A refugee family at Kanjiza Refugee Centre in Northern Serbia. Martin Leveneur/flickr. Some rights reserved.“Wait, the Serbs are now the good guys?”, read a recent headline in the Brussels edition of Politico magazine, referring to Serbia's compassionate treatment of Middle Eastern and African refugees arriving across its borders.
Many observers and refugees themselves have testified to their humane treatment in Serbia, which stands in contrast with how the governments (but not necessarily the peoples) of its some of its European neighbours have handled the refugee influx.
While Serbian society is not immune to anti-refugee xenophobia, with instances of robbery and verbal abuse of migrants by the police and members of public having been reported, these have been peripheral and rare. Several factors might help explain this 'Serbian exception'.
Firstly, the refugees crossing through Serbia are not intending to remain there, and this may explain the relative lack of animosity towards them from Serbians. While refugees merely seek passage through Hungary and Croatia too, the response there has been markedly different. Could this be because Belgrade's neighbours in East-Central Europe are already members of the EU and as such, maybe they no longer need to prove their 'Europeanness', unlike a candidate state such as Serbia?
Serbian political cartoonists frequently depict Serbia's Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, as Chancellor Merkel's favourite Streber. He is clearly driven by a mission to lead Serbia into the Union, by resolving the ongoing dispute over Kosovo's status, for example. If Serbia were already an EU country, however, Vučić might well have behaved like his fellow populists in the region.
The Serbian government's positive attitude towards refugees is reflected in the country's mostly pro-government media and in the attitude of many 'ordinary' Serbs - regardless of their politics. While recently in Belgrade, I witnessed spontaneous, touching examples of compassion with fellow humans fleeing war and poverty.
This progressive approach towards the refugees may stem from the fact that Serbia is home to more refugees from other parts of former Yugoslavia than any other state that emerged from the 1990s Yugoslav Wars.
Furthermore, many Serbs are descendants of Second World War-era refugees and also since the days of Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Non-Alignment Movement, Belgrade has traditionally viewed Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims positively.
Generally speaking, Serbs are not as anti-Muslim as is sometimes believed. Anti-Albanian and anti-Bosniak (and to a lesser degree anti-Turkish) nationalist sentiments do unfortunately exist, but these should be understood in the local, historical context. More recently, there has been a sense of solidarity with fellow victims of US-led, NATO military interventions, one of which was of course against Serbia in 1999.
A further possible reason for Serbia’s attitude towards the refugees is that Serbs can now point out that they have been the 'good guys', as opposed to some of their neighbours.
In his excellent new film Logbook Serbistan, Želimir Žilnik follows the refugees' lives in Serbia's socialist-era holiday resorts that have now been turned into refugee camps. The previously unemployed staff of the newly-converted shelters have regained a sense of self-importance and respect by providing security, food, clothing and medical aid to refugees.
Both government ministers and members of the public have suggested that some refugees should be encouraged to settle in Serbia, where the population is in decline and many villages and arable land lie deserted.
So, a combination of basic human solidarity and a specific historical and social context can help explain the Serbs’ behaviour during the refugee crisis, from which they have so far emerged with credit.
Belgrade's claim that it has embraced 'European values', unlike some other EU member states, is correct up to a point only however. Europe's, and Serbia's own, history is rich with examples of xenophobia, ethnic and racial violence and is full of barriers and fences - real and imagined alike.
Should Croatia follow up on its alleged recent threat to build a Hungarian-style wall on its border with Serbia, however, then tens of thousands of refugees might well end up stranded there. This could undoubtedly change the mood in Serbia for the worse, especially as the country's capacity to manage the constant new arrivals is seriously stretched already.
That some wonder how it is possible that Serbia, the seemingly perennial 'bad guy', has treated refugees better than many of its neighbours could be seen as an example of negative national stereotypes that survive within Europe.
The refugee crisis provides Serbia – and the rest of Europe – with an opportunity to turn the corner and finally leave the dark side of their history behind. Let's hope this opportunity is taken for everyone's, not just the refugees', sake.
The article originally appeared in German, in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 27 October 2015 with the author's honorarium being donated to the Swiss Red Cross to provide aid for refugees.
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