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Slovakia has been a haven for refugees from Ukraine. But for how long?

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By David Hutt
Refugees from Ukraine arrive to the border crossing Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, Tuesday, March 1, 2022.
Refugees from Ukraine arrive to the border crossing Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, Tuesday, March 1, 2022.   -   Copyright  Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved   -  

The central train station of Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, is something of a crossroads for Ukrainian refugees.

Iryna, a mother with two young girls who recently arrived from Lviv, is heading to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. “I have friends there who can help,” she says.

Anna, in her early 20s, is going westwards to Prague, the Czech capital, where she says he has connections because of her IT job.

A Slovak volunteer — one of many who waits patiently with families on the railway platforms, conversing mostly in Ukrainian or English — says the number of refugees passing through the central station has decreased in recent days, but he reckons they still need to help dozens each day, most heading westwards.

As of March 30, more than 283,300 Ukrainian refugees have entered Slovakia, according to a Slovak police statement. That accounts for around 5 percent of the population, almost the same percentage of refugees as the more populous Poland has now taken in.

On March 25, the Slovak Interior Ministry stated that of the refugees entering the country, more than 104,000, or two-fifths, were children.

It isn’t clear how many have decided to stay in Slovakia, a country of around five and a half million people. Under emergency laws, refugees can re-enter the country without any paperwork if they travel to other EU states or Ukraine.

Yana, who is seeing off two Ukrainian friends heading to the Czech Republic, says that she wants to stay in Bratislava. She has recently started part-time at a local school. Her children are set to soon start at a local school.

Just like other Europeans, Slovaks were shocked by the invasion, said Katarína Klingová, a senior research fellow at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, a Bratislava-based think tank.

“Many Slovaks opened their homes and offered accommodation to Ukrainian refugees,” she said. “Many went to the borders and offered free transportation; many provided financial help, food donations, and other supplies.”

Ukrainian is now broadcast alongside Slovak and English at public transport stations. The country’s flag hangs from windows and tower block balconies. The presidential palace in the capital has been lit up at night with the blue and yellow of Ukraine.

“I very much appreciate the approach of Slovak citizens for how they welcome the Ukrainian families,” Eduard Heger, the prime minister, told France24 in an interview on March 28.

“We’re trying to make a warm welcome for them,“ he added, “and Slovak citizens showed they have a big heart.”

But five weeks into the conflict, charities and front-liner workers warn that the government needs to do more to help.

A 24-hour, large-capacity assistance center was only opened in Bratislava this week. On March 23, the Slovakian parliament passed the so-called “Lex Ukraine”, a law aimed at making the life of Ukrainian refugees in Slovakia easier and more straightforward. But it wasn’t formally signed by Zuzana Čaputová, the president, until March 29.

The following day, the government agreed to an accommodation allowance for refugees, which will be paid by the state to hoteliers or households who put up refugees. Adults will have a stipend of €7 per night, and under-15s will get €3.50.

The response of the authorities has been good given that Slovakia has never experienced such a situation of mass arrivals of refugees, says Zuzana Števulová, executive director of the Human Rights League, a prominent Slovakian civic association.

But what is still missing is the financial support from the state, she added. So far, there has not been any emergency financial scheme for charities to compensate them for these services or to fund their activities.

If it wasn’t for private donors, “we would not be able to fund our presence and activities anymore,” Števulová said. “Therefore, we urgently need the state to provide us with support schemes.”

Since early March, Ukrainian refugees have been given the right to employment without a work permit and have access to basic healthcare, while children can attend schools and kindergartens.

But local newspapers report that schools in certain areas of the country are running out of space, yet there are ample places elsewhere in the country. NGO workers say there needs to be more connected thinking from the authorities.

Amid this, a political scandal has arisen in recent days. The Interior Ministry is under fire for giving a private company a €2.5 million contract to run a large-capacity crisis center in the eastern border town of Michalovce.

The firm selected is reportedly owned by the businessman Július Slovák, who had previously worked for the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party (OLaNO), one of the four parties in the coalition government.

Roman Mikulec, the interior minister and a member of OLaNO, says the firm was recommended to him by charities along the border.

Most deny this, according to local media reports. Opposition politicians are demanding an explanation why the company, which normally puts on corporate events, was selected for refugee relief work, and why it was selected without a public procurement process.

Others question why the government felt the need to privatize out such a task.

There’s talk of a vote of confidence motion against Mikulec in parliament. Even some of his coalition partners are turning on him. A financial watchdog is looking into the case.

Partly as a result of this controversy, the Interior Ministry’s director of crisis management, Marián Dritomský, resigned on March 29.

As the government tries to get its act together, there are concerns that public sentiment could turn sour.

“In the event of a long-term conflict in Ukraine, it will not be possible to maintain such a high level of enthusiasm in terms of volunteer capacity, finances, and accommodation for the refugees,” says Robert Vancel, of the Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica.

On top of that, Slovakia has long been a hotbed of Russian misinformation. Pro-Russian opinions have slightly dipped since Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, launched his invasion of Ukraine late last month.

But a significant share of the Slovak population remains sympathetic to Moscow. A survey released this week by the Slovak Academy of Sciences found that 34 percent of respondents believe that the war in Ukraine was deliberately provoked by Western powers and that Russia only responded to their provocation.

Some 28 percent believe Putin’s narrative that Russia wants to disarm and “de-nazify” Ukraine.

Klingová, of the GLOBSEC think-tank, warns that Russian propaganda channels in Slovakia are also trying to turn public opinion against Ukrainian refugees.

“Many disinformation outlets are trying to spin stories of Ukrainian refugees getting help and everything for free, while some Slovaks, including elderly, are not being taken care of,” she said.

The two issues aren’t separate, analysts say. Without more effective state funding for charities and relief workers, some will struggle to keep going, putting additional strains on state services. This, in turn, could exacerbate perceptions that Ukrainian refugees are receiving better treatment than Slovaks.

At the same time, without effective leadership from the government, the public could begin to feel that they bear the full burden of helping the refugees, a problem as the war in Ukraine is expected to lead to a noticeable increase in the cost of living.

Richard Sulík, the minister of economy, has suggested that the Ukraine war could have a bigger impact on Slovakia’s economy than the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, 78 percent of the country’s imported oil and refined products came from Russia. Forecasters have not yet revised their GDP growth forecasts for Slovakia this year.

The minister of labor, Milan Krajniak, said in mid-March that around 60,000 Ukrainian refugees would be able to find work before there is an impact on the Slovak labor force.

“It is important that the government finds ways to elevate the burden and pressure which is put on Slovak citizens and inhabitants,” says Števulová, of the Human Rights League.

“I believe this will be crucial in order to prevent a negative shift of public opinion towards refugees from Ukraine.”