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Foreigners' police still 'nightmare' (video included)

IT’S 6:00 on a Friday morning, and Petržalka, Bratislava’s biggest borough, is just waking up. But within the city district, a group of people unusually diverse for Slovakia has already gathered: young and old, black and white, workers and students, some with children, each speaking a different language. They are waiting for the doors of Bratislava’s only Office of the Border and Alien Police to open. Those who have been here before are prepared for a long day, the mere thought of which is enough to instil anyone with a deep sense of frustration.

'Customers' at the Alien Police in Petržalka face a long wait.(Source: SME)

IT’S 6:00 on a Friday morning, and Petržalka, Bratislava’s biggest borough, is just waking up. But within the city district, a group of people unusually diverse for Slovakia has already gathered: young and old, black and white, workers and students, some with children, each speaking a different language. They are waiting for the doors of Bratislava’s only Office of the Border and Alien Police to open. Those who have been here before are prepared for a long day, the mere thought of which is enough to instil anyone with a deep sense of frustration.

“It’s a big mess,” Matiss, who came to Slovakia from Latvia to work as a volunteer, told The Slovak Spectator later the same day. “It took us about an hour to understand what’s happening here.”

The Office of the Border and Alien Police, which is the official name of the foreigners’ police in Slovakia, operates 12 departments scattered around the country’s regions, and oversees the stay of foreigners in Slovakia by issuing residence permits and visas, and approving invitations.

Problems with poor service for foreigners, particularly with regard to the inability to communicate with the department’s officers in foreign languages, have been reported from all regions, but the Bratislava office stands out. This is mainly because the concentration of foreigners in the capital is significantly higher than in other regions, and the single Bratislava department, located in Petržalka, handles all immigrants for the entire Bratislava Region.

To draw the public’s attention to the problem once again, activists from the Milan Šimečka Foundation (NMŠ) and the Human Rights League decided to organise an event in front of the foreigners’ police department on April 19, which was held in tandem with this year’s new minorities [fjúžn] festival.

They made themselves available to advise the foreigners seeking the services of the office, they cleaned the surroundings of the building and brought cookies and coffee for people, many of whom were destined to spend the entire day waiting at the office.

“This is a call on offices and state institutions to be considerate to foreigners too,” said Laco Oravec from NMŠ, the main organiser of the festival. “The main change should be that the client should be put at the centre of attention of the public administration.”

A lack of officers

Every foreigner who wants to live in Bratislava Region needs to pass through this department, EU citizens and non-EU citizens alike.

“The workload of this department is really enormous, but the number of officers working here and dealing with clients is incomparably lower than necessary,” Zuzana Števulová from the Human Rights League said, adding that in addition to immigrants queuing in front of the office’s building, the Bratislava department also deals with residence applications filed at Slovakia’s embassies abroad, before the immigrants’ actual arrival to Slovakia.

Additionally, office hours are restricted to two and a half days per week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday until noon.

“This is the capital city - it’s really crowded in here, people come from all around Bratislava and they only work two and a half days a week,” Adel, one of the immigrants queuing in front of the department, told The Slovak Spectator.

Do you speak English?

Adel is Egyptian and he has been living and working in Slovakia for five years this summer. This time, he only needed a stamp for an invitation letter for his parents, but he describes his past experience with the police as “really bad”, citing the language barrier as the toughest thing to deal with at the Bratislava foreigners’ police office.

“They are dealing with foreigners here and none of them speak English,” Adel told The Slovak Spectator. “I think they expect everyone to speak Slovak, but [they don’t] the first year – it doesn’t work that way.”

Most of the officers do not speak a foreign language and there are no translators available for foreigners, Oravec noted.

“Foreigners who speak neither Slovak nor English must come with a Slovak friend of theirs,” he said, adding that information on the notice boards should also be available in languages other than Slovak.

Police officers are only required to speak the state language when they are hired for the job, but the Office of the Border and Alien Police prefers to take officers who speak at least one foreign language, Police Presidium spokesperson Denisa Baloghová told The Slovak Spectator. Officers speaking foreign languages are then assigned services in such a way that there is always at least one foreign-language speaking officer on hand at the department.

“If the police officers speak a language the foreigner understands, they communicate with them in this language, but only within the scope and limits allowed by the law,” Baloghová explained.
Most of the information posted on the wall of the office’s waiting room is in Slovak only.

“[The information] about the rights and duties of foreigners living in Slovakia should be in [a language] other than Slovak too, and also they should be written in a user-friendly way,” Števulová told The Slovak Spectator.

Every department has the text of the law on the residence of foreigners available in English and it is also published on the website of the Interior Ministry, Baloghová said. Additionally, information material provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) can be found at the offices as well. The Bratislava office has a computer that is available for clients to find information, with the text of the relevant legislation in English and Russian. The forms that the foreigners need to fill out are available in several languages, according to Baloghová.

Some clients of the foreigners’ police have, however, complained that forms in languages other than Slovak were not available to them.

The police claim that they are trying to improve the services provided for immigrants, in part by improving the language skills of their officers through an effort financed via the European Return Fund. Within the programme, officers can take classes in English, Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese, Baloghová told The Slovak Spectator.

Early to rise

The usual practice for foreigners who need to deal with Bratislava’s foreigners’ police department is to get to Petržalka before 6:00 in the morning and wait for the office to open at 7:30 so that they can get a number from the queuing machine. Even then, however, the number on their ticket might be too high to be called on that day.

“Foreigners often have to take a day off work to be able to deal with their issues at the foreigners’ police, so it also costs them money,” Oravec said.

Immigrants come to the office to deal with issues that have an impact on their daily life and their ability to stay in the country. In extreme cases, the inability of the police to deal with the clients on the day they come to the police department might even have “fatal consequences”, for instance when a client’s case is not dealt with and his or her residence permit elapses before the department opens again, according to Števulová.

“We’ve got cases where that really happened, and we heard a lot of complaints from people who had to come here repeatedly because they weren’t able to get their ticket with the queuing number,” Števulová said.

Improvement in sight?

Activists have been gathering complaints and suggestions from immigrants in an attempt to improve the system. Apart from the lack of language skills and available officers to deal with clients, they noted that the waiting room does not meet the needs of the many people waiting there: given that there are only a couple dozen chairs, there is nowhere for most people to sit, and the room becomes so crowded that many people have to wait outside, which is a particular problem in the winter.

On top of that, most applications require ‘kolky’, or payment stamps, which can be purchased at post offices but not at the foreigners’ police department, Adel noted. The nearest post office is just over a kilometre away. That often means that residence permit applicants, after having waited several hours for their turn, must then leave to buy their stamps and come back without any guarantee that they’ll make the queue again that same day. Some Slovak public administration offices sell the stamps via vending machines in their waiting rooms.

“We’ve been following this issue for years now and the situation is improving, but only very slowly,” Števulová said.

“The public administration is reforming and improving in Slovakia, but here you cannot see it at all,” Oravec said, adding that the conditions are less than decent.

The police are aware of the lack of space and limited personnel, and they are currently working to open a new client office in the summer of 2013. The current building will then be used for third-country nationals applying for temporary residence, and the new offices will be used for permanent residencies and registration of citizens of the European Economic Area, Baloghová said.

“I would feel more welcome if they improved it here and had some development,” Adel said.

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