‘It’s been 72 hours since we rested, before this only buses, trains and walking’, Omar states, weary eyes blinking out from beneath his hood. Wet snow gently falls from a grey sky, the first of the season, only adding to the depressing atmosphere. Behind Omar, lie hundreds of people, Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. Omar is one of thousands who have fled conflict in the Middle East, seeking refuge and a better life in Northern Europe. This large white tent is just temporary shelter, a resting point on the Odyssey undertaken by the destitute. Located on the southern border of Slovenia, Dobova is the re-entry point for the Schengen zone for refugees and with the dire state of conditions in Greece, its border has become part of the growing fence beginning to surround Central and Western Europe. Grey UNCHR blankets are strewn across the floor, covering exhausted bodies. Metal barricades block the doorway, manned by heavily armed police. White medical masks cover their mouths, caps pulled down low. The effect is disturbing for the outsider, a physical manifestation of gulf of separation between refugees and locals. Yet, despite the presence of this heavy force, things remain calm, the chatter of Arabic and Farsi is relaxed. While the cattle like treatment may shock the newcomer, for the refugees, fences and armed guards are part of life on Balkan trail. And as Omar states, ‘This is not so bad. Things were worse in Bulgaria.’
The influx of migrants and refugees is, as has so often been said in the media, the largest migration Europe has seen since the WWII. Since August 2015, the refugee crisis has forced EU and European wide debates over the future and stability of integration and policies of open borders. The Schengen zone is being dismantled and borders are being reinforced and re-militarised. From our isolated position in Western Europe, the refugee crisis appears all encompassing. Media coverage has created images of countries and towns inundated with refugees. Thousands of desperate people walking through the streets, daily life completely disrupted and their plight completely ignored. The reality is, that for the majority of the Slovenian public, the immediacy of the refugee crisis is as distant for them as it is for us. The refugee crisis is taking place on some small border town in the south and two towns to the north. Refugees bypass the cities on their way north, transported in trains and buses with police escorts. This organised separation means that contact between Slovenes and the transiting refugees is limited to police, medics and the rare Slovenian volunteer.
The tiny country of Slovenia has been shocked and shaken by this crisis. With a population of just over two million, ethnic Slovenes make up over 80% of the population, with former Yugoslav ethnicities being the main minorities. Slovenia escaped the tumultuous period that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia unharmed compared its southern neighbours. As a country of peace and stability and a gateway north for those fleeing conflict in the Balkans, Slovenia quickly experienced it’s own personal refugee crisis in the early 1990s. Over 40,000 Bosnians sought asylum in Slovenia during the war. While some have returned to Bosnia over the years, many stayed and became integral parts of the community, at the moment over half of the national football team is Bosniak *[ethnic Bosnians, and traditionally Muslim]*. Yet the fearful rhetoric continues for a second time in only 25 years, warnings of incoming muslims, probable extremism and a loss of culture pervade the conservative media. The conservative media spreads terrifying depictions of terrorists infiltrating refugees in their thousands and spreading themselves across Europe. In November, the main magazine affiliated with the conservative party ran multiple articles on the Paris attacks, linking them to the refugees and called for Europeans to increase their birthrate so not to ‘lose its culture to muslims’.
Slovenia agreed to settle 250 refugees at the end of summer as their ‘contribution’ to the refugee crisis. However, as of late November, only eight refugees had applied for asylum in Slovenia. This is the flipside of the crisis, that while the attitude of Southern European countries in pushing on the refugees as fast as they can, this is the preferred solution for the refugees. Tensions have flared in the past, when the system wasn’t as streamlined and delays of a day or more were common. Tensions boiled over in October, when refugees burned six of the tents at the old transit camp in Brežice on the Croatian border. By all reports, the police responded with heavy hands, but quickly stabilised the situation. Since then, things have remained comparatively calm. This is not to say that the treatment of the refugees is always fair. Reports of mistreatment and aggression during the cold winter nights in Dobova filter through from volunteers and workers at the camp. This aggression is often due to general misinformation about the refugees throughout Slovenia and from the physical barrier created by over-militarisation. One instance, corroborated by several sources, claimed that a Slovenian police officer, in protective riot gear pushed the father of a Syrian family and shouted to a group of men waiting to board the train that they were all cowards, who should have done their duty and fought like men in Syria.
