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Illegal migration puts Slovakia into Schengen isolation

November 18, 2022

The excellent relations between Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been strained recently by the latter's reintroduction of border checks to stem illegal immigration.

Austrian policemen check passports at the Slovakian border to Austria in Kittsee, Austria
Austrian policemen check passports at the Slovakian border to Austria after controls were reintroduced at the end of SeptemberImage: Theresa Wey/AP/picture alliance

Slovakia has been part of the Schengen Area for the past 13 years. For over a decade, motorists were able to drive unhindered from Slovakia to neighboring countries like the Czech Republic or Austria.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on freedom of movement in the European Union. It saw the return of border checks between countries where they had long been forgotten.

When the EU relaxed its COVID rules, most Europeans breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that border controls would once again become a thing of the past. For Slovakia, however, it didn't take long to find itself in a state of isolation again.

Soldiers in masks at the Slovak–Austrian border Bratislava-Berg during the Corona pandemic in March 2021
Border checks were reintroduced between many European countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they were here on the Slovak–Austrian border in 2021Image: Jaroslav Novák/TASR/dpa/picture alliance

On September 29, the Czech Republic and Austria decided to reintroduce border controls with Slovakia — not for quarantine reasons, but because of rising numbers of illegal migrants crossing its borders.

Illegal migration an issue right across the EU

Illegal migration has put pressure on most European countries in recent years. This year alone, Germany has reported a 254% increase in Turkish refugees on 2021. According to the UN, 85,000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat this year alone.

Slovakia has stopped 4,466 migrants trying to illegally cross its borders since the beginning of controls in late September. Most illegal migrants entering the country come from Syria and take the so-called "Balkan Route."

Map showing the route taken by migrants to Germany via the "Balkan route"

They try to enter the Schengen Area from Hungary, whose border with Serbia is part of the EU's external frontier. Hungary has stopped 235,000 people for illegally crossing the border since the beginning of the year.

A rare quarrel between 2 brotherly states

Controls on the Czech and Slovak borders have been going on for over a month now and the Slovak public is outraged.

The Czech Republic is Slovakia's closest political ally. The two countries coexisted in the same state from 1918 until 1939, when they were forcibly torn apart by Nazi Germany. After World War II, the two states renewed their union and remained together until 1993, when the independent Slovak and Czech republics came into existence.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (right) and his Slovak counterpart Eduard Heger (left)
Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger (left) hopes that his Czech counterpart, Petr Fiala (right), will halt border checks between the two countries sooner rather than laterImage: Katerina Sulova/dpa/CTK/picture alliance

Nevertheless, the two states' declarations of independence did not break the strong bond between them. To this day, there is a close relationship between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which is why so many Slovaks are shocked by recent events.

"The situation between the Czech and Slovak republics cannot continue like this," said Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger after last week's meeting of the Security Council of the Slovak Republic, announcing his intention to visit the Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala in Prague in the hope of settling the matter once and for all.

Czechs keen to continue border controls

Despite Heger's hope that the borders would be reopened and free movement between Slovakia and the Czech Republic reestablished, Fiala announced prolonged controls that will continue at least until December 13. If the Czechs want to continue the border checks after that, they will need approval from the European Commission.

Migrants walk along train tracks near the Serbian–Hungarian border
This year alone, Hungary has stopped 235,000 people for illegally crossing its border with Serbia, which is part of the EU's external frontierImage: Darko Vojinovic/dpa/AP/picture alliance

Slovakia is not at all happy about the arrangement, especially as officials consider the controls unjustified. "Controls at internal Schengen borders should only take place during life-threatening situations," said Stefan Hamran, chief of the Slovak Police, in a media statement. "Migration is not one of them. There is no safety hazard to permit such controls. The Czechs are trying to return the migrants to Slovakia, but in doing so, they are breaking the Schengen Agreement."

Both sides want to continue the dialogue

The Czech side rejects these claims and argues that returning the migrants is in line with remittance legislation. "First of all, we want to ensure the safety of the citizens of the Czech Republic," said Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan in a media statement.

Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan
Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan has said that the country's priority is to 'ensure the safety of the citizens of the Czech Republic'Image: RADEK MICA/AFP via Getty Images

According to Czech PM Petr Fiala, the controls are simply a preventive measure to discourage illegal migrants from using the route through the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech side says it wants to reach an agreement with Slovakia, and officials from both sides have agreed to continue the dialogue about border control.

Most migrants want to head west

Migrants who are sent back to Slovakia from the Czech Republic are put in a camp in Kuty, a small town on the Czech–Slovak border. The camp, which was opened by the Slovak Interior Ministry shortly after the crisis began, can hold over 150 people. According to the press department at the Interior Ministry, migrants are given basic care and the camp is monitored.

Migrants spend their time at a tent camp in Kuty, near the Czech-Slovak border, Slovakia, November 10, 2022
The Slovak Interior Ministry has set up a camp for about 150 migrants in the small town of Kuty on the Czech–Slovak borderImage: Radovan Stoklasa/REUTERS

Records show that most migrants only stay for two to three days because Slovakia is not their final destination. Slovak authorities say that most of the migrants want to go further west, mainly to Germany.

As most of the migrants come from Syria, which is in a state of war, Slovakia cannot send them back to their country of origin. No media reports or official statements from the Interior Ministry suggest that Slovakia is trying to stop them crossing into other countries.

Slovakia calling for protection of the EU's external border

Slovak authorities dismiss the idea of internal border controls within the Schengen Area. According to Slovak officials, such controls are not only unjustified, they are also ineffective. "Protecting the outer borders of Schengen should be the priority," said Slovak Interior Minister Roman Mikulec during a visit to the Hungary–Serbia border earlier this week.

A Slovakian policeman, a Czech policeman, a Hungarian police officer and a Hungarian soldier patrol the temporary border fence on the Hungarian–Serbian border near Roszke, Hungary, October 31, 2015
International police cooperation: The Czech Republic and Slovakia have sent police officers to Hungary in recent years to help their Hungarian colleagues at the Hungary–Serbia border, as seen here in 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Gergely Kelemen

Slovakia has sent police officers to this border to help their Hungarian colleagues protect the Schengen Area. "I want to thank the members of the Police Force who are deployed daily to protect the external Schengen border. We clearly see that this is the most effective way to prevent the rise of illegal migration in Europe through the so-called 'Balkan route,'" he said.

Czech–Slovak bond remains strong

Juraj Marusiak, a political expert from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, notes that this is the first public display of dissonance in bilateral relations between the Czech and Slovak republics.

Slovak political scientists Juraj Marusiak
Slovak political scientist Juraj Marusiak is convinced that the bond between Slovakia and the Czech Republic will remain strongImage: Christoph Thanei/dpa/picture alliance

"After years of what was seemingly an ideal relationship between the two nations, we are witnessing displays of differences between us. I know it may seem shocking to the public, but these things are normal between neighboring countries," he told DW, adding that the bond between the two countries remains strong and that this crisis is unlikely to have a major impact on it.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan and Keno Verseck

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