Since 2016, Slovakia’s position on migration has become more measured. Compared to the harsh rhetoric that the country earlier employed and its vehement refusal to accept EU refugees in 2015-early 2016, Slovakia’s spring 2017 stance represents a more constructive approach. Tainted with the now unfavourable image of the Visegrad Group, Slovakia has sought to distance itself from the regional grouping and improve its own position in the EU, also using its EU Council Presidency for these purposes. A number of forward steps have been initiated, including the provision of relocation spots and scholarships for refugees, the sending of personnel to Frontex and EASO, and the pledging of assistance to address the root causes of migration. These steps, nevertheless, have been taken at a minimal level of engagement. This approach enables the country to score some points at the EU level, while still maintaining a low profile for the issue of migration at home to avoid pushback from populist and nationalist parties that have gained domestic influence.
Public and political discourse
The Slovak EU Presidency in the second half of 2016 put a lid on domestic broils over migration. Hushed, the debate has still been sizzling.
The rather acrimonious debates about migration in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections in Slovakia in March 2016 left Slovak society divided. Three nationalist and populist conservative parties with an anti-migration agenda won seats, including the far right People’s Party – Our Slovakia (Kotleba – Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko, ĽSNS), and one of them – the Slovak National Party SNS – is part of the governing coalition. Even with the cooling effect of the EU Presidency, the divisions that were fostered during the purposefully spiteful election campaigns and the open anti-migration position of some of the parties in the Parliament made it close to impossible for the country to return to business as usual after the elections.
The rising extremist, nationalist, populist and anti-EU rhetoric has been sweeping the region. Slovakia itself has not managed to survive entirely unscathed from these ongoing debates. Still an outsider of the European mainstream, Slovakia, however, has quietly distanced itself from its more outspoken members – Hungary and Poland.
Reality check: Impressions and/versus facts
The public perception of migrants in Slovakia is rather lukewarm, but varies in different segments of the population.
According to the Eurobarometer survey from fall 2016, immigration from non-EU countries evokes negative feelings in 79 percent of Slovaks. Only 31 percent of Slovaks think that Slovakia should help refugees. In September 2015, around 60 percent of Slovaks, according to several polls, were of the conviction that Slovakia should not accept any refugees.
At the same time, in the fall 2016 only ten percent of Slovak respondents in a Eurobarometer survey, when prompted, mentioned migration as an important problem facing Slovakia, a 7 percent decline from the fall 2015. The higher perceived threat level of migration in late 2015-early 2016 reflects the hyped up discourse employed during the election campaign and the strategy of fear mongering employed by, among others, the SMER party and Prime Minister Fico. Surveys conducted by Slovak agencies in 2015 reveal that 39.7 percent of Slovaks considered refugees to be the biggest problem facing the country (July 2015). A total of 70 percent of respondents were worried about migration according to another poll from December 2015. The most frequently cited reasons for concerns are increased security risks (criminality, Islamic extremism and terrorism) and the lack of cultural compatibility. Respondents also cited the economic burden on the country. Slovaks are typically much more averse to refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa compared to those from Ukraine (the latter enjoy noticeably higher support).
Although the perception of migration in Slovakia as an urgent problem needing to be addressed is at a relatively low level, it does not mean that Slovaks are enthusiastic about welcoming migrants. A total of 82 percent of respondents disagree with the statement that foreigners are a great contribution to Slovakia. On average, 44 percent of respondents in the whole EU think that migrants are a contribution to the hosting country, 31 percent higher than in Slovakia.
These results imply that the majority of Slovaks do not see migration as the most important issue on the domestic agenda. But they are also not eager to aggravate this situation by accepting more migrants in Slovakia.
Public opinion has been considerably influenced by misperceptions and/or entrenched fears. This situation is, of course, the case in many Western countries. However, in Slovakia, the gap between reality and public perceptions might be greater precisely because there are fewer migrants in Slovakia.
