On 31st March 2020, the Border Violence Monitoring Network co-signed a letter alongside members InfoKolpa and Are You Syrious?, as well as Slovenian groups Radio Študent and Doctors for Asylees. It challenged the latest proposal to militerise Slovenia’s borders in wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. The signatories decried the move by the newly elected government in Ljubljana to invoke article Article 37.a of the Defence Act as a response to the pandemic.
Addressing the concerns directly to the EU Commission, the letter stated that :
“activation of the article would give the Slovenian army unclear jurisdiction for the »protection of the broader border« area. However, there is substantial concern that such indefinite military power would expand into martial law across the country”.
The Network have been collecting data on illegal chain pushbacks from Slovenia, which the letter references as actively supported by the Slovenian army through detection and apprehension. The scope of military actors is symbolic of the strategy being applied against people-on-the-move at the EU’s external border, where defence policy has become interlocked with migration controls. Network members such as InfoKolpa have witnessed the expanding powers granted to the Slovenian police in the execution of illegal border enforcement, and the proposal of the Slovenian government looks to integrate the military even further into this web of unlawful border protection.
At a time when Covid-19 demands more doctors, nurses, care workers and professionals able to support vulnerable groups (such as refugees and migrants) with necessary public health measures, this militerised response looks to instrumentalise the pandemic in order to carve out more draconian measures. After pressure from groups including health care professionals and those working with asylum seekers in Slovenia, the Defence Commitee voted but did not reach the two third majority for the motion to be put forward to the Slovenian parliament. This result is a reprieve, halting what would have been a step towards further rights violations against people-on-the-move. But the Network views with concern such blatant attempts to re-centre migration controls through the prism of military control. The threat of Covid-19 should not be an opportunity to establish lasting military operations in border areas as detailed in the full open letter shared here below:
Subject: The Government of Slovenia’s military response to a health emergency
Dear Ursula von der Leyen, Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, Michael O’Flaherty, and Donald Tusk,
the civil initiative InfoKolpa, Radio Študent, Border Violence Monitoring Network, Are You Syrious? and Doctors for Asylees would like to bring to attention the alarming steps taken by the government of Slovenia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government of Slovenia is abusing the pandemic to continue its politics of fear and discrimination against one of the most vulnerable populations in Europe – migrants and refugees stuck on the Balkan route. In Slovenia, the politics of fear have led to a campaign in the parliament to invoke the controversial Article 37.a of the Defence Act. Activation of the article would give the Slovenian army unclear jurisdiction for the »protection of the broader border« area. However, there is substantial concern that such indefinite military power would expand into martial law across the country.
The new Slovenian government has been in power since 13. 3. 2020 and has already aggressively expanded its rule. It replaced the heads of the police force and the ministry of defense’s intelligence and security service (OVS) and dismissed the head of the armed forces. Thus, bringing the state security apparatus directly under its control. Rapid personnel shifts in crucial institutions, barring journalists from press conferences, and media attacks amidst the pandemic demand close attention and caution.
As the world is experiencing a health emergency and humanitarian catastrophe, the Slovenian government is labeling the fight against the pandemic as a security threat. Consequently, the government called to grant the army police jurisdiction on the Schengen border with Croatia. Army’s presence at the border would nominally be for the containment of the pandemic. However, in practice, it would prevent people from seeking shelter and international protection in the European Union (EU).
We can expect that the army will continue with interception and illegal push-backs of migrants to Croatia. Push-backs have been a regular practice of the Slovenian police since the closure of the Balkan corridor in 2016. Since then, the Slovenian police have returned more than 16.000 persons to Croatia by systematically denying the right to asylum and falsifying official procedures. Croatian authorities further transport refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a country with limited healthcare and shelter capacities. During the push-backs, the police regularly use violence, intimidation, and theft. The Slovenian and Croatian governments, European People’s Party (EPP), and European Commission (EC) can be considered as directly responsible for the ensuing humanitarian disaster in the overcrowded camps in BiH and Serbia.
The activation of Article 37.a would give the armed forces jurisdiction over civilians. There is widespread fear among the general public and parliamentary opposition that the “migrant threat” is just an excuse to broaden the government’s hold on power, as currently, the army is already assisting border police. The determination of the government to activate an unnecessary article of the law is a cause for severe concern.
Members of the parliamentary opposition have no oversight over the national intelligence agency (SOVA) and other vital decisions. Possibilities for critical observation are missing. Article 37.a requires votes from the opposition. There is a pressure on members of parliament (MPs) to vote in favor of the article. The Slovenian People’s Party (SLS), a member of EPP, is even considering criminal prosecution of opposition MPs who would not vote in favor of the article.
Journalists critical of the government are facing personal attacks and public humiliation while the prime minister denounces the reports of national broadcaster RTV Slovenia. For a time, journalists were not allowed to attend government press briefing and pose questions. As a response to the outcry of the Slovene Association of Journalists, the government first resorted to written-form briefings, offering pre-prepared answers, thus disabling journalists from directly asking questions and follow-up questions in real-time. Under the pretext of safety, a law was passed that enables the government to disregard the legal timeframe for providing information in the public interest.
In Slovenia, the government is more concerned with the capacity of the army and police, more concerned with security and population control than about the strained healthcare system. There is a lack of protective equipment in hospitals and nursing homes. Miserable care is provided to the homeless and other vulnerable persons.
The prime minister called for citizens to volunteer into the military to help with the efforts against the pandemic. It is an alarming sign since groups of far-right paramilitary militias were already illegally patrolling the southern border in search of migrants and refugees. Possible inclusion of these groups as military volunteers with police authority would be a dangerous step towards their normalization.
Human rights, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and public oversight are democratic values European governments and citizens are obligated to uphold. In light of the current pandemic, its aftermath, and progressing Euroscepticism, it is crucial to warn against escalating politics of fear and democratic backsliding practiced by the Slovene government and EU. Our government institutions should provide proportional measures in forms of humanitarian and medical aid, and not increase repression.
We appeal to the EC, EPP, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, members of the LIBE committee and other relevant authorities to closely monitor developments in Slovenia. We feel that the motions mentioned above indicate that after Hungary, Slovenia will be the next member state that will leave the principles of democracy under the leadership of the government that is a member of the EPP.
Doctors for Asylees
Are You Syrious?
Border Violence Monitoring Network