The Brexit decision has made it impossible to run business-as-usual in the EU. Slovakia will have to find ways to bring the decision makers back to other urgent agenda as it starts its first EU presidency on July 1.
Slovak government and civil society can use the upcoming six months to work together to facilitate the necessary measures that would address the migration challenges both domestically and in the EU. To enhance this synergy, GLOBSEC Policy Institute in cooperation with Migration Policy Institute Europe organized an expert roundtable titled Finding Common Ground: Developing a Shared System for Asylum Management. The roundtable took place in Brussels on 20 June 2016 and was hosted by the Permanent Representation of the Slovak Republic to the EU.
Zuzana Števulová, Director of Human Rights League, Slovakia, delivered a guest intervention on the situation in Slovakia. Milan Nič, Research Director at GLOBSEC Policy Institute, and Elizabeth Collett, Director at Migration Policy Institute Europe, facilitated the discussion.
The migration crisis, although overshadowed by Brexit, will stay on the EU agenda for months and years to come. The shaky stabilization brought by the closure of the Balkans route and the deal with Turkey slowed down the arrival wave. A number of things may nevertheless go dangerously wrong: the asylum seekers already in the EU are yet to be relocated from Greece and integrated, a new functioning asylum system is yet to be developed and adopted, and the situation in Syria, Libya, other MENA countries or Ukraine may explode generating refugee waves larger than the EU has seen in the past year.
Slovakia is not only facing a gargantuan task of finding administrative, human, and financial resources necessary to keep the agenda on the table and deliver the results at the EU level. It should also address its domestic situation and improve its negatively perceived domestic record.
EU countries share many concerns ranging from qualification criteria to integration programmes to improving the situation in the countries of origin. To develop a common response and make it work, participants agreed, the Commission and Member States should understand situation in all parts of Europe.
Slovakia has earned a notorious reputation of quota-refusing Muslim-cautious country due to the heated statements of its political leaders making international headlines and the country’s vehement rejection of the mandatory quotas.
However, as Milan Nič argued, this perception is not entirely objective. Not only the Slovak government has done more than it is being publicly credited for, the civil society has demonstrated unprecedented mobilization and solidarity with the asylum seekers as well.
Based upon an agreement between Slovak and Austrian governments, a small Slovak border town Gabcikovo has been hosting on a rotating basis 500 Syrian asylum seekers that are officially registered in Austria and are waiting for the application to be processed. According to the Slovak Ministry of Interior present at the meeting, Slovaks are working with their Austrian counterparts to expand the deal and host a larger number of asylum seekers from different countries.
Although objective to the “mandatory” element of the quota system, Slovak government offered 200 spots for relocation to be made available by 2017. In cooperation with a private Catholic initiative, Slovakia has resettled 150 Iraqi Christians from Mosul area. Slovakia has already committed 90 Frontex officers – a disproportionately large number. Slovakia is also contributing and sending officers to EASO (European Asylum Support Office) in Greece.
Slovak civil society mobilized and launched a viral online petition to “plea for humanity”. Slovak government responded by distributing 500 000 Euro and later earmarking another 500 000 Euro installment for immediate humanitarian assistance to refugees through Slovak NGOs.
Not only established humanitarian NGOs were there to help. Hundreds of unaffiliated volunteers went to the Balkan route to help refugees on the way to Europe. Thousands participated in the “Who will help?” campaign providing accommodation, coordinating the effort, or participating in fundraising. With the Balkan route closed, hundreds of Slovaks still regularly go to Austrian reception centers – that are only several kilometers away from Bratislava – to bring food or other necessities for refugees or assist with social work (read more on the civil society response in Slovakia here).
This is not to create illusions that Slovakia is on a steadfast track towards developing a friendlier migration system and is fully prepared to coordinate the voices and needs on the migration agenda during its Presidency.
