees will arrive.

According to UN officials, one cause of the delay is a desire to keep the refugees in the Balkans so that they will more easily be able to return to Kosovo. But they also said that organising the transfer is a difficult process and that they are working on the problem.

"In general, it is better to keep them [the refugees] in the neighbouring countries," said Mária Čierna, public information officer for the UNHCR in Slovakia. "When the time comes, this will assist in providing a successful return to their homes."

"The current atmosphere in our society and our organisation shows that we want to help them soon," she added. "I hope it's only a question of five to ten days, but I can't be sure."

As more and more refugees flee Yugoslavia, the nation's neighbouring countries have asked for help, saying that they have reached the limit of the number of dislocated ethnic Albanians for which they can provide. According to the latest Reuters statistics, 770,000 refugees have thus far fled Kosovo - 365,000 going to Albania, 132,000 to Macedonia, 73,000 to Montenegro, and 32,000 to Bosnia.

Brutal reports from the tremendous tide of refugees, Slovak officials said, prompted them to take action and offer shelter. The open-armed gesture is just one of a number of moves on the part of the Slovak government to show their support for NATO, including allowing an unlimited number of NATO planes to fly over the country and, most recently, granting NATO permission to use the Slovak railway system to transport supplies and troops to Yugoslavia.

Ivo Samson, a research fellow with the Slovak Foreign Policy aasociation, said that with the nation's political leadership anxious to join NATO, Slovakia was acting as if it were already a member of the alliance to prove its reliability to NATO members.

"This is a good step and a good signal [to NATO] from our government," he said. "We are an important country geopolitically, and in situations like the present one, the government has a chance to prove to NATO that we are ready to cooperate. But of course, there is that hidden agenda as well - to make the alliance more obliged to us."

The Slovak government announced its plans to aid 500 refugees on April 9, although the Interior Ministry's Ján Michalko said that if the need arose, "the number of refugees [in Slovakia] could exceed 1,000."

Migration Office Director Vladimír Belo-Caban told The Slovak Spectator that when the refugees eventually arrive in Slovakia, they will first be transported to a quarantine camp in Adamov for a period of 7 to 10 days. From there, the refugees will be transferred to refugee camps in either Brezová pod Bradlom or Gabčíkovo, a camp that hasn't been used since Slovakia housed Bosnian refugees from October '92 to August '97.

"Everything is prepared," Belo-Caban said. "If they come today, we'll be ready for them."

Most of the refugees will ultimately end up in Gabčíkovo, he added. "They will be housed in what used to be a technical university building. The housing will be high-standard, like a typical two-star hotel, with two-room suites containing two or three beds."

There are already 12 refugees in Brezová pod Bradlom who arrived from the region in January , before the NATO bombings began, Čierna said.

The experience of the refugees' journey will be traumatic. According to Julián Lučansky, director of the Bratislava District II Psychological Services Center, the refugees will arrive in Slovakia under the burden of one of the most extreme forms of stress known to humans.

"War is an extreme of the 'abnormal' situations people can face," he said. "These refugees were turned out of their own country, their own culture, they can't communicate with the people here, and they may be separated from their families, not knowing if they'll ever see them again."

Both the UNHCR and the Slovak Migration office said that they were aware that the refugees might need psychological treatment, and said that they had already ensured that the necessary aid would be provided.

"The Gabčíkovo camp will be staffed with psychologists, advisers will be available in the humanitarian centre, while non-government organisations and trained staff from the Migration Office will also be available," said Belo-Caban.

But Lučansky was sceptical that the Migration Office would, in fact, be properly equipped. "I doubt they'll have all that," he said. "They [the Migration Office] always underestimate this area of importance."

The UNHCR's Čierna said that the psychological well-being of the refugees should be well accounted for. "Our experiences have shown us that these people need human contact - for example with other refugees, nurses, psychologists or volunteers. They have had to endure terrible experiences of violence and trauma and they need to share them."

"Women, in particular, are often subjected to violence and sexual abuse, whether it be before fleeing, during the trip, or even in the countries they take refuge in," she added. "So we try to make them feel relaxed and welcome."

Unfortunately for the dislocated masses, Lučansky said, even the friendliest atmosphere at the most highly prepared refugee camp cannot erase the pain and mental strife the refugees experience.

"The stress that they experience is permanent, it will never go away," he said. "In spite of any help offered, refugee camps are nothing more than just that - camps where they must be because they cannot go home."

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