The Little Country Leading the Way in Europe’s Refugee Crisis 

Serbia may be small, but it understands what is needed from its own dark days.

Miratovac, Serbia
Migrants walk toward a village after entering from Macedonia by foot in Miratovac, Serbia, Oct. 24, 2015.

Photo by Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

It’s not often that we Serbs get to be the good guys. Historically, whenever our name is mentioned, it’s usually in relation to accusations of causing World War I or Slobodan Milosevic and the four bloody wars he fomented in the mid-’90s. But ever since refugees from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere started fleeing their homelands and crashing on Europe’s shores, with more than 200,000 refugees passing through Serbian territory this year, our countrymen have set an example for the rest of the continent, teaching our neighbors, even the larger and wealthier among them, a lesson not only in compassion but also in good policy. Whether it is the Serbian government offering temporary housing, numerous nongovernmental organizations helping people in need, or individuals, neighborhoods, and businesses organizing efforts to collect warm clothes, water, and food, our little country has responded to this crisis with an admirable mix of dignity and efficiency.

In part, our ability to offer kindness and help where other nations offer xenophobia comes from experience. Milosevic’s wars flooded our region with 500,000 Bosnian and Kosovar refugees, as well as another 250,000 Serbs expelled from Croatia. We learned a lot during those dark days, and the lessons we took with us are the same ones other European nations—as well as the United States, a likely destination for a growing number of refugees—must now grasp.

What, then, do we Serbs have to teach the rest of the world about trying to address the refugee problem? First, and at the risk of sounding naïve, we know that the old adage about never having a second chance to make a first impression is as true with nations as it is with people. Even though the hardships of absorbing such massive numbers of immigrants are real and not to be belittled, there’s no reason not to greet these poor souls with dignity and kindness. Instead of sending policemen with guns, send schoolchildren with homemade signs of welcome. Instead of setting up barbed-wired camps, find more hospitable temporary housing. Those of us who were unfortunate enough to experience the burden of being driven from our homeland know the importance of these small gestures. Whatever relationship Europe is going to have with these refugees, it will begin not with some sweeping political measure but with a simple human gesture, the sort each one of us could easily make.

That brings us to the second stage of the migration crisis, namely the clash of values being exhibited by a disunited European Union. The EU, long serving as a “lighthouse of tolerance, open thought, and good organization,” has reacted to the incoming refugees with confusion and disarray. From the clean, cool, and orderly response of some countries like Germany or France to the terrifying, xenophobic, and almost racist statements coming from Hungary, Croatia, or Slovakia, Europe is obviously struggling to find its voice in this crisis. Though the actual number of asylum seekers accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the overall European population—around 700,000 applicants this year out of an EU population of 503 million—it seems “Old Lady Europe” isn’t ready for the influx.

Will other Europeans follow the organized Austrians or Germans, who greeted the first trains of Syrian asylum seekers with flowers and offers of citizenship, or will we be seeing more walls, the suspension of the Schengen free-travel agreement and closed borders like in Croatia or Hungary? Will this be followed by placing refugees in facilities frighteningly reminiscent of concentration camps? Europe’s collective answer to this refugee crisis will tell us a great deal about its future and the sustainability of its values. Hopefully the EU errs on the side of kindness.

Then we need to look more closely at the current wave of migrants. If you do, you’ll see that more than 50 percent of refugees come from one of the countries where people rose up during the Arab Spring with violence rather than nonviolent protest. The Egyptians and the Tunisians took to the streets, and even though their current regimes are far from perfect, they’re hopeful that, like Serbia, they’ll soon be on the path from tyranny to democracy. But the 152,210 Syrians, the 4,450 Libyans, the 31,185 Iraqis, and the 63,990 Afghanis, and the 88,495 Kosovar, roughly half of the 398,895 first-time asylum seekers since January—the last two not Arab nations at all—suffered through civil wars and foreign military interventions and other devastating violent turns, which have driven their citizens to flee for safety.

There’s a lesson there for us, and it’s one we can’t afford to ignore: The only movements that have any long-term success in restoring order, democracy, and hope are those waged nonviolently, offering a better vision of tomorrow than anything any petty and blood-thirsty dictator can ever provide.

We’re speaking empirically: In their research, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan have proved that if our goal is to make the world a peaceful, stable place, nonviolence is the only feasible path. The numbers they offer in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works, are astonishing: While 52 percent of nonviolent movements successfully achieve their goals, only 23 percent of armed insurrections do the same. And nonviolent movements are also 10 times more likely to produce durable democracies: 42 percent of nonviolent regime changes achieved long-term stability and peace, while, among those that opted for taking up weapons, the number drops to a paltry 4 percent. These statistics make a blunt claim: Tanks, bombs, and boots on the ground don’t produce democracy, only more crisis and misery.

We’re right to want to focus on the root causes of this refugee crisis but wrong for so often believing that our first move ought to be loading up on ammunition. Anyone serious about rebuilding these nations now depleted of their people should learn how to support authentic, peaceful, and potent movements that fight fear with fun and bloodshed with hope. We tried that, too, in Serbia: It took us and our friends, college kids with no political or organizational experience but tremendous passion for justice, just under two years to send our dictator from the president’s office to the criminal court in the Hague. Milosevic had the guns, but we had the hearts of the people, the secret weapon that wins every war.

We may not be able to give the miserable masses huddling in Europe a permanent place to settle, but we can give them two things of enormous value: a warm welcome and the encouraging lesson that if we just stop the killing for a moment, we have it in our power to reignite peace in the most unlikely of places. It’s the least we can do for our brothers and sisters.