Most of you know by now that I absolutely enjoy living in Slovakia and that I found my home here. However, there has been one major dirty spot on this country’s beauty that I have refrained from writing about, so far – any foreigner’s absolutely involuntary dealing with the so-called “Foreign Police”. I don’t know really why it took me 1.5 year since starting this blog to finally bring up this topic, considering my strong opinion about this institution, but I guess having recently changed employer and meeting new foreigners who still have to go through this torturous ordeal of dealing with the Foreign Police convinced me to write it now. So, here it goes…
The Foreign Police – the one institution in this country that should work “for” foreigners but instead does its damnedest to work “against” us. It is that immovable object that you can not get around, nor over, nor under, but must be faced head-on. It is that blunt weapon in the government’s arsenal that painfully bashes our heads, over and over again, hoping to discourage us from staying longer than is absolutely necessary. It is a concept that breaths intolerance in an otherwise very tolerant country.
One way or the other, every foreigner living and working in Slovakia will have to deal with the FP, including myself. My main business at the FP is the permanent residence card (“Občiansky preukaz“), which all foreigners should be in possession of in order to arrange any further official business in this country, from simple things like signing up for a phone subscription to applying for a mortgage or even getting married. I am not an expert on this, but I believe I, as a EU citizen, should not need to register in another EU state in order to conduct official business, so I can only assume the Slovak government decided not to abide to that particular liberty, which EU citizens might enjoy elsewhere, but I might as well be wrong on this one. Anyway, the card will contain your personal information, your Slovak social security number, your place of birth as well as your current permanent address on Slovak territory. This means that, whenever you move house, you will need to request a new residence card, in order for the permanent address to be corrected. Admittedly, this is not just an annoyance for foreigners but as well for Slovaks, whose national ID card contains the same information. Regardless, it will ensure that, if you plan to build your life in Slovakia for the foreseeable future, you will have to brave the long waits and ridiculous treatment at the FP more than once.
I am fully aware that, when you move to a different country, you simply have to follow the local rules and regulations. I am all in favour of that. I decided to move to Slovakia, so I should follow their requirements. No point in fighting it. And you would not hear me complain if the cooperation with the FP would be a smooth process. So, why am I complaining? Because it seems to me that the Slovak government has made torture into an art form by making any dealings with the FP an absolutely excruciating process which inadvertently will get your blood boiling, forces you to spend your hard earned vacation days by making you wait literally hours in a waiting room that makes your doctor’s waiting room look like a VIP lounge, gets you completely confused about what is actually required from you and, worst of all, will require you to bring a translator because the FOREIGN Police doesn’t speak bloody ENGLISH!
If you are really lucky, you may only need to go there once to request your residence card. Most people, however, are not so lucky. For me, it took “only” two visits, because the first time I apparently missed one particular document (out of many you would need to apply), which they obviously forgot to mention when my wife phoned them up front to inquire about the paperwork requirements. I yet have to meet a foreigner who managed to get the damn card in one go. Most foreigners I talk to had to go three, sometimes even four times before the police accepted all the documents for processing your request! You brought a copy, instead of an original? No luck then. Your documents are not notarized? No luck still. So, you can imagine, when I had to go there again to change my address, after we bought an apartment and moved to a different location, I decided to bring every possible document I could imagine would be necessary, as well as three different types of request forms, just to avoid I get rejected at the desk, after waiting for hours in the lobby.
There seem to be some small light at the end of this very long tunnel, though. Recently, I noticed that the Slovak government found some resource(s) to create a more or less English web-page on all “foreign” affairs. I am eternally grateful for that. It still strikes me as odd, however, that the Slovak version contains more information than the English version of the website. Were they simply selective in what a foreigner would need to know about “foreigner’s” business, compared to what a Slovak would need to know? Or do they simply expect any foreigner to enlist the help of a Slovak speaker anyway, so they made sure at least the translator knows what needs to be done? In any case, let’s not look this gift horse in its mouth, and rejoice in the progress, as small as it might seem.
