Kiska: Attitude to refugees will define the heart and soul of Slovakia

Kiska: Attitude to refugees will define the heart and soul of Slovakia

Every day, every hour, we are facing new information about the wave of migrants pouring into Europe. We see human tragedies, we see even the youngest ones dying, but we can also see the smiling faces of those who have reached their destination. The issue is much discussed in our country, as well as in other countries of Europe, and preparations are underway for crucial meetings of government officials at the European level.

I wish to make a longer statement today. Because I consider this crisis - and the discussion it has sparked - an extremely serious one. Not only from the Europe-wide perspective, but also from the point of view of Slovakia.

I will start at home first. The discussion we are having about migrants and refugees represents, in my opinion, a crucial battle for the heart and soul of Slovakia. I want to remind you when, why and how the refugees have also become a pressing item of our national agenda. It was not before the European Commission presented a proposal to distribute the unbearable pressure of the refugee wave piling up on the EU’s southern borders more evenly among its Member States that this topic became part of our domestic policy discourse. Before the word “quotas” appeared neither the government nor the parliament talked about refugees at their sessions. A majority of our citizens did not see them as a pressing problem, neither.

The refugees and migrants did not seek Slovakia as a country of their destination, they were not arriving here, they did not transit through our country to travel further. Their suffering and death seemed distant to us. The migrants and refugees had been coming to Europe in vast numbers for long months, but no one asked Slovakia for anything.I think it is fair to remind ourselves that the refugees and migrants have become such a hot topic only after our partners in the Union have asked us for help.

Already back then I believed, and I still believe that the most important thing is to identify the reason - the true reason - why Slovakia became agitated by the proposal to distribute asylum seekers using a migrant quota system. Whether the source of our disturbance was the form in which the proposal was made, which I myself described rather unfortunate at that time.

Or whether we were disturbed by the actual idea that Slovakia, a country with the population of five million, would provide a shelter to several hundred people, or even several thousand for that matter: men, women and children who have demonstrably fled to Europe in order to escape the war, death and violence. That we would provide a safe haven to some of them and help them start a new, bearable and dignified life here in Slovakia. And that we would do so out of humanity and solidarity.

The question has never been, not then and not now, whether our willingness to accept and accommodate, in this critical situation, a few hundreds of refugees will solve all the problems associated with the current migration wave in Europe. Or whether this solidarity mechanism will avert the humanitarian crisis in the countries these people are fleeing from. Of course, not.

The crucial question never was and is not whether we should have a Europe-wide quota system or whether to make some other Europe-wide decisions. The question is how to find reasonable solutions, including shared solidarity with refugees and partners across Europe.

However, some other questions have for several months also prevailed in the political and public debate in Slovakia.

Questions such as whether we can afford to accept several hundred or thousand people in danger when even Slovakia has regions struggling with the poverty and the lack of job opportunities.Or why we should help others when we still have our own problems to solve.

There will always be problems and challenges that we will have to face. But it must not be a reason for us to isolate our country and become reluctant to help others. I am not talking about illegal economic migrants who should speedily be returned to their safe home countries. What I have in mind are real refugees, people whose suffering is often beyond our imagination.

The discussion in Slovakia has in recent months revolved around the question whether we are capable and willing to accommodate several hundred or several thousand people in danger, or whether, in contrast to that, we are going to preserve and protect our security.

But there has never been such a contrast because the number of people fleeing from the war and violence that we would accommodate can in no way undermine our home security. To the best of my knowledge, there is no official government-drafted document, analysis or report to substantiate these concerns. Slovakia has already faced even more than ten thousand asylum seekers and we have successfully dealt with the situation. Of course, it is well possible that such a huge migration wave as Europe is currently struggling with also contains high-risk individuals. But no one is taking away our right and obligation to vet asylum seekers. Please, let’s put an end to scaremongering.

It has also often been alleged that several hundred or thousand men, women and children coming from a different culture could pose a threat to our values and our way of life, or even ruin them. I am firmly convinced that providing shelter to people whose total number accounts for a fraction of our overall population cannot put our country in jeopardy. Slovakia is already home to several thousand people from different cultures who have arrived here not so long ago. And we live well side by side.

I think that the argument, often presented on social networks and in other public discussions, that those who have spent thousands of euros to flee their homeland, hence probably did not live on the breadline in their home countries, are arriving in Europe in pursuit of a greater personal welfare, does not hold up.

It is true that the poorest ones, those at the greatest risk of life, for example in Syria, have no means to flee their country. Or they leave for the countries nearest to their homeland, such as Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. But we must ask ourselves: how many of us would not sacrifice all of their property if they or their families faced the risk of death? And how many parents would not want to gather all available means to save their children at least? Everyone who had such a chance would do so.

It is also true that the current migration wave involves, in addition to refugees of war, quite a few economic migrants, particularly from the Balkan countries. But it is not true that they account for 95% of all migrants. Therefore, this argument cannot be used to justify an answer to the question whether we are willing to actively, of our own initiative and solidarity provide a refuge to a larger number of persons who clearly need protection of the international community.

Finally, I will also mention arguments, often voiced, that a solution to the crisis is to eliminate the causes of mass migration to Europe in migrants' home countries.All of us agree with that. However, it is not an answer to the question what we are going to do to help the refugees who have already come to Europe, in overwhelming numbers and in undignified conditions. And whether we are willing to accommodate them until the situation in their home countries does not improve to allow for their safe return.

