STA, 23 April 2020 - Mayors of 23 border municipalities have called on the National Assembly to back the activation of an emergency clause that grants soldiers limited police powers to patrol the border, citing a likely mass spread of Covid-19 among migrants as the main reason.
While the government has been unable to secure the two-thirds majority in parliament to activate Article 37.a of the defence act, the mayors argue the army "is the only institution left with a sufficient number of equipped and trained staff to protect the southern border".
The mayors, whose petition is dated 20 April but was published by Defence Minister Matej Tonin on Wednesday, are surprised by the reservations concerning an expanded use of the army on the border in a time when Slovenia is trying to contain the coronavirus epidemic.
They fear a larger number of infected persons could enter Slovenia, since the virus is already present among migrants and a major spread among them will be impossible to prevent given their accommodation situation in Europe and Turkey.
The mayors are aware of proposals to activate backup police and retired officers and "do not oppose them, but it has been shown in the past that such measures do not enable the activation of several thousand additional people",
While soldiers are already assisting the police on the border, the mayors believe that not being able to restrict the movement of persons and take part in crowd control along the border - the powers granted by Article 37.a - renders the soldiers meaningless.
The mayors moreover argue that the likelihood of a certain number of police officers falling ill also needed to be taken into account in a situation where there are not enough officers on the border to protect it effectively as it is.
It was Emil Rojc, the mayor Ilirska Bistrica which borders on Croatia, that handed the petition to Tonin. According to the minister, the mayors "claim the people are not afraid of the Slovenian army and want greater security".
The coalition has failed to the get the opposition on board for the temporary activation of the additional army powers. The parties mostly claim there has been no significant uptick in migrant numbers that would warrant this, while some have unsuccessfully proposed restrictions to the extra powers.
The government has however remained determined to push ahead with the plan, also getting the backing of President Borut Pahor, the commander-in-chief of the Slovenian Armed Forces, who visited the southern border area along the Kolpa river in the company of the interior and defence minister last Wednesday.
Interior Minister Aleš Hojs told the press last Thursday that the government plans to nevertheless deploy soldiers if needed, using a different legislative provision that allows a more limited form of deployment.
Article 37.a was adopted at the peak of the migration crisis, in October 2015, and invoked in February 2016 to help police patrol the border. Over 442,000 migrants had entered the country between 16 October 2015 and 1 February 2016.
Police recorded 1,835 illegal crossings of the border in the first three months of 2020, which is 6.5% more than in the same period last year.
However, according to Monday's report by TV Slovenija, the number of illegal crossing recorded halved after the coronavirus epidemic was declared in Slovenia. The total figures for 1 January to 20 April were 2,396 in 2019 and 2,038 in 2020.