Serbia Dubravka Stojanovic
What does the term refugee mean to you?
A man who has nowhere to return to.
Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?
If a refugee is a person who has nowhere to return to, it is not important why they had to leave in the first place. How can we measure the difference between the fear of bombs and the fear of hunger? Do we really dare to categorise terror hierarchically? And even if we did, what type of terror would be a better, more acceptable, option for us? Moreover, how do we measure what type of hope is greater and more legitimate? Is it the hope to find peace elsewhere, is it the one of a better and more useful life or the one of being saved from the persecution of raging political movements? Are we really in the position to claim that the need for safety is more important than the need for freedom? Making such hierarchical categorisations is in fact the same as becoming an accomplice in crime.
And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?
If refugee is a person who has nowhere to return to, this means that they were no longer able to stay in the place from which they fled. Was this because of bombs that had been dropped around them or because of a desert that had devoured their fields; was it because of floods that had swept their village away or because they had been stripped of their freedom – it makes no difference. They left because they could not bear it anymore. From our standpoint of comfortable safety we have no right to say what can and should be bearable for them, to what extent they can and should suffer. When it comes to the problem of refugees, the starting point of our thinking should come from the following assertion: they are people who HAD TO flee and have nowhere to return to. I believe that this way the solutions to the refugee crisis will be wiser, more humane and long-term.
When does one cease to be a refugee?
Never. I come from an extremely migratory area of the Balkans. Throughout the 20th century only the region saw a number of dramatic population shifts, from the emigration of Muslims after the Balkan Wars, to those seeking refuge during the two world wars, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, Yugoslav Wars in the 90s... Each war brought about hundreds of thousands of refugees, who mostly came to be in the attempts of late nation-states to homogenise and purify themselves ethnically. All these people were left uprooted, forever remaining the ones known as “the others”. I will never forget visiting Cappadocia in Central Turkey with some friends. We walked through the small town, speaking quite loudly. A local man walked behind us, shyly following us for some time. Eventually he came up to us and timidly asked which language it was that we were speaking in. When we told him that the language was Serbian, he hugged us. Then he told us that his ancestors had come to Turkey after the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, but had never forgotten their homeland somewhere in Macedonia. He said that everything in the house was arranged as in the place which they left from and that they spoke some of the language of the place they emigrated from, although, given that they were Turks, that Slavic language was not theirs. The man who came up to us was barely twenty years old, so he must have been the fourth or fifth generation living in a small Anatolian village. The melody of the language we spoke triggered a memory of a forsaken place he had never been to; it was a memory which was not his. Even though he was the fourth generation and lived among “his own”, he still did not belong there entirely. If you have had to leave a place and cannot return there anymore, not only do you not belong anywhere or to anyone, but you do not entirely belong to yourself either. There will always be some sorrow left that will control you more than you will be able to control it yourself.
Is there a natural right to asylum?
As much as the human rights are. These are natural, but also Utopian; they are hard to achieve and even harder to sustain. At the same time, however, without Utopia society would be even crueller, more brutal, closer to barbarity to which it too often sinks to, over and over again.
If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?
If natural and human, then this right is unconditional, universal and indivisible.
Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?
I think that the absorption into the society does not hinge on the number of the newly arrived people, but on the attitude of society towards them and the manner in which they are welcomed to the country of their arrival. If the country accepts them into a place surrounded by wire fences, any number of the newly arrived will be too high. Absorption does not pass through the wire fences! The wires reduce the fear that our society will be changed if it “mixes”. However, the error has already been made before, because society starts changing as soon as wires are raised. They enclose “them”, but they enclose “us” even more. It is on ourselves that we have imposed this limitation on our humanity, we have let the worst in us win. A closed society is bound to decay.
Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?
In my country all refugees that are on their way to somewhere else are privileged.
Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?
Serbia is one of the few European countries that have maintained quite an open approach toward refugees. If nothing else, no wires have been set up. We have reached a point where this means a lot! It is interesting what stance the public has taken toward refugees. In the first few years the reactions in small towns in whose vicinity reception centres were built were quite fierce. Since the moment the government decided to make Serbia a “model country”, the public has changed its attitude and started to act with more empathy, to participate and help out. This is, of course, a positive thing. However, this leads to the question of the conditionality of the public opinion and the power of a country’s policies. Some countries have strengthened their authorities by an anti-immigrant approach, demonstrating their “mighty self”, while others, as was the case with Serbia, painted the picture of the “righteous self” by readily opening their doors. Is this not, in its core, one and the same? In both cases the emphasis is on the representation of the self, isn’t it? The refugees were, in fact, not the topic of concern here. In the end, however, it is important to state the following: none of the refugees wish to stay in my country. It is too poor to offer a solution to anyone. Therefore, the attitude toward refugees could be a generous one more easily.
Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?
My country has been broken into pieces several times in the last thirty years and cannot, therefore, be compared to countries which, through all that time, offered stability and safety to its citizens. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, wars, refugees, international sanctions and NATO bombing have all taught us that the state of social security is merely temporary. This does not mean that there is room for more constrictions, but it does signify a different attitude toward this issue than in the countries whose citizens are convinced that a good standard has been permanently established. We have learnt how to lose, which is a valuable experience.