Unlike many other countries in Europe and in the region, the most profound way in which Slovakia was affected by the migration influx in 2015-2016 was through public discourse and media coverage. It was not the migrants who came to Slovakia – very few did – but rather the discussions about them that made many people cautious and averse to welcoming foreigners. Moreover, Slovaks often do not distinguish between migrants and refugees, which further conflates a number of different economic and social issues in the discourse.
During the peak years of 2015 and 2016, only 49 and 179 people, respectively, received international protection status in Slovakia. Unlike in Hungary, there were no visible mass flows of people transiting to Germany or farther West and North through Slovakia either.
According to official statistics, in 2016, around 93,300 foreigners with a residence permit were living in Slovakia. This is about 1.7 percent of the total population. Around 55 percent of foreigners are from other EU countries. The majority of foreigners from outside the EU are of Ukrainian (around 14 percent of the total number of foreigners, 31 percent of non-EU nationals), Serbian (17.5 percent of the non-EU nationals), and Russian (9.8 percent of the non-EU nationals) origin – and typically integrate particularly well due to linguistic and cultural proximity. Slovakia’s 1.7 percent share of foreigners among the total population is the sixth lowest in the EU. By comparison, the Czech Republic’s figures are at a 4 percent share and Poland is at 0.3 percent (as of 2014).
Table 1: Share of non-nationals in the resident population (1 January 2016). Source: Eurostat.
Table 2: Immigrants, 2015, per 1,000 inhabitants. Source: Eurostat.
Concerns about the allegedly increased levels of crime or risk to national security are similarly not grounded in reality. The crime rate among foreigners in Slovakia, in fact, is not disproportionately higher than among the Slovak-born population (Number of crimes committed by foreigners in 2016: 1372, out of which 297 from the Czech Republic, 182 Hungary, 179 Ukraine, and 109 Poland. Number of crimes in 2016 committed by Slovaks: 42 146). And most of the offences that are committed are “economic crimes” and “property crimes”.
For many Slovaks, a cautious approach to other cultures and foreigners is generated by the country’s experience with Roma integration. According to unofficial estimates, 9-10 percent of the Slovak population is Roma, a segment of the population that is often marginalized and lags behind the general population in terms of social inclusion, employment, and integration.
Overall, the number of refugees and foreigners in Slovakia is not high enough nor are the commonly cited threats tangible enough to vindicate anti-migration perceptions and policies. Domestic political experiences and skirmishes, the divisive election campaign with “Slovakia for Slovaks”-type slogans, European level politics, the lack of coherent strategies from governments and the EU on how to deal with migration and integration, interpretations of historical experiences, and media coverage, however, conspired to create the current situation.
Media and public communication on migration issues
The Slovak media have contributed to shaping the abovementioned misconceptions but also, and importantly, to providing a more nuanced picture of the migration debate and to even mobilizing the public in support of refugees. The impact and style of coverage varies from outlet to outlet. A remarkable example of the unification of the media, including tabloids, around a humanitarian narrative was the response to the death of 71 refugees who suffocated in a refrigeration truck abandoned by traffickers in Austria next to the Slovak border in August 2015.
Today, the public discourse on migration in Slovakia is to a large degree shaped by a battle between liberal media outlets and those that echo the unchallenged opinions of nationalist and extremist parties or – intentionally or unintentionally – spread misleading, unverified information.
The media faces a challenge not only because of the relativisation of facts in public life but also because the government does not have a strong enough incentive, resources, or skills to communicate the facts on a politically sensitive topic in a trustworthy and captivating manner to the public.
Furthermore, following the coverage of several corruption allegations in the government, many liberal media outlets have had strained relations with the office of Prime Minister Fico who recently called journalists covering the cases “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes”. This type of open animosity has not helped journalists reach out to those who already perceived the media as biased in favour of the liberal cause, itself perceived as alien to the Slovak national interest.
