As we enter 2016, refugees and migrants continue pouring into Europe—and opposition to them keeps growing. Why? There are a variety of theories: religious differences, fear of terrorism, anxiety about a demographic shift, anger at Brussels’ interference in local politics, and more.
Here in Slovakia, few refugees are coming in, and the government is selecting and placing them carefully. And yet the country recently erupted in outrage and rejection nevertheless, suggesting that none of those theories is adequate.
The political background in Slovakia
Slovakia’s politicians have been almost unanimously against welcoming refugees. Since the country will elect a new government in March, politicians are hoping to use this topic to gain votes. The governing social democratic Smer (“Direction”) party has even exploited anti-migrant sentiment by putting up pre-election billboards with the slogan “We are protecting Slovakia.”
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is a pragmatist on tricky issues. His usual strategy is to act tough when communicating to his voters, while offering various compromises to his European partners in Brussels behind closed doors.
And that’s how he related to Brussels’ decision to require all E.U. member nations to accept some quota of the refugees. Fico urged the Slovak parliament to pass a series of resolutions against the mandate. At the same time, he announced that Slovakia would voluntarily house several Christian refugee families. That way he was able to say he was barring Muslim refugees, appeasing his voters—while also preventing Brussels’ criticisms for failing to accept any refugees.
The modest, careful resettlement plan
In November, the government announced its plan to host 25 Assyrian Christian families, altogether 149 people, in a cluster of villages in Western Slovakia.
According to the official plan, the arriving families of refugees would hail from the general area of Mosul in Iraq. The government promised to do thorough “security checks,” ensuring that none of the 149 would pose security risks. After being approved for asylum, they would be transferred to villages near Nitra, a regional center in Western Slovakia. Families would stay intact, placed in locations voluntarily provided by local NGOs, charities and activists. An NGO would lead them through an integration program, eight months to two years in length, teaching them the language and culture. The Roman Catholic Church helped work out this plan, and the bishop of Nitra stood with interior minister Robert Kaliňák at the press conference where it was announced.
Locals rejected the refugees nevertheless
But Nitra locals refused to allow the asylum seekers to move in. Mayors, even from the governing Smer party, refused to have any part in the scheme. The mayor of the prime minister’s own native village, Hrušovany, rejected it publicly. Petition committees sprang up within days, agitating against the plan. News media interviewed one frustrated local after another.
Most of those who objected cited security concerns and a lack of communication between the central government and the local authorities. Volunteers involved with the resettlement plan were reportedly threatened and bullied.
Finally, under pressure, Fico announced that the government would not house the refugees in the pre-designated villages. As this is being written, the fate of the Assyrian families in Slovakia is unclear. They linger in the asylum camp at Humenné.
A small number of voluntarily accepted Christian refugees is still not welcome by locals
So why were they rejected?
1. Religion. Most refugees arriving in Europe are Muslims, and many observers blame opposition on “Islamophobia,” religious discrimination, or cultural barriers. But these asylum-seekers were Christian. The government made a talking point of the fact that these people were members of an ancient Christian community, speaking Aramaic, described as “the language of Jesus Christ himself.”
2. Security concerns. Refugees streaming into Europe are often portrayed as security risks, especially in light of the Paris attacks. But these refugees were vetted and hand-picked by the Slovak government. And because they were Christians, it’s extremely unlikely that they would be bringing Islamist terrorism with them. The putative security risk should have been minimal, as the interior minister often repeated.
3. Demographics and integration. The total number of newly arrived refugees in Europe has now reached one million. Certainly, citizens can legitimately be concerned about absorbing that many foreigners without social or cultural changes. But in Slovakia, each village of around a thousand people would have hosted host one or two families, or 10 to 12 people. They would make up only about one percent of the local population—hardly a cultural threat.
4. Unwelcome E.U. mandates. Mandatory quotas for refugee placement have been vehemently opposed by some of the European governments, including Slovakia. But the Slovak government itself arranged this resettlement, making it clear that it did so voluntarily. The government committed itself to financially support the project and pledged to help integrate the asylum seekers with social support and cultural training. Volunteers offered housing, and NGOs would oversee the whole process.
An alternative theory: No refugees in our backyard
So why do so many Europeans oppose the refugees? The Slovak case study eliminates the four biggest theories. There must be different, deeper issues underlying their concerns.
So let’s listen to what the Nitra locals actually said: they don’t want their everyday lives changed by a new, potentially intrusive element. This offers policymakers an important lesson. To facilitate refugee integration, it is not enough to respond to nationwide concerns. You still have to think about how local residents feel about newcomers.
The people of the Nitra area spoke clearly: No matter how easy you make the process on us, we still want no refugees in our backyard. This bodes ill for the future of the integration of refugees in Central Europe, and possibly in Europe in general.
Ábel Ravasz is a sociologist and the executive director of the Matthias Bel Institute, an affiliate of Most-Híd, an interethnic political party in Slovakia. It is also a member of the Wilfred Martens Center for European Studies (WMCES) an affiliate of the European People’s Party (EPP).