Refugees, Keep Out

The puzzle of eastern Europe’s anti-immigrant stance

By Charlie Desprat


[dropcap]B[/dropcap]eginning in the spring of 2015, the migrant crisis has presented to the European Union an enormous challenge. With the arrival of 700,000 migrants and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and several African countries in the last year – as well as the arrival of 3 million more people by the end of 2016, according to predictions made by the European Commission – the basic principles of solidarity and unity of the European Union have been put to the test. And so far, there is not much to be proud of.

Although several European countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany have agreed to take in thousands of refugees, anti-immigration attitudes have prevailed in the political sphere of many nations across the continent, most notably in Eastern Europe. For example, the governments of the entire Vyšehrad group — which consists of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – have displayed aggressively xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes in the last few months. Fearing the so-called “Islamization” of Europe, Czech president Miloš Zeman complained at the beginning of October to the BBC News that “the beauty of our women will be hidden, as they will be forced to wear burkas, though I can think of some for whom this would be an improvement.” In a similarly xenophobic manner, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had signs put up across the country during the summer displaying slogans aimed at refugees such as “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs.”

Such anti-immigration attitudes have percolated through civil society as well. Although several non-governmental organizations such as UNICEF, Migrants Offshore Aid Station and Save the Children have sought to help and improve the living conditions of migrants and refugees in Europe, anti-immigration movements have prevailed in European societies. Indeed, as Czech border control police officer Renata Grecmánova explains, many Czechs have refused to welcome migrants because they equate Islam with terrorism, mostly as a result of the media. In fact, Renata admits that “[her] friends in the police department are frankly down-right Islamophobic”. The Eurobarometer poll conducted in the Czech Republic in September showed that 74% of Czechs objected to immigration from the Middle East and Africa. Likewise, other European countries have had many large anti-immigration demonstrations and hateful speeches in the last few months, the most notorious ones being led by the Pegida movement, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident. For instance, more than 20,000 Pegida supporters marched through Dresden in mid-October to protest against the German government’s decision to welcome an increasing amount of refugees. During this demonstration, The Economist reports that German-Turkish novelist Akif Pirincci delivered a speech in which he compared the state of Germany to “a Muslim garbage dump”, stating that “of course, there are other alternatives – but the concentration camps are unfortunately out of action at the moment.”

However outrageous Pirincci’s comment was, this speech illustrated the widespread tendency to make provocative comparisons between these events and Europe’s fairly recent history like the oppression and ensuing displacement of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s or to the vast “population transfers” (known today as “ethnic cleansing”) ordered by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin across Eastern Europe shortly after the Second World War.

In this case, a paradox emerges in that a continent which has experienced such recent massive migrations would have so little compassion for migrants. Indeed, countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland have thus far shown little cooperation. While several groups within civil society in these countries have been helping refugees, these nations’ governments refused to cooperate with other members of the European Union and rejected the quota system proposed by the European Commission. Moreover, certain governments such as the Czech Republic were accused on several occasions of deliberately holding migrants within their borders in “degrading” conditions, according to the words of UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Seid Ra’ad Al Hussein, as the Czech police for instance strip-searched migrants for money to pay for their detention or wrote numbers on their skin with felt-tip pens. These incidents seem especially jarring from the people who themselves had to take on the role of refugees and find shelter in Western Europe or elsewhere.

This paradox only seemed to be reinforced by subsequent events and ensuing associations. As Hungary closed the border which it shared with Serbia in mid-September in an attempt to regulate the massive inflow of Syrian migrants, comparisons between this initiative and the Berlin Wall emerged. As Czech student at Yale Simon Podhajsky ‘15 acknowledges, “even though it has never been made explicit, [this comparison] certainly remains in the back of people’s minds.” In any case, he argues, “these connections certainly account for the emotional reaction towards the closing of the Hungarian-Serbian border”. It is hard, indeed, to avoid making these associations, given that “building a wall is such a strong symbol”. How, then, do governments not perceive these disturbing references themselves?

Perhaps there actually is no paradox to begin with. While other nations compare the current situation to more recent crises in which these Eastern Europeans were refugees, these governments see the situation through a different historical prism: in the words of Yale Professor and Eastern Europe expert Timothy Snyder, they view the migrant crisis through “the lens of their own legacy as historical martyrs”. These countries have taken on for centuries various forms of victimization. Through religious and geopolitical wars, countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland emerged wounded and in need for help. This legacy dates even further back than the Soviet domination over Eastern Europe or the persecution of the Jews all the way to the centuries before these countries were even founded. The population, known as the Slavs, were persecuted and enslaved by Muslims, Christians and Jews for centuries because they did not adhere to any of the monotheistic religions and thus could not be officially recognized as legitimate states by other sovereigns.

Each nation later developed its own historical martyrdom. Starting with the integration of the founding martyr Saint Stanislaw in its national narrative, Poland was treated as an object to be played around with by various foreign powers, often leading to various partitions of the country without Polish consent, as the examples of the eighteenth-century Great Northern War or the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Likewise, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were subject to German domination for many centuries, from Habsburg domination to Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenlands. Finally, although the founding Hungarians used to enjoy a firmly established legacy of military excellence, they were progressively subject to alternate Habsburg and Ottoman domination.

In the context of this victimizing historical prism, these governments view the current migrants not as they themselves once were–which might have led them to welcome migrants–but yet as another plague upon Eastern Europe. Political figures lead this trend, with Czech president Zeman describing Islam as “the enemy of euro-Atlantic civilization” and calling for more defensive measures towards refugees. Likewise, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico spoke of a Europe threatened by the “onslaught” of migrants. Perhaps the most creative depiction of refugees as a threat came from Stanislaw Karczewski, head of the dominant right-wing party of Poland, who claimed that migrant carried “various types of parasites” which “could be dangerous here.” In fact, the adoption of this victimizing prism went as far as the creation of their very own historical comparisons: for instance, the quota system was compared by various Eastern European leaders to the 1938 Munich conference in the sense that the fate of their countries was (once again) in the hands of outsiders, thus leaving their leaders utterly powerless, an association which Professor Snyder deemed “ridiculous.” Much of the media also presents the situation as a sheer catastrophe upon Eastern Europe.

Hence, the Eastern European approach to the migrant crisis is not so much a paradox as it is a demonstration of their unwillingness to let go of a legacy of victimization. To them, the felt-tipped pens, the rush to push out migrants whether humanely or not, is a form of self-defense against a world they see as desperate to harm them. However, if they want to be full members of the modern world, they will have to leave their historical role of victim behind.


Charlie is a sophomore in Branford. She can be contacted at