When driving to and from Vienna's airport on our trip to Slovakia over the 2015 winter holidays, we saw a refugee camp right on the Austrian side of the border by one of the old pre-Schengen checkpoints. It was made up of rows of attached shacks that looked to be fashioned out of shipping containers, and you could catch fleeting glimpses of people through the windows sitting around, milling about, and likely wondering about their fate. Part of what's interesting about this is that while stepping outside the border can afford one a sobering view of the European refugee crisis as it's unfolding, you'll see nary a trace of any refugees in Slovakia.
Knee-jerk bigotry and political fear mongering
Ever since the crisis blew up in the summer of 2015, Slovakia and its central European neighbors (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic) have steadfastly refused to allow refugees to cross their borders, and they have resisted complying with EU directives requiring countries to house a certain number of refugees (and Slovakia is even suing the EU over this).
Making matters worse, a startling number of Slovaks have reacted with hostility and racist rhetoric to what they perceive as an impending onslaught of barbarian, jihadist immigrants. Playing on people's baseless fears, Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer party have continued to regurgitate xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, and in the months leading up to the recent March 2016 parliamentary elections, they even erected billboards all over the country - with Fico's bruiser of a mug - boasting "We Protect Slovakia." Of course, we all know from whom.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Smer's toxic xenophobia actually backfired and an alarming number of people instead flocked to the far-right, extremist People's Party-Our Slovakia (LSNS), led by known fascist and all-around creep Marian Kotleba. I wrote about Kotleba here back in 2014 when he was elected governor of Slovakia's Banska Bystrica region. His party won 14 seats in Slovakia's parliament in this latest election. To any normal, rational people, this is a frightening wake-up call! But anyone paying attention to the prevailing views of many Slovaks since mid-2015 shouldn't be too surprised by this depressing outcome. If you spend time on the ground in Slovakia, the anti-migrant hysteria is everywhere and Terezia encounters it constantly through "friends" of "friends" on Facebook.
A huge number of Slovaks seem to be quite freaked out by the prospect of having to share their country with muslim refugees, and just about everyone in Slovak politics has pandered to this. Seemingly all the political parties leading up to the election, be it the ruling Smer or the opposition, have been united in their hostility towards the migrants. The only elected official brave enough to be the adult in the room is President Andrej Kiska. He seems to have been the only voice of sanity among the leaders of the four Visegrad countries, having expressed sympathy for the refugees and their plight. But his voice has largely been ignored, and sadly, Slovakia's presidents wield very limited powers.
Needless to say, it's deeply frustrating to see how so many Slovaks unquestioningly swallow the toxic, Trump-like fear and xenophobia spewed by many of their elected leaders towards the refugees (and towards multiculturalism in general), which belies deeper problems with the sheltered way in which Slovaks are brought up and educated.
A little backstory
Slovakia has so far refused to accept anyone other than a few hundred Christian (non-Muslim) refugees, which is, of course, ridiculous and entirely unhelpful, and even that still has many Slovaks totally freaking out. One reason laughably stated - with a totally straight face - by public officials for refusing muslims is that Slovakia has no mosques, so the muslim migrants wouldn't be very happy there. Problem is, the reason Slovakia has no mosques is because a law was passed years ago that prevents any from being built in the first place!
Check out this John Oliver piece on the refugee crisis (and some EU countries' response to it); he mentions Slovakia at 9:38:
Polls have shown a majority of Slovaks only want to live with other Slovaks and they are opposed to any kind of multiculturalism. Of course, this kind of closed-minded, provincial attitude is only going to ensure their country and their capital city remain boring, culturally homogenized, unintellectual, and lacking a pulse, but most Slovaks don't seem to mind.
Never mind that hordes of Slovaks go abroad to live and work for better pay and more economic opportunities, and the country is suffering serious brain drain as a result. Yet the prospect of people from the outside coming in scares them to no end.
The good news for these Slovaks is that the refugees don't even want to go to Slovakia in the first place, and Slovakia has little in the way of economic opportunities to offer migrants anyhow (unless they want to work in a car factory). Literally no refugees so far have willingly come knocking on Slovakia's door, as they'd much rather go to places like Sweden or Germany, where there are more jobs and a higher standard of living, and importantly, where they're more likely to encounter some people who are friendly and helpful.
Only a small minority of Slovaks seem to actively oppose the bigotry
Yes, I'm all too aware that Donald Trump is on the rise in the US in part because his mouth has been farting out the exact same racist hatespeak, but there is a crucial difference: unlike in Slovakia, most Americans don't actually agree with him, and the voice of the opposition to his hateful views is strong and very present - in the media and both in and out of government. Even big names from Trump's own political party have publicly condemned his chyme-encrusted hate speech. (And let's say hypothetically that Trump were to somehow win the presidency, the collective voice of opposition to him would remain immense).
By contrast, in Slovakia, only a tiny smattering of progressives, NGOs, and newspaper editors (like my friends at the Slovak Spectator!) are protesting against the hate, and their voices seem to be drowned out pretty easily by the din that Smer and other parties have generated. Even Slovakia's so-called liberal party, SaS, is led by, Richard Sulik, a tone-deaf asshole who insists Slovakia should close its borders and use "violence" against any refugees who try to cross over. Just how is he supposed to differ from Fico or Kotleba again? Pretty much all politicians in Slovakia know very well what the voters want, and they will drop any of their own party's purported principles or ideological leanings in order to stay in power. If the people want a xenophobic, knee-jerk bigot to lead their country, that's what they'll get!
