SLOVENIA: New government open to civil society, pressure on CSOs working with migrants persist

(European Civic Forum on CIVICUS Monitor) In mid-August 2018, a new minority government led by Marjan Šarec was formed after two months of uncertainty following elections in June which saw the anti-immigrant SDS party of former prime minister Janez Jansa win the largest share of votes. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Slovenian civil society organisations had been worried about a possible SDS-led coalition which could have reduced state support for the civil society sector. While worries persist about the stability of the new coalition, civil society organisations are more upbeat about this government’s approach to supporting civil society.

According to the Center for Information, Cooperation and Development of Non-Governmental Organizations (CNVOS), during meetings with civil society, several ministries confirmed their commitment to increasing the state budget for non-governmental organisations and improving dialogue with the sector, including on environmental policies.

The CIVICUS Monitor had previously reported the difficult relationship between the Minister of the Environment and Spatial Planning and civil society organisations. During a session with the Parliament’s Committee on Infrastructure, Environment and Spatial Planning, the incoming minister, Juret Leben, stated to be willing to change this. He stressed that civil society should be involved from the very beginning of developing legislation to ensure a real dialogue. He said:

“It is very important to raise the process of coordination and coordination of environmental policies…with civil initiatives, associations, local communities, utilities, non-governmental organizations…At this point, I can assure that, if I have the opportunity to serve as the Minister of the Environment, [we are ready] to prepare a two-year program [of] funding for NGOs and I will coordinate [with NGOs] on a monthly basis.” (Translated from Slovenian)

According to the Slovenian NGO Asociacija, the coalition’s programme for civil society in the area of art and culture is also supportive and positive.

Former minister critical of NGOs’ support to migrants

In separate developments, a recent incident has raised concerns among civil society organisations about the general atmosphere prevailing in Slovenia at present. At the beginning of September 2018, the former interior minister Vesna Györkös Žnidar accused non-governmental organisations of the “extremely controversial practices” (translated from Slovenian) of allegedly supporting migrants to cross the border into Croatia and “exasperate” the police. In her statement, the minister did not mention any specific organisation but she seemed to be referring to an episode involving the Legal Information Center for Non-Governmental Organizations (PIC). That organisation is contracted by the ministry to provide legal support to asylum-seekers and recently alerted the Ombudsman that police were returning asylum-seekers en masse to Croatia without their application for asylum having been properly examined. The Ombudsman adjudged such practices to have been not compliant with the law.

In a statement, Katarina Bervar Sternad, director of PIC, responded that all activities carried out by the organisation are conducted legally in Slovenia. She said:

“When a person asks us for help to go through the official procedure to request international protection, we will inform the police about where the person is located, who it is, and whether it wants to apply for international protection…We do not cooperate with those who do not want to go with the official (police) procedure and we do not even communicate anything to anyone. Likewise – again – we only help those who are in the territory of Slovenia.” (Translated from Slovenian)

She stressed that this procedure partially helps police to control the flow of people. At the same time, organisations have the right to alert police to the possibility that they could file criminal complaints in cases of misbehaviour.

Ms. Bervar Sternad continued:

“We are asking ourselves about the wider context of these unfounded accusations with the fact that the Human Rights Ombudsman is still not satisfied with the Ministry of the Interior’s responses to their complaints and findings in connection with the disputed treatment of foreigners.”