Fear, ignorance fuel eastern Europe's unease over refugees

  • AFP, Gabcikovo, Slovakia
  • Updated: Sep 10, 2015 16:30 IST
A refugee wrapped in a thermal blanket looks as a dinghy full of migrants and refugees approach the coast of Lesbos island, Greece. (AP Photo)

A mix of fear, ignorance and Islamophobia is fuelling widespread opposition in eastern Europe to taking in refugees despite EU pressure for a new quota system.

In Gabcikovo, a village on Slovakia's southwestern border with Hungary, locals are on edge ahead of the arrival of some 500 migrants.

The newcomers are refugees who applied for asylum in neighbouring Austria and who will only be staying temporarily in a bid to ease the pressure on Vienna, which is struggling to accommodate record numbers of migrants.

Last month, nearly all of the village's 5,400 residents voted against establishing the temporary asylum camp.

"We don't know who's coming here," says local restaurant owner Barnabas Kovacs.

"We're afraid of terrorism and disease," he told AFP, echoing fears expressed by others in this village where most of the people are ethnic Hungarians.

Europe's eastern flank has taken the hardest stance against refugees.

Largely homogenous in terms of race, religion and ethnicity, countries like Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia say they have limited experience in integrating non-Europeans and have raised concerns about a possible backlash from xenophobes.

Eastern European nations also argue that they are poorer than their western counterparts, saying they know little of the conflicts in the Middle East and are far better equipped to handle refugees from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

But with the continent struggling to manage its biggest movement of people since World War II, the European leaders are demanding compulsory quotas to ensure a fair distribution of refugees among the 28-member bloc.

"Now is not the time to take fright, it is time for bold, determined action," said EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday as he unveiled a new plan for the distribution of 160,000 refugees, in a step strongly backed by Germany.

The idea of a compulsory quota has been repeatedly rejected by countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

"Quotas are no solution," Czech interior minister Milan Chovanec said last week.

Islamophobia replacing anti-Semitism

Much of the fear stems from the fact that many refugees are Muslim.

When Slovakia said last month it would grant asylum to 200 Syrians, it specified all must be Christians, on the grounds that Muslims would not feel at home there.

"It is just an effort on Slovakia's part to make this integration successful," spokesperson Michaela Paulenova told AFP, denying it was discrimination and pointing out that the country had few Muslims and no mosques.

Last week, Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban caused uproar when he warned that the wave of mostly Muslim refugees could undermine Europe's Christian roots.

And in the Czech Republic, a June poll found some 70% were opposed to taking in refugees from Syria and northern Africa.

"People lack personal experience, they are afraid of the unknown," Czech sociologist Yana Leontiyeva told AFP.

Other fears identified by researchers at Poland's Institute of International Affairs (PISM) included a lack of money and space, and the threat of "terrorism".

Many Poles also believe their country should remain homogeneous, that multiculturalism does not work and that migrants will take Polish jobs, the research showed.

Patrycja Sasnal, who co-authored the study, told AFP that a certain amount of xenophobia is present in Poland and, "since anti-Semitism is no longer politically correct", Islamophobia has taken its place.

Politicians also believe the EU has had a hand in bringing about the situations in Libya and Syria, but that Poland, with no colonial past, is in no way responsible, she said.

But "an understanding of the refugee problem is on the rise", she said, noting that Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz had agreed to raise the numbers that Poland would take in.


Refugees and migrants arrive on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Reuters Photo)

The Ukraine question

Last month, Poland's new conservative President Andrzej Duda said Warsaw was reluctant to help with Middle Eastern or African refugees because of a potential influx of people fleeing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed nearly 8,000 lives since April 2014.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also find it easier to relate to refugees from closer to home, analysts say.

"A large proportion of the community in Latvia doesn't know anything about the situation in Syria and Eritrea, or why people are fleeing conflicts there," said Ilmars Mezs, head of the Riga bureau of the International Organization for Migration.

"We understand the cause of the conflict and no one blames Ukraine for causing a conflict with an aggressor who also threatens the Baltic states," he told AFP.

Memories of the Soviet occupation and Russian immigration also play a role, said Andres Kasekamp, an expert in Baltic politics at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

"Under Soviet rule, Estonians and Latvians experienced mass migration, which put them on the verge of becoming minorities in their homeland," he told AFP.

"This historical legacy influences their emotions."

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