Can Europe Make It?

"Blood cell counting": the Croatian refugee crisis

Croatia is the latest Balkan country to find itself hit by the wave of refugees trying to reach western Europe. What have the reactions been there?

Marko Boko
29 September 2015
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Volunteers and refugees at Opatovac transit camp in eastern Croatia. Reporter#19616/Demotix. All rights reserved.Endless groups of people are leaving their homes, affected by war and chaos. They have been forced to leave behind their lives and go into the unknown. This is something that we on the ‘’borders’’ of Europe have been watching over the last few years. I do not, however, refer only to the recent refugee crisis but also to the refugee crisis that came about due to the war that raged through Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina some 20 years ago.

Why do I compare these two crises, which from the outside may not look the same? Because they are the same. Only this time the people carry with them documents from different countries than before, if they were lucky enough to pick them up as they fled.  The recent refugee crisis in Croatia has had the biggest impact in areas that were totally devastated and abandoned during the 90’s war. The local people living there know very well what refugees look like.

The whole of Croatian society is now trying to draw parallels with the last war and the people who were displaced and with the current refugee crisis. Not everyone, however, is willing to open their arms and help those people who are mostly just in transit through Croatia towards other European countries. These people are mostly those who have never experienced war and how it is to be a refugee. Luckily, they seem to be loud minority.

The other side of society, meanwhile, is quietly working in the field to help these people whose normal lives have been forcibly stopped and who now ‘’own’’ only the status of refugee. The picture that describes this situation at its best is an old man standing by the side of the road with a basket full of apples giving them to the refugees. Bearing in mind that he does not have enough for himself and his family, this man said that he had experienced the same thing some 20 years ago and that it was horrible. Now he wanted to help the refugees and share with them because at least now he had a roof to sleep under.

So, the term ‘’refugee’’ is not a novelty in Croatia and the rest of the Balkans. Unfortunately we have already experienced what it is to be a refugee or to host a refugee,. At least, however, we spoke the same language, shared most of our daily habits and cultural elements so it was a bit easier to get used to a new environment and to start new life. Still, it remained difficult and you were always a stranger.

Just to note 20 years after the war you can still find in public discourse the trend of “counting blood cells”. That is to say: societal phenomena are explained simply by referring to someone’s ethnic origin. Now, just imagine all of this whilst having a Syrian or Iraqi passport. The challenges become more and a lot of work is needed to overcome them.

Although this is not the first time that Croatia has faced a refugee crisis, it seems as though some people and also the media tend to forget that refugees nowadays are not being welcomed in the same way as those previous refugees were. The reason? Typical conservative and right wing discourse claiming that the ‘’others’’ will take our jobs, or that their culture will take over ours and so on.

The problem is not, however, an issue of being merely conservative or rightist, but rather the lack of education and knowledge amongst citizens on human rights questions. The solution must be found in education, because currently people are scared of the ‘new’ or ‘other’, rather than having their lives and culture enriched by new elements.

The Croatian refugee ‘experience’ really began a few weeks ago, when endless lines of refugees were stuck between Macedonia and Serbia, where they were blocked and even beaten by the police and army. It was clear that at some point they would reach Croatia on their way to the Western Europe, but the public feeling was as though it was someone else’s problem and that the crisis was still far from Croatia.

The government had never seriously discussed this issue anyway, so it was unlikely that we would hear anything coherent from their side. With regards to concrete actions, one could only dream. In reality, the refugee crisis did not start last month and the government should, at least, have been informed and ready to act.

On the other hand, NGOs are the ones who have been working on these issues for a longer period of time, in a structured and concrete way. Therefore, along with ad-hoc, non-formal citizens initiatives, the NGOs reacted quickly and soon after they were on the spot, helping refugees together along with the local population. Unfortunately, few initiatives have been started and while they are giving their best, with the logistical help of the local and national authorities, there are simply too many people arriving and the weather conditions are terrible.

What makes the situation even harder is the game of political ping-pong being played with the lives of the refugees between the governments of Serbia, Hungary and Croatia. The key issue is that the right wing government of Hungary is not giving up on its plan to dismantle Europe and stomp all over human rights. With this in mind, Hungary has been building steel fences on the borders with Serbia and Croatia and blocking refugees travelling through Hungary to Serbia.

The result was that a quarrel has been started between the Croatian and Serbian government (which is not difficult to start, by the way) about the question of how many refugees from Serbia will be hosted in Croatia. It went so far that both governments decided totally close their borders. Thus the tragedy of the refugees has been used for the nationalistic rhetoric of the 90’s. While the media was focused on this governmental conflict, ordinary citizens, NGO’s and public services were drowning in the mud in order to help to refugees.

Figures from 27 September tell us that more then 75 000 refugees have entered Croatia with the plan to travel onwards to Western Europe. Less than 10 have asked for asylum. There are more and more people coming and yet Europe is working on plans for how to ‘’protect’’ itself; not how to host these people and help them. For comparison: in 1992  Croatia hosted more than 500 000 refugees from war affected areas. Now the EU cannot host even one third of that number. This is not only absurd but also undermines the EU as a project for peace.

Instead of focusing on false solutions which are based on calculating how many refugees Turkey can host, Croatian activists and NGO’s are calling for safe passage through the EU for refugees; an efficient system of acceptance, protection and  integration; the suspension of the Dublin Regulation; political agreement on the international humanitarian crisis; a strategy of action, political, military and developmental, aimed at stopping the war in Syria and improving the political and socio-economic conditions in the other countries that the refugees originate from.

One cannot tell where this crisis will end. We do know, however, that it will not be over until the EU and the rest of the West are actively involved in solving the local reasons behind the crisis: the war and chaos in Syria and neighboring countries. We should also admit our faults when it comes to the endless stream of of people trying to save their own lives and at least act responsibly and show solidary in dealing with this issue, both at home and away from Europe. If we fail to do so, this crisis will be followed by something that we cannot even imagine.

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