Slovakia turning from transitional to target country for refugees?


United Nations' World Refugee Day was marked this past week. Since 1992 Slovakia has hosted around 45,000 refugees from all around the world. As a member of the EU it's possible that the flow of refugees into and through Slovakia will increase.

In the days of communism Slovaks were often among those seeking help and asylum in foreign countries. Now democratic and free, Slovakia is in a position to provide this kind of help to people in need. These are often people of great courage, willing to leave their country and loved ones behind to escape unrest, oppression or political persecution.

Until recently Slovakia tended to be a transitional country for asylum seekers says Maria Cierna, public information officer of the UNHCR branch office in Slovakia. However, in the last 2-3 years and mainly since its accession into the EU Slovakia is no longer a starting point for refugees traveling and seeking asylum further west.

"Slovakia has started to be more and more the country of destination, the country of asylum. Or at least the asylum seekers would really like to stay in this country and start their new life here."

... says Maria Cierna from UNHCR Slovakia. However, some argue this is not true and that most of the asylum seekers are economic migrants wanting to continue further west.

In comparison to the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland or Hungary Slovakia has registered a very high increase in the number of asylum seekers. In 2004 the number went over 11,000. But the percentage of positive decisions, granting refugee status is extremely low. Maria Cierna:

"Only 15 refugees with granted asylum have been allowed to stay in Slovakia."

In the Czech Republic, Poland or Hungary the number of approved asylum claims is incomparably higher than in Slovakia. And the reason for this? Maria Cierna from UNHCR:

"The legislation of the European Union in the area of asylum and migration is very strictly implemented in the concrete procedure with the asylum seekers. Sometimes even in a restrictive way."

In the eyes of UNHCR this restrictive policy is discouraging asylum seekers but also supporting smugglers and contributing to a growing number of refugees who simply disappear. To see what the situation is really like, I went to a refugee camp in Gabcikovo. I talked to a number of young men from countries like Congo, Nigeria and Afghanistan, and brought up the sensitive question, whether they really wanted to stay in Slovakia or only saw it as a transit country.

"... I haven't traveled before. This is my first time in Europe and Slovakia was the first place I went to. I would love to stay here until everything is settled down. I feel like staying here, because there is peace and safety for me here ..."

"... Slovakia doesn't give anyone a chance, because they say Slovakia is a transit country. But no! I'm not going anywhere. I asked for asylum in Slovakia and I want to settle down here..."

"... These people are staying here 1, 2, 3 years, they are spoiling their work ability, spirit, everything. But everybody would like to stay here. The people, the government, everything is nice here. But this is the problem. Nobody can work, we can't study or visit schools and nobody has any ambition or chance to do something here..."

... say asylum seekers in Gabcikovo. European Union legislation states that refugees requesting asylum in one EU country can't request it anywhere else in the Union and if caught will be transported back to the first country of asylum request. Transitional or not, asylum or economy migrants, refugees In Gabcikovo say one thing is essential:

"I think everyone should consider our problems as problems of human beings."