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    Copyright: The following text is for personal information only. Any professional use or publication in written or electronic form is subject to an agreement with AIM, 17 rue Rebeval, F-75019 Paris, France

    SUN, 23 JAN 2000 22:25:06 GMT

    Slovenia and the Refugees

    The Agony of "Temporary" Refugees

    The campaign organised for the construction of a "Slovenian village in Kosovo" raised questions about the care of refugees who have been living miserably in Slovenia for years; it turned out that their status is far below any standards demanded by international organisations, while non-governmental organisations accuse Drnovsek's administration for intentionally maintaining their "permanently temporary" status.

    AIM Ljubljana, January 16, 2000

    The local media used the entire last summer for the promotion of an ambitious project "The Slovenian Village", whose original location was to be in Macedonia, and then under the changed circumstances, moved to Kosovo. This was a humanitarian action called "A Hand to Refugees", led by the Slovenian national TV. During money-collection campaign about 10 thousand people and several dozens of enterprises have paid 105 million tolars into the joint fund, while the Slovenian Government invested additional 25 million tolars (i.e. altogether some DEM 1.3 million). The campaign was launched during NATO air strikes against FR Yugoslavia with a view to helping at least some out of tens of thousands of refugees who were fleeing from Kosovo at that time. Even before the campaign ended, a turn of events occurred and new refugees started pouring in, this time heading for Serbia, but this did not influence in the least the envisaged scenario of this humanitarian campaign.

    In the final stage, some 220 Kosovo Albanians moved into the settlement of pre-fabricated houses erected several kilometres from Djakovica. Moving into the Slovenian "container houses", the families which got the keys expressed their gratitude, although because of their decision not to speak the Serbian language, they were forced to communicate with the Slovenian journalists through interpreters. Other humanitarian aid, intended for the population of this settlement, will be distributed by the international Catholic Refugee Mission - ICMC, while the UNHCR took over the management of the settlement and appointed a manager and three security agents.

    The increased interest in refugee problems, which was prompted by the recently concluded conflict in Kosovo, also initiated the resolution of the status of refugees in Slovenia. Until now, neither the state media nor official authorities paid much attention to this issue. That is why the Slovenian Peace Institute organised a special meeting between UNHCR representatives in Slovenia and officials of the Government's Office for Immigration and Refugee Affairs, in order to decide the fate of some 35 thousand people who came to Slovenia during conflicts on the territory of former Yugoslavia. About 15 thousand refugees returned to their homes, 10 thousand left Slovenia and settled in third countries, about 4 thousand interested refugees were granted the status of aliens and only 330 people were granted Slovenian citizenship. There is also a group of 3,126 refugees from Bosnia who have encountered great difficulties in their attempt to regulate their status, and another 1,350 Kosovo refugees have the same problem. For years now, representatives of non-governmental organisation (Office for Open Society, the Peace Institute, the Slovenian Philanthropy, Culture & Arts Society "Franc Presern", the Helsinki Committee of Slovenia and GEA 2000) have been pointing to the unresolved status of refugees, but without much result.

    Officials of the Ministry of the Interior admit that the Slovenian legislation does not recognise the fact that these people have been expelled because of their political beliefs, i.e. religious and national affiliation. What makes the paradox even greater is the fact that even during the war in Kosovo (and the campaign "Hand to Refugees") documents of the local authorities maintained that there was no persecution of the Albanian population. Despite statements of "displaced persons" that their lives would be in danger if they returned to Kosovo, the police concluded that "that did not constitute sufficient reason for fear" and that these persons were not being persecuted.

    The relation of Ljubljana towards refugees from the territory of former Yugoslavia is actually similar to that what is happening in other states, which means that even to Bosnian refugees Ljubljana has not recognised "refugee status" according to definitions contained in the 1951 international Convention on the Status of Refugees. According to that Convention refugees are entitled to many rights - from free education to right of employment - which is not what the state wants.

    Consequently, despite the Law on Temporary Refuge, Law on Aliens and the recently adopted Law on Asylum, refugees from Bosnia have lived in Slovenia in a kind of legal vacuum, i.e. without any status, except for those who have been registered by the Red Cross Society as refugees from Bosnia, although they too have, de facto, been granted a limited status. Ever since 1992 till now, some 35 thousand refugees "enjoyed the right" in Slovenia not to be persecuted, to have food and shelter, younger children were entitled to attend school with (at least basic) health care.

    Despite efforts exerted by the authorities, the disregard of valid international conventions has created numerous problems - from the restriction of the freedom of movement, denial of the right to legal work, to the most trivial, but all the more essential "problems" when refugees could not take driving test since the Slovenian state did not recognise their address in refugee centres as their temporary residence. This is absurdity, but nevertheless has not been rectified to this day. The other problem is legislation. Until last year, the old (Yugoslav) Law on Asylum-Seekers was in force. According to that law refugees have to seek asylum within three days as of the date of their arrival!

    Naturally, those fleeing from the war-torn areas were unaware of this very important detail (short time) for the regulation of their status when they crossed the Slovenian border, which is why the majority of refugees missed the opportunity to seek asylum in Slovenia.

    The fact that in the last nine years Slovenia has granted the asylum to only three refugees thereby granting them rights resulting from the international conventions, best speaks of the discrepancy between theory and practice. Other refugees had no such luck and are therefore faced with numerous problems every day; their right to work is limited to eight hours a week, they do not enjoy the freedom of movement, have no right to vote, enrol in educational institutions, etc.

    Financial assistance is not paid regularly; till the end of the year those who were granted refugee status in August and September have not received financial assistance (about DEM 100 per person) - and they are not allowed to work. At the same time, the time they have spent in Slovenia is not considered as temporary residence, which could later help them apply for the status of aliens. All this is at variance with the models used in Western Europe. In Denmark, Sweden and other states, refugees are entitled to apply for citizenship after a specific number of years. The Agency GEA 2000 also criticises the lack of integration programmes. They cite Bulgaria as a positive example since it has developed two integration models: refugees can choose between living in towns and living in villages. If they decide to stay in town they receive financial assistance and accommodation for three months. In case they move to the country, they are entitled to financial assistance for a year.

    How true is the claim that the state has treated numerous cases in a wrong way is best seen from examples of permanent residence being denied and then again granted to many foreigners, former SFRY citizens, whose personal documents state authorities have annulled in 1991 and struck them off the Registry of Slovenian citizens with permanent residence (if they did not apply for Slovenian citizenship). After criticism from Brussels and Strasbourg, the Slovenian Parliament was forced to adopt a special law in order to redress a wrong. Until now, the Slovenian Ministry of the Interior has received 11 thousand requests for permanent residence. How justified these requests are, is best shown by the fact that until now in 1,500 cases a positive decision was made and only three demands were rejected. Other applications will be treated by the end of May 2000.

    All this is a sad proof that stories about great humanness and TV money-collection drives organised for refugees "who are somewhere far away" have two sides. Undoubtedly, efforts of those who, raising much dust in the media, helped the Albanians in Kosovo, are commendable. What is wrong is a high degree of self-praise and double standards applied in Slovenia - whether regarding Kosovo refugees, violation of human rights in Tibet or television campaigns of various UNICEF Ambassadors - by those who like to be in the limelight and boast of their own philanthropy, refusing at the same time to see daily violation of human rights committed under their very noses. It is very good that help was rendered to a group of 220 Albanians. However, it would be even better if 5,000 refugees living in Slovenia with unregulated status had not been forgotten!

    Igor Mekina

    (AIM Ljubljana)