Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on lives of migrants in Slovakia
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented worldwide health, social and economic crisis that is affecting us all. However, it has had the most severe impact on vulnerable groups including migrants and refugees.1
Even though some time has passed since the most difficult moments of this spring, we would need a thorough survey to assess the ways the pandemic has affected foreigners living in Slovakia, as well as the extent of its impact. Since it is not possible to do at the moment, this article is informed by our previous experience in the field of immigration law and integration of foreigners, as well as interviews with seven foreigners from third countries living in Slovakia and views and experience of representatives of three non-governmental organizations working with migrants.
Prompt and early response of the state – changes in key legislation
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government of the Slovak Republic decided to restrict entry of foreigners to Slovakia. Based on this decision, departments of the Foreign and Border Police and the Slovak diplomatic and consular missions were not accepting Schengen and national visa applications or residence permit applications. Therefore, it was not possible to apply for the renewal or extension of residence permits or for granting of new residence permits with the Slovak diplomatic and consular missions.
As a response to the measures adopted by the government in Slovakia, an unofficial platform of organizations working with migrants called „Coordination Group – Support of Foreign Nationals in Slovakia at the Time of Pandemic“ was set up as early as in March. The aim of this platform was to draft joint position papers and help the Slovak government in the areas where the individual organizations have long-term expertise.
The Coordination Group considered it important to urgently address legal issues related to the loss of residence permit or to the validity of visa, as well as to the loss of employment and health insurance. Such situations could not be dealt with in direct contact with the relevant authorities and there was no remote way of dealing with them either since cross-border movement of persons had been stopped or limited. In addition, services provided to foreigners by the Foreign and Border Police, the Slovak diplomatic and consular missions and other relevant authorities were limited, too.
In April and May 2020, the Slovak Government responded to the new situation by adopting a number of so called transitional provisions in relation to several separate acts governing the operation of state administration bodies and municipalities (affecting the rights and duties of the inhabitants of Slovakia) during the COVID-19 pandemic.2
The first step the government took was adopting a law amending several acts under the remit of the Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic in relation to COVID-19.3 The law was adopted on April 7th, 2020 and became effective on April 9th, 2020.4 This piece of legislation had been drafted quickly and it needed to be complex. The law amended 17 different acts dealing with the operation of regional and local authorities, the trade authority and various Ministry of Interior public administration units, as well as the Act on the Residence of Foreigners.5
At the same time, the validity period of some documents issued under the remit of the Ministry of Interior was extended and the running of certain periods related to the execution of state administration under the remit of the Ministry of Interior was suspended. It is important to note that the above law ensured security of lawful residence for third country nationals at a time when they were unable to communicate with authorities and act in compliance with relevant laws. The period of validity, and thus lawfulness of residence for the citizens of third countries negatively impacted by the crisis who had entered Slovakia legally before the pandemic was extended. The period of legal protection was to guarantee that their residence would not become unlawful through no fault of their own until two months after the revocation of the crisis situation. Foreigners who entered the territory of Slovakia legally, but have not been granted residency could stay here (still at the time of writing this article) until one month after the revocation of the crisis situation.
At the beginning of May 2020, the Ministry of Health of the Slovak Republic drafted an amendment to the Act on Health Insurance6, according to which foreigners, whose income decreased in the state of emergency below the minimum wage level and would otherwise lose their public health insurance, could remain in the public health insurance system. At the same time, a possibility to have health care costs related to the treatment of COVID-19 reimbursed was introduced also for persons without health insurance. We perceived this as an effort of the ministry to help foreigners who, through no fault of their own, could not be insured in the crisis situation.
At the same time, the government passed an amendment to the Act on Employment Services7 with a view to achieving compliance with the above-mentioned amendment to the Act on the Residence of Foreigners. The amendment extended the validity of confirmations on the possibility to fill a vacancy/high qualified vacancy and work permits that would have expired during the crisis situation or within one month after its revocation. The validity period was extended up until two months after the revocation of the crisis situation related to COVID-19.
