Slovakia struggles with surge in illegal migrants as election looms

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By Krisztina Than

CHLABA, Slovakia/IPOLYDAMASD, Hungary (Reuters) - Residents of Chlaba say large groups of illegal migrants have been traipsing through their tiny border village in southern Slovakia every day in the past few weeks after fording a local river or crossing a railway bridge from neighbouring Hungary.

The migrants mostly arrive by night and do not intend to stay long as their final destination is usually Germany, but the uptick has stirred anxiety and calls for tighter border controls in Slovakia as it prepares for an election on Sept. 30.

"They don't want to live or work here, they are in transit, they rush through as they can," said Jozsef Barta, 70.

Although he knew of no criminal incidents involving the migrants, he added: "People are scared to walk in the street."

Renata Gregusova, manager of a foodstore where the migrants often drop by, said they ask locals to call the police and sit down by the road, waiting for the police van to take them to a detention centre. There, under a Slovak law, they can get a document registering their entry to the European Union.

"Somehow this (flow) should be limited... They should be checked to find out whether they were really forced to flee their country," she said.

Around three quarters of Slovaks want the next government to tighten rules against illegal migration, according to a poll by the AKO agency this month.


The SMER-SSD party of former prime minister Robert Fico, campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform, has urged Slovakia's caretaker government to suspend Europe's Schengen 'open border' rules and reinstate passport checks on the Hungarian border.

"The government lets in every illegal migrant. We know nothing about them, they have no documents, they make up names, dates of birth, but the government allows them to stay here," Fico told a news conference on Tuesday.

Opinion polls put Fico's party ahead with about 20% support, ahead of its main rival the liberal Progresivne Slovensko, but no party is expected to win an overall parliamentary majority.

The Slovak government says it is virtually impossible to seal the 655-km border with Hungary, though caretaker Prime Minister Ludovit Odor recently sent up to 500 soldiers to help police patrol the border and maintain order.

Last weekend, Odor visited the border crossing at Chlaba-Ipolydamasd, which has the second highest migrant detention rate with around 2,000 this year, and said police were trying to increase a sense of security in the local villages.

The number of illegal migrants detained in Slovakia has increased ninefold from a year ago to more than 27,000 so far this year, the country's interior ministry said.

Police discouraged Reuters from trying to speak with a group of migrants they had just rounded up, but the increased popularity of this route into western Europe appears linked to the Slovak law that allows Syrians and Afghans - deemed to be refugees fleeing war - to register.

This, experts say, gives them a measure of assurance that they cannot be deported from the EU and then they typically leave their detention centres and continue westwards, via Slovakia and the Czech Republic to Germany.

"For Slovak authorities, this is an administrative issue but it makes it worthwhile for migrants to divert from their standard route and make a stop in Slovakia," said Marian Cehelnik who deals with migration at the People in Need NGO.


The migrants, predominantly young men from the Middle East and Afghanistan, have mostly come up via the so-called Balkan route, entering Hungary from Serbia despite a steel fence that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had built after the 2015 migration crisis that rocked Europe.

Hungarian police data also showed a jump in illegal migrant crossings on Hungary's southern border with Serbia in the past weeks, from where they head for Slovakia or Austria.

"Despite Hungary's efforts, there are migrants who evade border defence and cross Hungary's territory on their way to other countries of Europe," a government spokesman told Reuters in an emailed statement.

Hungary pushes migrants back to Serbia - which is not in the EU - but they make repeated attempts to climb or cut through the fence, and many make it with the help of gangs of smugglers who then ferry them north to the border with Slovakia.

Slovak police patrols are helping their Hungarian colleagues to catch the smugglers but that has proven little deterrent.

Orban's government, citing overcrowded prisons and a lack of financial help from the EU, has released more than 1,500 foreign nationals convicted of people smuggling since April.

(Writing by Krisztina Than, additional reporting by Jason Hovet and Jan Lopatka in Prague; Editing by Gareth Jones)