Every working day, the area in front of the immigration office in Bratislava is filled with people trying to find their way in, locate the machine that issues queuing tickets, and navigate the throngs already resigned to spending most of their day in this drab corner of Petržalka.
Despite repeated promises by the authorities that waiting times and client handling processes at the office would improve, “third-country nationals” – citizens of countries from outside the European Union – who sometimes have to wait from the early hours in order to be sure of securing a meeting with a police officer, report little change.
This particular department of the Office of Border and Alien Police – which is the official English name of the immigration office, but is more commonly known as the foreigners’ police – is located on Hrobákova Street, in the middle of Petržalka. It is the only place where foreigners living in Bratislava can process their residency-related papers.
Now, as well as the long queues in front of the office, these third-country nationals say they are having to deal with unofficial waiting lists which are being used to impose some kind of “order” in the queue before the office itself opens. The police deny any knowledge of such lists.
Police do not recognise waiting lists
“Clients are handled based on the centralised automatic ticket system and not based on some kind of list created by foreigners waiting in front of the alien police department,” Ivan Hambálek, deputy head of the Office of Border and Alien Police, told The Slovak Spectator.
Several foreigners that The Slovak Spectator spoke to, however, said they have experience with the unofficial waiting lists.
“The lists are quite new,” Jeff Kirk, a DJ and English teacher from the USA living in Slovakia since 2011, told The Slovak Spectator. He was visiting the office for the first time in about a year.
Kirk complains that even though clients of the office have reported the practice to the police, officers have done nothing about it.
The lists are usually administered by a single person, who calls out names. People who have entered their names on these unofficial lists arrive shortly before the office on Hrobákova Street opens, jumping the queue of foreigners who have been waiting for longer.
Since there are no police officers present in front of the building, just an area where queuers congregate in front of the door, nobody can confirm who actually arrived at the office first, he added.
Visitors can only obtain a number from the official ticket-issuing machine after the office door is opened, by which time the queue has been “organised”.
Diogo Augusto Miranda, a medical student from Brazil, confirmed he has seen such a list.
“I asked one of them if they were working for the police and they said no, that they were ‘just organising’ and stuff – in other words, just making money out of the situation,” Augusto Miranda said.
Moreover, he added that people who are not even on the list arrive just as the office is about to open, only for the list-makers to place them at the top of the list, ahead of those who have been waiting since very early in the morning.
Bad or good?
Some people, however, welcome the practice as introducing at least a hint of organisation to the previous chaos. The Slovak Spectator spoke to one third-country national who actually signed onto the list. He said that there is a man who comes to the office and stays there to hold the place for several people. When foreigners whose names are on the list come, they just take his place.
The people responsible for the list stay in front of the building the whole night and “take care” of it. Anyone who turns up during the night can sign their name on the list and then come later, just before the police open the door, he said.
Kirk says that the people responsible for the lists are certainly hired by firms. These people even have bodyguards, he added.
“Obviously, that’s not the main problem, we all know that, but if it was already a terribly long wait before that, with those lists things got even worse,” Augusto Miranda said. He hopes the police will “find a way to finish with this circus”.
Police respond to complaints
The police say there is not much they can do about it. A few days after public-service broadcaster RTVS first reported on the unofficial waiting lists, in mid-February, the police posted a short bilingual notice, saying they do not operate any list with the names of foreigners.
“Every person has the right to get a ticket representing the exact time when the person came,” the notice reads.
Moreover, the police say they carried out an inspection in front of the foreigners’ police building on Hrobáková Street on February 22.
“During this check-up no waiting list circulated among foreigners,” Hambálek said.
After opening the premises, foreigners can take a ticket from the queuing machine inside the office and wait until their number is posted, he added.
Hambálek stressed that not all the misunderstandings that occur in front of and inside the building of the immigration office can be solved within the competencies of the Interior Ministry or the Office of the Border and Alien Police.
“It remains a mystery why other client points in Slovakia (handling registrations or drivers’ licences) do not experience the same problems as our department,” Hambálek said. “Perhaps this situation is partially caused also by the habits, cultural specifics and social ethics of some clients that they have brought from their native country.”
Few ways to avoid queues
There are some issues that foreigners can handle without having to visit the foreigners’ police office in person. Residency permits, once issued, can be sent by police to clients upon payment of a €3 fee.
The law, however, stipulates that any application for residency needs to be submitted in person, without any option to mail it, according to Hambálek.
“We agree with the claim that the alien police department in Bratislava has been dealing with too many clients every day, and this number is increasing every year,” Hambálek said.
The police say they are trying to adopt measures to tackle the problem, for example by increasing the number of police officers dealing with residency applications, and by separating the departments dealing with EU and non-EU citizens.
Moving to new premises?
Some readers have pointed out to The Slovak Spectator that the office assigned to deal with EU citizens also deals with foreigners from non-EU countries, like Canada.
Hambálek explains this could be the case for those who request permanent residence. The “EU office” is also assigned to deal with requests for permanent residence. However, most foreigners coming to the country request temporary residence.
Since the number of clients is expected to continue growing in the coming years, the Office of Border and Alien Police plans to move to bigger, more modern and more comfortable offices in Bratislava. The move has been postponed repeatedly and even now Hambálek says he cannot specify when it will happen.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) confirms that it has also received complaints about unofficial waiting lists in front of the immigration office. While the IOM declined to comment further about the situation, saying it did not have sufficient information, the head of IOM Bratislava office, Zuzana Vatráľová, suggests that the process could be made smoother if foreigners or their representatives could make an appointment at the department in advance.