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EDITORIAL

Who are our new neighbours?

THE GAP between wealthy and poor nations continues to grow, and migrants from Third World countries continue to cross that widening chasm. They walk the tightrope linking the promised lands with their own countries, which, for different reasons, they can no longer call home.
It has become much harder for migrants to walk the tightrope, balancing the weight of their pasts with hopes for a better future. Border regulations have tightened and emigration procedures are more complicated.

THE GAP between wealthy and poor nations continues to grow, and migrants from Third World countries continue to cross that widening chasm. They walk the tightrope linking the promised lands with their own countries, which, for different reasons, they can no longer call home.

It has become much harder for migrants to walk the tightrope, balancing the weight of their pasts with hopes for a better future. Border regulations have tightened and emigration procedures are more complicated.

Western democracies tend to say that their gates are open for political refugees but "economic refugees" must return to their own countries.

However, who can identify the refugee from the asylum seeker from the illegal immigrant? The media and the general public often lack a clear idea but make a guess anyway.

The widely accepted definition is that refugees are people who flee a nation for a reason, often to escape punishment for political affiliations or political dissent.

But in an effort to feed the public's hunger for information about those who "walk the wire", the media often creates myths about refugees.

Refugee organisations agree that western media coverage of asylum seekers and policies is often hostile, unbalanced and based on the wrong data. This amounts to a dangerous precedent, considering asylum policies are priority issues for many people, including, for example, the British public.

According to the British Refugee Council, the largest organisation in the UK working with asylum seekers and refugees, the media around the world often uses expressions like "illegal refugees" or "illegal asylum seekers," which is a common way of propagating untruths.

The organisation rightly points out that just because an asylum seeker may have entered the country illegally does not necessarily mean that their case lacks credibility.

Mislabelling does a disservice to those who flee countries for political reasons, as they often cannot obtain valid travel documents.

Slovakia's approach towards refugees has received more blame than most EU countries. Officials from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claim that Slovakia is too tough on refugees. They advocate that the Slovak government increase funding to support refugee programmes.

In the January to September 2004 period, 9,025 refugees sought asylum in Slovakia - 2,838 more than in the same period last year. However, Slovak authorities only dealt with 1,081 cases, and asylum was granted to just two applicants. With a 0.02 percent acceptance rate, Slovakia has the lowest rate for recognising asylum seekers in Europe.

Neighbouring Austria grants asylum to 56 percent of its applicants. In Poland, 5,232 asylum applications have been processed so far this year and 710 have been granted. This reveals Slovakia's unbelievable difference in asylum policies.

Since 1993, more than 90,000 illegal immigrants have crossed Slovakia's border. More than one third of them have applied for asylum. State citizenship has been granted just 148 people over the past 11 years.

While under the totalitarian hold of a Communist government, Slovakia itself produced refugees. Different sources suggest that between 1948 and 1989, more than 8.7 million people left Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. There are sources that say far greater numbers escaped from the jaws of Communism.

The UNHCR, which was established in 1951 by the UN General Assembly and superseded the International Refugee Organisation, claims that it is time for Slovakia to demonstrate openness to those in need.

The UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1981.

Local authorities defend their position, arguing that most of the refugees coming into Slovakia see the country as a place of transition, and that the refugees are ultimately heading further west to more affluent European states.

In early November, the daily SME reported that locals of four Slovak towns rejected the construction of an orphanage for young refugees who arrived in Slovakia without their parents.

Slovakia took the obligation to build an orphanage for children during its entry negotiations with the European Union.

Locals deny being driven by racism, but they say that other townships and villages would offer the refugee children better conditions.

At least, so say the officials of Poprad, who are happy to promote their town at the foot of the High Tatras as a well-equipped tourist centre.

The village of Štôla near Vyšné Hágy also rejected the idea of providing a home for the orphans. Their argument? The locale acts as a "gate to the High Tatras" and an orphanage might stagnate tourism.

But let us refrain from pulling down blame on the heads of all these locals. Many have never met a refugee before. Officials, teachers and priests should take the initiative and help them overcome their prejudices and misconceptions.

The EU has not raised any substantial objections against Slovakia's asylum policies, even though the UNHCR claims that Slovakia needs to work harder to improve its system.

The EU has decided, however, to unify its asylum policies; a tentative date is set for 2010. Incidentally, Slovakia will not have the right to a veto.

"Tomorrow's Europe will be a Europe without internal borders and that is why we have to cooperate more intensively in the sphere of asylum policies," said Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

The country's Interior Minister and Christian-Democrat Vladimír Palko does not like to see Slovakia losing its right to a veto in the sphere of asylum policies.

Human rights organisations claim that human smuggling is becoming a lucrative enterprise in Slovakia. That, if anything, should cause Palko a greater headache than the loss of his state's veto right.


By Beata Balogová

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