So what accounts for this hostility in the countries that Donald Rumsfeld once called “new Europe”? For one thing, Eastern Europe (I’m using the term to distinguish these countries from places like Germany and Austria although “Central Europe is generally preferred.) has relatively little experience with large-scale immigration and until recently was generally considered a source of migrants rather than a destination. In Western Europe, the “Polish plumber” was the symbol of anxiety over migration long before it was the Syrian asylum-seeker. Given questions about refugees’ motives— Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has suggested, in the face of most available evidence to the contrary, that the vast majority of the refugees are actually economic immigrants—many people in these countries may be wondering why they’re being lectured about taking in migrants by countries that weren’t particularly welcome to them. One populist political candidate has even suggested there’s a global conspiracy at work for “Poles to be scattered around the world” while “diverse nationalities” come to Poland. Because of the lack of previous immigration, these countries’ populations have remained relatively homogenous. While in France and Germany, the Muslim population is 7.5 percent and 5.8 percent respectively—the result of waves of migration going back decades—it’s below 0.1 percent in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. (It’s a whopping 0.2 percent in Slovakia.) And as Poland’s prime minister has pointed out, the country is already coping with a large number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.
This is part of the mix, but I think you have to go back further to understand why this particular wave of refugees is so troubling to that particular part of Europe. The Syrian refugees are trying to enter Europe through Greece and Bulgaria, and are encountering the most hostile receptions in Macedonia and Hungary, though the refugee crisis is also affecting countries like Slovakia, Serbia, and Albania. These are all countries that wholly or in-part belonged to the Ottoman Empire until some point in the past two centuries. That’s long enough to forget the direct effects of the imperial period, but probably not enough time for the cultural legacy of nationalist resistance against the dominant imperial culture to have totally worked its way out of popular consciousness.
This manifests as appeals to preserve “European heritage,” particularly as it involves Christianity in the face of an influx of mostly Muslim refugees. So when Hungary’s would-be petty dictator of a prime minister, Viktor Orbán, says things in reference to the refugee crisis like “Europe’s Christian culture is barely in a position to uphold Europe’s own Christian value,” he’s being a bigot, yes, but he’s channeling his bigotry in a way that he knows will resonate with cultural fears that are deeply rooted in his audience.
Of course, the number of refugees is nowhere near enough to actually change the “European” or “Christian” culture of these countries, but fear is a hell of a drug.
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