Frosty reception in Europe's ex-Communist east

BRATISLAVA • When setting the table for Christmas dinner, Slovaks traditionally put an extra plate on the table for an unexpected guest in need. This hospitality, however, has not been extended to migrants seeking refuge in central and eastern Europe from war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Europe's eastern flank has taken the hardest stance against a European Union (EU) plan to take in the recent wave of arrivals.

The resistance is fuelled by a potent mix of fear, ignorance and Islamaphobia.

Largely homogeneous 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 concern about a possible backlash from xenophobes.

Eastern European nations also argue that they are poorer than their western counterparts.

Largely homogeneous 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 concern about a possible backlash from xenophobes.

Slovakia is being asked to take in 2,287 migrants, many of them likely to be Muslim, according to the European Commission plan; capital Bratislava has offered to accept 200 and raised eyebrows when it said it preferred they be Christians.

Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million with a strong Roman Catholic tradition, has next to no experience as a destination for immigrants.

The government, facing an election in March, says it wants to keep it that way.

"The dividing line goes between post-communist countries like Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, and western European countries," said Ms Elena Kriglerova, head of the Bratislava-based Centre for Research of Ethnicity and Culture.

Only 1.4 per cent of people living in Slovakia are foreigners. It is among six EU countries, all new member states, with the lowest proportion of people from abroad. Since its foundation in 1993, it has granted asylum to just 651 people, and received only 109 requests this year.

In defending his closed-door policy, Prime Minister Robert Fico has said the migrants may include people connected to "terrorist groups" and that 95 per cent of them were not fleeing danger but seeking material benefit.

"This is a ticking bomb that can have very, very bad consequences for Europe.

"We could wake up one day and have 100,000 people from the Arab world here," he said.

Mr Fico's language has been strikingly similar to that of Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister, Mr Viktor Orban, in justifying building a fence along the Hungarian border to keep out migrants.

He caused an uproar recently when he warned that the wave of mostly Muslim refugees could undermine Europe's Christian roots.

Sociologist Martin Slosiarik said Mr Fico was using natural anxieties to stoke fear before the parliamentary elections.

It may work: Despite the tiny number of immigrants, 40 per cent of Slovaks named immigration as the biggest problem for Slovakia in a July poll.

"It makes me sick that the EU is forcing us to take more than we're willing," said a 60-year-old Bratislava pensioner named Pavel.

"I'm scared of Islamisation. What will the politicians do if someone in a burqa commits a suicide attack here? It will be too late then."

When monks proposed to house Syrian refugees - Christians, not Muslims - in an empty monastery in a western village last month, local opposition forced them to retract the offer.

There are only around 5,000 Muslims in Slovakia, where Islam is not a registered religion and there is no official mosque.

Mr Mohamad Safwan Hasna, the head of the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia, said he was increasingly aware of being stared at and shouted at in the street, and was worried about his Slovak-born wife, who wears a headscarf.

"I fear far-right extremists and when I read racist comments online I'm worried that many people would be actually able to hurt us."

One of the arguments the region's politicians use against quotas is that refugees are likely to move on to richer western and northern Europe, where Muslim communities are larger and societies are, in general, more tolerant of newcomers.

Unemployment in Slovakia stands at 11.5 per cent versus 6.4 per cent in Germany and the average wage in Slovakia is a quarter of Germany's.

But it is not just about jobs.

Regional economic power Poland has joined Slovakia and others in central and eastern Europe in voicing support for the hard line against quotas.

"If we agree on the first group of refugees, there will be the second, third and fourth," said Poland's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak in an interview with TVN24 television last Tuesday.

Many Poles believe their country should remain homogeneous and that multiculturalism does not work.

The Czech Republic is more diverse than most countries in eastern Europe, with foreigners making up about 5 per cent of the population, including Ukrainians, Slovaks and Vietnamese people.

But 71 per cent of Czechs said in a July poll that no refugees from the Middle East and Africa should be accepted.

Its outspoken President Milos Zeman has warned of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria "sleeper cells" infiltrating migrant communities and Muslim ghettos becoming hotbeds of unrest, comparing the influx with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which thousands died.

"I am afraid we are like a tourist on a Thai beach taking a picture of a small wave on the horizon, ignorant that he is taking the last picture of his life," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Frosty reception in Europe's ex-Communist east'. Print Edition | Subscribe