Partially as a result of these factors, a significant share of the population receives information about migration-related issues and opinions from sources that do not follow traditional principles of journalism, including a hallmark focus on fact-checking and an emphasis on balance and objectivity. According to the latest GLOSBEC Trends, opinion polls conducted in April 2017, 40.4 percent of respondents are inclined to believe or totally believe in the conspiracy that the state of affairs is completely different than portrayed by the mainstream media. In 2016, 29 percent of young Slovaks between 19 and 24 expressed more confidence in “alternative” media (usually outlets supporting conspiracy theories and professing an anti-West ideology – e.g. Medzičas, Hlavné správy, the now closed Konzervatívny výber).
The years 2015 and 2016 witnessed the peak of the popularity of hoaxes and fake news on migration. In the past number of months, however, the attention to migration issues in the “alternative” media has declined. Still, migration typically returns to the agenda at times of important events or political developments abroad –the Hungarian migrant quota referendum in the fall of 2016, French elections, or Brexit negotiations. So far in 2017, issues connected with migration have mostly been brought up in relation to various political candidates and in promotion of those who aim to stem the flow of migrants and seal the borders. The main themes describing the domestic situation or consequences of the migration policies of the EU for Slovakia resolve around a potential Muslim invasion, the lifestyle of Muslims, the criminality of migrants, and the end of Slovak culture and its values.
Balancing domestic and European politics: Key legislative and policy change
Divisions aggravated by the 2016 election campaign, nationalist outbidding legitimized by Robert Fico’s election campaign and now further fuelled by nationalist parties in the Parliament, and the rugged media landscape have created many pitfalls for the Slovak government, which has attempted to cater to the domestic public, while maintaining a somewhat constructive attitude at the EU level.
The Slovak government is preparing for the scenario of a multi-speed Europe. Its goal seems to be to belong to the core group, remaining in the Eurozone and participating in other core institutions. Slovakia’s endeavours to be treated as a core member though have been impeded on account of the fact that it is constantly ostracized for its migration policy and somewhat tainted by its affiliation with Hungary and Poland through the Visegrad Group. Hence, Slovakia has sought to be a less visible member of the Visegrad Group. The public unity of the Visegrad countries on migration issues, nevertheless, is still too politically practical and vital to be openly abandoned. Slovakia might still need this regional support at the EU level or occasionally need to hide behind the much more headstrong position of its neighbours.
The fact that Slovakia was holding its first rotating presidency of the EU Council from July to December 2016 played an important role in defining the government’s position on migration and specifically refugee policy. It was already clear before the Presidency started that there would be no consensus and no revamped EU-wide asylum policy any time soon. This created space for manoeuvre both at the EU and at the domestic level.
The desire to appear as a constructive negotiator implied that Slovakia needed to re-define the then mainstream European approach of accepting refugees or make concessions and participate in the EU relocation scheme.
With the Brexit earthquake overshadowing the agenda and other countries being sluggish on relocations, by the end of its Presidency, Slovakia both relished the changed EU-wide discourse on migration and somewhat increased its own contributions towards EU wide solutions. The Slovak Presidency rightly sensed an area where finding common EU ground was possible, focusing on external measures and compacts with third countries. In accordance with the political mood in Europe, the internal asylum reform was shifted into the long-term agenda.
This success in scoring some points with minimal domestic effort left many disappointed, and for the opposite reasons. Refugee and migration-cautious actors from Slovakia felt somewhat vindicated by the EU-wide acceptance of the focus on external solutions. They are, nonetheless, upset with being ostracized despite the concessions they had to make. The groups supportive of refugees, meanwhile, expected much more progress and opening up as a result of the Presidency and the international pressure and attention associated with it.
a.From flexible to effective to adjective-free solidarity
To offer something in the short-run and prove its national commitment, Slovakia has been advocating for what it believes is a more comprehensive approach towards Europe-wide cooperation on the migration crisis. While protesting against the mandatory refugee relocation quotas, the government argued that quotas are only one of the ways that a country can contribute. Moreover, a pure mathematical calculation of quotas, they argued, is counterproductive as it does not take into consideration different countries’ experience with migration and “perspective and capacity of each Member State”.
