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Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Eastern Europe: Learning to deal with refugees

Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - Eastern Europe: Learning to deal with refugees
Refugees (113, 1999)

1 January 1999
A region learns to cope with refugees.

Eastern Europe used to "export" millions of people, but some are now seeking refuge there

By Melita Sunjic

When rebel soldiers smashed into his family home in the Liberian capital of Monrovia and cold-bloodedly murdered his mother, university student Victor Perry decided he had to get away from the unending madness. He embarked on what would become a journey of epic proportions which ended in a highly unusual way and highlighted a major shift in the global movement of refugees.

Victor made his way on foot first to neighbouring Ivory Coast and later to Nigeria. He then boarded a ship for the first time in his life, suffered the indignity of having most of his clothing, even his shoes, stolen and eventually disembarked in Lebanon.

The Liberian walked for three days across the mountains to neighbouring Syria where a smuggler offered to take him to western Europe for $5,000. "I was eventually dropped off in a small village near the border and was told I was in Germany," Victor recalls. The trafficker had already left the country before Victor found out he was actually in Slovakia, a nation he had never heard of until that moment.

He was put into a detention centre and later asked for political asylum.

Many Liberians fled

Like Victor, hundreds of thousands of fellow Liberians had also fled the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. Most found temporary safety in surrounding African countries and a few who ventured further afield, headed for 'traditional' havens with relatives in the United States or western Europe.

None had ever thought of eastern Europe as a place of refuge and, indeed for most of this century the belt of countries wedged tightly between western Europe and Russia has been one of the world's biggest refugee 'producing' regions as millions of Jews fled repeated pogroms, peasants escaped Czarist brutalities and Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and others tried to wrest free from the iron fist of communism.

That picture has changed in the last decade following the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Iron Curtain and the emergence of regional democracies. People from as far away as Afghanistan, from former Soviet Central Asia and the Middle East still try to 'transit' central Europe en route to the more prosperous West, but a small and increasing number have begun to seek asylum - either as a first choice or after first being turned back by European Union nations.

Dealing with would-be refugees is a problem most central European nations would probably prefer not to handle at the moment. The west has a long tradition in welcoming refugees, including established procedures and institutions, but states in the heart of Europe have had to start virtually from scratch and are continuing to undergo wrenching economic, political and social reforms.

Most have made an encouraging start and have acceded to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. UNHCR has helped governments develop legal frameworks, institutions and facilities for handling asylum seekers. The agency was established in 1951, specifically to assist more than a million people, many of whom had fled central Europe during and after World War Two to restart their lives in other countries, so it is probably appropriate that its latest role in the region has come full circle.

Victor Perry's story also has a happy ending. He was given refugee status in Slovakia within four months though some cases continue for years. Theoretically, refugees enjoy the same entitlements as Slovak citizens but because of economic, housing and language difficulties, integration is notoriously difficult.

Ironically, if he had reached his original destination of Germany, he would have had no chance of being recognized as a refugee. Normally, Bonn does not grant refugee status to persons fleeing the chaos of civil war.

However, Victor has already qualified as the first African teacher in the country, lecturing on economics and biology at a secondary school, and when Refugees interviewed him recently, he was getting married to a local woman shortly.

"I became an asylum seeker with pain in my heart," he said. "When I was given refugee status, it was a new beginning for my life."

That is an encouraging statement for the region as a whole.

With Maria Cierna in Slovakia

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 113 (1999)