Friday, September 25, 2015

The refugee crisis: recent facts and initial feelings

The governments of Croatia and Serbia have been slinging insults at each other in the midst of the refugee crisis. Demonstrating how easy it is to pick the scab off old wounds, these neighbors have begun blaming each other for what is happening.

Last week Hungary sealed its border with Serbia, prompting Croatia to broadcast a warm welcome to those who wanted to enter a different EU member state. Then, predictably, Croatia was overwhelmed by the number of migrants and shut down all but one of its border crossings with Serbia. Croatia’s foreign minister accused Serbia of making a deal with Hungary to send migrants towards Croatia when more than 40,000 refugees entered Croatia from Serbia. On Wednesday night, Croatia responded by closing the border with Serbia and banning Serbian citizens from entering the country. Serbia's Prime Minister claimed that Croatia waged “economic aggression against Serbia,” and Serbia’s foreign minister compared Croatia’s actions to those of the fascist movement that ruled Croatia during WWII.

Now Croatia is sending those it cannot accept to Hungary – a record high of 10,000 arrived on Wednesday – which will likely lead Hungary to seal its border with Croatia. Hungary has laid razor-wire barriers along its border with Serbia and along part of the border with Croatia, and now it has begun building a barrier on its border with Slovenia. Though Croatia is part of the EU, it is not within the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone, but Slovenia is, making this new barrier the first obstruction within the Schengen zone.

Many of these refugees would have been ordinarily celebrating the major Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, with their families and communities this week. I wonder how they celebrated this year, if there was any time or energy to spare. Yesterday the EU decided to give $1 billion to countries overwhelmed by refugees. That’s something worth celebrating.

With each passing day, more and more refugees make their way on this treacherous path. 500,000 refugees have entered Europe. An estimated 4 million refugees are camped on Syria’s borders. There is no end in sight, and yet there is no sign of them in Belgrade or in Budapest when I was there a week and a half ago.

I guess that’s to be expected as these capitals are not on the borders of their respective countries. However, it is strange and unsettling to me that all of this chaos is just two hundred kilometers north of me yet I have no sense of it except through what I learn in conversations with my hosts and the American and Serbian media. The entire city of Belgrade appears unfazed; the refugees aren’t trying to stay here, Serbia is merely a layover for them, and the Serbians I’ve spoken to don’t feel invested in the situation.

While it's true that great suffering has always existed somewhere and those not directly involved find it difficult to fathom, this situation is different for me. I have never lived so geographically close to such a continuously devastating scene, and it's developing in me a need to act, rather than a desire that has motivated previous social activism work. Some of the Roma-sympathetic NGOs with which I will be meeting and working have launched initiatives to gather supplies for the refugees and find places to house them, and I plan to get involved in these and other projects. It’s just a start, and I fear an insufficient one, but it might begin to dissolve the two hundred kilometers that render this crisis unfathomable.

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