In recent months, the Slovak government has been strongly criticized by EU-member states for its anti-migration attitude and European media have commented on the refusal to take in 800 refugees via the EU relocation scheme. Slovakia – along with other Visegrad (V4) countries – has been accused of failing to show solidarity with other member states and standing by in this crisis. In all this rhetoric the recent parliamentary elections on March 5 have played a crucial role as the re-elected Prime Minister Robert Fico based his election campaign on a strong anti-immigrant rhetoric and fear-mongering against Muslim migrants; “We protect Slovakia” was the slogan posted on billboards across the country.
The ‘politics of fear’ has substantially shaped public discourse on this issue. In effect, Fico’s populism has marginalised pro-EU and pro-refugee voices, and opened the door to radical extremists. An extreme-right group, the People´s Party – Our Slovakia, entered parliament for the first time, with 8% of the votes and 14 of its 150 seats.
While Slovakia (and the V4 in general) were pictured in this very negative way, neighbouring countries like Austria and Germany were praised for their “Willkommenskultur” underlined with pictures of individuals handing over food and clothes to refugees arriving at the railway stations.
But is this really the whole picture? Are Slovak and V4 societies ignorant and without any empathy for people escaping war?
A closer look reveals a growing grassroots movement in Slovakia’s civil society demonstrating solidarity and goodwill and offering practical assistance to European partners overwhelmed by high numbers of asylum-seekers. The main actors are a diverse mix of civil society leaders, Catholic organizations and charities, artists, liberal media and – as the most visible political figure – the Slovak President Andrej Kiska. President Kiska – à la Václav Havel – has repeatedly warned attitudes to refugees ‘will define the heart and soul’ of the future Europe and Slovakia. He has also emphasised that tens of thousands of migrants from different cultures and continents have smoothly integrated into Slovak society in the last two decades. To highlight a positive narrative that can be built upon, he even invited migrant families from Afghanistan and Africa to his office.
A galvanizing incident for solidarity was reports in August 2015 of a refrigeration truck (purchased by traffickers in Slovakia) found just beyond the Slovak border in Austria with the bodies of 71 refugees suffocated to death – the country was profoundly shocked. An online petition titled “Plea for Humanity” was set up and within a week gathered over 10,000 signatures in support of refugees. Moreover, a coalition of religious groups organized a network of volunteers around the country called “Who helps?” offering housing for 2000 refugees. The organizers of the “Plea for Humanity” petition were later received by PM Fico and, without much publicity, invited by the Ministry of Interior to join talks about a new national strategy for integration of asylum-seekers into Slovak society.
While advocacy campaigns were launched, volunteers based in the Slovak capital – close to the border between Hungary and Austria – began effective grass-root efforts to support refugees passing nearby with humanitarian assistance. Coordinated through Facebook, groups of volunteers, doctors and ambulances were at first hand helping at the border crossing between Hungary and Austria at Hegyeshalom, (only 35 km from Bratislava), working alongside Hungarian NGOs and thus filling a gap left by an indifferent Hungarian government. Initially, donations in kind and in cash kept up the momentum. When the Hungarian government closed the country’s borders, many of those grass-root efforts followed the refugees’ route and re-organized.
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One remarkable initiative is the field hospital that is operated by volunteers from the Health Care College of Saint Elisabeth in Bratislava, who moved to the Croatian-Slovenian border at the beginning of early December 2015 providing healthcare to several thousand refugees until the closure of the “Balkan route”. With its closure the activists will now move with their field hospital to Greece, where plenty of their fellow countrymen and women have already been delivering donations in goods and provide voluntarily aid to refugees for several months. The hospital is financially supported by private donors, Catholic organisations, as well as the Slovak government, that earmarked special funding for immediate humanitarian assistance for this purpose.
Meanwhile, many volunteers from Bratislava contribute to supporting refugees located across the border in Austria, focusing on refugee camps that are only 20 or 30 minutes’ drive away. Since January 2016, in the Austrian village of Potzneusiedl, the grassroots group “cook4refugee” delivers hot meals every Saturday. In so doing, the volunteers support the Austrian welfare organisation Samariterbund that is running the camp as it allows them to save costs on food delivery from Vienna (almost an hour away by car) and moreover, the volunteers also offer a variety of activities to the inhabitants of the camp. For the time being, all these signs of solidarity with refugees have been hardly reported in the media outside Slovakia. Nevertheless, on March 29 the director of the Slovak Human Rights League, Zuzana Stevulova, was one of 14 women worldwide to be awarded the Women of Courage Award by the US State Secretary, John Kerry, for her long-term commitment to integration and legal aid for refugees.
Interestingly enough, behind closed doors their efforts and activities are even supported by the Slovak government. Moreover, it has quietly been preparing for some ’voluntary’ relocations as part of the recent EU – Turkey deal. Without much fanfare, the Fico government also arranged a bilateral deal with Austria to receive 500 Syrian asylum-seekers (registered in Austria) for temporary housing in an empty asylum centre in Gabčíkovo, while their applications are processed in Vienna. The Austrian Ministry of Interior calls this a positive example of cooperation between EU neighbours in the treatment of refugees. On a permanent basis Slovakia – in cooperation with a private Catholic initiative – has just recently accepted a group of 150 Iraqi Christians from areas near Mosul controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS).
Beyond the West
As the above outlined examples (and many more could be added) of civil society engagement clearly illustrate, solidarity with refugees is not exclusively reserved for “Western” European civil societies. Just like anywhere else, there is also in Slovakia an active civil society that expresses solidarity and humanity with those in need. However, their efforts are overshadowed in the country and abroad by a strong negative political discourse that does not acknowledge the efforts and contribution Slovaks are making to their European partners.
This, and the fact that many Slovaks face a very demanding socio-economic situation – the minimum wage is just €400 which many don’t even get and there is an average wage of €800 in Bratislava and one of €600 in the rest of the country with grocery prices as high as in neighbouring Austria – would deserve not accusations from fellow Europeans but acknowledgment and respect. What’s more, when you walk with sharp eyes through the streets of Bratislava one can see here and there bilingual street graffiti with a very clear message: “Refugees welcome – Utečenci vitajte!”
This column is part of a project Social Europe runs with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung offices in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Milan Nič is Research Director at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute (formerly CEPI) in Bratislava. He worked as journalist at the RFE/RL, consultant in Bosnia and Hercegovina, and senior advisor at the Slovak Foreign Ministry. In 2010, he co-authored a book of essays on the EU and Slovak foreign policy. Claire Sturm is a German-Mexican living in Bratislava whose volunteering work with refugees began in September 2015 at the Hungarian-Austrian border and continues today with cook4refugee. She holds an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University.