THE LOCAL branch of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it would help Slovakia improve its asylum and migration policies. Given that several towns and villages in Eastern Slovakia have refused to let the Labour Ministry establish orphanages for refugee children in their areas, the UNHCR said it stands ready to make good on its pledge.
The head of the UNHCR in Bratislava, Pierfrancesco Maria Natta, said in a recent visit to Košice that the UNHCR would "support all activities for the improvement of the country's asylum policies, including the building of new asylum centres in eastern Slovakia".
The Labour Ministry is currently looking to establish two refugee support centres for unaccompanied minors. Only the village of Čelovce near Košice has been receptive to the idea.
Most of the municipalities considered as potential places to house the centre cited fear of disease and increased crime rates as reasons for refusal. The Slovak media reported that the citizens of Trenčín even organized a petition against the initiative.
"What happened in Trenčín is the opposite of what happened in Čelovce," Natta said. In Čelovce, an NGO is busy working with locals to create a refugee centre.
"The local mayor and the church were contacted in advance of the project, and the local population has been informed. Everybody in Čelovce, as far as I know, has been open to help unaccompanied minors find solutions," Natta said. [See interview with Natta, page 3.]
The supportive attitude demonstrated by the UNHCR is in contrast to statements made just a few months ago when the office sharply criticized Slovakia for granting the fewest number of asylums in the EU despite a sharp increase in applications.
In 2004 for instance, Slovakia received more than 9,000 asylum applications but only recognized two.
The 2004 figures prompted the UNHCR spokesperson, Mária Čierna, to remind the country that with 0.02 percent, Slovakia had the lowest rate in Europe.
Local authorities defended themselves saying that most of the refugees coming into Slovakia see the country as merely a place of transition, and that the refugees would be heading further west to more affluent European states.
Bernard Priecel, the head of the Slovak Migration Office, told The Slovak Spectator that his office was issuing permits under the Geneva Convention, which requires signatories to grant asylum to prosecuted persons.
"Slovakia does not issue permits to economic refugees, and the majority of the people who come to Slovakia tell us openly during interviews that they are heading west for better economic conditions," said Priecel November 8.
"It is true that we are strict [in granting asylum], but before Slovakia turns into a country that accepts economic migrants there needs to be a political mandate. There has not been such a mandate made," he said.
While the UNHCR has been critical of Slovakia's low recognition rates, EU experts recently praised Slovakia's efforts.
According to a Dutch organization that specializes in refugee issues, Slovakia is the best prepared of the 10 new EU member states in terms of implementing regulations related to the movement of asylum seekers within the European Union.
The evaluation, which was concluded in October, involved Slovakia's Justice and Interior Ministries and the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service, the TASR news agency wrote.
Meanwhile, an influx of immigrants to Slovakia has made the country fertile ground for various local and international smuggling gangs.
According to recent data published by the Slovak Interior Ministry, the police have stepped up smuggler arrests this year.
Interior Minister Vladimír Palko said that in the first half of 2003, police accused 60 people of illegally trespassing into Slovakia, 11 of which were also booked for organised smuggling.
In the first half of this year, police nabbed 144 trespassers, 62 of whom they arrested for organised smuggling. Slovak authorities even accused 12 Slovak police officers of involvement in smuggling refugees into the country. According to police, smugglers charge €2,500 to €4,000 per person to get them across the border.
"It is evident that the Slovak Republic has become the crossroads for two smuggling routes: from east to west from Russia and the Ukraine, and south to west from the Balkans, making for a mixed flow of migrants and refugees," the Slovak UNHCR office stated in early September.
"The stricter border control with Austria forces applicants to surface in Slovakia and ask for asylum here.
It is clear that their intention is to continue towards countries with a better economic condition, but also with a higher acceptance rate," the UNHCR noted.
15. Nov 2004 at 0:00 | Martina Jurinová