Guest and Host Roles of Refugees and Helpers in Slovenia – What are their Expectations of Each Other?
When thinking about the destinations towards which refugees usually flee, many people might have countries in mind which are well known for their dominance in the world’s politics or which are at least among the most prosperous countries in the world. Countries such as Germany, Sweden, France and Great Britain are known for the fact that they are typical destinations for those seeking refuge. Countries such as Slovenia are more likely to be regarded as one of the countries refugees pass through in order to reach their intended destination. However, despite being a relatively young nation, Slovenia has, has had its own share of experience with people from other countries entering its borders in need of shelter. Many people came to Slovenia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. The difference between the situation in the 1990s and the current situation is the fact that this time the refugees aren’t coming from countries that used to be part of Yugoslavia and with whom the people in Slovenia were familiar, but instead, they are coming from countries that are much further away and from a completely different cultural area. In late summer 2015, Europe witnessed one of the biggest groups of such people entering the continent on their way to find shelter, predominantly in the richer member states of the European Union.
During that time, countries such as Slovenia, were mostly only used by the refugees to pass through on their way to countries such as Germany or Sweden. The Slovene authorities provided a “corridor” along which the refugees could travel from the Slovene-Croatian border to the Slovene-Austrian border for them so they could continue their journey north.
The 1951 Refugee Convention states that the term refugee can apply to someone
“who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” (1951 Refugee Convention, Article 1 A (2)).
Heidrun Friese describes refugees as “those, who for diverse reasons move, risk their lives to get to Europe, seek shelter, hospitality, acknowledgement and rights, freedom and future” (Friese 2017, p. 14).
Only a small number of refugees chose to stay in Slovenia. Their situation in Slovenia is what ocussed on during my research in the capital Ljubljana. The interesting aspects about Slovenia as a host country for refugees are that it is a country with not much experience in giving shelter to refugees, especially to those from the middle east, and the fact that it is a small country that barely any refugee has in mind as a destination when they are on their way to Europe.
In my research, I interviewed one refugee from Syria who was granted asylum in Slovenia and two activists working with refugees in Slovenia in the area surrounding Rog, which is an alternative area situated around an old factory in the centre of Ljubljana. I want to examine how the “hosts”, the activists who are working in different facilities to support refugees, and the “guest” which are the refugees see each other and what their expectations of each other are.
The “guest” and the “host”
Heidrun Friese states that “host and guest are tied by a reciprocal relation: it is the host who receives as much as the guest gives himself to the host, if hospitality is to come into being and endure.” (Friese 2009, p. 63). Furthermore, she writes that hospitality relies on “open handedness and generosity as well as on reciprocity and mutual obligation.” (ibid., p. 64). The Merriam Webster Online dictionary describes the “guest” as “a person to whom hospitality is extended” and a “host” as “one that provides facilities for an event or a function”. Regarding the previously mentioned 1951 Refugee Convention, one could say that in this case, the refugee is the “guest” and the “host” is, in a broader context, the state of Slovenia and, in a more direct context, those involved with the refugees, such as volunteers, activists, NGO members and employees and anyone who is directly involved with the integration and support of refugees. Mireille Rosello states that “focusing on the figures of the guest and of the host is neither the only nor the most obvious way of theorizing the relationship between a country and its immigrants.” (Rosello 2001, p. 4). When you take a closer look at the relationship between refugees and helpers in Slovenia, a country that is not known to be one of those countries that took many refugees during the 2015 refugee crises, and that wants to charge members of its parliament for helping a refugee avoid deportation, one could argue that this relationship might actually be quite similar to the one of a guest and a host. In this context, the already mentioned “mutual obligations” might, from the host’s perspective be to provide a save environment in which the guest’s basic needs are fulfilled as well to help the guest closer to the culture of his host’s country and in this way to help the refugee to integrate. The refugee’s obligations might include the will to participate in programs provided for refugees to help them integrate such as language courses, and to obey the rules of his host country as well as the rules which apply. On both sides, too, there were and still are certain expectations of one another. This is what I want to analyze.