Foreigners got help primarily from non-governmental organizations and international organizations during the pandemic
IOM’s Migration Information Centre (hereinafter MIC) helped foreigners to get orientation in this legally and otherwise challenging situation. MIC has been providing legal, social and employment counselling to non-EU citizens for a long time. It also operates a website, www.mic.iom.sk, providing legal and practical information to non-EU citizens in three languages (Slovak, English and Russian).
In March 2020, the MIC website launched an information section summarizing the impact of measures taken in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic on the residence in Slovakia. In June and July 2020, the website had more than 40,000 visits a month. During the pandemic, MIC was providing complex counselling services to foreigners in Slovakia mainly via telephone and e-mail. From March to July 2020, it provided a total of 5,939 consultations to more than 3,500 people. Moreover, there were 308 foreigners who took free-of-charge online Slovak language courses MIC launched at that time.
Based on the experience of MIC clients, the COVID-19 pandemic and the related social situation has had the most negative impact on the most vulnerable groups of non-EU citizens who needed immediate and accurate counselling related to changes of laws, residency status and border measures in their language.8
„Mareena“ is another organization working with foreigners, which continued doing so throughout the pandemic. Foreigners granted international protection are the organisation’s primary target group, but it also works with foreigners from third countries and from the EU. They work in the field of education, volunteer work and integration of foreigners through community activities. Out of their education activities, Slovak and English language courses and computer skills courses are the most popular ones. Mareena provides services to its clients in cooperation with the Slovak Humanitarian Council (hereinafter SHC).
In the first days of the COVID-19 crisis outbreak, Mareena was trying to secure face masks to its clients in cooperation with SHC. They also provided computers to children of their clients for home schooling and set up an emergency fund for covering one-month rent and food to each family in need. Mareena team also did field work with their clients. According to the Director of Mareena, the COVID-19 crisis hit their clients, too – 1/3 of them lost their jobs in the first days of the crisis .9
The Human Rights League is an organisation associating lawyers and providing legal aid in the field of immigration law to foreigners with all types of residency status since 2005. During the crisis situation, the organisation dealt with several cases of serious violation of migrants’ working conditions. We describe one of them in the next section of the article. The League’s lawyer said that the system for protecting migrants against labour exploitation did not function in practice due to their vulnerable migration status, as well as their legal and factual dependence on employers and their limited access to legal aid.10
It is important to note that no organisation working with migrants in Slovakia has had enough contact with the most vulnerable target groups (such as common or seasonal workers in agriculture, construction business or industrial production) and we lack more complex information about their needs and situation during the COVID-19 crisis.
What problems foreigners faced during the crisis
When writing this article, we talked to seven citizens of third countries – Ukraine, Serbia, Philippines, Egypt, Argentina and one of the African countries. We were trying to find out what factors affected their situation in Slovakia during the pandemic.
Many foreigners in Slovakia were facing the same problems as Slovak citizens during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, a Ukrainian family handled the crisis, in their own words, well and had problems commonly experienced by many other people. However, they have a child with special needs suffering from an autistic spectrum disorder. Services provided by the day centre they child goes to were stopped during the pandemic and the parents had to provide the care themselves within the treatment of family member scheme. This was undoubtedly happening to many other families in Slovakia, but in case of foreigners, such situation can be more complicated due to language and cultural barrier.
In addition, foreigners faced risks related to loss of employment or their social status. As an example, we can describe the situation of two sisters from Ukraine who lost their jobs as hotel maids. One of them immediately found an assembly line job in a factory and the other one stayed at home being unemployed. Another person, who worked as a cleaner, got transferred to a warehouse. He did not like the new job and was also concerned about his health because he felt we was not protected enough from the virus because of his co-workers and roommates. Foreigners from third countries cannot afford to be without a job in Slovakia because it puts them at risk of losing residency. Moreover, changing jobs is a complicated administrative matter. A foreigner can find a new employer or change jobs, but the vacancy needs to be advertised by the new employer via the Labour Office for some time. This makes employment conditions of foreigners and their freedom in relation to employers more challenging when compared to the situation of Slovak nationals. It makes foreigners much more dependent on employers and puts them at risk of having to leave Slovakia if they lose their job regardless of the relationships they have developed here or the fact that they may have nowhere to store the possessions they have acquired here after leaving the country.
