Visegrád and migration: Few prospects for a change in position

Despite the refugee crisis continuing, particularly in camps in Greece (pictured) and Italy, the V4 countries remain opposed to mandatory relocation. [Giannis Papanikos/ Shutterstock]

With Slovakia handing over the EU presidency to Malta and agreement on a new EU asylum system out of sight, the Visegrád Group remains in opposed to compulsory refugee relocation. EURACTIV Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, and Budapest’s Political Capital, report.

“The effective application of the principles of responsibility and solidarity remains a shared objective,” read the conclusions of the December European Council on the internal aspects of migration.

The Slovak Presidency has framed this wording as a “success”, claiming it means that the “effective solidarity” concept that would allow countries to choose how they want to contribute to common efforts in the migration crisis thus avoid actually taking in refugees, and it has gained overall support.

The situation is more complex, however. Slovakia has handed over the large migration dossier to the Maltese Presidency in the Council largely untouched. National positions differ even among the Western countries.

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Looming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany will hardly make finding a compromise easier this year. The Visegrád Group (V4) – Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary – has emerged in the debate as a regional “player” with substantial convergence in the debate.

Apart from unanimous support for the “flexible”, later “effective solidarity”, it advocates cooperation with third countries via a Migration Compacts, copying agreement with Turkey and protection of EU external borders, where they are ready to increase commitments.

As a matter of shared priority, the Visegrád Group calls for a return to the full application of the Schengen deal.

In this cooperative article, we take a closer look at where the debate and situation stands in every respective country of the Visegrád Group.

Slovakia: The Presidency effect

At the beginning of 2016, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico infamously stated that he wants to “prevent a creation of a coherent Muslim community in the country”. It was at the height of the election campaign, where the migration crisis took centre stage in a country with virtually no migrants and refugees. Polls between spring and autumn 2015 showed a sharp rise in people considering migration one of the most important issues the country and the EU is facing.

Since the emergence of the independent state in 1993, and after it joined the EU in 2004, Slovakia adopted and maintained very strict and dissuasive migration and asylum policies, opposing any proposal for further harmonisation and burden sharing initiatives at EU level.

Despite its history as a multiethnic environment and having considerable Hungarian and Roma minorities, the country adheres to a platform of “cultural homogeneity”, supported by a political consensus on the matter.

After the rise of migration as a central EU issue, it found a way towards domestic political discourse. The government dominated by centre-left party SMER-SD has strongly framed the problem in the narrative of security issue and problem of cultural incompatibility of largely Muslim migrants. This was strengthened in the wake of the general elections. Robert Fico has won his third mandate, although not without loss of absolute control.

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The European Union’s tug of war over how to share out the burden of caring for asylum-seekers is not over, Slovakia’s interior minister said on Friday (9 December) after six months of trying unsuccessfully to bridge differences between member states.

Despite being clearly pro-European, the government did not shy away from speaking of “EU dictates” once the compulsory relocation scheme was on the table. It filed a lawsuit against the Council decision on a temporary relocation scheme, seconded by Hungary.

The rhetoric was toned down during the Slovak Presidency. The protection of the EU’s external borders remained a central speaking point. “This level of porousness of the borders is potentially deadly for the prestige of the EU, its administrative, political and social absorption capacity,” Ambassador-at-Large for Migration Igor Slobodník said to EURACTIV.sk.

The Slovak proposal for effective solidarity has clearly failed to get every member state on board. Nevertheless, diplomats say it managed to calm the debate.

“You will never hear me praise this concept as ideal. The name ‘flexible’ solidarity is unfortunate, but the system, based on one manifestation of solidarity, is unsustainable,” the government plenipotentiary of the Slovak EU Council Presidency Ivan Korčok said.

He argues there can be no change in the Dublin rule, as it would constitute a pull factor. “This is not how Schengen can survive,” he added.

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Far-reaching harmonisation of asylum procedures as envisaged in the draft proposals on the European Commission seem to be a no-go for Slovakia as well.

Any reform of the Common Asylum System must not bypass it, claims Zuzan Števulová of the NGO League for Human Rights. “Also, if we really want to build a common asylum system, there is no place for a transition country in it,” she says. At the same time, Števulová says that it would irresponsible if the concerns of countries such as those in Visegrád Group are taken lightly.

At the end of 2015, Slovakia had voluntarily resettled 149 Iraqi Christians, who obtained asylum on humanitarian grounds. “To this day only 89 stayed. The rest have returned to Iraq citing homesickness,” says Petra Achbergerová, director of the migration and integration department at the Migration office.

For the time being, Slovakia has pledged to take in 100 refugees from Greece on a voluntary basis and is offering 500 scholarships to Syrian teenagers. It also helped Austria,by temporarily housing more than 1000 refugees applying for asylum in Austria.

NGOs and volunteers showed a high level of engagement during the height of the refugee crisis, helping and organising help for refugees on their way via the Balkan route.\

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Czech Republic: Commitment to borders

Migration has also become one of the dominant political topics of the past two years. Public debate on migration radicalised and a new anti-immigration movement has been established, which includes the Party of Direct Democracy, the sixth most successful party in the regional elections in 2016.

Despite that, the real policy maintains the same direction, as it was before the start of the crisis, says Miroslav Mareš, a professor of political science at Masaryk University. Government and activist activities have intensified, such as Czech police deployments to Greece, and NGOs helping refugees on their journey through Europe.

According to the Czech Interior Ministry, the current European Asylum System does not work well. The ministry is also critical of the proposed revision.