The refugee, a 32-year-old computer hardware engineer who had left his home country of Syria to seek shelter in Europe, was, as he told me, the only refugee during the 2015 refugee crises who intentionally stopped in Slovenia to seek asylum. I met him when he first came to Slovenia and he talked to me about his journey when I interviewed him in one of his favourite spots in Ljubljana, Metelkova. He has been granted asylum and is able to remain in Slovenia, mainly due to the fact that he now has a child with a Slovene woman.
The reason for him not continuing his journey was that he felt annoyed by his companions during his journey due to their religious beliefs. During the interview, he said:
“[…] during the time I was getting to Europe most of the others were Muslims, some of them actually very religious ones. I mean, if I was Slovene that would sound racist, but I couldn’t stand those people […]”.
Yet, even though not knowing much about his new home, he of course had expectations for it. His expectations were that he wanted to, at first, get shelter in a safe country, to socialize with the members of the local community in which he stayed and after being granted asylum status, to have help provided for him to find a job. He said that he never had much reason to complain about the shelter he received. Another expectation, the socialisation with the local community was something, he stated, that lacked during the beginning of his stay in Slovenia. The reasons why it was difficult for him at first to socialise were caused by the fact that helpers in the camp and later in the refugee home near Ljubljana, weren’t allowed to meet the refugees outside of their home, even though the refugees were allowed to spend a certain amount of time outside of the refugee home. Also, the home in which he stayed, was far away from the city centre of Ljubljana where he expected to find opportunities to socialise and given the low amount of “pocket money” granted to him by the Slovene government, which is 17 Euro per month, travelling to the city centre was difficult for him which meant that his freedom was restricted.
Another aspect he imagined would have been available to him was the support of activists when it came to finding a job in Slovenia. He expressed during the interview that in Rog, a former bicycle factory which is now one of the main centres for alternative culture in Ljubljana, and which also provides help for refugees, refugees where given help with aspects such as health care, legal issues and finding a job. According to what he said, he was one of the few refugees capable of speaking English who were helped by Rog. Therefore, he often helped translating so the activists could communicate with all of the Arabic speaking refugees who didn’t speak English. He told me that in this role he soon felt exploited because while, as he said, all the other refugees were given more help finding a job than he was. So, in this case, he had an expectation that he’d get as much support as the other refugees would get, but ultimately he felt like he had been treated unfairly by the activists in Rog and got into arguments that made him avoid Rog and its activists. The aspect of acknowledgement, he felt, was also not provided. This, as he stated, was due to the fact that his help, translating for those refugees who were unable to speak any English, didn’t give him any advantage in receiving help by the helpers in Rog to find a job.
He stated that he had to find other ways to socialise with his new society and that he managed to find the help with socialisation he had actually expected to receive from activists, NGOs and the government by getting to know people at Metelkova, which, just like Rog, is found in an autonomous area in Ljubljana and which provides a safe space for minorities and also functions as a meeting point of the alternative scene in Ljubljana. All in all, he expressed his displeasure about the lack of most of the aspects that Friese mentioned as being the key elements that refugees are looking for.
From his point of view, he believes that he fulfilled the obligations that were given to him by helpers because he participated in some of the activities and supported them whenever he could, but all in all, it seems that he felt, due to this lack of respect and further support, that the obligations of his hosts were not fulfilled.
