The Slovenia Times

Locals up in arms over planned asylum centres

Locals attend the session of the Brežice municipal council expressing opposition to an asylum centre. Photo: Aleš Kocjan/STA

The government has hit a sensitive nerve with people living along the border with Croatia and opened a potentially explosive issue ahead of European elections by deciding to set up asylum centre units near two major border crossings to prepare for a surge in illegal migrants. The opposition has sided with the locals.

The government decided to open temporary units of the Ljubljana Asylum Centre on state-owned land near the border crossings in Obrežje and Središče ob Dravi in late February after trying to find new locations for asylum seekers for two years, only to face oppositions from locals each time.

This time the government made the decision without consulting the local communities first, with the Government Office for the Support and Integration of Migrants recently revealing that activities to set up the infrastructure are already under way.

The local officials and residents put up a uniform stand against the plans. The Brežice municipal council voted unanimously against on 6 March, and Središče ob Dravi followed suit a week later at a joint session with councillors from the nearby communities of Ormož and Sveti Tomaž.

Around 300 locals followed the latter session live on a large screen outside of the municipal hall, putting up posters against the asylum centre and disrupting traffic. Meanwhile, people in Brežice threatened to organise protests and block the border crossing if the government goes ahead with the plans.

"Dicatatorial" decision

The locals have not been persuaded by the government's assurances that the centres are only meant as a temporary measure, to be used to accommodate asylum seekers only once the existing facilities in Ljubljana and the branch centre in Logatec are full. Nor do they believe police will ensure the residents' safety.

Brežice Mayor Ivan Molan said this was the first time the municipality had not been consulted or informed about such a decision, calling the government's decision "dictatorial".

He believes the area designated for the asylum centre in Obrežje is inappropriate, also because a registration centre, which unlike an asylum centre is a closed-type facility, will also operate there under a decision made by the government in January.

Toni Jelovica, the mayor of Središče ob Dravi, expressed "surprise and shock", wondering how the government could even make a decision like that, given that the asylum centre is to be located in town centre on premises he said were unsuitable for the purpose.

Supporting the local communities in their opposition, the opposition Democratic Party (SDS) tabled a bill on 14 March under which the government would have to seek the consent of local communities for asylum centres. The party believes this is the only way to make the decision-making process democratic and constitutional.

The party leader, former Prime Minister Janez Janša blamed the government for rising numbers of illegal migrants. He accused the government of trying to "distribute the foreigners around Slovenia to people who are not to blame for this, without even asking them first".

New capacities needed

Katarina Štrukelj, the head of the Government Office for the Support and Integration of Migrants, said the decision to increase the capacities for asylum seekers was guided by the experience from last year, when the number of applicants increased in July, August and September.

At certain points, the asylum unit in the Ljubljana borough of Vič housed more than a thousand people, and the office was under scrutiny of the Human Rights Ombudsman, and the Committee Against Torture, a body of independent experts that operates under the auspices of the UN.

The latter issued very clear recommendations that Slovenia should "regulate this area and that new capacities need to be ensured", Štrukelj said.

The number of illegal crossings of the Slovenian-Croatian border has been increasing, with the official police statistics for 1 January-10 March showing it was up by 29% year-on-year to 7,254. The figures are expected to increase further as the weather gets warmer.


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