Elderly refugees struggle to integrate in Slovenia

News Stories, 17 January 2008

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
Homesick Bosnian refugee Osman, aged 84, shows visitors around his apartment in Maribor.

MARIBOR, Slovenia, January 17 (UNHCR) Elderly Bosnian refugee Aisa expects to live out her twilight years in Slovenia, but though the country has given her shelter for the past 15 years she will never really fit in.

"I have no home to go back to. My children are refugees, scattered all over the world. I am taking care of my health and waiting for the days to go by," the septuagenarian told UNHCR visitors to her small, newly renovated apartment in Slovenia's second largest city, Maribor.

Aisa and most of the other 74 elderly Bosnian refugees living in her housing complex have been offered language classes and all the help they need to survive. But, to the concern of UNHCR and the authorities, they will never fully integrate like their younger compatriots. It's a problem seen around Europe.

"These people were left behind. Their close relatives were either killed in the war [in Bosnia from 1992-1995] or dispersed in exile," said Drago Hausmeister, manager of the state-run housing project. "They are too old to work or to learn Slovenian properly. So they spend their days visiting doctors, watching TV and drinking coffee with the neighbours."

"Old people need a family support system to integrate. Without that, they are usually struggling with boredom, loneliness and depression," added Lloyd Dakin, UNHCR's Budapest-based regional representative.

In UNHCR's experience, such groups with special needs are often left at the end of mass refugee movements. Young and middle-aged refugees are usually able to rebuild their lives in a new country, but those aged more than 60 have a much harder time.

They tend to be the most reluctant to leave their homes in the first place, fleeing only when there is no real option available. And this is reflected in the figures; in Poland, for example, official statistics show that an annual average of only 0.7 percent of new arrivals are aged above 60.

UNHCR breaks down the integration process into three key inter-related processes: legal recognition as a refugee, economic self-sufficiency and absorption of the cultural and social characteristics of the host country.

The first step is pretty straightforward, but it is in the second two areas that many of the elderly, especially those on their own, fail to make sufficient progress.

In the case of the Maribor group, the Slovenian authorities gave Aisa and her neighbours indefinite legal residence in 2002. But finding full-time employment at their age was another matter, and most of them rely on social welfare and other government and NGO assistance.

As for cultural and social integration, elderly refugees in Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe show almost no progress. Too old or too traumatized to learn a new language or to rebuild social networks from scratch, they tend to hover on the margins of host societies.

"We have never been better in worse times," said 84-year-old Osman, summarizing the predicament of the elderly Bosnians in Maribor. The widower gets all the assistance he needs, but says that no one can give him back his life. He treasures photos of the home in eastern Bosnia that he left in 1992.

In contrast, his 20-year-old granddaughter Mersada speaks fluent Slovenian and mingles easily. She is studying tourism and hopes to one day move out of the refugee housing project and manage a hotel.

But while many of the elderly refugees here suffer from depression and tend to look to the past, rather than the future, they acknowledge a debt to the Slovenian government. "We are grateful for what we get and, most of all, we are grateful that we are safe and sound here," said 71-year-old Hajrija, while sipping coffee with her neighbour.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Maribor, Slovenia