IMMIGRATION is the most pressing of all concerns for Europeans, according to a recent poll, overshadowing unemployment and blurred economic prospects.
Listed as most pressing by 38 percent of respondents in the spring edition of the Eurobarometer survey published July 31, such concerns were evident in small municipality of Gabčikovo in south-west Slovakia. More than 96 percent of voters there voiced their displeasure, voting against a government plan to house migrants in a reopened refugee camp in the village, based on its bilateral deal with Austria signed earlier in July. The vote is non-binding and the settlement plan looks set to go forward.
The Gabčíkovo deal
Based on the agreement, some 500 refugees seeking asylum in Austria will stay in Slovakia temporarily, until their asylum processing is finished and, based on the results, they will either move back to Austria or be deported from the EU. The process typically takes a few months.
The arrangement is such that Slovakia will pay for the accommodation and food for the migrants, while the Austrians will continue paying the costs of the health care, security service and pocket money.
The deal is valid for two years.
The prospect of having refugees housed in their village prompted the citizens of Gabčíkovo to quickly initiate a local referendum, which took place on August 2. Of Gabčíkovo’s 4,300 voters a total of 2,603 went to the ballot boxes; which is more than 58 percent. Out of that, 96.67 percent, 2,501 inhabitants, were against refugees to be housed in their village.
“People want to live in peace and security,” Gabčikovo Mayor Ivan Fenes told the TASR newswire in response to the results of the referendum. In the early reports on the Gabčíkovo deal, media quoted the locals expressing concerns about terrorism targeting the local hydroelectric dam.
Fenes conceded that there were refugees in Gabčikovo in the past, but “times were different back then”.
“Times are far more tumultuous now, especially abroad. Problems emerged when there were more than 800 refugees; we also registered pretty serious problems then. Even 100 refugees would be too many for a village with 5,000 inhabitants,” the mayor said as quoted by TASR, adding that the locals were happy when the facility was shut down six years ago.
Observers however agree that the referendum would most likely end with similar results anywhere in Slovakia, pointing to the wave of fears and uncertainty that swept through Slovakia. In fact, in the Eurobarometer survey, Slovakia ended among countries with the highest number of people admitting to negative feelings towards immigration of people from outside the EU, 77 percent.
The opposition did not hesitate to point an accusing finger at the government, saying that the prime minister and the interior minister failed at explaining the people of Gabčíkovo what the deal with Austria was about and what the implications were.
The opposition Most-Híd blamed the government that “absolutely did not communicate with the citizens, and mainly the inhabitants of Gabčíkovo, to try and disperse their concerns from the arrival of 500 migrants”, Chairman Béla Bugár said.
“[The government] completely underestimated this task, while the statements of government officials, including PM [Robert] Fico, only worsened the situation, when they talked about migrants as a security threat,” Bugár said.
Another opposition party, Freedom and Solidairty (SaS), suggested the refugees could be placed in former military facilities instead, outside the residential areas of municipalities, the party’s MP Ľubomír Galko, a former defence minister, told an August 3 press conference as reported by the SITA newswire. Galko pointed out that in such facilities it will be possible to guard the asylum-seekers to prevent clashes with locals.
Other opposition parties, including Sieť and KDH, insisted that the government must find a way to fulfill its duties and at the same time respect the result of the local referendum.
The Interior Ministry in its statement also accused the opposition of trying to mine political capital out of the current situation, despite the fact that their opinions on the compulsory quotas do not differ.
Under the Slovak laws, results of a local referendum are not binding for the central government. The Interior Ministry insists that the local referendum in a municipality has a self-governing significance and the ministry cannot interfere with it, but it also does not have to follow its results.
A referendum is a “very strong tool” for citizens to exercise their right to express their opinion, “but the right to express one’s opinion does not necessarily need to be connected with this opinion to be heard or accepted to the full extent”, Milan Muška, the executive vice-chairman of the Association of Towns and Villages of Slovakia (ZMOS), said on the public-service Slovak Radio on August 3.
Muška made a distinction between a local referendum on local matters, which should be followed by action of the local authorities based on the results of the vote, and a local referendum on matters that do not fall under the competencies of the municipality, just like in the case of refugees housed in Gabčíkovo.
Following the referendum, the central authorities have tried to show their sympathy to the concerns among the Gabčíkovo citizens but at the same time remained firm on the decision to house the asylum-seekers there.
“We do understand the result of the referendum in Gabčíkovo,” the Interior Ministry wrote in its press statement reacting to the results of the plebiscite, calling it “the symptom of the fears of migrants shared by the whole of Slovakia”.
“That is just why the government fought a tough diplomatic war and prevented the passing of compulsory quotas that Brussels wanted to dictate upon the EU member states,” the ministry wrote and stressed that Slovak government will remain firm on its stance that Slovakia will accept only the 100 Syrian Christians that it pledged to take in, while all other cases will be only “temporary placement of migrants for the necessary time”.
Authorities brace themselves
The government is currently working on “a whole range of security measures”, according to the ministry, and these will be “set and clearly communicated” before the first migrants arrive to Slovakia.
Meanwhile, Police Corps President Tibor Gašpar has announced that the police will increase their presence in Gabčíkovo, with an additional 10 officers set to be allocated to the local police station, while an emergency motorised unit from Trnava will also be tasked to patrol the village.
The Interior Ministry additionally reported on August 5 that Slovakia’s security forces are ready for an increased influx of migrants, after the New Horizon 2015 training program that took place near Nitra in late July. More than 250 soldiers, police officers, firemen, rescuers, and members of other Interior Ministry’s units and the Slovak Red Cross participated in the training, the SITA newswire reported.
The security forces members also trained their ability to provide housing, food, sanitary facilities and health care to increased number of asylum seekers, the ministry reported.
6. Aug 2015 at 14:44 | Michaela Terenzani