As Zuzana Stevulova explained, Slovak uneasiness with relocations is a much deeper structural problem than it is understood in Brussels. Slovakia is not an attractive destination country for asylum seekers. It does not have developed ex-pats networks that will smoothen cultural integration of the newcomers and provide additional employment options. Slovakia does not also offer sufficient state support to refugees and does not have a necessary societal experience. It’s complicated, often incoherent legal system makes it even harder for asylum seekers to receive a legal status, appeal decisions, or understand their education, labor, health care and other rights and obligations.
Furthermore, asylum seekers do not have information about Slovakia and the European asylum system in general while they are still in Greece. This leads to their unwillingness to come to the country where they see no future, or to a traumatic mismatch of their expectations and reality on the ground.
As a result, the country is unlikely to be able to fill the offered relocation spots. The relocated asylum seekers that face inadequate and malfunctioning domestic system also tend to leave the country. This hampers the efficiency and stability of the EU asylum system and propels secondary movements.
The issue of matching refugees with the best-fit EU hosting country is central to other countries’ and EU Commission’s concerns. Relocation is an additional psychologically distressing experience to refugees. It is also a costly process. Furthermore, high probability of secondary movements questions the usefulness of the relocation quota system. It is hence in everyone interest to get it right.
The participants suggest a number of measured to be implemented by the EU agencies, national governments, and NGOs that can help distribute asylum seekers more evenly across the continent and increase their propensity to become integral part of the hosting society.
All actors involved agree that the amount, quality, reliability, and comprehensibility of the information that an asylum seeker receives before being relocated plays a crucial role. Many asylum seekers not understand how the Dublin system functions, do not know that they cannot choose the EU country where to apply for asylum or that they won’t be able to move to another country once the status is approved. Many also receive insufficient information about the country they are to be relocated too – social and legal system, education and employment opportunity, or cultural traditions.
Pre-departure orientations might help prevent some of these feedbacks. Having videos from the hosting communities, skype calls, or personal meetings with refugees successfully settled in the destination country can help eradicate fear of the unknown and create realistic expectations among asylum seekers.
Managing expectations was pronounced by many as a cornerstone for the successful adaptation to a new life. Even countries like Sweden have experienced multiple volunteer departures of asylum seekers who were not prepared for lengthy status recognition procedures or accommodation in the far north.
Some participants, however, expressed concerns that asylum seekers are already overflooded with information. The comprehension of the intricacies of the European asylum system is not an easy task even for seasoned experts. It requires engagement of trusted persons and careful work with social media to counter misperceptions or misleading information, often deliberately provided by smugglers.
The issue of “choice” of a destination country or particular asylum seekers to host is even more acute for countries like Slovakia. While the EU Commission insists that neither the asylum seeker nor the Member States, everyone seems to agree that blind relocations are counterproductive for everyone involved.
To make an idea of building a life, for example, in Slovakia or Portugal acceptable for a refugee, the respective countries need to develop a comprehensive communication strategy that is adaptable to the individual’s interests and needs.
Creative arguments help. The lack of an Ethiopian community in Bratislava might become a business opportunity for an Ethiopian otherwise unsure about her or his employment prospects in Slovakia. Some practitioners cited successful employment of this-famous-person-comes-from-here arguments. Even the names of Slovak football stars and their affiliation with English or Italian football clubs popular worldwide might increase the attractiveness of the country.
Programmes like “Refugee Match” proposed by Oxford University scholars might also be taken on board. European countries might further find it useful to consider some elements of US or Canadian systems that work closely with private citizens.
Prior identification of skills and matching them with labor market needs of the particular country increases the integration prospects and benefits for the hosting community. The trade-off is a much longer process of relocation.
With some EU leaders calling for as many as 6,000 relocated asylum seekers per month, preliminary identification of skills and profound individual matching is not an option. Hence, many call for a slower but surer process that will help avoid traumatic and costly mistakes.
Engagement of NGOs throughout the whole process of matching asylum seekers with the country to their relocation to the first months and years of integration process is particularly crucial in countries like Slovakia. Slovakia does not have a public sector that has capacities or know how to integrate refugees or work with communities. NGOs are there to fill the gap. The government has yet to accept these offers from the civil society.