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Slovakia: Will a rise in illegal migration sway voters?

September 22, 2023

In recent weeks, there has been a rise in the number of illegal migrants entering Slovakia from Hungary. Some say this is Hungarian PM Viktor Orban's way of trying to sway the upcoming election in Robert Fico's favor.

Illegal migrants walk along a dirt track as they cross the Slovak–Hungarian border near Vyskovce Nad Iplom, Slovakia, September 6, 2023
Slovakia has seen a rise in the number of illegal migrants entering the country from HungaryImage: Robert Nemeti/AA/picture alliance

Nove Zamky, a small town in southern Slovakia near the Slovak–Hungarian border has recently experienced an influx of illegal migrants, with hundreds temporarily settling in the town center.

The situation escalated late last month when 800 migrants from the Middle East, mostly from Syria, were brought to the nearby offices of the Foreign Police, the Slovak police unit tasked with handling migration on the ground. Although the migrants had not broken any laws, locals had complained about litter, noise, smells and people sleeping on the ground.

In August, illegal migration was only an issue in the towns and villages on the Slovak–Hungarian border. Now, however, less than 10 days before Slovakia goes to the polls to elect a new parliament, the problem has spread to other neighboring municipalities and even the capital, Bratislava, where migrants gathered at the main train station.

"It was a pretty terrible sight. There were people sleeping on mats, children in sleeping bags — they even dried their clothes on wires hung between the trees," says Tobias, a journalist who travels to Bratislava by train every day.

Today, there are hardly any migrants at the station; the local police have taken most of them to the premises of the Foreign Police unit.

Is Orban really behind the influx?

Even Slovak President Zuzana Caputova publically addressed the matter. Speaking in an interview on September 4, she noted that many migrants now in Slovakia had had no trouble entering the country from Hungary. She also expressed surprise that Hungary had released over 1,400 people from prison who had been sentenced for human trafficking and said she would like to discuss the matter with her Hungarian counterpart, Katalin Novak.

Some politicians, such as Frantisek Miklosko of the Christian Democratic Movement, claim that this sudden increase in illegal migration is actually the work of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who they think is trying to influence the result of the election on September 30 to help Robert Fico to victory.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures as he speaks at a lectern in front of the EU flag during a press conference at the Migration Summit in Vienna, July 7, 2023
Some Slovak politicians blame Hungarian PM Viktor Orban for the recent spike in illegal migrationImage: GEORG HOCHMUTH/APA/picture alliance

In several ways, three-time former PM Fico is very similar to Orban: Both men share a hostile attitude toward NATO and the European Union and a conciliatory stance toward Russia. Were Fico to lead the next Slovak government, Orban would gain a close ally.

"This is highly speculative," says Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava. "It's true that Orban released some smugglers from prison, but he's not doing anything like the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — he really pushed illegal migrants to the Polish border in 2021. But there is no evidence that Orban is doing the same," he told DW.

Meseznikov says that the only solution to the current situation would be cooperation between Slovakia and Hungary on the border between Hungary and Serbia.

Illegal migration doesn't seem to influence voters

Support for Fico's Smer-SD party has remained largely stable — even during the migration crisis. 

Slovakia's former PM and leader of the SMER-SD party Robert Fico addresses the crowd at his party's election campaign rally, Banovce nad Bebravou, Slovakia, September 14, 2023
If Robert Fico becomes the next PM of Slovakia, Viktor Orban would gain a close allyImage: Radovan Stoklasa/REUTERS

The latest poll from Focus Agency gives Smer 19% of the vote, that's one percentage point less than the last poll in August. On the other hand, support for Progressive Slovakia (PS), a party with a liberal migration policy, continues to grow steadily, with the party now polling at over 16%.

"Slovakia is no longer the xenophobic country it used to be," said Meseznikov. "There are over 100,000 migrants from Ukraine living and working here, and we have no issues with them. A lot of Slovaks have been convinced that migrants don't pose a threat to us," he added.

Right-wing focus on migration

Although voters' political preferences don't seem to be affected by illegal migration, parties like Republika or Smer are still trying to use it to their advantage.

Last week, members of Smer gathered in front of the offices of the government to protest what they see as the government's ineffective anti-migration policy.

Grigorij Meseznikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs, Bratislava
Grigorij Meseznikov believes the only way to curb illegal migration is for neighbors Hungary and Slovakia to cooperate on the Schengen border between Hungary and SerbiaImage: Privat

Their press conference was interrupted by the leader of the OLANO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities) movement, Igor Matovic, who sat in a pick-up truck loaded with speakers and loudly accused Smer, which headed the previous government, of itself having a weak anti-migration policy. The situation escalated into a scuffle between Matovic and former Interior Minister Robert Kalinak (Smer).

OLANO is currently polling at 6%.

Slovakia a transit country for migrants

Security expert Radovan Branik says that most migrants want to make their journey to Western Europe as easy as possible. "Illegal migrants are usually only passing through Slovakia. They stay a few days, but they really want to get to Germany," he told DW.

Many people from the Middle East come to Slovakia in the hope of getting a universal document that will allow them to stay in the European Union. This, however, is a false hope.

Ludovit Odor speaks in front of the Czech and Slovak flags during a press conference in Prague, Czech Republic, July 4, 2023
Interim Prime Minister Ludovit Odor tried in vain to change legislation to stop Slovak Police issuing a document many migrants come to Slovakia to obtain in the erroneous belief it will allow them to stay in the EUImage: Vit Simanek/CTK/picture alliance/dpa

"There is no such document," explained Branik. "Slovakia only issues a paper that serves as a confirmation of their stay in our country. Illegal smugglers often lie to the immigrants and tell them that this paper is valid in all EU countries. They usually end up bitterly disappointed."

Failed attempt to change the law

The confirmation document mentioned by Branik is unique among European countries and acts as a pull on illegal migrants. It was introduced in 2018 by Robert Fico's government and former Interior Minister Robert Kalinak.

Interim PM Ludovit Odor tried to stop Slovak Police issuing the document, but couldn't get the relevant bill through parliament.

Most of the parties who shout the loudest about illegal migration (such as Smer or Republika) did not attend the relevant session of parliament, which meant that there were not enough lawmakers present for a debate on the anti-migration bill introduced by the prime minister.

Radovan Branik thinks there is not much the current government can do to change the situation. He says that the only effective solution would be to have EU-funded camps in the states that border the Schengen Area, such as Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I visited the border between Slovakia, Hungary and Austria," he told DW. "I saw migrants hiding in a corn field ten meters from me. They wait for the Hungarian forces to change their shift. When a police car on the Slovak side leaves, they run into Slovakia; as soon as our police officers try to approach them, they run into Austria and then back into Hungary. It's impossible to guard these borders," he said.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan

A red-haired woman (Sona Otajovicova) stands beside a large shrub and smiles into the camera
Sona Otajovicova Bratislava-based Slovakia correspondent