Dreaming of democracy: refugees on Europe’s periphery

By Cirila Toplak On November 20, 2015
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Tensions are rising in Slovenia, where passing refugees continue to dream of Europe while the local population is losing all hope of a better future.

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Photo: refugees waiting in line to board a ship in Greece, by CAFOD Photo Library, via Flickr.

Many Slovenians have very firm opinions on refugees without ever having seen one of them: surely, they are all dangerous Islamists and they come to Europe to take something away from us. The few people here that have had personal contact with the refugees generalize their singular experience into a bigger picture: if one sees a group of refugees composed of mostly men, then surely only men are coming, and women and children are there just for the cameras.

Others still create a pattern based on second hand information: one refugee with an expensive smartphone turns into all of them just pretending to be destitute; one woman saying on TV that she would not stay here because Slovenia is too poor, explains why all the refugees want to go to Germany.

I can agree that the refugees are about to take something away from us, here on Europe’s periphery. They threaten our miserable status quo, imposed by our neoliberal rulers. Yes, Slovenia is poor, compared to Germany. There is a certain subconscious concession in the indignation over the refugees unwilling to stay here: were Slovenia a prosperous, tolerant and open minded society, they would certainly think twice.

By merely passing through, they hold up a mirror to us. If they managed their ultimate pilgrimage so far, they will persevere to a place where they feel welcome. They cannot easily feel welcome in Slovenia. Let me explain why, as someone working at a refugee camp.

Slovenian authorities have perfected a “humanitarian corridor.” It is intended for the transfer of refugees across the territory of Slovenia as quickly as possible without any contact with the local population–lately not even with the media. Considering the majority’s intolerance towards the refugees, the corridor protects the refugees at least as much as the locals.

Presently, a barbed wire fence is being erected on the Slovenian-Croatian border. Only weeks ago the Prime Minister publicly boasted of Slovenia as ‘too European and progressive’ to ever follow the example of our Hungarian neighbors and close off the border. To save his face, he speaks of ‘technical barriers’ being installed, but no one is fooled.

The media also do their part. First they referred to “refugees”, then to “migrants” and now to “foreigners”. These are not exactly synonyms. Refugees fleeing to save their lives have the right to international legal protection. Migrants “only” flee poverty — as if extreme poverty in Nigeria or Iraq was not a matter of life and death; as if both, refugees and migrants were not pushed to leave their countries by the same factors and actors ruling our unequal world. And foreigners are simply all those who are not us. Yet, from what I have seen, these people, however we call them, are us in more than one way.

So far, the barbed wire on the European Union’s outer rim has only stopped local wildlife in its tracks. The free flow of people is one of the EU’s trademarks, after all. The refugees cannot be stopped and there is something hopeful in this power of the powerless. Their sheer number is formidable, when encountered in an open field, at a train station, or in a refugee camp. Perhaps that is why sensationalist media speak of an “invasion”, when only a million of them have reached Europe this year. I say only a million, because there are 500 million Europeans, and the thing to fear most is still our own irrational fears.

To feed this fear, the refugees better remain abstract numbers to us. If we knew their personal stories and saw them as human beings, it would be much more difficult to fear and loathe them. Numeration is good for something else too: it helps to dehumanize the refugees in their own eyes.

Have you ever wondered why they had to ride, walk and even swim the 2,000 kilometer Balkan trail, while an airplane would take them to Germany in a few hours? Maybe, so that now when they arrive at their final destination, they’re so exhausted, deprived, humiliated and apathetic that they are easy to handle. Moreover, they are grateful their ordeal is over and many cannot wait to start their new careers as cheap labor — pushing labor costs down for all workers and promising an uncertain future for their integration.

Crossing Slovenia, the refugees are so detached from their surroundings they often do not know where they are. But the isolation in the “corridor” is only one reason Slovenia doesn’t appear welcoming to them. In the refugee camp where I volunteer for the Red Cross, some government employees and even humanitarians are quite openly hostile to the refugees.

A soldier guarding the camp told me that his entire unit was to go on a mission abroad. Instead, they were stuck on endless freezing night shifts at the refugee camp. Missions abroad are the only opportunity for the soldiers to augment their sorry salaries. The refugees on the other hand, the soldier said, traveled with hundreds of thousands of euros on them. I asked him how many cases like that he knew out of over 240,000 refugees that have crossed Slovenia recently. He knew two.

The police in the camp have other understandable worries. They are in charge of preventing the refugees from scattering outside the corridor (although upon their registration the refugees receive a temporary Schengen visa allowing them to move freely). When a large group of refugees are waiting at the camp to be let across the border to Austria, special police forces in full combat gear yell at them and have their clubs out, ready to prevent a stampede. The police must feel uneasy for they are perhaps a few dozen commanding close to a thousand sometimes.

