Thursday, 10 September 2015

Eastern Europe's discomfort with diversity

Germans may be more sympathetic to Syrian refugees because many of their grandparents were refugees themselves, expelled from their homes after World War II. The Poles and Czechs may be less sympathetic, because it was their grandparents doing the expelling.

This week I took a train to Prague from Berlin, in order to talk to people continuing on the train to Budapest for a radio report I was working on about Europe's disappearing overnight trains. I lived in Prague back in 2002, and it was nice to be back. I met up with a few Czech friends, and at each meeting the subject of the refugee crisis came up. My Czech friends said they were very embarassed of the images being shown to the world, of Czech security officers marking Syrian refugees with numbers and treating them inhumanely. I told them, at least the Hungarians are making you lookmore humane by comparison.

A real East-West split has emerged in the EU over how to deal with the refugee crisis. Right now the 'Vyshegrad Four' - Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic - are furiously resisting a proposal to resettle the Syrian refugees pouring into Europe in a proportionate way across EU member states. Much ink has been spilled analysing why Eastern European governments are behaving in this way.

Many have noted that citizens of these countries have only recently acquired an economically comfortable way of life, and they are fearful of anything that might disrupt the balance. Others have pointed out that these countries have very little experience with immigration. But I think the history of migration in these countries 70 years ago also goes some way to explain the differing reactions.

Germany has thrown open its doors to the migrants, saying it will accept all asylum applications from Syrian refugees. Many Germans may be supportive of taking in refugees because their grandparents were refugees after the second world war, expelled from their homes in the east to resettle in the west. For Polish and Czechs, they may not have the same feelings because they were the ones doing the expelling.

The Benes Decrees in Czechoslovakia and the Poland/Kaliningrad deportation orders sent 12 million German refugees streaming into West Germany and Austria. The result was the creation of two uni-ethnic states: Poland is 95% ethnic Poles and the Czech Republic is 96% ethnic Czechs. This goes a long way to explain why these states are now the most resistant to taking in refugees.

Of course, Czechs and Poles are no stranger to post-war migration themselves. After the Polish state was shifted to the West after the war, the Poles living in the part of Poland that was given to Belarus and Lithuania were moved by the Communist government into Silesia and Western Pomerania, whose German residents had been expelled. Similarly, in the Czech Republic, Czechs were moved into the vacated homes in the Sudetenland, which had been emptied of almost all its occupants in the German expulsions.

The migration of Poles and Czechs into the vacated lands in the West was both more voluntary and less traumatic than the expulsion of Germans. And the migrations had the effect of creating uni-ethnic states.

As I took the train from Prague to Dresden yesterday, passing through the Sudetenland over the Jura mountains, I thought about what effect this historical legacy might have on the current situation. Surely, there are many reasons why Eastern Europeans have been so hostile to war refugees. But this post-war refugee situation from 70 years ago is probably part of the mix.

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