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Interview 07 Jul 17

Champion Croatian Priest Preaches Help for Refugees

Croatia should remember its own bitter war of the 90s and open its borders to refugees, says Tvrtko Barun, a Jesuit priest who was recently honoured by the European Parliament.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Zagreb
Tvrtko Barun. Photo: Sven Milekic/BIRN

Tvrko Barun, director of the Society of Jesuits in Zagreb, was last month given the prestigious European Parliament's 2017 ‘European Citizen’ award for his work helping refugees, thousands of whom fled wars in Syria and Iraq.

“A lot of people in Croatia know what it is to be a refugee, what it is to flee without anything from one’s home and what it’s like to depend on the goodness of others,” the 33-year-old priest says.

The country cared for more than 500,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the region’s wars in 90s, Barun says, and should have been more sensitised to the plight of recent arrivals.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic and her centre-right party called for a stricter stance on refugees, even raising the possibility of deploying the military on the border with Serbia.

Despite this, Barun notes, many officials and ordinary people also helped refugees generously, even when they lacked resources, like in the eastern region of Slavonia – where many refugees entered the country from Serbia in 2015 and 2016.

The priest saves his harshest criticism however for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the “Visegrad Group” of countries – comprised of Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland – who wish only to accept Christian refugees.

That stance has “no connection to Christianity whatsoever since it’s not based on Christ’s life and teachings,” the young Jesuit says.

“In his political speech Orban often connects the closing of borders with Christianity, referring to it as ‘the defence of Christianity and Christian values’. Well, that’s not legitimate, this has no connections with Christianity, moreover, it is contrary to it,” Barun adds.

Fear and prejudice

However, across the region, many people are distrustful or even fearful of Middle-Eastern refugees - unlike refugees from the Balkan wars, even those who were Muslims - because they have a different culture and do not speak the language.

“These are people and nations we aren’t familiar with. We don’t know their culture, tradition, religion – although there are Muslim communities here – which all causes fear and prejudice towards these people,” he said.

He added that unfortunately some people go as far as to link refugees with “radical Islamist terrorism,” which only contributes to fear.

Many people are uninformed about political developments in the Middle East, he says, “and this causes problems; people don’t have a concrete idea of who is actually behind [terrorist attacks] and from where the refugees are fleeing and why.”

While he says he understands that no one country can cope with the influx, he thinks that instead of employing military forces and building fences, Europe needs to pass a functioning policy on the reallocation of refugees, creating a more just system.

 “No wires or guns in the world will prevent 100,000 people from trying to pass,” he says, adding that in the case of any new refugee crisis he hopes governments will refrain from using the military against migrants.

Reports of abuse

Barun, given his relatively young age, is a tech-savvy priest and has been using Twitter and other social media platforms to raise awareness of the plight of refugees.

The Jesuits also took on a more official role in January, reporting to the Croatian Interior Ministry, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the ombudsman's office on possible illegal push-backs of asylum seekers to Serbia, which - if true - would be violating international law.

“At the beginning of this year, because colleagues in Serbia recorded it, we and other NGOs noticed that there were possible forced removals, even violence towards these people, dozens of cases,” Barun told BIRN.

While the Interior Ministry has carried out an internal inquiry which failed to unearth any illegal actions on the part of the border police, mistreatment continues to be reported.

Barun noted that regarding the allocation of refugees and asylum seekers from Italy and Greece – as part of the EU deal – Croatia has only received 60 out of an agreed 1,600.

However, he emphasized, many other EU countries are not doing much better. As of June, Bulgaria has only accepted 47 of the 1,302 refugees they should have taken from Greece and Italy. In the same period, Romania has reallocated 634 out of 4,180 refugees. Hungary is not complying at all.

According to state data 311 people have received either asylum or subsidiary protection in Croatia since 2004. One hundred of those were 2016 arrivals, though the majority have since left to move on to other European countries.

Barun expressed optimism that Croatia would not go “down the road” of the Visegrad group, saying that “civil society, religious communities and individuals will firmly advocate towards the government for more solidarity towards refugees”.

Regarding the situation in Serbia -- which made headlines last winter with many refugees living in squalid and freezing conditions -- Barun thinks that Europe “needs to step in and help” since the country “can’t cope with 7,000 refugees”.

 He also emphasised that refugees have to wait up to 30 months to enter Hungary from Serbia while “some refugees won’t wait so long and will try up to 30 times to enter Hungary or Croatia illegally”. 

According to Barun, the relatively small number of refugees that need to be integrated into Croatian society makes things easier and the government system, with the help of civil society, is improving.

 “In terms of integration, the three most important things are housing, language and work,” he says.

He explained that the Jesuit society is helping the state find apartment owners who are willing to rent to refugees, since Croatia pays their rent and utilities for two years after they’re granted asylum.

Concerning the language, it has only recently become a requirement for the government to provide a basic Croatian language and culture course to refugees.

With high unemployment in the country however, the biggest challenge is finding work for refugees, Barun says.

However, Barun does not succumb to pessimism, hoping the asylum seekers will make a home of Croatia and “learn to love” their adopted country.

NOTE: This article was amended on July 8, to delete a paragraph in which  Barun was incorrectly quoted. The previous version of the article stated: "Croatia’s response to the recent influx of refugees from the Middle East has been “unchristian” at times, and shocking given the Balkan country’s own experience of war and displacement in the nineties, a humanitarian award-winning Croatian priest has told BIRN." Barun actually did not say that Croatia acted in an “unchristian” manner, but was making a reference to the actions of to Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

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