Countries should be able to contribute by different means, all equally valuable for the EU’s aims to solve the migration crisis, hence the concept of “flexible solidarity”. Criticized for the lack of operational clarity of this concept, Slovakia later transformed the notion from “flexible” to “effective” solidarity and eventually decided to drop the adjective altogether. Still, adjective wars aside, the central argument remained the same: it is not only about quotas.
Consequently, an important, if not central, component of the European migration approach advocated by Slovakia is the focus onexternal solutions instead of quotas – external management of migration and eradicating the root causes of migration. This includes providing better protection of borders and management of the flows at the border, the creation of hotspots, working with countries of origin and transit countries, cooperating with refugee camps in areas of conflict (e.g. Lebanon, Turkey), improving implementation of returns, and finally ameliorating the situation in sending countries, which would in turn decrease the push factor.
b.National contributions to European solutions
Although failing to design a grand operational EU-wide scheme based on the concept of “flexible solidarity”, Slovakia nonetheless sought to enhance its own contributions or carry on with some of already existing schemes. Given the backdrop of some countries in the region on commitments towards hosting refugees, the lack of any significant changes and the fact that Slovakia carried on with its previous activities might already be a consoling sign.
Two features stand out. First, Slovakia prefers and believes it is better suited to offer contributions that are related to the area ofexternal migration management. Second, when offering to host refugees, Slovakia often builds its policy around the idea that protection status is a temporary phenomenon and refugees will most likely return to their home countries when the original cause of the dislocation is eradicated.
- Vehemently opposed to mandatory relocation quotas, Slovakia, nonetheless, offered spots for relocation, emphasizing the voluntary nature of its contributions. It offered 100+100 (only 40 formally pledged; 902 assigned to Slovakia within the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism from 2015) spots for relocation from Greece and Italy and from camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Only 16 asylum seekers from Greece have been relocated so far under the scheme. The lack of progress is, however, in line with the majority of other European countries, which have been equally slow on relocations.
- Furthermore, Slovakia committed to offering 550 university scholarships to refugees by 2021 (they will not be granted asylum). A university degree is seen as a more sustainable and long term investment into the future of people in need of international protection and their home countries as educated people will be better able to help rebuild their home countries upon their return home. This approach emphasizes the Slovak view that international protection is a temporary phenomenon and refugees will return back home.
- Slovakia continues operating the Emergency Transit Centre in Humenné in Eastern Slovakia. Since the Centre opened in 2009, over 1,000 refugees have been resettled via Slovakia to other countries, primarily the US, Canada, and Norway. With the capacity to host up to 250 persons, the Centre provides temporary shelter – up to six months – for the most vulnerable refugees under the UNHCR’s protection. The refugees undergo medical examinations and cultural and social trainings in preparation for their relocation to their destination country. The centre is run and financed by the UNHCR and IOM with the latter responsible for training and international transport of refugees.
- Slovakia continues to operate the Gabčíkovo centre. Based upon an agreement between Slovak and Austrian governments, the small Slovak border town Gabčíkovo has been hosting, on a rotating basis, up to 500 Syrian asylum seekers that are officially registered in Austria and are waiting for their applications to be processed. Over the past year, however, Austria has had little need for additional facilities as the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Austria has declined.
- Slovakia has ensured notable participation of its officers in Frontex missions (41 in Triton in Greece, 27 in Poseidon in Italy, 50 in Foa Land in Bulgaria, 46 – “other” individual deployments), a disproportionately high number, and is training officers to be sent to EASO (numbers and timing unclear).
