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    Copyright: All those wishing to use or publish the following text are welcome to do so, provided that they indicate the source and inform the AIM office in Paris which is interested to receive comments and reactions on the information it provides. AIM, 17 rue Rebeval, F-75019 Paris, France

    SAT, 27 JAN 2001 01:02:13 GMT

    Hunting down Illegals

    A growing number of people passing through Slovenia on the road to the Western promised lands is being intercepted by Slovenian police. The news media frequently carry their photographs taken while they -- ragged, starved, dirty -- are herded into police vans. The domestic public, however, has no understanding for their plight. How could it be otherwise when a fierce campaign against "illegal asylum seekers" is under way.

    AIM Ljubljana, January 16, 2001

    Hardly a day goes by without some of the Slovenian news media reporting on one or another group of "illegals" discovered by the efficient Slovenian police. Broadcasters (particularly TV stations) are at the forefront, praising in dramatic and enthusiastic terms the aptitude the domestic "boys in blue" showed in apprehending "aliens." The latter are mercilessly portrayed as harboring criminal intent and a "potential source of contagious diseases," threatening peaceful Slovenia with all sorts of revolting things. All this is accompanied by a patriotic apprehension that some of the illegals might succeed in their plans and make it to Europe, "on the other side of Slovenian border," causing not only the rage of EU countries, but a horrible disgrace as well, along with suspicion that Slovenian border guards are not sufficiently capable of preventing them, or at least getting hold of them.

    For a decade, practically since the dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia has been facing an increasing number of refugees, initially from the neighboring regions affected by war. A wave of economic emigrants, particularly from Asian countries, followed. They used Slovenia to reach the countries of the European Union. The onslaught (as it is depicted by the media) has caused all refugees and immigrants to be referred to in negative terms, and the problem is often described as "alarming." Critics of Slovenian policy towards potential asylum seekers are divided in two opposing camps. The first are displeased because Slovenian state bodies "treat illegals too leniently." They quickly stressed the need for "protecting the human rights of the endangered population in border areas," which is to say, those parts of Slovenia bordering on Croatia and Hungary. Their view implies a much more rigorous attitude towards the "uninvited guests": "they might spread certain unpredictable, exotic illnesses believed to have been eradicated in the country." Furthermore, they are endangering the impression the local population has of its environment as being safe and civilized. In short, aliens, foreigners, unwanted tourists are a source of fear (which is backed by a poll taken among elementary school students).

    The other group consists of (rare) critics of Slovenia's policy from a different viewpoint. They consist of philanthropic associations and independent intellectuals who warn that Slovenia is treating refugees poorly and rarely granting asylum to those who apply for it. The following data is the best indicator of the status of the refugee issue. In 1995 Slovenia registered 4,175 illegal aliens and in 1996, 3,877. In 1997, their number increased to 7,093, to almost double the next year to 13,740 people who entered the country illegally. The situation culminated during the past two years when the number of illegal immigrants reached 18,695 (in 1999) and 35,380 (in 2000), respectively. It is not known how many escaped the watchful eye of the Slovenian police and successfully made it to Italy and Austria, via Slovenia.

    Despite the soaring number of immigrants, the Slovenian bureaucracy is taking great care to grant asylum only to a negligible number of applicants, because once accepted, in line with international conventions, they can expect to receive many other rights. Thus, for example, in 1995, six such people sought asylum but the applications of only two were approved. The next year 35 people applied, and in 1997, 72. None was granted asylum. The situation in the next two years was almost identical. In 1998, 337 people filed for asylum, with only one application receiving a positive answer. A year later there were 744 asylum seekers and no positive replies. Only last year did the situation slightly change: 11 applicants were granted asylum, but the number of them was much greater -- 9,244. All this is far more restrictive than common practice in EU countries, and this is why the EU will soon demand that Slovenia adopt a more humane approach.

    The ethnic and other background of these people, forced, due to political and economic reasons, out of their home countries on an expensive and uncertain journey during which they place their lives at the mercy of unscrupulous and anonymous traffickers and guides, is diversified. Most potential asylum seekers come from Iran (via Sarajevo airport), Turkey, Bangladesh, China, Moldavia, Afghanistan, Romania and Macedonia. There are many from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the event of which Slovenian authorities exercise a specific approach: both politicians and the media here make a strict distinction between the FRY and Kosovo, that is, between Serbs and Kossovars. Since illegals, however, cause much animosity in the domestic public, the media and state bodies mention only Yugoslavia and not Kosovo, although most refugees come from the latter. According to Slovenian bodies, the great majority of apprehended people have no relation with politics (are, therefore, not dissidents who should automatically be entitled to asylum), but belong to the category of so-called "economic emigrants." This offers Immigration Bureau officials their best argument -- the greatest number of applications is rejected because the immigrants failed to use their right to ask for asylum in "the first safe country" they reached after leaving their own. It's their fault that they waited until reaching Slovenia -- Slovenia either ships them back home, or sends them to the first next "safe country," that is, Croatia, declared meanwhile as such by the Bajuk government, although according to EU standards it does not meet at all the necessary requirements...

