Friday, March 25, 2016

Old trends and new developments

For the past ten months, the Balkan Peninsula has yet again proved that it is an essential crossroad between the east and the west. Refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East had been trickling in for a few years, but it wasn't until last summer that the mass exodus caught the world's eye. One striking feature of this "living history" is how it resonates so powerfully with Balkan history. The Slavs first invaded and laid down roots in the 6th century before which many tribes, including the Goths, Huns, and Magyars, sampled and departed. In the 14th century Turkish conquests led to the Ottoman's multi-century dominance in the Balkans, and in the 17th and 18th centuries Serbian rebellions forced many to uproot. Finally both the beginning and end of the 20th century was defined by upheaval; the Balkan wars of 1912-13, the Yugoslav wars in the '90s, and the NATO bombings in '99 drove hundreds of thousands of people from their home. And even as recently as 2014, hundreds of thousands were forced to evacuate due to flooding. During these trying times the Serbs held fast to their faith. Many will point to the Eastern Orthodox Church as the reason the Serbs persevered for centuries under oppressive rule, and perhaps the most important structure in Belgrade is the Church of Saint Sava, the second largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the world. Yet people have come to fear the faith that determines the spiritual lives of most refugees. These paradoxes are human, but when we fear something ought we not examine the root of such a fear instead of letting it occupy so much mental energy? I digress.

This crude and incomplete history demonstrates how this region has been defined by migration, which makes it a particularly piquant epicenter of this recent global crisis. Many of the Serb volunteers I work with were once refugees themselves which motivated them to get involved. At the same time, some of them feel slightly jilted by the steady flow of international aid streaming in since they don't remember that kind of generosity when they most needed it. Still, they had extended family and often state support that kept them afloat whereas these refugees have traversed a much greater distance, every centimeter completely foreign to them.

There are many reasons why I think the recent EU deal with Turkey lacks compassion. Perhaps if a legacy of migration, like that in the Balkans, defined the European states that drafted this proposal, the political leadership may have handled it differently. One justification for the deal that really baffles me is its claim to subvert smugglers. If anything it seems to have given the smugglers more business, in Serbia at least, and more reasons to exploit the refugees as there are no other legal options for them. As one refugee from Afghanistan who now volunteers with us told me today, "There are only two ways to end smuggling: open the borders to everyone or shut them completely." He plans to leave Serbia in about a week and walk through Hungary to Austria. While he refuses to support smugglers, he is not afraid to break a law established less than a month ago. Eventually he'd like to reach France where some of his friends live. When I asked him how he'd get there, he shrugged and said, "I know how to use GPS. I know how to cut wires. I've come this far, why on earth would I let them drag me back?" While I'm never one for breaking the law, I get where he's coming from. If I honestly put myself in his shoes I would do everything in my power to avoid being exiled to Turkey. The way the refugees describe the conditions in refugee camps there ranges from unpleasant to terrifying. Moreover it's completely dispiriting and, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, their spirits are already understandably low. With a huge blow like this it's a wonder we assume their desire to contribute economically and socially will not take a hit. For months now Europe has been erecting legal walls and fortifying its fortress. Now it won't just keep people out but will kick them out, as well.

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