Slovaks frustrated by Canada and US visa requirements

Thousands of Slovaks visit Canada and the USA every year. But before the go they need to apply for a visa - a bureaucratic procedure that leaves many of them frustrated. What's the prospect for Slovaks to travel visa-free to North America?

Canada and the United States work closely on border security issues. Just over over a month ago, President Bush announced that he wanted to help the Visegrad Four countries to be included in the US Visa Waiver Program. The US Ambassador to Slovakia, Rodolphe Vallee, explains what the Visa Waiver Program is about.

"A fundamental requirement of US consular law, that requires the number of folks that are refused visas based on analysis that our consular officers do with respect to the probability that they would stay and work illegally, that that so-called refusal rate be below three percent for a certain period of time and there are some other related issues but that really is the most important one."

Currently, Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Slovak visitors need a visa to visit the United States or Canada. Vierka Millerova travelled to Canada last May:

"We went to Canada because my husband lived there before for one year. He was teaching in British Columbia and he wanted me to go and to see the place. It is [a] really beautiful country and we like it so much. We travelled a lot through British Columbia. And we would like to go back. It is a little bit easier for him because he doesn't need visa. But it's a little bit more complicated for me because if I will like to go I have to get visa. I think that if it will be not visa for Slovaks it will be much better for us. Surely I would like to go back there..."

Vierka had to give her passport as well as personal banking information to the Embassy in Vienna. The office of the Canadian embassy in Bratislava does not process visas. Most Slovaks don't feel comfortable sending their passport and banking information by mail- not to mention the 50-euro processing fees to get their visas. So they take a day off work to make the trip to the Canadian Embassy in Vienna.

"It was quite a little complicated. The first things it was there is no embassy in Bratislava that I had to take one day off to go to Vienna to hand my application. And the second one, it was that I think it's a little bit complicated with the financial situation everything about your money and how much you earn and ...and all the things... I think that it was a little bit too much."

Canada's visa policy for V4 countries is much more ambiguous than the United State's visa waiver program. In April 1996, Canada lifted the visa requirement for the Czech Republic. After a few months, about a thousand Czechs - most of them Roma - requested refugee status. Most of them arrived in Toronto, Canada's largest city. In October 1997, the Canadian government reinstated the visa requirement for Czechs. But Slovaks have always needed visas to visit Canada. John Broadbent is the charge d'affaires at the office of the Embassy of Canada in Bratislava. He explains the Canadian visa policy for Slovakia.

"Our stated intention is to eliminate the visa requirements for Slovaks. Last September, Canada got rid of visas for Estonia, one of the Baltic Three countries."

What would Slovakia need to do to get rid of visa requirements? John Broadbent explains.

"Basically we want to be reasonably certain that the situation in Slovakia is such that when we take off the visa requirement, there will not be a flow of people trying to stay in any irregular way- declaring asylum, work illegally."

The Canadian government has a stated intention to lift visa requirements for Slovakia. But the time frame remains somewhat unclear for Slovakia and its neighbours.