The Human Rights League has told us about the experience of one of their clients whose employer failed to pay her wages. The client stated there were other colleagues of hers who had the same experience even though their employer had received a wage subsidy within the government‘s „First Aid“ project set up to help maintain jobs at the time of crisis or in the state of emergency.11 According to one of HRL lawyers, such conduct on the part of employers is possible because the state does not check whether the wage subsidy is actually used to pay employees‘ wages. At the same time, there is no specific mechanism in place enabling employees to claim the due wages from the employer who receives the wage subsidy from the state even though there is a general legal procedure for such situations.12 Nevertheless, this procedure often cannot be applied in case of foreigners since their access to legal aid is limited or because they fear backlash if they seek help from lawyers. The HRL client above also feared disclosure of her identity to her employer and possible repercussions.
We can also use the example of a disabled foreigner at a risk of kidney failure whose health deteriorated significantly during the crisis to illustrate the most critical situation when a foreigner is completely dependent on the state aid. The respondent in question has lived in Slovakia for about 25 years but cannot apply for Slovak citizenship and his passport expires next year. His country of origin stopped issuing passports during the crisis via its diplomatic and consular missions and they are only issued in the territory of that country. However, our respondent will not be able to travel there and apply for the renewal of his passport due to his health. Therefore, he faces the risk of not only losing a valid ID, but also his residence in the territory of the Slovak Republic and health insurance related to it. Consequently, it may result in an immediate threat to his life.
The fact that foreigners could not go and see their families in their home countries was another issue. One of our respondents has not seen his family and his child for over 1.5 years and he is worried he may not have a chance to travel back home in near future. A young man from Argentina we talked to expressed a similar concern saying that he may never see his 80-years old parents, which was a „very strong and very destabilizing feeling“ for him. His income of a young businessman and web designer has dropped to 1/6 of his previous year‘s income and he is worried about what will happen next.
A young mother from Serbia we interviewed had not expected the crisis to be so bad at the beginning and believed it would go back to normal in no time. The fact that she and her husband could not go and see their respective families in Serbia bothered her most. The impossibility to meet their families is more difficult for foreigners than for Slovak nationals because they live in a new country without well-established social networks and they are separated from their families not only by distance, but also by administrative and financial obstacles.
„I felt like in a cage. We have survived the war and bombing and the situation now certainly isn‘t worse, but it presents a different kind of danger – you don’t see anything and yet you’re not allowed to do things, you’re locked at home and fed water with a spoon.“
They communicated with their parents and grandparents only via Skype and they also celebrated their children’s birthdays in April this way. After some time, when the relaxation of emergency rules began, they watched the specific measures taken in relation to individual countries. Despite similar epidemiological situation, rules for cross-border movement were not relaxed for Serbia, but they were for the Czech Republic.
„What bothers me is that despite a large number of ethnic Slovaks from Serbia working in Slovakia, they were ignored and no one asked them if they needed anything or how they would pay the rent and what they would do if they lost their jobs; how they would provide for themselves. The state didn’t do anything for their fellow countrymen and women. We watched how the government had provided aircrafts for Slovak citizens to help them come home. I saw Slovaks crying as they reunited with their families, but we, Serbs, couldn’t go to see our families. And, if we did go, we had to stay in quarantine upon our return. Anyway, my hope is we will be able to go home for the All Saints‘ Day because I have never gone without seeing my parents for so long.“
Foreigners in Slovakia also face distrust, suspicion and blaming for bringing COVID-19 to our country. Such attitudes make their feeling of insecurity and lack of acceptance they experience stronger. Our respondent considered such worries of people around her unfair:
„Even my colleagues were afraid of me and each client cautiously asked me: „Have you been back at home in Serbia?“ even though they travelled back and forth themselves. My colleagues also made me feel it’d be better if I didn’t travel.“
When asked where they had information about COVID-19 from, this respondent said they had been following news from abroad and her husband had looked up information on the internet. When the information they had found was not specific enough, they would call the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic, where they usually got more information than on websites. She pointed out the experience several Serbs she knew had saying that „the Slovak Embassy in Serbia was providing inaccurate, superficial or incorrect information to Serbs from Slovakia. A lot of people who came back to Slovakia were placed in quarantine and were angry about it.“
Even though the state, in cooperation with the above-mentioned Coordination Group, treated the status of foreigners legally, introduced measures to protect them from losing residence in Slovakia and provided basic guarantees to them during the state of emergency at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the experience of organisations working with migrants and interviews conducted with foreigners confirm the fact that the pandemic has impacted all areas of lives of third country nationals living in Slovakia – their private and family lives, their mental health, the quality of their housing and the protection of their health. It has significantly worsened the status of foreigners and their situation in the labour market. It has also had a dramatic effect on the income of those who run their own businesses, which is similar to the impact of the crisis on Slovak entrepreneurs.
