After images of Budapest’s Keleti train station illustrating the urgent need for a fast and coordinated EU assistance programme for refugees had been circulating around the world for days, the governments of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia again reaffirmed their vehement “no” to the EU Commission’s proposal for refugee quotas.
Against refugee quotas
“Binding quotas are unacceptable,” stated last Friday's joint declaration by the four Visegrád countries, adding that solidary assistance should be provided “on a voluntary basis”. Poland will voluntarily admit 2,000 refugees in the next two years, the Czech Republic 1,500 and Slovakia 200. And the three governments agreed to even these vanishingly small numbers compared to the commitments of other countries only after a heated debate.
Even more striking than the self-assuredness with which the four countries foisted the obligation to admit a total of 160,000 refugees EU-wide largely upon other member states are the arguments with which they justified it.
Poland rejects “economic migrants”, stated Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, adding that the country is already home to ten thousand Ukrainians.
Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec has argued that the Czech Republic is only a transit country anyway, that the vast majority of refugees want to settle in Germany, and that it is not clear how they could be kept in the Czech Republic.
Slovakia has reserved the right to admit only Christian refugees, and Prime Minister Robert Fico justified his rejection of refugee quotas with an indictment of his country’s own inability to assimilate: “How should we integrate people with a completely different way of life and religion if we are unable to integrate our own Romani citizens?”
Last week in Brussels, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rejected any responsibility for admitting refugees, calling the crisis “a German problem”.
Refugees are not welcome
Instead of considering how best to integrate over one hundred thousand refugees who have risked their lives to flee across the Mediterranean Sea, the Visegrád countries are betting on closing the EU’s external borders to protect against new waves of refugees—if necessary by military means.
Those very countries which so euphorically celebrated the opening of borders in 1989 are now doing everything in their power to keep the borders closed to immigrants. One must not invite refugees “to the dinner table”, Viktor Orbán has said in reference to Germany’s asylum practice vis-à-vis refugees from the Syrian civil war; rather, the signal must be “Don’t come”, Orbán insists. The Hungarian prime minister considers the construction of a 175-kilometre fence on the Serbian border to be morally right, because it protects the refugees from false illusions, he says.
Czech President Miloš Zeman shared his message to the refugees in his country through the tabloid paper Blesk: “No one invited you here. If you’re already here, then you have to respect our rules. And if you don’t like it then go away.”
Hardly any foreigner(s) and asylum seeker(s)
The signal of an imminent “invasion of foreigners” that the Visegrád countries’ heads of government are sending out contrasts starkly with reality. The portion of foreigners in the overall population here is well below the EU average. In Slovakia, foreigners constitute just 1.4 per cent of the population, and the situation is similar in Hungary. In the Czech Republic, the figure is 4 per cent.
All three countries pursue a restrictive asylum policy, and there are few asylum seekers. Only six asylum applications were approved in Slovakia during the first half of 2015. The Hungarian government has recently restricted the right to asylum so that under an emergency measure that will come into force in mid-September refugees may be forcibly returned to Serbia, which is now considered a “safe third country”.
No “multicultural” society
The negative posture towards refugees at the political level is welcomed by large majorities in all three countries.
Over 90 per cent of the Czech population support the deportation of refugees, according to a recent poll by the agency Focus, and seven out of ten Slovak citizens reject binding refugee quotas.
Writer Rudolf Ungváry recently diagnosed Hungarian society in German radio as being in “a kind of silent state”, that makes it malleable to the government’s will.
Sociologists view the reasons for the negative stance towards foreigners as consisting of a widespread fear of the unknown, a largely homogeneous society, and a lack of experience dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds. “99 per cent of Czechs have never seen a refugee,” says Martin Rozumek, head of Czech NGO Organization for Aid to Refugees (Organizace pro pomoc uprchlíkům), “and despite this 81 per cent are against refugees.”
