Study: Cautious Slovaks take EU approach to refugees

Comenius researcher on Slovak discourse about refugees: “Their first idea is an economic migrant coming from a peaceful country seeking economic benefits. Later, they acknowledge those fleeing war should receive support and formulate conditions.” [George Laoutaris / Flickr]

Central European member states are reluctant to accept refugees. The Slovak government filed a lawsuit against the relocation scheme, followed by Hungary. The European Court of Justice ruled against Poland and the Czech Republic. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

Visegrad governments often indulge harsh rhetoric, speak of “migrants”, not “asylum seekers”, highlight security concerns and argue that they only respond to the negative stance of their respective societies.

In June, a public opinion poll in Poland by IBRIS for the weekly Polityka found that 51% of respondents would prefer the country to leave the EU rather than accept refugees from Muslim countries. In the same survey, 57% said they would renounce EU funds over it, if this was the choice.

Polls in Slovakia measure the willingness of accepting refugees in low numbers as well. Nevertheless, a new international research project on the roots of Euroscepticism in Slovakia and elsewhere (CODES – Comprehending and Debating Euroscepticism) looked deeper into the way people spontaneously contemplate the EU, its problems and in this context, migration.

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The European Commission on Wednesday (26 July) stepped up its legal case against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland over their reluctance to take in migrants from other EU countries, after an adviser to the EU’s top court dismissed a challenge brought by Slovakia and Hungary.

During many discussions in the region with focus groups, researchers from Comenius University in Bratislava took interest in spontaneous public debates about the EU’s problems.

When discussions focused on the migration issue, a moderator would pose the following question: “If the EU forced Slovakia to accept 1000 refugees, would that be a reason to leave the EU?”

The prevailing answer was always no.

In their first reactions, participants did not distinguish between economic migrants and people seeking asylum, political scientists and lecturer at the Comenius University Pavol Baboš noted.

“Their first idea is an economic migrant coming from a peaceful country seeking economic benefits. Later, as the discussion unfolds, they begin to separate. They acknowledge those fleeing war should receive support and formulate conditions.”

The most frequently mentioned conditions were that asylum seekers should start learning the Slovak language, state authorities should have information about them so that the security risks are minimised, and that they should respect our rules.

“What is surprising is, that those are conditions that form part of a standard asylum procedure, but people do not realize that,” Baboš explained.

“They do not know that learning Slovak is part of the integration program for those awarded asylum.”

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The researcher added that while it is legitimate for the government to take public opinions into account, it should not stop at saying people are afraid, but use the opportunity to explain how the asylum process works, how Slovakia is free to choose whom to grant asylum and design programs for integration.

“The debates are less passionate when we compare them with discussions we held within other projects a year ago. It is still a source of negative perception for the EU, but a majority of the people acknowledge that the world is not black or white and they still see the benefits of membership prevailing.”

That is not a reason for complacency, Baboš says. Even though the support of the EU is relatively high, the trend is clear – Euroscepticism is on the rise even in Slovakia.

The negatives are being mostly connected to ones personal economic situation, the narratives in the focus groups suggest.

“Our fear is that if the people will not feel the membership in the EU in the increase of their standard of living, Eurosceptic sentiments can grow further,” Baboš concluded.