Their mission to keep the crowd in check reminds somewhat of the “1% versus 99%”. Our oligarchs are also well armed by extension of the state repressive apparatus and well protected by our political and legal institutions. Their media discourse is loud and authoritative to make them appear more powerful than they are. The multitude opposing the outnumbered police is poorly equipped for survival, let alone for confrontation. They obey because they still have something to lose: hope. Hope for a better life in the Promised Land of Europe. What hope, what future do we Europeans on the periphery have left, hopelessly caught as we are in daily struggle for survival, debt, consumerism and instant gratification? What can we still believe in?

No one speaks of religion in the camp; I have seen no one pray. The children are numb with hardship and discomfort, as if they had no more tears to cry. Adults look serious and irritated with extreme fatigue. Some tell me that this refugee camp is the first on the Balkan trail where they are entitled to a warm shower, a proper dinner and some sleep, albeit in noisy and smelly tent structures increasingly unfit for winter temperatures. Meanwhile, neighboring Croatia claims to champion humanitarian solidarity by opening its borders and letting all incomers to gather at the gates of Slovenia.

This “humanitarian” policy consists of setting the maximum time for a refugee to spend in Croatia between 6 and 12 hours. Slovenian authorities follow the rules of a de facto defunct Schengen system that slows down the flow of refugees for the sake of bureaucracy. The refugees end up being grateful for that because it means warm food and rest. They are after all human beings, not goods to be transported and delivered ASAP. Some have been traveling for weeks, those from Afghanistan and Pakistan for months. I have met three young boys from Kabul who made it to Slovenia alone, covering 6,000 kilometers.

Although exhausted, many refugees are willing to recount their experience. Young Syrian university graduates, two men and a woman, travel together. Syria is currently being depopulated, they say, the border with Turkey is unguarded; a sign of a failed state. So those who prefer peace to war and cannot identify with the radical Islam of ISIS leave first for Turkey. When these three saw the conditions in Turkish border refugee camps, they pushed on to Greece and survived the rubber boat crossing of the increasingly choppy Mediterranean. They are critical of Arab contemporary art: it lacks abstraction and memory, they say, seemingly unaware of the orientalization by the orientalized.

They abhor traveling together with other refugees who are different from them and who, unlike them, have nothing to offer to Europe. These educated atheist Syrians complain so earnestly of those “peasants’” eating and hygiene habits that they make me smile at how similar we are, similarly intolerant to Others. They try to keep their individualism – another very western concept – alive, just like that young woman who badly needs a coat but is not happy with the size of the one I find for her in the clothes storage tent.

The shoes are the wrong color, too, but this is her challenged self, trying to survive in anonymous crowd, not vanity or pickiness as the soldier outside the tent hisses. Today you help them, tomorrow you’ll get a bullet in the head, he adds knowingly. I have learned not to react to such assumptions; one cannot win an argument with those who know it all. Only children deserve unmitigated compassion, perhaps some of the police and military have kids at home, too.

From a distance the refugees all seem the same, even within the camp. A dark crowd of the malnourished and poorly dressed, faces tight with worries. Only from up close can you tell Syrians from Afghanis–the two most represented ethnicities–hear a Babylon of languages, and appreciate their diversity. Were the European Union’s motto ‘United In Diversity’ anything more than a political platitude, these people would be an asset, for they are all sorts and kinds.

On my evening shift, one large group is leaving for the no man’s land between Slovenia and Austria where they will wait for long hours in the freezing cold to be transported onwards. Meanwhile, another group is already walking off and limping on the next train. For a short time, the enormous tents housing hundreds are almost empty. A family in the far corner waits for a child who had to be hospitalized. An old man and his daughter have also been allowed to spend the night inside with their gravely ill wife and mother. The doctor says that she has hours to live and her hollow face has the gray color of the dying.

She refuses to go to the hospital so her deathbed is set amidst temporarily empty army bunk beds and aggressive smells of garbage and excrements. Her dignified relatives seem at peace with her departure. The frail old man starts telling me of his life in Syria as a journalist and political activist, his 16 years in prison, the horrors of torture by five different Syrian secret police, and finally, the difficult escape together with his sick spouse.

The daughter, a lawyer, shows me her father’s sentence: to become a non-human, unworthy of funeral, were he found dead. I bled for democracy, the old man says in French. How could this man not have a place in the stronghold of democracy the European Union claims to be? Unless this word, democracy, means nothing anymore.

It seems that Europe cannot get rid of barbed wire. The bygone era of borders and fences is catching up with us all over again. The Europeans–at least the ones on Europe’s periphery–see their European dreams shattered by non-Europeans who still believe in it. Maybe the refugees will settle down among us, and open their eyes to the reality around them. Then, we can finally get to know each other, and perhaps even start creating a different Europe together.

Cirila Toplak is a professor of political science at the University of Ljubljana, animal welfare activist and Red Cross volunteer.

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