There is also a public debate underway where often no distinction is made between political refugees and illegal migrants, and where Islam is equated with Islamism. For weeks now, this debate has been dominated in the Czech Republic by the “Block against Islam” (Blok proti islámu), a Facebook initiative that has rapidly expanded into a national platform. A petition against the admission of 1,300 refugees into the Czech Republic was signed by some 46,000 people in June. Supporters of the “Block against Islam” reject not only radical Muslims, but all of Islam. Yet there are only around 10,000 Muslims in the Czech Republic – just 0.1 per cent of the population.
Anti-Islamic sentiment is fuelled by the populist rhetoric of leading politicians in all three countries. Czech President Zeman has stated that he has “a strong suspicion” that most of the refugees are economic migrants who have not come to the Czech Republic to work, and that the refugees could bring infectious diseases and “sleeper cells” of terrorist organisations into the country.
“Where is the Czech Gauck?”, asked the daily Lidové noviny recently. Slovak journalist Matúš Kostolný complained on a programme on public broadcaster Czech Television in late August that “the political elite in Slovakia, with the exception of President Kiska, is massively spreading a mood of fear and panic vis-à-vis refugees. I expect a statesman to try to find the best in people. Instead, our Prime Minister is flirting with people’s basest instincts.”
Counterpublic: A “bright” Visegrád
Even though the governments’ policy line is supported by broad majorities in the respective countries, there is also a “bright” Hungary, a “bright” Czech Republic and a “bright” Slovakia.[i] During the humanitarian drama at Keleti station in Hungary, volunteers attended to the needs of the exhausted refugees whom the government had simply left on their own.
In the Czech Republic, an appeal from academics against xenophobia was supported within a few days by some 10,000 people, among them three government ministers.
“With this appeal, we are actually doing what the politicians should do: assuaging the emotions and hysteria that have emerged around the issue of refugees,” says molecular biologist Václav Hořejší, one of the initiators. The media were criticised in the appeal as well: “Immigrants have been written about like pests or parasites that are descending on our home in order to plunder our social welfare system. Muslims have been thrown in a single group with terrorists. This reflects the reality of the refugee crisis less than it does the sickness of our society, which is losing its humanity and sound human understanding.”
In Slovakia, more than 11,000 people signed an “Appeal to Humanity” after 71 refugees were found dead in a lorry. “The refugee crisis is no longer an abstract political problem,” read the text, “it is playing out right on our doorstep. We can no longer remain indifferent when we have seen people die with our own eyes.”
The signatories are demanding that the Slovak government immediately prepare an “action plan for refugees” and support those communities and individuals who are spontaneously organising assistance for the refugees.
Critics of the government’s refugee policy also recall their country’s own experience with migration. Under the Communist regime, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks emigrated, especially after the end of the Prague Spring.
It can be hoped that the solidary, empathetic approach advocated by segments of the population in recent weeks will prevail against the ignorant, dismissive handling of refugees by the governments of Central Europe. Indeed, the refugee debate also demonstrates the extent to which these post-Communist societies 25 years after the fall of Communism have opened up outwardly towards a more multicultural identity. Slovak President Andrej Kiska formulated it yesterday with striking clarity in a statement advocating for a more humane approach to the refugee crisis: “The refugee debate is a contest for the heart and character of our country.” In further developing its common European refugee policy, the EU would do well to involve more actors from the NGO sector in Central European countries instead of waiting for nationally-minded political elites to reconsider their positions.
Silja Schultheis is a freelance journalist and has lived in Prague since 2001. She works for ARD Radio and Czech Radio, among others.
English translation by Evan Mellander
[i] The analogy here is to the terms “bright Germany” and “dark Germany” coined by German President Joachim Gauck. During a visit to a refugee shelter in Berlin at the end of August, Gauck sharply condemned violence against refugee facilities, saying that they represented “dark Germany”, whereas the engagement of numerous volunteers to assist refugees was an expression of “bright Germany”