Refugees confronted with Slovakia's 'national project'
With his happy-go-lucky nature, Tamim did not think too much about the unfriendly looks that fellow tram passengers gave him as he traveled to work or school.
The 25-year-old Afghan refugee perceives his life in Slovakia as a challenge. “It has made me a man,” he says. Still, his easygoing attitude has changed. He used to appear in the media, happy to answer questions about his journey to Slovakia. Now he agrees to an interview only under the condition that there will be no photos and his full name will not be used.
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To be identified as a refugee carries a stigma in Slovakia and often means rejection from landlords and employers.
Tamim lives in Bratislava, the most cosmopolitan among Slovakia’s cities. He had been there for a short time when thousands of mostly young people marched through the city last June, chanting "Slovakia for Slovaks".
Such a protest seems out of proportion in a country that has welcomed only a few of the migrants currently fleeing to Europe.
During the 23 years since its independence, only about 58,000 people have sought asylum in Slovakia and a little over 800 have succeeded. Less than 700 others have received subsidiary protection - a status for people who do not qualify as refugees. Tamim is one of them.
Still, 39.7 percent of Slovaks polled by Polis Slovakia last summer considered refugees to be the biggest problem facing the country. In another opinion poll, by Focus last December, 70 percent of respondents said they were worried about migration.
Most thought refugees would increase crime and the risk of terrorist attacks. Many people also believed that Slovakia was a poor country that could not afford to share its income and jobs with foreigners.
Slovakia's GDP per capita was €16,800 in 2014, the unemployment rate was 10 percent in April 2016.
“People do not understand who refugees are and why they are coming to Europe,” says Peter Devinsky of the Slovak Humanitarian Council, an NGO helping refugees. “We have to explain that they are not Somali pirates who hijack boats or people who blow themselves up.”
Many Slovaks had never heard about refugees until the height of Europe’s migrant crisis last summer. When it suddenly became a hot topic, they were easily influenced by the country’s political elite, many of whom have used the issue to serve their own interests.
Instead of trying to dispel fears, prime minister Robert Fico led the campaign for the March election under the slogan “we protect Slovakia”, calling migrants “a danger”.
He warned that refugees will be equally impossible to integrate as Slovakia’s Roma population and that Muslims will change the character of the predominantly Christian country.
Perhaps an unintended result of Fico’s rhetoric was that the far-right People's Party-Our Slovakia has entered parliament with over 8% of the vote.
In such a hostile atmosphere, not everyone is able to keep their spirits high like Tamim. Many refugees have left Slovakia, including 21 out of 149 Christians who had been relocated from Iraq with the support of the government.
Rejection of anyone “different” has been characteristic of Slovakia and its neighbours since the 19th century, according to sociologist Michal Vasecka.
“Central Europe has been built around the idea that the state is a territory of one ethnic group. Other ethnicities are only tolerated,” he says.
“Nationalism resulted in relatively homogeneous population. The refugees currently coming to Europe are visibly different – more than those ethnic groups that were earlier removed or assimilated. They represent a danger to the national project.”
Vasecka thinks that Slovak society has radicalised. “Before, extremist views were minority, today they are majority,” he says, blaming the situation partly on the populist prime minister. “With his approach, Robert Fico has spread the notion that you don’t need to be ashamed to hate.”
Seeking to challenge the negative atmosphere in Slovakia, an initiative called Who Will Help (Kto Pomoze) has embarked on a search for people with more positive attitudes.
Over 2,000 volunteers have offered to teach refugees Slovak, help them to find work, even give them a home. They are attempting to address the deficiencies of the Slovak state, which comes second-bottom among EU countries in the migrant integration policies index a ranking established by NGOs.
But the volunteers also have another mission. “They are a bridge between refugees and Slovak society,” says Michaela Pobudova, the coordinator of the project. “They can introduce their proteges to their friends and relatives and gradually more and more people will personally know refugees.”
This approach worked in the case of the refugee camp in Rohovce. “In 2001, residents mobilised against its opening, but they have found out that refugees are people like us,” says the camp’s manager Peter Privitzer.
Pobudova believes that now - with the election campaign over and passions around refugees cooled down - is a good time to act. “People are more apathetic and easier to sway.”
There is a clear need for a broad public debate about the issue. “It is important to speak about refugees. We have to counter those very negative feelings that even young people harbour,” says Peter Devinsky.
Michal Vasecka thinks that the definition of “the national project” needs to change. But the demand for it has to come from the grassroots and it is not there quite yet.
The current refugee crisis, which has opened a debate about the topic, can act as a catalyst.