And what about western Europe? Clearly, they're not all embracing the refugees with open arms. But, a crucial difference is that while Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front in France has yet to win any national government elections (even though its support has definitely grown), Kotleba's party has 14 seats in the Slovak parliament! And while there's plenty of violent, anti-refugee sentiment floating around in Germany, Angela Merkel is still (at the time of writing) dictating policy and keeping the door open. In much of western Europe (again, at the time of writing), anti-immigrant hysteria has gotten quite loud, but it's still basically on the fringe, politically. In sharp contrast, the central European countries, have managed to elect some of these far-right creeps into power.
So why are Slovaks freaking out so much?
Some Slovaks' fears are rooted in simple racism and misinformed fear; for others, it's ignorance of the severity of the situation in countries like Syria and Iraq, as well as misconceptions about the refugees and their circumstances.
To explain why this is, I think that broadly speaking, firstly, you can blame 40 years of isolated Soviet-style communism. During communism, very few immigrants came to the Soviet Bloc, and so people had no sense of what it means to live in a culturally diverse society. Everything was pretty homogenized and very white, and that's still more or less the case today, especially in Slovakia.
The quick and traumatic transition to capitalism in the 90s is another factor, which left many people relatively poor and without much of a social safety net. Most people in the Visegrad Four countries today feel scarcely better off financially today than they did under communism, except that now the social safety net has been diminished. This means many Slovaks feel their country lacks the resources to justify helping migrants. Slovak wages, especially outside Bratislava, are notoriously lower than their western European neighbors, and seniors complain incessantly about their meagre retirement pensions. And yet, the cost of living in Slovakia in most areas other than rent and real estate is about as high as in western Europe, so just getting by in Slovakia can be a struggle for many. So you have a country full of people unwilling to help those in need because they see themselves as victims in need.
I suspect many Slovaks see it simply as: we already have comparatively little, we make very little money, and our resources are already too stretched to accommodate immigrants. To that I say, Slovaks - your lives are still infinitely cushier than those of the refugees fleeing their own war-torn countries.
Education is yet another factor. During communism, education was tightly controlled by the state, and especially when it came to things like history, people got a very warped, one-sided, highly ideologically driven view. From everything I've read, history in Slovak classrooms today isn't much better off. Many students don't get a clear picture of what World War II, the holocaust, naziism, or fascism were all about, which can partly explain why Kotleba seems to appeal so much to young people (a lot of his support came from young, first-time voters in their 20s). They lack the historical context to understand what creeps of his ilk are all about. But even if they didn't, would they care?
Many Slovaks essentially grow up a little racist by being taught to hate/fear Roma (and to a lesser extent Hungarians). I could (and should) write a blog post on the ongoing tension between Slovaks and Roma, but I'll just say that the animosity between them is deep and profound. A lot of Slovaks grow up to be selective racists, whereby they hate the Roma but don't seem particularly bothered by other non-white ethnicities. Yet, the seed is already planted and it wouldn't take much for them to get riled up over another ethnicity that the media or government actively paints as something to fear. Simply put, Slovak children do not seem to be taught that racism is immoral and hurtful, and they're not raised in an environment in which diversity is valued (at least not consistently).
Another factor at play here is the deeply rooted insecurity Slovaks harbor about their cultural identity. Slovakia is a very young country, and Slovaks have a long way to go before they could even hope to establish the kind of instantly recognizable cultural identities of countries like France or Italy. France can absorb other cultures without losing its quintessential Frenchness. While I highly doubt Slovakia's Slovakness would ever truly be at risk of vanishing if people of other cultures started moving there, a lot of Slovaks seem to fear just that.
Look, no one thinks the ongoing process of getting immigrants to learn and adapt to the cultures of their new countries is going to be easy, as events in Germany and elsewhere have shown. It's inevitable that problems and clashes will arise, especially when you have large concentrations of foreigners in a new place figuring out how to fit in while still retaining their own cultures and traditions. There's going to be a fairly steep learning curve for everyone.
But here's the thing: the majority of these refugees are genuinely in need of help because their homes have become uninhabitable; they are not terrorist "sleeper" soldiers sent to wage jihad on Europe (something some Slovaks we've encountered believe). They are normal people who want to live safe, normal lives with steady jobs and raise their children in peace. Plus, diversity and multiculturalism benefit everyone. Tensions will persist, but your cities and towns will become infinitely more interesting, cosmopolitan places, and their inhabitants will become more knowledgeable about cultures outside their own. Plus, the rest of the world won't think you're a country full of provincial, racist dick heads.
At any rate, these developments make us kind of relieved that we don't live in Slovakia anymore, but it's still hugely embarrassing and sad to see this country that we have such a deep connection to react in such a toxic, lunkheaded, reactionary way. Sure, one could be optimistic and say that eventually Slovakia might come around, but I fear that an awful lot of damage could be done before that ever happens.
Rather than drone on and on about it, I'll end my rant and link you to some opinion pieces from the Slovak Spectator that do a better job of discussing this than I do:
http://spectator.sme.sk/c/20064873/leading-from-behind.html (a witty piece written by my friend and former Spectator colleague James Thomson).
http://spectator.sme.sk/c/20060167/blog-fear-is-dictating-slovakias-actions-towards-refugees.html (This one, in particular, is interesting because it was written by a Slovak who really delves into the mindset of her people).