- Slovakia contributes funds to the EU Regional Trust in Response to the Syrian Crisis, the EU Emergency Fund for Africa, UNHCR, IOM, and other mechanisms and provides development assistance. In 2016, Syria was included on the list of countries with extraordinary humanitarian and development needs. Miroslav Lajčák stated that Slovakia will provide €19 million by 2021 to various EU and UN agencies dealing with migration.
c. Politically convenient emphasis on external solutions
In the view of the Slovak government, due to different historical and societal circumstances, Slovakia is not positioned to permanently host large numbers of refugees, particularly those who come from different societies and cultures (read Muslims and people from Africa). Consequently, the government, supported by public opinion, has not been willing to take political risks and experiment with bringing in foreigners. As a result, most of the effort has been oriented towards contributing to external solutions or providing assistance not involving the acceptance a fixed number of people.
Although Slovakia offered spots for relocation, only 16 of these spots have been filled so far. Slovak uneasiness with relocations is not only conditioned by the simple reluctance of the government to take political risks. Slovakia is not an attractive destination country for asylum seekers. It does not have developed expat networks that can function to smoothen the cultural integration of newcomers and provide additional employment options. Sufficient state support to refugees is also lacking in Slovakia. The country’s complicated, often incoherent legal system makes it even harder for asylum seekers to receive legal status, appeal decisions, or understand their education, labour, health care and other rights and obligations.
Furthermore, asylum seekers lack information about Slovakia and the European asylum system in general while residing in Greece or Italy. This leads to their unwillingness to seek asylum in a country where they see no future or to a traumatic mismatch of their expectations and reality on the ground. As a result of these factors, Slovakia is unlikely to be able to fill the offered relocation spots.
That said, the government is not making sufficient or visible efforts to change the public and domestic perception of the country as a transit country. The lack of interest in and knowledge of Slovakia among asylum seekers is a rather convenient situation: it helps reduce the responsibility for introducing domestic changes that would involve political risks and long-term commitment.
There are, however, easy and rather safe steps that are currently lacking but could help the government. The inclusion and engagement of NGOs throughout the entire process, from the matching of asylum seekers with their host country to their actual relocation to the first months and years of the integration process, is particularly crucial in countries like Slovakia. Slovakia lacks a public sector with the capacities or know-how to integrate refugees or work with communities. NGOs are consequently there to fill the gap. Nevertheless, the government has yet to fully accept these offers of assistance from civil society.
Another area where the effort has slowed down and stagnated is in the adoption of the integration strategy for refugees. After a hectic attempt to develop the strategy during the Presidency, the migration office has yet again postponed the adoption of the strategy, reasoning that the number of refugees is too low to justify a broad state-supported systematic strategy.
Migrant workers: labour market needs and perceptions
The increased attention to refugees also brought back to the spotlight the issue of labour migration. For many Slovaks, the inflow of migrants to the EU is associated not just with people fleeing conflict but also and primarily with people who are seeking better life and employment opportunities. The aversion towards migrants among some segments of the population is also fuelled by the Slovak domestic unemployment rate. In March 2017, the official unemployment rate was registered at 8 percent, which is a noticeable decline from the 9.9 percent rate registered a year earlier.
Despite comparatively high domestic unemployment rates, employers often complain that there is a shortage of labour. The reasons for this vary from low level of formal employment participation among the Roma population to Slovaks not possessing the right skills for the labour market.
This situation creates an incentive for businesses to lobby for the increased participation of foreign workers in the domestic market. The main problems with recruiting foreign workers are lengthy administrative procedures and the requirement that employers prove that there is no Slovak who would qualify for the opening or be willing to take the job.
The government is facing a dilemma, however, between competing pressures, namely the call to improve domestic employment versus the desire to attract more foreign companies to relocate their manufacturing and service centres to Slovakia. Locals, however, are often not willing to take the relatively low-paid jobs in manufacturing or do not qualify for some higher paid jobs.
Under increasing pressure from the business sector, the Slovak Parliament passed legislation in March 2017 that would make the process of hiring non-EU citizens slightly easier. The new law primarily targets seasonal workers who will stay in Slovakia for more than 90 days and are employed as part of inter-corporate transfers. The amendments are not expected to lead to a significant surge in non-European arrivals to the labour market.