The debate we have been having in Slovakia for several months has been fuelled, especially at the beginning, by the fear of the unknown. Yet we must to continue this debate. But not because of the quotas which have become a topic again. And also not only because of solidarity among the European Union countries. First of all, this debate should be taking place because of the human beings who are in need of help— and, subsequently, because of ourselves.

As regards the large numbers of people fleeing to Europe, their acceptance is a matter of life and death. As regards ourselves, it is about Slovakia’s heart. It is a matter of our soul. It is a matter of what kind of country we want to be and what we are willing to do for it.

We will lose the battle for the heart and soul of our country if we, both as citizens and as politicians, will not be able to make a distinction between fearing the unknown and unconcealed hatred, contempt for human life, extremism, xenophobia and fascism. And also if we fail to clearly and categorically refuse such expressions of intolerance.

We will not be able to distinguish extremism and xenophobia from natural human fear of the unknown if we accept the key slogans of their disseminators: about refugees as potential terrorists or as economic migrants. Or about every man of a different colour of the skin and different culture, or about every Muslim-refugee as an intolerant individual. This is not fearing the unknown, these slogans are characteristic of xenophobia and extremism. And if the rest of us adapt to this, remain silent or turn away, then we are silently tolerating the slogans about a “white” Slovakia.

I would like to express my gratitude and to compliment all those who said “Slovakia can help” instead of “Slovakia can’t do it” over the last few months and days. This applies to all who did so spontaneously, at their own discretion and without political support.

Gratitude is extended not only to Christian communities, but also others: be it many individuals, families or organisations hoping to have the opportunity to accommodate the unfortunate refugees in Slovakia. And I firmly believe that they will be given such opportunity.

My gratitude also goes to responsible journalists who have been keeping the people informed.

I wish to thank the hundreds and maybe thousands of Slovaks who provided, over the last few days, humanitarian assistance to refugees in Austria and Hungary as private individuals, using their own resources and their own cars.

I also extend my gratitude to all people in Slovakia who have already provided help or are ready to provide help. And I also want to thank all the good people voicing their opinion in our debate at home, because this debate is really also about our heart and soul. It is about our basic human compassion.

During these days and hours, they show that words such as human goodness, compassion and understanding are values that are permanently inherent in the people of Slovakia.

The upcoming hours, days and weeks will seeimportant talks held at the European level to reach an agreement on what to do next. These talks have been preceded by an initiative of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. Also in place is the declaration of the Visegrad Four countries and Slovakia’s position adopted by our Government.

These documents are speaking in unison about several solutions for Europe to be taken inside and outside of its borders. There is consensus on preparing a list of safe countries and putting in place simplified procedures to better distinguish refugees from economic migrants coming from safe countries who should be returned home faster. It has also been agreed that the fight against smugglers must be more efficient. Administrative and technical assistance to southern European countries must be accelerated and intensified. The same applies to assistance and support for countries dealing with large numbers of refugees at the European borders. Or, asylum procedures should be moved to countries where the most refugees are coming from, if possible.

I would deem it very unfortunate to see this entire agenda and all these pan-European issues sidelined by the one and only topic which bears an unfortunate name of distribution quotas.

To avoid misunderstanding, this would be, in my opinion, unfortunate for both the entire Europe and for Central Europe. Europe needs consensus. And neither Europe as a whole, nor Central Europe taken separately, including Slovakia, would benefit from making a distinction between the old and new Member States again.

I think that giving names to things or the manner in which the achieved results are presented by leaders to the people of their countries should not be a matter of prestige.

I am confident that European leaders understand that accepting several thousands of refugees by central European countries, including Slovakia, does not constitute any decisive or ground-breaking contribution to alleviating the current situation in southern countries. Like us, they must indeed realize that such solidarity-based distribution would entail certain unclear issues which have yet to be tackled, including the ways to encourage asylum-seekers to stay in such countries.

However, I do consider it unsustainable for us to be unprepared and unable to understand our partners calling today for joint solidarity among all countries of the European Union. Or that we would not express such preparedness or understanding in a clearer voice than before.

I wish that the route of threats about the end of solidarity in connection with EU funds triggered by lack of solidarity with refugees be abandoned before we get too far. I also wish that accusing each other as to who is to be blamed for this migration wave to Europe and who contributed to the harsh situation in countries from where people are fleeing to safety should also be calmed down. Before we get too far, let’s abandon this route which does not bode well for the future, so that we could embark on a long journey that is ahead of us in addressing the current crisis.

Let me say this again: Europe of today needs consensus and solidarity. Nobody with a heart in the right place wants to see such enormous human tragedy, suffering and dying. Neither Europe as a whole, nor Central Europe including Slovakia, will benefit from making a distinction between the old and new Member States again. A distinction between the West and the East.

Consensus is in everyone’s interest. And, of course, it is also in the interest of Slovakia and of our long-term strategic position to be part of the core of the European Union. This cannot apply only to selected issues, this must especially hold true in the times of a crisis.

I wish, I hope and I believe that we would reach such consensus in Europe. And that Slovakia would preserve its reputation. The reputation of a self-confident country with people having an open heart. A country which is capable of both receiving and lending a helping hand.