There is, however, one painful issue that I simply can not overlook in any article dealing with the FP – so far, I have been writing indeed about the “Foreign” Police. This is a literal translation of the Slovak name of the department (“Cudzinecká polícia”) and one that, I guess, is indeed a fitting translation considering its target audience. The Slovak government, however, maintains a slightly more “other-worldly” translation of this institution. It is one thing to be a foreigner, but to call us “Alien” is a whole different story! All rules and regulations on foreigners staying on Slovak soil are included in the so-called “Act on Residence of Aliens”, regulating things like “entry of aliens into the Slovak territory”, the “area of the residence of aliens”, “issuing documents for aliens”, as well as “aliens who applied for the granting of asylum” (if you don’t believe me, click here). To top it all off, there are “Alien Detention Centers” in the country for those aliens that misbehave! Frankly, I find all this incredibly disrespectful. I know it is just words, but it does tell you something about how the Slovak state perceives foreigners on Slovak soil – a bunch of “E.T.’s” they’d gladly help find their way home.
At this point, I should probably add a disclaimer that in no way am I referring here to the shortcomings of the Slovak people. My arrows are fully aimed at the Slovak state system and its attitude towards foreigners living and breathing the Slovak life, and primarily within the Bratislava region (as I have been told the FP in other counties are, surprisingly, way more relaxed in their dealings with foreigners). So, don’t mistake my views for Slovaks being xenophobic or anything in that direction.
Quite the opposite, actually. Generally, Slovaks are incredibly open and tolerant toward foreigners. By example, even in the smallest villages you may find international relationships, fully integrated in the village life. Most Slovaks I know accepted me right away from the start. Although I would love to imagine that this is due to my charming personality, it is more likely that Slovaks just like being around foreigners. Generations, both young and old, are interested in foreigners, their culture, their language, their habits. Despite obvious language barriers (especially when you leave the Bratislava area), Slovaks will never leave you out in the cold. Ever.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, until 25 years ago, the borders were more or less closed and people could only go in or out with special permission of “the Party” (or under the veil of night, in full secrecy, at risk of life and limb). Apart from what seeped in illegally through the cracks of the strictly controlled borders, the Western world was for many people a mysterious land….perhaps, indeed, an “other-worldly”, alien land….
Once the borders opened up in 1993, many Slovaks (especially my generation and thereafter) frantically absorbed all that was out of reach before. All things non-Slovak was considered better (unjustly, from my point of view, but fine), more interesting, more fashionable. I can only imagine that welcoming and embracing foreigners in Slovakia is just as much part of this early obsession with the outside world. In fact, I am amazed about the enormous amount of international relationships I have encountered over the past years! You say the Dutch people are liberal? I would love to see a comparative study that would show the ratio of local and mixed marriages between, let’s say, Amsterdam and Bratislava. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bratislava would come out on top.
So, the almost disgraceful, very non-EU like treatment of foreigners at the Foreign Police institution should therefore be completely attributed to the Slovak government and its policies, instead of to the Slovak people as a whole. And, honestly, this is curious in itself, especially when you look at the situation in Bratislava (where, as already mentioned, the bureaucratic system is most foreigner-unfriendly of all counties). It is hard to argue with the observation that foreigners make up quite a considerable part of the city’s population. Many large, international companies have their local offices (or even European HQs) located in Bratislava, which provide tons of employment to both Slovaks and non-Slovaks alike. This, obviously, goes hand-in-hand with the increase of mixed relationships, the rise of international and multi-lingual schools, the flow of cultural influences from all over the world into Slovak territory, the improvement in the city’s economic situation within the country as well as its position among the other capitals of Europe. More and more, Bratislava is becoming a true international crossroad at the heart of Europe.
So, all things considered, why not being a tad more friendly to us foreigners, who really want to build a life here? Would it really be too much to ask to perhaps change your perception of us as “aliens” to regular citizens of this beautiful country, regardless of whether we have a different country printed on our passport? Ten years ago you joined the European Union. You were so proud of finally outclassing the Czech Republic, and rightly so, in becoming a EU member first. Now it is time to start acting like one.