On Wednesday, 5 October 2016, the GLOBSEC Policy Institute (GPI) hosted a roundtable in Bratislava on Central Europe and the refugee question: Cooperation instead of confrontation?  Jakub Wisniewski, Vice President of GLOBSEC and Director of GLOBSEC Policy Institute, opened the discussion.  Paul Schmidt, General Secretary of Österreichische Gesellschaft für Europapolitik, spoke about the policy, politics, and practical challenges in Austria.  Milan Nič, Head of Future of Europe Program at GLOBSEC Policy Institute commented on the situation in the EU, the Visegrad 4, and Slovakia on the policy level. Zuzana Števulová, Director of Human Rights League, Slovakia, delivered an intervention on the practical situation in Slovakia. Alena Kudzko, Deputy Research Director of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, facilitated the discussion.

Jakub Wisniewski introduced the topic by comparing the paradoxes of EU and national migration policy and enforcement to the Eurozone, suggesting that a crisis was inevitable but that work is needed to make the system function.  Austria and Slovakia had once been divided by the Iron curtain, but are now united by a common interest.

Paul Schmidt spoke of Austria as a country that had moved from accepting refugees with open arms to one that is dealing with a political backlash fueled by fear amidst the very real challenges of integration.  Austria has been one of the biggest recipients of asylum seekers: more than 90,000 last year and around 26,000 this year, short of the government cap of 37,500.    Austria had an open stance at first, civil society wanted to help, and politicians took their cue.  However, in the aftermath of the events in Cologne, the mood changed.  Afterwards there was an assessment of limited capacity and the politics changed.  The discourse is moving to a more security-based discussion, and moving further to the right, fueled with fears.  Public opinion is now polarized on the issue. The labor market is under stress, it feeds into the part of society that would want to renationalize and disintegrate with the European market.  Traditional politics are lacking the right answer: traditional politicians communicate facts and numbers, not on the emotional level.  Furthermore, Austria is now facing serious questions about integration capacity, labor market, financial support, how long asylum processing is taking, what to do with those who don’t get asylum, language, and education in general.

Milan Nič reflected on civil society’s failed hopes for progress on both the domestic and EU levels during the Slovak EU Council presidency so far.  At the beginning of the Slovak presidency, we expected the major issues to be Brexit and migration.  Slovakia pledged the resettlement of 100 refugees to engender good will, and distance itself in Brussels from the hardline Hungarian position.  However, from the EU perspective, the situation is under control, with the closure of the Balkan route and the facilitation of the border closure.  Now even the solidarity issue is on the backburner. and the Slovak presidency is off of the hook: the discussion is not focused on structural issues, but moving to external borders.  In this context, the V4 is no longer a recalcitrant partner; it has moved on from providing an alternative to the EU policy to being a passive commentator.

Zuzana Števulová spoke of missed opportunities, as well as challenges to refugee resettlement.  There is an additional capacity to take in emergency asylum seekers, but it is not being used, including in both the town of Gabcikovo—where the Minister of Interior agreed to provide temporary housing to approximately 500 asylum seekers with ongoing applications in Austria—and at the emergency transit center in Humenné.  In addition, there is a volunteer network that has offered to host asylum seekers in their homes, but the government has not taken them up.

The greater problem is that these centers are temporary by design, and that the Slovak authorities consider themselves a transit country rather than a destination country for migrants, and tacitly accept or even encourage secondary movements further to Austria or Germany.  Some of this mentality comes from the experience of resettled refugees moving to other countries, but there’s a question of whether they are leaving because they had always planned to or if they were socialized by Slovaks to think of Slovakia as a transit country.

One positive development is the creation of a scholarship fund to study Slovak and attend university in Slovakia, after the Czech model.  The authorities were surprised and overwhelmed by the number of applicants: over 400 applicants from Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey for 33 spaces.  They have since increased the number of spots to 500 scholarships for Syrians interested, which was pledged in a different format, the UN Summit on refugees and the UN secretary general candidacy of the Slovak foreign minister.  There’s promise for this program, not just as an opportunity for refugees but for Slovaks to see their country differently.

During the discussion, NGO participants spoke of their existing initiatives on the municipal level with mayors across Slovakia who were interested in hosting refugees, but lacked the ability to communicate about it effectively with their publics.  There was consensus that cross-regional approaches would be helpful and that Slovak civil society organizations and municipal governments could learn from their Austrian counterparts’ experiences.