RIGA, Latvia—When Latvia last month decided to accept 250 of the tens of thousands of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, hundreds of protesters including elderly people and families with children rallied outside Parliament with placards warning that the foreigners would bring doom upon the Baltic country. A smattering of slogans spoke darkly of a threat to “white nations.”
A similar demonstration featuring anti-Muslim slogans was held in neighboring Estonia against plans to receive about 150 refugees from the Middle East and Africa this year.
While eastern Europe’s new EU member states are being asked to absorb the fewest, they are putting up the fiercest resistance to plans to spread the refugees more evenly across the 28-nation bloc. Even mainstream political leaders in these countries have described refugees and migrants as welfare opportunists, terrorists and carriers of disease.
The Baltic countries, as well as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have all rejected mandatory refugee quotas, often with the argument that they don’t want their relatively homogenous societies to become multicultural.
EU officials and human rights groups say they’ve been disappointed by the animosity toward asylum-seekers in countries from which hundreds of thousands of people fled communist dictatorships just decades ago.
“We are struggling to understand this hardening of attitudes,” said Babar Baloch, the Budapest-based spokesman for U.N. refugee agency in central Europe. “They have been through this themselves.”
He emphasized that there’s been an outpouring of generosity from volunteers helping migrants and refugees in Hungary, despite the government’s hard stance.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is refusing to accept a single refugee under the EU plans and resisting their attempts to cross the country to reach more welcoming countries like Germany and Sweden. Slovakia has offered to accept 200 people — as long as most of them are Christians.
The president of the Czech Republic, which has offered to receive 1,500 refugees, has warned that asylum-seekers might bring terrorism and infectious diseases. In an interview re-published on his official website, President Milos Zeman told Czech tabloid Blesk that they should be told three things when they arrive.
“The first one: Nobody invited you,” he said. “The second one: When you’re already here, you have to respect our rules as we respect your rules when we arrive in your country. The third one: if you don’t like it, get out of here.”
Critics say the ex-communist countries might do well to be more generous in light of their own history.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc nations to escape communist dictatorships following World War II.
In scenes similar to those on the Mediterranean today, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians streamed across the Baltic Sea in crowded boats as the Red Army retook their countries in 1944. Thousands died at sea.
“For Latvians who have been welcomed to so many countries, now to say that we cannot afford taking in refugees is not nice from a moral perspective,” former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga told television station TV3. Her own family fled to Canada to escape the Soviet occupation.
The current president, Raimonds Vejonis, rejected the comparison.
“It was 70 years ago and the situation was totally different,” Vejonis told The Associated Press. He said many of those entering Europe today “are economic refugees who try and find a better life in Europe. A better job and a higher salary and so on.”
He also warned that terrorists could be among them. “It’s the main fear of our society,” Vejonis said.
U.N. officials say the vast majority of those crossing the Mediterranean are fleeing war and persecution in countries including Syria and Eritrea. There are also migrants seeking to escape deep poverty in west Africa who normally don’t get asylum in Europe.
Human rights groups say the distinction between economic migrants and refugees fleeing for their lives is poorly understood in countries in central and eastern Europe. Only the Czech Republic has significant experience in resettling refugees, having done so since 2011, according to the International Catholic Migration Commission. The group is organizing a conference in Prague this week to spread awareness in the region about refugee resettlement.
Noting that they’re still catching up economically, the ex-communist countries say they don’t have nearly the same capacity to absorb refugees as countries in western Europe. They also stress that they’re simply not used to immigration.
“Our society has no migration experience; there is a clear difference between the new member states and the old member states,” Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak told The AP during a visit to Romania.
Western nations are multicultural, diverse societies while there is “not a single mosque” in Slovakia, he said. In any case, he added, migrants “don’t want to come to Slovakia, they want to go to Germany, they want to go to Sweden, they want to go to the countries that give them greater benefits.”
In the Baltic countries negative attitudes toward refugees are partly shaped by the legacy of forced labor migrations during the Soviet era, said Eero Janson of the Estonian Refugee Council. The Russian-speaking minorities who came to the Baltic countries during that time remain poorly integrated.
Some of the animosity, however, has focused on culture, religion and even race. “The white race is in danger in Europe,” Kristiina Ojuland, a former Estonian foreign minister who now leads a nationalist party, told The Associated Press.
“If we have different people practicing their cultures it will undermine our constitutional rights to save our culture, language and traditions,” Ojuland said.
In Latvia, about 300 people joined the rally in early August against the government’s decision to accept 250 refugees. Some held up placards reading “Stop Genocide against White Nations” and “Stop Islam.”
“This event is driven by fear,” said Mihails Kulagins, a 22-year-old anthropology student who passed by the demonstration in Riga. “A lot of these people have never come into contact with people from Africa or the Middle East.”
Hosams Abu Meri, a Latvian lawmaker of Lebanese descent, concurred, saying fighting misconceptions will be key to help Latvia deal with its unfamiliar role as a recipient of people seeking shelter.
“These people have war in their countries and have run away,” he said. “It’s about explaining that these people are not terrorists, don’t be scared of them. They are 250 people. We’re not talking about thousands.”