During his visit in Slovenia from 20 to 23 March, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, examined the situation of Roma, migrants and asylum seekers and of the increasing number of people living in poverty in the country. He stressed the centrality of human rights to ensure that Slovenian society is truly inclusive.
Slovenia, which lies on the Balkan migration route, dealt in a humanitarian manner with the transit of close to 500 000 migrants and refugees in 2015/2016. While recognising the legitimate need of the Slovenian authorities for the means to cope with such a situation in the future, the Commissioner regretted that this has led to legislative amendments aiming at restricting access to asylum in the country. The Commissioner was particularly concerned that some of these amendments, which would allow the detention of asylum seekers, or empower police to close borders and return asylum seekers without hearing their protection needs, are contrary to Slovenia’s legal obligations under international human rights and refugee law.
The Commissioner welcomed Slovenia’s participation in the relocation and resettlement of refugees. In this context, he examined integration measures for the new arrivals. State programmes for the integration of refugees and other beneficiaries of international protection are only starting and require development to meet the current needs. While inclusion of refugee children into mainstream education seems to be well developed, further measures are needed to ensure that persons do not experience destitution from the period they receive refugee status until they can access mainstream social assistance. Another area requiring additional efforts is housing, where refugees reported severe difficulties in accessing social housing and sometimes faced discrimination in the rental market.
The Commissioner visited the former Rog bicycle factory in Ljubljana, a local community centre that helps migrants and asylum seekers learn Slovenian and meet local Slovenian people. “Slovenia is no longer merely a transit country, and some of the asylum seekers and refugees are here to stay. The authorities should increase their capacity to handle this new reality and give them a chance to integrate and contribute to Slovenian society,” the Commissioner said. “For this to succeed, refugees themselves should be involved in the development of integration programmes, and more outreach needs to be done to local communities to overcome prejudices and hostility.”
The Commissioner also visited the Dobruška vas settlement in the Škocjan municipality, where Roma people live in insalubrious conditions, with a number of families deprived of access to running water, electricity or sanitation. As a result, the inhabitants of the settlement have to draw water from a polluted stream, which has a detrimental effect on their health and the access of their children to school. A case concerning this settlement is pending at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Commissioner also visited a kindergarten in Krško, where Roma children are being equipped with the skills which can help them in their future schooling and inclusion in Slovenian society. The Commissioner was informed that, in other parts of the country, the situation of Roma was considerably better. Nonetheless, Roma remain the group most affected by high school dropout rates, poverty and marginalisation in Slovenia, and further efforts are required to combat hate speech and prejudices that undermine their chances at better education, employment and regular housing solutions.
“The Slovenian authorities have invested efforts over the past 10 years to improve the situation of Roma, notably in the field of education and employment. Now is the time to go the extra mile and to ensure once and for all that no Roma in Slovenia experience severe deprivation. The government should also devote further attention to social intervention with Roma families and ensure that the local municipalities take the necessary steps to solve housing issues,” the Commissioner said.
The Commissioner learned with concern that poverty has been on the rise in Slovenia since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008 and now affects 14.5% of the population even after social assistance. Slovenia has a strong tradition as a welfare state, but austerity measures adopted in 2012 have led to cuts into social benefits. Pension reforms have left older persons – especially women - among those most at risk of poverty in the country. The Commissioner was told that the numbers of “the working poor” are rising, and that there is a growing phenomenon of long-term unemployment and intergenerational poverty. Economic deprivation can have particularly negative consequences for children, as it hinders their chances at a good education and can lead them to repeat poverty patterns in adulthood.
“Slovenia should stay true to its tradition as a welfare state with strong benefits to protect people from poverty. Slovenia’s constitution enshrines the human rights to social security, to health care, to proper housing and to adequate conditions of work. Providing effective access to those rights is a legal obligation. Under international law, Slovenia is obligated to progressively realise these rights to the “maximum of available resources”. I urge the Slovenian authorities to lift the remaining austerity measures that impact on social benefits as soon as feasible and to ensure that workers receive adequate remuneration,” the Commissioner said.
The Commissioner recalled that human rights provide an essential safety net for people, and are necessary to ensure that no one is left behind. Upholding human rights should be a guiding principle in policy making. To that effect, the Commissioner called on Slovenia to strengthen its national human rights structures, by adopting the draft amendments to the Law on the Ombudsperson that will give the institution an additional role in human rights research and education, and by increasing the resources at the disposal of the Advocate for the Principle of Equality.
A report on the Commissioner’s visit is forthcoming
The Rog Factory Social Centre, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 20 March 2017
Krško kindergarten, Kerinov grm, Slovenia, 21 March 2017
Dobruška vas settlement, Škocjan, Slovenia, 21 March 2017