Zuzana Števulová

Zuzana Števulová
Photo: Zuzana Števulová

What does the term refugee mean to you?

To me “refugee” in the first place always means a fellow human being. They are forced to bear unbearable things and they deserve our respect and dignity. Nowadays I have a feeling we are often forget this. We speak about legal definitions, rights and duties and we use a lot of inhuman language when we speak about refugees, terms like “flows”, “swarms”, “tornados” etc..  This, however, is very dangerous because using such terms creates an impression of dehumanized masses in people’s minds. And when we stop seeing people behind the definition of “refugee”, we are willing to apply de-humanized polices which we would never tolerate if they would be applied on us or our loved ones.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

Fleeing poverty is not declared as a legitimate reason to claim asylum. On the other hand, when we dig deeper to the root causes of poverty, in many countries these include consequences of colonialism, draining of the national resources by foreign companies, supplying undemocratic regimes, etc. Here we have to face and answer difficult questions of our own responsibility for such actions and their consequences on other people’s lives. The responsibility may take various forms – development aid, creation of real opportunities for people staying at their home countries, support of democracy and human rights, but also providing accessible and flexible legal ways for safe and relatively cheap arrivals for those who can find jobs and opportunities in other countries.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

Providing asylum for environmental reasons has been one of the major on-going discussions among scholars and practitioners. When in 1951 the Geneva refugee convention was adopted, it reacted to certain situations in the world. Now, in 2016 we witness that climate change caused by man, has changed parts of the earth so that  they have become or will become inhabitable, forcing people to migrate to other lands and countries. Therefore we have to change our thinking on migration and borders and broaden the scope of legitimate reasons for asylum or to equal protection in order to serve new situations, such as climate change.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

Cessation of refugee status has two major levels – legal and social. Technically speaking, one ceases to be a refugee when the reasons for persecution and well-founded fear cease to exist; or when one has become a citizen of the host country. However, the real cessation happens in people’s minds – when they stop feeling as refugees and start to feel included and when the others start to accept them as people, fellow citizens, as part of the community and society, this is when person cease to be a refugee.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

Yes. By recognizing and respecting the universality of human rights, we also recognize and respect that if someone’s  rights  are threatened and violated and this person is persecuted, he/she has the right to be protected. And we recognize an obligation to provide protection for these reasons, as well. Providing asylum is part of our culture and our values. It is also a test if we really take the culture of human rights honestly and seriously.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

Based on international law states have the obligation to provide asylum to refugees. If there is a refugee on their territory, they are obliged to recognize him as a refugee and provide the rights enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. This is important as refugees do not enjoy protection from their own state. If there would not be any obligation from the international community towards them, they would have no one to turn to. But, there are also specific reasons when asylum shall not be provided. These reasons are clearly and exhaustively stipulated in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and include persons who committed grave crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity or other similarly serious crimes which are against humanity and human rights. Providing asylum and protection to such persons would undermine the very understanding of asylum, which is to protect those whose human rights are violated.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

No. I believe that when protection is provided in good faith, with honesty and dignity and if good faith and honesty also prevails on the side of the people who are protected, there is no limit to the number of people we can provide protection for.
However, there is also the global responsibility of international community of states. No state and its citizens shall be required to bear the costs of providing protection to large arrivals of refugees alone. This would not be fair. Countries shall act in the true spirit of cooperation and they should help  each other and people who are forced to flee. Therefore, the obligation to provide asylum and protection shall be shared among countries by programs for resettlement and relocation to ease pressure in one country and distribute responsibility.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

In modern history, my country (Slovakia)  has not welcomed  refugees broadly. The number of refugees we received in 20 years was around 600 and an equal number received subsidiary protection. In general, my country was more open in the 90ies, when we received refugees from former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Also, Cuban refugees tend to be provided with  protection more often and more easily than refugees from other countries.  Now, providing welcome to refugees is to a large extent influenced by rising islamophobia and politicians declared on numerous occasions that Slovakia will welcome Christian refugees only. This is very dangerous as selecting refugees based on their faith is pure discrimination and we risk that people who need it most will remain in a situation of risk, danger and abuse and there will be no one to provide protection to them.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Over the last year, refugees have been ostracized to a  such an extent that even refugees refused to be labeled by the term “refuge”. w In this respect, if you reveal that you are a refugee in our society or look foreign, you may face suspicion, discrimination and exclusion. So legally, the fair treatment is guaranteed and in many aspects maintained, but practically over last 2 years high invisible barriers have risen.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

No, because this will create deep tensions in the society and provoke non-acceptance of refugees by the majority of the society. I believe that with good administration and governance and by using the public resources properly and engaging private donors our countries would have sufficient amounts to properly address the refugee’s needs.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

Firstly, the term “successful integration” is very vague and misleading. What do we consider to be successful integration? Is it knowledge and respect of valid laws, or even changing one’s culture completely and fully accepting cultural, social and religious customs of the host country? Or, something in between? What is success? Do we expect every refugee to become a rich entrepreneur and a role model of positive contribution to the development of society? To me, such expectations would sound very foolish and misleading. The majority of people just want to settle and live their ordinary lives peacefully, without discrimination and exclusion. They want to have a job, send their kids to school, and have access to public services. Some want to return and help develop their country once the war is over, others find new homes in the host country. Integration is a very individual process and is hard to generalize. In order to be successful as a society, I think we need to develop realistic and legitimate expectations, rules and goals on our mutual understanding of “successful integration” and to transform them into a wider social agreement. And refugees must be part of that agreement, too. They have to know what is expected from them, rules must be clear, accessible and achievable. And the host society, too, must accept these rules and expectations and make room for new arrivals andnot creating  further invisible barriers. Once such an agreement is reached and maintained by the majorities on both sides, we can achieve something like a community.

Do you know any refugees personally?

Yes, many.

Do you actively support any refugees?

Yes, I do.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?

I think that eventually my country will  have to learn how to welcome refugees and provide safe a new home for them. We must be part of a global responsibility, we are a rich  country now and we should  help  poorer countries and  people who flee war and persecution. Previously, we were those to whom the help was provided, now it is our turn to do this. This is how the world works.

b) over the next two decades?

I hope that Slovakia over the next 20 years will not experience again a situation where  its citizens become refugees. I hope we will be a country which provides protection for refugees.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

Yes I can, but I do not believe this will happen during my lifetime.

If yes: what does it take?

It will take real will from all political leaders to act in the true spirit of international cooperation, unconditional recognition of the universality of human rights and unconditional recognition of the responsibility for grave crimes.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

Yes, my partner and his family had to flee from Afghanistan to Europe almost 20 years ago.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

I hope I will never be a refugee, but you never know, how the situation develops. I am afraid that strong political rhetoric and rising populist nationalism, which we can observe in many countries in  the West and in  the East may eventually lead to open war, if we do not stop at the right time. In such a case, I would emigrate and seek refuge in Canada or Latin America.

How much “home” do you need?*

Being professionally exposed torefugee situations, over the years I realized how much  it means for a person to have a home and to lose it. Suddenly, it is impossible to return to childhood places like the parent’s and grandparent’s house, school, it becomes impossible to meet  old friends, because many of them died, to watch old videos or to go through family pictures. This all is something that is connected with “home” and the existence of all these people and things is very important to the individual’s psyche and his or her sense of security. And losing a  sense of home is a trauma, which can be very hard to overcome. And in a way this is really scary to me, because I grew up in a secure world, I have a home and family and friends around me and I can very well imagine and understand how tragic and difficult it is to lose all these. No person shall be exposed to such feelings and deprived of home by force and violence.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.