Many foreigners, as well as Slovak nationals in the same situation, have lost their jobs or have been transferred to different positions; they did not get their wages, or they were paid less than normally (mostly due to a negative financial situation of their employers). Moreover, Slovakia did not have a functioning mechanism of assistance to foreign workers subject to unfair practices of their employers even before the crisis, when life was „normal“. When compared to the situation of Slovak nationals, it is very different to be an employee who, in case of a problem, is at risk of expulsion or prohibition of stay in the EU territory. The degree of dependence of foreigners on employers or job agencies, lack of knowledge about their rights and duties combined with the language barrier, concerns about the future, as well as the primary focus of the state authorities on combating illicit employment (rather than on protecting individuals) means that foreigners from third countries are disadvantaged. It will be probably even more obvious when the transitional provisions described at the beginning of this article are cancelled.
Access to up-to-date and accurate information is also a problem especially when most information, decisions and measures taken by the state authorities is available only in Slovak language and people then seek answers on social networks or in their community.
- EWSI – European Web Site on Integration has collected information on how other EU countries responded to the pandemic and has published an overview of basic measures adopted in different areas of integration. The website is available at: https://ec.europa.eu/migrant-integration/news/covid-19s-impact-on-migrant-communities
- Act no. 73/2020 Collection of laws amending some acts under the remit of the Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic in relation to COVID-19, available for download at: www.slov-lex.sk/pravne-predpisy/SK/ZZ/2020/73/20200409
- Act no. 73/2020 Collection of laws, available for download at: www.slov-lex.sk/pravne-predpisy/SK/ZZ/2020/73/20200409
- Act no. 404/2011 Collection of laws on the Residence of Foreigners as amended, available for download at: https://www.slov-lex.sk/pravne-predpisy/SK/ZZ/2011/404/20200409
- Act no. 125/2020 Collection of laws amending Act no. 578/2004 Collection of laws on Health Care Providers, Health Care Workers, Professional Associations in Health Care and on the Amendment to Other Acts as amended, available for download at: www.slov-lex.sk/pravne-predpisy/SK/ZZ/2020/125/20200521
- Act no. 127/2020 Collection of laws amending Act no. 461/2003 Collection of laws on Social Insurance as amended amending other acts, available for download at: www.slov-lex.sk/pravne-predpisy/SK/ZZ/2020/127/20200521. The act was adopted on 13th May 2020 and became effective on 21st May 2020.
- Information gathered during an interview with a representative of IOM – International Organization for Migration on 7th August 2020
- Information gathered during an interview with the Director of NGO Mareena on 4th August 2020
- Information gathered during an interview with a Human Rights League lawyer.
- A possibility to file a motion with the Labour Inspectorate or to sue the employer for the due amount.
Zuzana Bargerová is a lawyer and has been an expert in the field of immigration law and integration of foreigners for fifteen years. She worked for the Human Rights League, as well as for the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture. She helped found IOM Migration Information Centre. She is the co-author of the book “Integration of Migrants in the Slovak Republic: Challenges and Recommendations to Policy-Makers” (2007). She regularly takes part in research of Migration Policy Group “Migration Integration Policy Index – MIPEX” and cooperates with Belgian organization MILIEU Law and Policy Consulting.