That war, which has only worsened over its five year span, is exactly why families and young men are fleeing their countries, leaving behind what remained of their war-torn lives. The individual stories tell of years of foreign interference and incredibly desperate situations with no hope. What brings a family to risk its life in a tiny dinghy crossing the treacherous waters from Turkey to Greece, or the young man risking jail or even death being smuggled into Bulgaria. These decisions have not been made lightly. For every economic incentive, there seem to be three life threatening reasons to leave the Middle East. Car bombs, death threats and conscription are stories repeated throughout the camps.
Large white tents are fenced inside an area the size of half a football pitch. The large floodlights cast long shadows in the dark December night. Armed soldiers in combat gear patrol the perimeter. As they step into the light, their faces remain hidden, only their eyes observant watching from behind medical masks. An armed personnel carrier sits just beyond the camp, Army and medical tents creating a little village at the entrance to the camp. Police sit in their vans and trucks, bored but ready to work. Every three days they are rotated from around the country. The scene is reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic movie, when the army attempt to contain some sort of infection. This may sound like a gross exaggeration, and to some it may not appear as dramatic. However, in the era of border free travel across the continent, the drastic military presence and crowd control measures seem at odds with everything that the EU has stood for. On the opposite side of this barrier, you can hear the murmur of refugees, who are standing in the elements in a snaking queue, waiting to be processed and registered for the umpteenth time. After registration, these refugees wait in heated tents, until buses arrive to collect them. While the distribution of information between the police to the refugees has improved, refugees still complain that they are told very little and requests are often greeted with a noncommittal shrug. And while there are issues with communication from the police, the main problem is that no one seems to have the answers. Buses arrive to collect the refugees when word is passed down that the camp in Šentilj (on the Austrian border in northeastern Slovenia) can accept them. This camp only empties when Austria takes in groups of refugees. Austria limits the number it accepts each day depending on different conditions which directly affect waiting times in Dobova. Those who don’t travel across the country by bus are moved to the train station.
Dobova train station is a place of conflicting images. Refugees, holding all they own, queue to board the train, under watchful eyes from armed guard. They are closer to their destination but ultimately treated as cattle. The calls from men locked inside the carriages, asking for access to the bathroom illustrates where Slovenia’s system of fast transit reduces the humanity of the refugees to less than equal. From inside the carriage, a man named Houmann apologises as he offers a handshake, days of travelling haven’t given him an opportunity to clean his nails. Houmann is a Syrian journalist, he had been living in Damascus until his articles and opposition to the tactics of war and actions of varying sides gained him notoriety. This high cost of his career choice clearly pains him as he talks about the journey he has put his family, including his 80 year old father and his young children through. Houmann is one of the few refugees who doesn’t talk of Germany or Sweden but rather he speaks wishfully of anywhere that is safe, welcoming and provides him the opportunity to write whatever he wishes. His sunken eyes come to life as he talks about using free speech to write the truth about terrorism and war in the Middle East. The conversation is suddenly interrupted as he steps away from the window, hiding from the lens of a passing Japanese TV crew. Again, the barrier between the refugees and others is obvious and unsettling. A shrill whistle blows and the train departs, bound for Sentilj on the Austrian border, another step closer to asylum.
Fame and notoriety are just two of the many things which can have you killed in Syria. Not drawing attention to yourself is key. However even the most unassuming person is being drawn into a conflict that in the last five years has developed into one of total war. I speak to a man named Omar, who starts to expand on his own sotry as we stand watching the snow get heavier. The hum and chatter of Arabic provides the background as Omar tells what life was like in northern Syria. He had been living in Aleppo where he had gone to university. Omar had tried to stick it out in Aleppo but, after years of waiting, the optimism and hope which he had experienced at the start of the uprising was gone. Despite his Kurdish heritage and that people’s history of mistreatment, the years under Assad don’t look as bad as they used to. ‘Under Assad we were not free, but now, we are not safe.’ Eventually Omar moved back to Afrin, where he lived with his family. This is a Kurdish controlled city, with a heavy Kurdish YPG *[People’s Protection Units, the main armed forces for Syrian Kurdistan]* military presence. With no job and unable to complete his studies, life was bleak for Omar. Then, about five weeks ago, his brother came to him. He had heard that the YPG were coming to enforce conscription. Omar had been warned that as an able-bodied man in his twenties, he was required to fight with the YPG. Exhausted with the years of war and bloodshed, Omar decided he would not fight, this would not be his war. Instead he fled, following the route so many of his friends had taken before him. Crossing into Turkey, before being smuggled into Bulgaria.
