By now, news of the Slovak government’s offer to open its doors to “200 Syrian Christians,” a number generously upgraded from original pledge to only take 100, has traveled the world. While a number of citizens, embarrassed by the government policy, are celebrating the international coverage of the story, the battle to change the conversation about refugees and migration still has to be domestically won.
Early this summer, the V4Revue asked whether Central European politicians’ responses to the refugee plight were going to embarrass their citizens or make them proud. 1This was before the European Commission asked EU member states to show more solidarity with people fleeing to Europe and the southern member states that serve as their entry point.
In May the Commission proposed that the EU (with a total population of 500 million people) relocate and resettle 40,000 people from Greece and Italy and another 20,000 from territories outside of the EU.
For Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million, this would mean taking in 1,104 people. 2 It is not much of a surprise that Slovakia rejected the quota – in the past 20 years, the country has only given international protection to some 1,300 people, out of almost 60,000 applicants. 3
More concerning, though, is the ambition to receive only Christians. While the government justified the condition, by saying it would make refugees more acceptable to locals, such cherry picking can only deepen religious rifts in Europe. Needless to say, religious profiling is way out of tune with the spirit of international covenants on refugee protection.
It is not clear what the Slovak authorities’ motivations are. The evening after a June “anti-refugee” rally in the Slovak capital, PM Robert Fico (SMER-Social Democracy) posted the following Facebook status:
“Good evening. I do not like when someone is kicking the door wide open, as it was literally done today in the streets of Bratislava. The government stance is clear. We disagree with obligatory quotas for Slovakia and we’re gaining the support of other countries, see V4. By voluntary contributions we’ll do more by focusing on territories, where problems with migrants originate. I would not be disturbed by the European Parliament members’ stances. They will not have any influence on our firm determination to reject quotas. Almost everyone in Brussels lives outside of reality.”
The June rally ended with a number of protestor arrests and two famous videos. One features neo-Nazis throwing stones at an Arab family at a Bratislava train station, and the other shows extremists attacking an international bike contest. 4 It took two days for a second status to appear on the PM’s Facebook, denouncing the violence and rejecting the neo-Nazi expressions; and it was much more formal in tone. 5
Unfortunately, the problem is not only with the government’s reluctance to talk about the reception of refugees in a more positive way. Most opposition parties have failed to counter the anti-immigration rhetoric, some even joining the race to the bottom. Radoslav Prochazka, head of the Siet Party, recently supported the results of a plebiscite in the southern Slovak municipality of Gabcikovo, which rejected the placement of a temporary refugee camp on its soil. 6
Gabcikovo is supposed to temporarily host a few hundred more refugees, aside from the initial 200 Syrians, who are seeking asylum in Austria. These people are not meant to stay – after only a few months they will be relocated outside of Slovak territory. The Slovak Ministry of Interior already announced that it would not take the referendum results into consideration.
Another opposition party, Sloboda and Solidarita (Freedom and Solidarity, sic!) rightly acknowledged the government’s failure to communicate with Gabcikovo citizens. Yet, the party’s alternative proposal was even more cynical: the refugees should be placed somewhere in military barracks, away from “the people”. 7
Many Slovaks do indeed have mixed emotions regarding the country opening its doors to refugees, but the national political elite are only further fueling an atmosphere of distrust. Only a handful of politicians, and a much larger number of journalists and activists are striving to bring more empathy into the public debate.
To mention a hopeful recent example: months before talk of refugees made it to headlines, the Union of Slovak Towns and Municipalities approached the Centre for Research of Ethnicity and Culture, a Slovak NGO, with a request for help with the better integration of foreigners, who are already residing within the country. The fact that it was the municipalities who asked for help, and not the NGO who pushed the agenda, is a positive sign in itself. 8 Yet, such indications of a constructive approach are hardly found at the national level.
Slovakia is not alone in its refugee confusion. Neighboring Hungary is building a wall on its shared border with Serbia 9, while the government regards pro-refugee rhetoric as part of the, “intellectual frenzy of the European Left.” 10
Waving responsibility is also common in other neighboring countries. Polish authorities seem to be more concerned with anti-Polish sentiments in the UK than with creating room for asylum-seekers in Poland, and Czech politicians have also been rather slow in responding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
What’s more dangerous than occasional excesses of extremists are however the alibis offered by the mainstream. The commonly repeated arguments include: “we” did not cause the wars from which the refugees are fleeing; “we” did not colonize Africa; “we” (as in the OECD members) are too poor; or simply, “we” are not ready.
In the face of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in real time on the 7 o’clock news, the most ridiculous suggestions include: ‘problems have to be addressed in places of their origin’, or, ‘let’s look for long-term solutions’. When one also points out that people from our region were once fleeing, and the situation could be repeated again, skeptics offer what they believe to be their best trump: “we” are different; or “we” are Europeans.
While a lot of hate has been voiced in local debates in recent months, there have also been spontaneous outbursts of solidarity and humanism. These give hope that what we see in Central Europe today, is the end of an era; the one, in which Central Europeans got a free ride by pointing to Communism’s destructive legacy and approached European politics mostly with imploring outstretched hands (“we” need to catch up; and “we” need euro funds).
To be sure, in the past the region provided humanitarian and development assistance and committed soldiers to various operations; but today’s task is much greater. It requires a realization that we’ve made it, that we’re an adult part of the world now, that we have a free choice and demarches from the EU or US might not be sufficient motivation for improvements anymore.
In the end, while the Slovak “Christian 200” remains an incredible embarrassment, and the bad press the country received, well-deserved, the international coverage is not going to achieve much by way of a domestic consensus on becoming a more open country. While it might give a little push for policy changes, the essential battle still has to be won with patient and honest conversations at home. The clock, though, is ticking.
- Lucia Najšlová, „Central Europe has to open its mind to migrants. #whatarewewaitingfor,“ V4Revue, May 5, 2015. ↩
- European Commission, „European Commission makes progress on Agenda on Migration,“ Brussels May 27, 2015. ↩
- Alexandra Malangone, „Slovak migration policy poisoned by hypocrisy,“ V4Revue, June 12, 2015. ↩
- Video: Extremists throwing stones on Saudi family (Aktuality.sk).
Video: Extremists attacking international bike competition in Bratislava (Aktuality.sk) ↩
- I wrote about the clash of empathies in the PMs rhetoric for a Czech webzine Denik Referendum, „100.Slovem sto. Kolik je Slunci let?“ ↩
- Trend, „Referendum v Gabčíkove: Tábor odmieta 96 percent voličov,“ August 2, 2015. ↩
- Dušan Mikušovič, „Kam by utečencov z Gabčíkova poslala opozícia? SaS do kasární, Sieť mlčí,“ Denník N, August 4, 2015. ↩
- Milan Čupka, „Pri utečencoch Západ pochybil. My nemusíme, “ an interview with Elena Kriglerová in Pravda, August 5, 2015: ↩
- Rachel Browne, „Hungary is building a wall along the Serbian border to keep migrants out,“ Vice, July 13, 2015. ↩
- Office of the PM of Hungary, „Hungarians have decided: they do not want illegal migrants,“ July 25, 2015. ↩