The activists obviously had their own expectations working as the “hosts” for the refugees who stayed in Slovenia. One of the activists I interviewed is a woman who is an important figure working in Rog and who had worked with refugees since the refugee crises in 2015 started. She, like most of the people connected to Rog, is and who is, as well as most of the people connected to Rog, part of the left-wing alternative scene. She explained all the effort that is made for the refugees in Rog. She represents the people that the refugee I interviewed named as those by whom he felt used. While talking about the number of workshops and activities, such as cooking workshops and sports activities, that are provided for the refugees, she expressed that she expected the refugees to use these opportunities provided for them because she didn’t want them to do nothing and waste their time. This connects well to the discourse of Heidrun Friese stating that “social imagination creates pictures of mobility, connects it to the topos crises, catastrophe and tragedy, whose actors are victims, enemies and heroes.” (Friese 2017, p. 20). This social imagination might have been a key factor in her involvement with the refugees. In her case, she might at first have only seen the refugees as victims, oversimplifying the situation, and thereby forgetting the different needs of each refugee. This became obvious when she stated how much she does for the refugees. She stated that she and some of her colleagues in Rog organize workshops with the refugees as well as helping them with legal issues. A key point she mentioned during the interview was the fact that she was sometimes disappointed by some of the refugees not being active in the activities she organised.
The activist also told me that, in her opinion, the refugee I had interviewed, compared to the other ones, even those unable to speak English, very lazy and that his laziness was rather the reason he didn’t get as much help finding a job as the others did. She sees the workshops and other activities provided by her and other activists in Rog as something that the refugees should take advantage of, for she believes this is one of the few opportunities they have to integrate and, due to the fact that the refugee didn’t want to participate in many of the activities because according to him they “felt enforced, rather than voluntarily”, her expectations of him as a refugee who was hoping for asylum in Slovenia differed a lot from his expectations for receiving help from the activists.
The other activist, a woman who has a background in anthropology, viewed the refugees as people who need a lot of support. She said that she is providing workshops in Rog, which are focussed particularly on integrating migrant women into Slovene society and also giving them the opportunity to gain more money by, for example, having knitting workshops and selling the creations made by the refugee women for voluntary donations. Furthermore, she said that twice a week a meeting with refugee women takes place in this centre which is focussed on, as she stated, “preparing, kind of information, and really a lot of language, like what they asked for, on the health system, and also on their cases.” From what she said, she also seemed to have a particular expectation of how much help female refugees would need and that it might be more difficult to integrate them. It is most likely that her ideas on the female refugees were based on the role women have in those societies from which the refugees originate and also on the fact that the asylum home for women and children was located further outside of the city centre and that the women, therefore, might not always be able to access all the support their male counterparts might receive. This, too, connects to a statement by Heidrun Friese in which she states that the role of female or underaged refugees might differ from the image people have about their male counterparts, because female refugees and children are more often seen in the role of an “innocent victim” (ibid., p. 31). Another perspective on the topic and why in particular she is helping female refugees, can be taken from Veronika Bajt and Mojca Pajnik who stated that the “absence of gender-specific data [in Slovenia] hinders the understanding and appropriate assessment of women’s role and needs in the migration process.” (Bajt/Pajnik 2014, p. 317).
The fact that she referred to the earlier mentioned “corridor” many times shows that she felt that the government wasn’t really interested in keeping the refugees and that apparently the government saw the refugees more as short-term guests, rather than seeing them as permanent. The way she talked about the way the government, in her opinion, didn’t provide enough help to the refugees staying in Slovenia was expressed in terms of how the government didn’t seem interested in fulfilling the expectations of those who could be their “guests”, even though the most obvious “host” for refugees seeking shelter in Slovenia would be the government. In her position as a host, she felt that neither she nor the NGOs would be able to properly fulfil the obligations expected of a host as long as the government wasn’t interested in helping the refugees. The “generosity” of the helpers can be noted here, and from what the activist said, the reason why there were some troubles in fulfilling the “mutual obligations” towards the refugees was because the government was not fulfilling its obligation as a host.
In his book “Illegal Traveller”, Shahram Khosravi, who went to Sweden as an Iranian refugee, characterizes the way refugees are received and perceived by their host society as a specific kind of hospitality, a “hostile hospitality”:
“The ambivalence of hospitality lies in the initial ‘acceptance’ of individuals through hospitality, but then keeping them strangers for generations, rejecting them because they are not like us and placing them in refugee camps, detention centers, or ghettos. What stateless, asylum seekers, undocumented migrants face today is a hostile hospitality.” (Khosravi 2010, p. 127).