“Even if we manage to enforce the proposed system, it will not lead to a significant reduction in the influx of migrants,” said ministry spokeswoman Hana Malá. The revision of the Dublin Regulation containing redistribution of migrants is the most problematic part.

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The Ministry of Interior claims that redistribution should not be obligatory. The Czech Republic supports the Slovak concept of “effective solidarity”, but it would offer greater involvement in the activities of the European Asylum Agency and the European Board and Coastal Guards instead of accepting redistributed refugees.

NGO positions differ from those of the Czech government. One example is an alternative concept by Martin Rozumek from the Organization for Aid to Refugees and Zuzana Števulová from the League for Human Rights in Bratislava. The authors say that V4 countries should propose a European asylum system based on a harmonised asylum procedure and successful applicants would gain an EU-wide stay permit.

Around 1,500 people per year apply for asylum in the Czech Republic. Syrians and Afghans represent a minimum of them. According to Zuzana Schreiberová from non-profit organisation Multicultural Centre Prague it is because of the bad conditions in detention facilities where migrants are placed.

“The vast majority of them choose to continue to other countries, mainly to Germany,” explained Schreiberová. The Czech Republic accepts a limited number of refugees. Every third applicant for asylum is successful.

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Hungary: Hotspots outside Schengen

The Hungarian Fidesz-KDNP government has overcome a period of falling popularity by exploiting the refugee crisis.

Hungary was the first to erect a fence to keep migrants away from the country’s borders and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rejected the quota mechanism from the very beginning, advocating the protection of the EU’s external borders instead.

To many, the Fidesz-KDNP government’s policies induced xenophobic attitudes in society by its constant anti-immigrant campaigns and the criminalisation of asylum-seekers.

For example, Orbán claimed that all terrorists are migrants. The question is only when they arrived in Europe. According to research Institute Tárki, xenophobia reached an all-time high in Hungary last year (58%).

The referendum in October 2016 was invalid but 98% of the 3.3 million people casting a vote were against refugee relocation quotas.

“The Hungarian government’s response to the refugee crisis was motivated by domestic political goals, mainly its desire to cement its own power through artificially sustaining an air of anxiety,” said former Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky, who believes it was impossible to refer to the invalid referendum as a success in Brussels.

In contrast, Sándor Gallai, director of research at the Institute of Migration Research, says that the government’s measures are founded on value-based political motivations.

“The Orbán government is supporting the idea of an ethnically homogenous society that matches the opinion of Hungarians; it wants to solve demographic problems through family policy instead of immigration,” said Gallai.

The Hungarian government sees the solution for the migration crisis in the establishment of hotspots outside of the Schengen Zone and not in the distribution of asylum-seekers between member states.

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“No one can be forced to settle someone in their country, aid must be taken to where the problem is, meaning that asylum applications must be decided outside of the EU,” said Zalán Zsolt Csenger, the Fidesz-affiliated vice president of the Hungarian National Assembly’s foreign policy committee.

The Hungarian government’s view is that acts of solidarity cannot be restricted to the relocation mechanism and it considers it downright unacceptable that those unwilling to participate in it would be forced to pay a fine.

Most asylum-seekers only pass through the country. “Last year, around 30,000 asylum applications were filed, by the end of last November, 398 people had been granted refugee status or subsidiary protection,” said Márta Pardavi, the co-president of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

Currently, there are about 500 individuals in refugee reception centres, part of them in heated conditions but those accommodated in Körmend have to survive the winter in military tents.

Márta Pardavi claims that by dissolving the refugee centres in Debrecen and Bicske, the government knowingly reformed the system to encourage asylum-seekers to leave the country as fast as possible.

Nevertheless, there is one positive development. Although civil society organisations (CSOs) are increasingly restricted from accessing refugees, CSOs established in 2015 (Migszol, Segítsünk együtt a menekülteknek [Help the refugees together]) continue to help those in need through non-financial donations and food, while religious organisations are also increasingly active in this area.

As the government gradually disengaged from fulfilling its role, these civilians practically took over its duties.

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Poland: Helping countries of origin

Poland is one of the main opponents of the redistribution of refugees among the member states and to date it has not taken in a single refugee from Greece or Italy.

While the issue does not take the centre stage in such a way as in Hungary, for instance, the Polish government time and time again has voiced its opposition to actually being made to take some of asylum-seekers into the country.

Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak has said that he thinks the Polish approach is a “sensible option”and that the redistribution mechanism is “a way to attract more migrants” rather than a solution.

The minister said that Poland would do its part through helping countries of origin. Nevertheless, actions in that respect also seem to be lacking, according to Jacek Białas from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. He describes the government’s approach as “weak, negative, reluctant or even hostile”.

The Polish approach to migration cannot be fully understood without understanding the current government of Poland and discourse of conflict. It presents the world to its electorate by dividing it between ‘us’ and ‘them’: ‘us’ and ‘the opposition’, ‘us’ and the ‘liberal elites’.

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In such a context, refugees make for a very useful and convenient ‘them’ to be presented as a threat.

Unfortunately, such language helps encourage violence. Sylwia Spurek, the deputy Ombudsman, told euractiv.pl that without a strong signal from the government opposing it, the mood of xenophobia would only grow in Poland.

She stressed that since the last election, Ombudsman Adam Bodnar asked for a complex action plan for admitting refugees to Poland, which would include a mechanism for creating a Willkommenskultur for refugees.