Mention Bulgaria to any refugee and looks of fear and disgust appear in response. Bulgaria is the alternative route to Europe from Turkey. The stories of sinking dinghy and drownings off the coast of Lesvos in Greece don’t go unnoticed within the well connected refugee trail. Being smuggled across the Bulgarian border is also a cheaper option, often taken by Afghans and Iranians, who have already spent thousands travelling illegally to Turkey. Smuggled across the borders at night, the refugees attempt to traverse the countryside hidden from sight. If they’re lucky they’ll make it to Macedonian border, where they can rejoin the trail from Greece. However, the lucky ones are few and far between. For most refugees, Bulgaria brings back memories of cruel treatment and days spent in unsanitary conditions in prison-like camps. Tales of imprisonment without food, beatings and even police firing at refugees are commonplace. Worst of all for the refugees who had made it as far as Slovenia was the shiny Bulgarian stamp on their passport. If EU rules were being enforced, the Dublin Regulation would ensure that this stamp restricts refugees to only applying for asylum in Bulgaria. For some, given the mistreatment at the hands of the authorities there, this is an option as bad as deportation.
While fear of the refugees grows on the outside, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks, resentment and worry are emerging amongst the refugees. The closing of borders and erecting of fences, is driving refugees toward Northern Europe. A group of Iraqi doctors, all of whom were seeking asylum for the second time, complained of economic refugees exploiting the current crisis. One of the doctors, Ahmet, says he was lucky, in that he managed to complete his medical degree in Sudan while escaping much of the bloodshed in the aftermath of the US invasion. However, he believed he had a responsibility to his country and with the pullout of American and British forces beginning, and a relative calm in the country he returned home. Working as a doctor in northern Iraq, it wasn’t long until war re-entered his life. The rise of Daesh *[ISIS]* caused huge turmoil to his family and colleagues, but ultimately it was threats and beatings from the Iraqi and Iranian militia which had driven Ahmet and his fellow doctors to flee to Europe. Lying on grey blankets, they spoke of how they wanted to make a life for themselves in Europe, Ahmet hoping to work in Germany because of their advancements in orthopaedics. Tightening restrictions and fears of being stuck on the wrong side of the fence were obviously on the men’s minds as they spoke with disdain of the thousands of uneducated workers fleeing the Middle East. When the competition emerges for asylum, shared humanity diminishes as each person scrambles to secure their own future.
In late November, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia introduced restrictions on the nationalities of refugees passing through their countries. Within two days, there were no refugees aside from Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans passing through Slovenia. 86 Moroccans who had just arrived in Slovenia as the new rules were enacted were stuck in limbo after an attempt by Slovenian police to return them to Croatia failed. They were processed and brought to a separate facility at Postojna, but the Slovenian authorities are still hoping that Croatia will take them back. Thousands of Afghans and Iraqis won’t have their asylum requests accepted and there have already been plenty of deportations. The situation is so unstable that fluidity is its defining characteristic. Any action by a state has huge consequences for its neighbours, a feature has resulted in some forced cooperation at an international level. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, Robert Perc, the police spokesperson in Dobova openly admits that there is no contingency plan in place. While the Slovenians, both the authorities and the public, view the current situation as an effective solution, it cannot be a permanent situation. Slovenia, and Europe, could enter an even more chaotic period at any time. The moment Germany closes its doors to refugees, a domino effect will come into play. Slovenia is currently playing the role of border guard for Central Europe as the situation further South is much more hectic. However, its borders and relations with Croatia will only strain further at any attempt to limit the intake from Croatia. A scenario where Slovenia is stuck with thousands of refugees unable to go any further north and frankly unwanted by the majority of the Slovenian public, is frightening but not unlikely. For the refugees one hopes that wherever they end up, their turmoil and hardship will soon cease.
Words & Photos: Daire Collins