    The Drnovsek government declared the policy of its predecessor as unacceptable as soon as it took office, and accepted an EU objection that Croatia, as far as asylum seekers are concerned, does not fulfill the criteria of being "the next safe country." This, however, will not help many hundreds of these unfortunates shipped, meanwhile, from Slovenia to Croatia, in haste to have all potential asylum seekers return as soon as possible to where they came from. The Drnovsek administration attempted to improve this image by announcing that a bill for amending Slovenia's asylum laws had reached the Slovenian Parliament. If it is adopted, procedures for checking the personal data of asylum seekers, which now last up to two and a half years, will be substantially shortened. According to the plan, immigrants will, in the future, be divided in two groups -- one will include those applying for asylum on humanitarian grounds, and the other will contain classical cases. This is meant to prevent "abuse of the status of asylum seekers in Slovenia," which is exactly what has allegedly been going on, according to the interior minister, Rade Bohinc. The formulation became much clearer after Parliament, at its last session last year, passed a bill specifying that the freedom of movement of those asylum seekers suspected of "not telling the truth and abusing the procedure" will be restricted. All this was accompanied by much pomp and a presentation of a new Slovenian-Italian police unit formed to jointly patrol the border. The good side of this (maybe because of the latest incidents in which lives were lost) is that the unit is unarmed.

    This is what state bodies have to put up with. On the other side are the problems refugees face. First of all, despite their soaring numbers, the apparatus in charge of the refugees has not changed for years. Because of that, the conditions in which they live in Slovenia are rapidly deteriorating. The largest refugee center is located on Celovska Cesta Road in Ljubljana, in a building rented from Ljubljana's City Transportation Service. It is extremely overcrowded, and refugees sleep on the floor, on mattresses placed everywhere -- under staircases and in corridors. The luckier ones who are accommodated in rooms do not have it easy either -- they are packed in them like sardines. Furthermore, this building has to be vacated by mid-summer, when the lease is due to expire. True, funds have been approved for the construction of a new "Center for Asylum Seekers and Removal of Aliens" (quoted verbatim; "removal" is part of its official name), but the facility, which, ironically, is planned to house 250 people, will not be erected before 2003. It is not clear what authorities plan to do with several thousand other people who can be expected if the current trend of pressure on the EU borders persists.

    Finally, Slovenia's treatment of this asylum-oriented human material has drawn the attention of various international and domestic human rights organizations.

    Even the Slovenian Ombudsman warned in a report of the unacceptable fact that the shelters house too many people, failing to "ensure their separation based on sex, age and other criteria," whereas the U.N. Committee against Torture has warned Slovenia that its practices are not in accord with the International Convention on Preventing Torture. It is no secret that the chaos reigning in the shelters is frequently accompanied by physical violence and other incidents. A great scandal was caused by reports that any money found on the refugeesis confiscated, allegedly to pay some of the deportation expenses. The money of those who succeed in continuing their flight remains in the state coffers. The state, however, feels no remorse at all, because only last year it had to set aside some DM2 million a day (DM 60 per person) for their expenses. Of this sum almost one half DM 800,000 -- was used to pay police. At the same time, the amount of impounded refugee cash was DM300,000!

    Humanitarian organizations representatives label this as "plunder." They believe that stripping the illegals naked is unacceptable and quote this as proof that the state, as the last in a chain of marauders, is depriving the would-be immigrants, in addition to their dignity, of the little they have left after paying human traffickers and organizers of illegal border transfers. The Slovenian police are dismissing all criticism saying that the procedure is legitimate, routine, and that international humanitarian organizations as opposed to Slovenian ones -- themselves provide a number of illegals with shelter.

    This verbal exchange between the government and non-government organizations would certainly have lasted for some time had not increased repression in the border region resulted in the loss of human lives: two members of a special police unit on the border with Croatia and Hungary attempted to stop two vehicles that had entered Slovenia from Croatia. One of the cars escaped deeper into Slovenia, and the other turned to go back to Croatia. In both cases the vehicles brushed past the police officer who tried to stop them, giving him a slight push but causing no serious injury. The car that attempted to return to Croatia, swerved off the road and ended up in a ditch. When its passengers tried to escape, the rifle carried by one of the police officers "accidentally went off." The bullet hit a young Iranian in the neck, and nothing could be done to help him. End of the official version.

    The witnesses of the event, sheltered in the building on Celovska Cesta Road, however, have an entirely different version. According to them, the police were extremely violent during the arrest. They broke a window on the car and tried to pull the driver out through it. After the arrest, the illegals were forced to lie on the ground and were beaten and abused. But that is not all. The rifle did not fire "accidentally," because the police officer was hit by the door of the car, but deliberately. They say that one of the police fired a shot at the pavement, close to the head of an Iranian who was lying head down on the ground, but the bullet ricocheted and killed him. The 25-year old man wanted to reach the West to help his family. Should it be doubted that the testimony failed to impress the investigating judge or the district prosecutor? The report on the incident will probably be filed away in the archives, officially marked as "an accident." Sadly, that will do little to comfort the family of this unfortunate man.

    Svetlana Vasovic