Even though the refugee with whom I talked never said anything about feeling like a stranger or feeling discriminated in any way, the term “hostile hospitality” caught my attention during my research. Interestingly, the terms “hospitality” and “hostility” have the same roots, “referring both to the guest and to the enemy (hostis and hospis)” (Friese 2009, p. 51). This means, that the boundaries between hospitality and hostility might not be as far away from one another as expected.
As I mentioned already, the refugee I talked to never mentioned anything about being discriminated, yet me made it clear to me that on some occasions his expectations were blocked by the expectations of his “hosts”. The same can also be said in reverse. The fact that he felt disrespected and used, because he felt forced to do things he didn’t want to do, might mean that the form of hospitality he faced could be in some way “hostile hospitality”. Another, more important factor that might have caused him to see it in a rather hostile way, is the fact that, just as Khosravi explains it, he might not have had the chance to become a part of society, in his case, mainly due to the fact that he lacked possibilities to socialize in his new environment. In his opinion, “there is an asymmetric power relationship between host and guest” and due to his expected temporary stay, the country will never be a host and therefore never regarded as being on a same level in the hierarchy as the host (Khosravi 2010, p. 94).
All in all, one could say that in this situation both the refugee and the “hosts” he was dealing with were in a position in which both parties had precise expectations but in both cases these expectations led to misunderstandings. On the one hand, it is obvious that the helpers in Slovenia saw the refugees as people who were all in need and as victims who needed all the support they could get, and on the other hand, there was the refugee I interviewed, who wanted to be as independent as possible in his journey to socialisation and integration, yet, also expected to get the help everyone else received despite being very individualistic. On both sides this led to confusion and frustration. From the point of view of the refugee, one could definitely say that he might have felt like he was in a situation of “hostile hospitality”, while the helpers, regarding their expectations, were disappointed by the attitude of the refugee. Looking at the fact that the refugee now fathers a child with a Slovenian citizenship, it is going to be interesting to see if Shahram Khosravi is right when he states in his book that society is keeping the refugees “strangers for generations” (Khosravi 2010, p. 127). Despite the fact that his child will be raised learning Slovene language as one of his mother tongues and will know Slovene culture from the start, it might happen that other people in Slovenia may still see him in a guest role and might have similar expectations of him as they do of his father.
All in all, in my research, I saw that the aspects of “mutual obligations” of the guest and host as a metaphor for the refugees and those willing or whose job it is to help them as well as their expectations towards each other, as significant factors for conflict between the two parties. On the one hand, one could argue that the refugee will feel alone if the obligations of integrating him into society and providing him with the most important things for his stay in the country are not fulfilled. On the other hand, when the refugee doesn’t fulfil his part of the obligations, such as obeying the rules given to him, the helpers might become less active in their participation with certain refugees and might give up on them. All this can lead to more severe conflict between both sides and those on both sides who are doing their best to fulfil the “mutual obligations” and their counterpart’s expectations in them, might suffer because their reputation as a group might be left tarnished due to the conflict between the two groups.
Friese, Heidrun (2017), Flüchtlinge: Opfer – Bedrohung – Helden. Zur politischen Imagination des Fremden, Bielefeld: transcript.
Friese, Heidrun (2009), The limits of hospitality. In: Paragraph. A journey of Modern Critical Theory 32(1), pp. 51-68.
Rosello, Mireille (2001), Introduction. Immigration and Hospitality. In: Rosello, Mireille, Postcolonial Hospitality. The immigrant as guest. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 1-22.
Khosravi, Shahram (2010), Illegal Traveller. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave McMillan.
1951 Refugee Convention, Article 1 A (2)
Merriam Webster Online Dictionary:
Bajt, Veronika/Mojca Pajnik (2014), Studying Migration in Slovenia: The Need for Tracing Gender, in: Krystyna Slany, Maria Kontos und Maria Liapi (ed.): Women in New Migrations: Current Debates in European Societies: Jagiellonian University Press, pp. 299-322.
by Daniel Neugebauer