When Visegrad countries opposed the EU migration plan, which aimed to (re)distribute asylum seekers and refugees to Member States, many were surprised by such vocal and strong opposition. Since then, the reasons shaping the policy responses of Visegrad have come under the spotlight – lack of experience with migration, anti-Muslim sentiments, populism, nationalism and/or fear.
All these explanations are valid, but there are few more, which I would like to highlight. They concern some frames, which have been shaping discussion on migration among policy makers in Slovakia. These frames are important to understand if we want to achieve a properly functioning common EU asylum system.
The Slovak response to the migration agenda has very much focused on externalization of refugee protection and migration. This is clear from having a closer look at proposals which the Slovak EU presidency presented recently as “effective” solidarity. Here Slovakia focuses on tools and means allowing for limiting/blocking access to Europe (border patrols), shifting the problem to someone else (sending officers to review asylum claims abroad or sending money to other countries instead of taking in refugees permanently), or getting rid of the problem (by helping with deportations).
The important question is what the origin of such a perspective is. I believe that part of the answer is in the unspoken frames in which Slovak policy makers, but also other stakeholders in Europe, think about migration and refugee protection in their country and in other similar, not only Visegrad, countries.
Firstly, Slovak migration and asylum policy has very much been influenced by entering the EU and Schengen. Especially when it comes to entering Schengen zone, the urge to fulfil the criteria for having thorough border security in place in order to effectively protect the external border with Ukraine, has been strong a determinant. A look at statistics shows that Slovaks have been very effective in border security as the number of entries of asylum seekers (2007: 2642 applications, 2016: 109 applications) and detected cases of irregular migration at the Ukrainian border (2007: 1684 illegal entries, 2016: 72) has been on a steady decline since the country entered Schengen in 2007. And Slovakia has been praised for its ability to patrol its border effectively, with its interior ministry holding regular press conferences highlighting successful technical and other innovations helping to keep the border impenetrable. From here stems the shortcut to confidence that if we collectively improve our border security and border measures, no migrants and no refugees will have any opportunity chance to enter.
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Secondly, there is a transit country frame. The self-perception of Slovakia and other Visegrad countries as transit countries determines their understanding of which tools of common EU asylum and migration policy would work, because “refugees do not want to stay here”. This might have been true for many refugees who have been crossing through our country for many years. On the other hand, if the country does not believe that it should be attractive for refugees, that determines the kind of message that it sends to whoever enters its territory as an asylum seeker.
Regarding ourselves as a transit station also determines which rules should be obeyed. Asylum seekers who entered Schengen through Slovakia and applied for asylum here have rarely been discouraged from leaving the country.
And there are others who support and share the understanding of transit countries. The asylum seekers, if they left Slovakia, have rarely been returned. This has not been simply because of failures in the Dublin system. Cases are being brought to the courts regularly in order to rule that some members of the common asylum system have systemic deficiencies preventing them from providing proper care for refugees.
Indeed, there are countries that simply have ignored their obligations to provide dignified reception conditions for refugees, countries whose system is broken or countries which deliberately choose to become “unfit” for refugees. And yes, returning to such conditions may be dangerous for some refugees.
The central message we send to refugees and to others is that we ourselves do not believe that Visegrad countries, Baltic countries or Southern EU countries are good enough for refugees to return and stay there. And this message is being handed on to their friends and families, to migrant communities here and in the countries of origin.
Today we have clients who would rather prefer to stay six months in a detention centre than to apply for asylum in Slovakia, hoping to reach their idealised country of destination once they are released. They got the message that the only solution for them is to reach Germany, France, Sweden or some other dream country to the West, where the conditions would be better.
No wonder that Slovak policy makers, who also have this feedback, are unconvinced that refugees would wish to stay here if forcibly relocated.
Breaking this circle requires efforts from all of us. Achieving a functioning common asylum system is not only about equal conditions in all Member States. It is very much about frames and mind-sets in which these conditions and policies are conceived and implemented. All EU Member States should regard themselves as destination countries and they should be encouraged to think and act in that manner. Keeping the division – practical and mental – into transit and destination countries leads us nowhere. Once we succeed in changing our mind-sets, we would be ready to expect the same from refugees and build their trust in the system. We would do this by introducing protection programs – such as resettlement, visa schemes, scholarships; and measures – such as matching programs, intra-EU mobility rights for protection holders, which would motivate refugees to bide by the rules and settle in countries with confidence in and hope for the future.
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This column is part of a project Social Europe runs with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung offices in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Zuzana Števulová is director of Slovak NGO Human Rights League (Liga za ludske prava), which focuses on human rights and inclusion of refugees and migrants. In 2016, she received International Women of Courage Award by U.S. State Dept. for her activities for inclusion of refugees in Slovakia.