There have been suggestions from NGOs for the government to cooperate with businesses and create employment schemes for refugees. However, also due to the political sensitivity of the issue, there has not been much public advocacy on behalf of businesses in favour of these suggestions.
Until recently, migrant workers have not been a media target. In the winter of 2017, however, Serbian workers came to the spotlight. Several companies in Slovakia employ Serbians temporarily for low-skilled, low-paid jobs. However, the provision of cheap housing for the workers in residential areas and occasional conflicts that have occurred in bars has spurred dissatisfaction among local populations. Contacts with the local population generally remain low, owing to the migrants’ work schedule, limited resources, housing in the dormitories provided by the company, and lack of free time for integration opportunities. Furthermore, due to the temporary nature of employment, few Serbs have an incentive to integrate or deliberately seek more profound relations with local populations. Despite the relative proximity of the language and culture, Serbs hence often face a consequent communication gap and associated prejudices.
Overall, however, migrant workers do not constitute a noticeable enough group to lead to protracted tensions with the local population. Furthermore, many migrant workers are, in fact, well-integrated. The relatively high level of unemployment and the occasional media coverage of negative incidents related to migrants, however, contribute to the aversion towards migrants and refugees whom the public does not often properly distinguish from other types of foreigners.
The continuous role of civil society
The year 2015 witnessed a mobilization of civil society and a spike of activism and volunteering among various segments of the population. By the end of 2016, the involvement of the broader public returned to its usual level though.
NGOs that have traditionally worked with migrants and refugees continue their activities and remain vehement advocates for a more open migration policy of the country. Their activities range from providing legal and integration support to mitigating stereotypes about refugees, working with municipalities that have the potential to host refugees, and assisting asylum seekers in Greece.
Several NGOs have repeatedly offered support to the government in drafting and evaluating the integration strategy, selecting the refugees for relocation, implementing integration activities, and reforming the migration strategy of the government in general. In response to the 2015 crisis, the government established a coordination mechanism with NGOs. The mechanism is rather dysfunctional at the moment, however, and many NGOs complain that the government largely ignores their recommendations.
With no domestic elections or significant EU-wide migration-related decisions expected this year, Slovakia is likely to continue on its current track: lukewarm consent to the voluntary acceptance of a certain number of refugees (without any accompanying efforts to attract them), occasional domestic employment of the migration topic for political purposes (primarily driven by the nationalist parties), opportunistic but cautious support of the Visegrad Group in opposing mandatory relocations, and a more careful and diplomatic game at the EU level. With the Slovak Nationalist Party being part of the governing coalition and the far-right LSNS holding seats in Parliament, it is hardly conceivable to foresee major breakthroughs for government members like Most-Hid who are more open toward migration. There is also a danger of the main governing party SMER further sliding into nationalist rhetoric with the goal of distracting attention from re-emerging corruption scandals and compensating for a loss in popularity. The goal in such a case might be to attain increased support from the voters currently favouring nationalist parties.
At the EU level, Slovakia is likely to, or at least should be concerned with its prospects of becoming part of the core of a multi-speed Europe and the upcoming EU budget negotiations. A continuously obstructionist position would endanger the country’s prospects of participating in the most influential institutions or guaranteeing access to desired structural funds or other investments from the EU.
Slovakia is likely to do the minimum that can be claimed as a contribution to EU-wide solutions. With no clear recent comprehensive migration strategy of its own and many uncertainties at the EU level, Slovakia will have to improvise with its responses to migration-related challenges and adjust them to the new developments.
With many Western countries reversing their open-doors policies and with the emphasis on external migration management now being a legitimate European-wide approach, Slovakia might very well be able to retain or build up its relevance in the EU and secure budgetary benefits with significantly smaller concessions on migration issues than originally expected.