What are the requirements for successful integration?
- on the part of the refugees?
They should be open to their new environment.
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?
They should learn to be open to their new co-citizens.
Do you know any refugees personally?
I know plenty of refugees who arrived during the Yugoslav War. They fled from a war whose purpose was the creation of ethnically homogeneous states in an ethnically heterogeneous Yugoslavia. Given that ethnic nationalism was the prevailing ideology, one could expect that the exiled Serbs would be welcomed with open arms upon their arrival to Serbia from other Yugoslav republics. However, this was not the case, nor is it the case today, twenty years after the war. Even though many of them are quite well-off, more often than not you can hear them being called refugees in a derogatory way. And yet, they are not of a different religion or nationality, they do not speak a different language nor do they have different customs... This kind of “own” refugees occurred in other historical situations – if we look at the relocation of Greeks from Turkey in the 20s or at the Jews who fled from Russia to West European countries in the 19th century, against whom the naturalised Jews held the same stereotypical positions as the antisemites demonstrated toward them. This is why it is important to look at the problem of refugees as far more complex than merely equating it with the fear of the arrival of a new culture, religion, skin colour… The attitude that we take vis-a-vis newcomers can establish our own position as superior. However, this invariably brings us one step closer to aggression. This is why a negative attitude toward refugees leads to the self-destruction of society.
Do you actively support any refugees?
I helped out in the centres which collect goods for refugees and giving away the goods asked for through the media.
How will the refugee situation in your country develop
a) over the next two years?
I think that the number of refugees will grow because the reasons that made them flee will not go away. On the contrary, I believe that the situation in the world will deteriorate and that the 60 million people who have already been relocated from their homes and have nowhere to return to will continue to look for a place where they will be able to live i.e. survive. Therefore, I feel that everything we have experienced during the refugee wave in the last few years is merely the beginning.
b) over the next two decades?
I think that Europe change completely, not being able to hold against the wave of people who have nowhere to go. This is why we badly need deeper reflection on the new situation. Fences will not be able to stop anybody. They are a symbol of shortsightedness, insensitivity and malice.
Can you imagine a world without refugees?
Of course not, they have always been part of our history. It is an old phenomenon, only the cause is new. The global world has triggered a new, global movement of the population. We witness new types of local, brutal and long-lasting wars, leading to environmental and demographic changes, a new and even more brutal repressive regime, the collapse of the neoliberal economic model for which we see no alternative and whose consequences are alleviated by remedies of those who caused them in the first place. None of them promise a world in which the existing 60 million refugees will have somewhere to return to and new refugees will not have to be on their way again.
Have you or your family ever been refugee?
I am a refugee; an inner refugee. I have not moved from the neighbourhood in the centre of Belgrade where I was born, but I cannot return to the country in which I was born. I am not the one who abandoned my country, it abandoned me. Yugoslavia was my country. Ever since it was brutally destroyed, I have emigrated into myself. I did not choose to flee Yugoslavia with other refugees because I did not want to live in an environment that was not mine. However, even without emigrating, it happened to me anyway. I was not the one who moved – the whole context around me did. Then I escaped into myself, where there was more room for a safe flight. I am not complaining. This is not a bad place for me. I only do not have a place to return to.
Do you think you will ever be a one?
- If yes: why?
Because the war in Yugoslavia has taught me that a situation can change in a flash. We too were convinced that we were living in a peaceful and stable country, we were proud of our good living standard, our great international reputation, the possibility to travel both to the East and the West during the Cold War… Then suddenly it all collapsed in just a few years and we saw how easy it was to slip into a war, massacres and genocide. Stability is fragile. I watched Europe closely over these last few years. It is divided by a crisis very similar to the one in Yugoslavia. Ours had also begun with an economic crisis, it was transferred to the relations between nations, and then came the question of who loses most in this togetherness. The ideological solution had to do with phrases like “the masters on their own land” and “return the land to ourselves”, just as in the Brexit campaign. It is not the first time that Europe looked down on the Balkans, cynically concluding that the problem was so typically ours, that the slaughterhouse we had created must stem from our primitivism and animalism, that something like that could not happen in Europe. This was the case in 1912-1913, when everybody was disgusted by the crimes committed in the Balkan Wars. Then came the year 1914. From this we should be able to learn that as much as it is difficult to reach prosperity, stability, solidarity, empathy and freedom, these values are easily forfeited. Anyone can find himself in a situation where he has to leave and cannot return anymore.
- How do you prepare yourself?
By expecting that it can happen at any time.
- To which country would you take refuge to?
To any country that would take me.
How much “home” do you need?*
Ever since I turned to my inner refuge, my only homeland has been the one within me. This is where I am able to set its boundaries, to decide how strong it is going to be at a certain point in time and I can make sure that it will not leave me like the previous one.
*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.