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SLOVAKIA ACCEPTING FAR TOO FEW REFUGEES, INTERNATIONAL GROUPS SAY

The eye of the needle

SLOVAKIA needs to speed up its asylum application process and stop regarding refugees as exclusively in transit to the West, say officials with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Slovakia.
Local groups that deal with refugees say being awarded asylum in Slovakia has become extremely difficult. Out of the 8,151 people who last year applied for asylum, only 18 were granted the status. In 1996, 129 refugees were accepted from a total 415 asylum seekers.
Slovakia also lags far behind its neighbours in the number of granted asylums. Last year Ukraine granted 455 asylums, Poland 291, Hungary 174, Austria 1,114 and the Czech Republic 83.


REFUGEES in Slovakia like this Afghan girl complain requests take too long.
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SLOVAKIA needs to speed up its asylum application process and stop regarding refugees as exclusively in transit to the West, say officials with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Slovakia.

Local groups that deal with refugees say being awarded asylum in Slovakia has become extremely difficult. Out of the 8,151 people who last year applied for asylum, only 18 were granted the status. In 1996, 129 refugees were accepted from a total 415 asylum seekers.

Slovakia also lags far behind its neighbours in the number of granted asylums. Last year Ukraine granted 455 asylums, Poland 291, Hungary 174, Austria 1,114 and the Czech Republic 83.

The matter is more than just a humanitarian one. Asylum issues form a significant part of the acquis communautaire, the set of laws that all EU candidate countries are required to work into their home legislation before entering the 15-member bloc.

In the area of 'common policy on justice and home affairs', asylum policy is expected to be based on the 'burden-sharing' principle, in which EU members try to balance the distribution of refugees among themselves.

"Once Slovakia enters the EU they will certainly be subject to the burden-sharing principle, and we feel it would be an excellent sign if the country started conducting itself according to this principle now," said Onno Simons, counsellor with the European Commission delegation in Bratislava.

Local Migration Office (MÚ) authorities argue that Slovakia is not a destination country for the majority of refugees who claim asylum here, noting that many asylum seekers leave the country before a final decision on their application is issued. However, UNHCR Slovakia spokesperson Mária Čierna said that the refugees often tended to leave the country because the authorities were too slow in processing the applications.

"We had an Afghan woman whose husband had been killed by the Taliban in front of her eyes, and whose 13-year-old son had been forced to join the army. She was not granted asylum and when she appealed she repeatedly received a negative answer. This took 27 months, at which point she just left Slovakia," Čierna told The Slovak Spectator June 25.

The Migration Office says the long waits are caused by time-consuming appeal procedures and the rapidly increasing number of applicants, which in 2001 rose five times compared to the previous year.

MÚ head Bernard Priecel was not available for comment on this story, but said in an interview with the Slovak weekly Život in early June this year that for the vast majority of refugees Slovakia was not their final destination.

"Slovakia is a transit country. People entering the asylum procedure come and go," Priecel said. MÚ data show that most applicants come from Afghanistan, Iraq, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, and are headed for western Europe.

The UNHCR's Čierna agreed. "Many asylum seekers dream of countries such as Sweden, Great Britain, France and especially Germany, where they already have their own communities and where the economy is better," she said.

She added, however, that "many of them would like to stay in Slovakia as their asylum country".

Leaving Slovakia, although illegal, is not difficult for asylum seekers. After requesting asylum upon entering the country, they are taken to detention camps and, following a quarantine period, to unguarded residence camps, where they await the MÚ's decision.

All such camps in Slovakia are situated in the west and southwest part of the country, minutes from the Czech and Austrian borders, in what some critics say is an expression of how Slovakia views asylum seekers - people in transit.

"It's an incentive for people to proceed [on their journeys]," said UNHCR head Pierfrancesco Maria Natta. "People ask themselves why they should wait to get asylum in Slovakia when they could do the same in Austria or the Czech Republic."

Last year more than 60 per cent of asylum proceedings ended without a decision being issued because the applicants were no longer in Slovakia.

However, in line with the country's commitments as an EU candidate, the Slovak parliament is set to discuss a cabinet-approved draft Asylum Law among other EU-related bills on the agenda this month. If passed, the law will increase the grounds on which people can be granted asylum, and increase the number of people granted asylum for family unification purposes.

The law is also expected to simplify appeal procedures by giving regional courts the authority to decide on appeals against MÚ asylum decisions. At the moment it is the Interior Ministry, of which the MÚ is a part, that decides the appeals.

"We hope that this step will lead to higher quality Migration Office decisions on asylum requests," said Ján Šikuta, the UNHCR's legal officer.

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