M E D I A W A T C H    S E R I E S
Marko Zajc, Janez Polajnar
Ours and Yours
Tanja Petrović
A long way home
Brankica Petković, Marko Prpič, Neva Nahtigal, Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin
Media Preferences and Perceptions
Mitja Velikonja
Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin, Brankica Petković
You call this a media market?
Brankica Petković, Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin, Lenart J. Kučić, Iztok Jurančič, Marko Prpič, Roman Kuhar
Media for Citizens
Mitja Velikonja
Jernej Rovšek
The Private and the Public in the Media
Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin, Lenart J. Kučić, Brankica Petković
Media Ownership
Roman Kuhar
Media Representations of Homosexuality
Dragan Petrovec
Violence in the Media
Majda Hrženjak, Ksenija H. Vidmar, Zalka Drglin, Valerija Vendramin, Jerca Legan
Making Her Up
Gojko Bervar
Freedom of Non-accountability
Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin
Serving the State or the Public
Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin, Marko Milosavljević
Media Policy in Slovenia in the 1990s
Breda Luthar, Tonči Kuzmanić, Srečo Dragoš, Mitja Velikonja, Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin, Lenart J. Kučić
The Victory of the Imaginary Left
Matevž Krivic, Simona Zatler
Freedom of the Press and Personal Rights
Karmen Erjavec, Sandra Bašić-Hrvatin, Barbara Kelbl
We About the Roma
Tonči Kuzmanić
Hate-speech in Slovenia
Darren Purcell
The Slovenian State on the Internet
Breda Luthar
The Politics of Tele-tabloids
Marjeta Doupona Horvat, Jef Verschueren, Igor Ž. Žagar
The Pragmatics of Legitimation

Marjeta Doupona Horvat, Jef Verschueren, Igor Ž. Žagar
The Pragmatics of Legitimation
The Rhetoric of Refugee Policies in Slovenia

eBook (374kB, pdf)

When in the beginning of 1992 the war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina, »the refugee tide [....] swamped our moral obligations as well as the capabilities of an economically exhausted Slovenia« (Delo, 28 April, 1992). Even renowned intellectuals of leftist political orientation cautioned that Bosnian refugees make us face »the choice between humanitarianism and accountability to our own country (so that we do not end up as a ‘dumping-ground for the leftovers of ethnic cleansing’)« (Delo, 30 March, 1993). The refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina were reportedly ‘causing more and more disturbances’, they ‘disrupted the habits of local population’, ‘increased tensions between nations’, were ‘potential criminal offenders’, not to mention the fact that their health was ‘already seriously undermined’ so we could not rule out the ‘outbreak of smaller-scale epidemics’, and that their ‘civilizational and cultural level and behavioral patterns were different’. Do you find this somewhat familiar? Looks as if it were taken from yesterday’s newspaper, doesn’t it? And yet all of these characterizations date from the time we were preparing the first edition of The Rhetoric of Refugee Policies in Slovenia eight years ago (first published in book form in 1998). But make no mistake, these labels referred to Bosnian refugees, and not to illegal immigrants, illegals, immigrants, emigrants, asylum seekers, aliens, or the peculiarly Slovene category ‘prebežniki’ that ‘exert pressure on our borders’ today. This extraordinary strain on Slovenia’s borders is accompanied by an interesting transformation and recasting of the historical account: Bosnian refugees, whom eight years ago the media and some state institutions described using the same disqualifying terms (see above) as they use for illegal immigrants in Slovenia today, suddenly turned into ‘our people’. Of course they are ‘ours’ - after all, we used to share the same country (although eight years ago the ‘argument’ in use was quite the opposite: even though we lived in the same country, we are not obliged to accept them). But they became so much ‘our’ that the media virtually never use the term ‘refugees’ for the illegal immigrants in Slovenia today, regardless of the fact that the use of the term is in accordance with the un Convention on refugees and the definitions in the Geneva Convention. Suddenly, only Bosnian refugees deserve to be called ‘refugees’, that is, only those who fled from the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina[1]. Words carry weight so refugees can only be people who flee from something. And that ‘something’ must be palpable and unambiguous, which the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina certainly was for the Slovenes, if only because it was geographically so close. Refugees also enjoy some inalienable rights guaranteed by international laws and international conventions. This is another fact that the Slovenes learned through the long years of media debates on Bosnian refugees (even though when writing the Asylum Act Slovenia conveniently modified these conventions to suit its own needs).

In short, refugee is a term that is almost too loaded with meanings. Ergo, it cannot be attached to anyone, particularly not to the unknown, uninvited arrivals with ‘vacant gazes’ and ‘unknown intentions’ who sneak into the country on all fours covered in mud and dirt. Those cannot be other than prebežniki[2] - note how relentlessly precise is the authentic folk diction here - people who fled to Slovenia for unknown reasons and intend(ed) to continue their journey towards the most frequent destination, the West. Prebežniki thus became a label for the category of people who found themselves within the Slovene territory almost accidentally, by mistake one could say, and in doing so they violated Slovene laws because they crossed the border illegally. Slovenes obviously do not want to see that prebežniki, the same as refugees, flee from something and seek refuge. This is confirmed by the fact that out of several terms available, they chose the one that places stress primarily on chance, instability and shortness of their stay in Slovenia. A semantically very close term ‘pribežniki’ did not meet with wide acceptance precisely because it too explicitly implies that one has arrived at the destination and therefore intends to stay there[3].

Nevertheless, the term ‘prebežniki’ retains at least minimal reference to the destiny and situation of these people who mostly flee from a politically or economically uncertain future in their home country. By contrast, ‘illegals’ (ilegalci) classifies them as members of a criminal underground. Illegals are primarily people who have committed some illegal or unlawful act, that is, people who have violated laws in some way. And the term ‘illegals’ in no way alludes to the fact that such a person seeks refuge fleeing from something. One who sees these people as ‘illegals’ only sees them as violating laws and therefore eliciting corresponding treatment, which implies forceful methods and special means.

It is somewhat surprising that among the widely accepted terms used for the people who illegally cross the border is the term ‘foreigners’ (‘tujci’ in Slovene)4. Of course they are foreigners, as much as anybody else is who crosses the border legally with a valid non-Slovene passport. Foreigners - a legal category - always existed and they always will do. And foreigners are both people possessing a valid passport and those without it. If such a general and until now neutral term suddenly starts to be applied to people who illegally cross Slovenia’s borders, then it unambiguously indicates some basic uneasiness and ambivalent attitude of the Slovenes towards foreigners in general. As long as they arrive in Slovenia with valid passports in their pockets they are acceptable and we proudly talk of traditional Slovene hospitality. But as soon as they ‘sneak’ into Slovenia scrambling through some muddy ravine in an attempt to reach the West, this traditional hospitality shows its other face - intolerance and resistance. Another term for it is xenophobia. Of course, Slovenes try to avoid this term. As we have already pointed out in connection with the term refugee, words carry weight which is occasionally too heavy.

Words also have their own history and meanings independent of those we are willing to ascribe to them. Some time ago, the Republic of Slovenia, which is supposedly a social state governed by the rule of law, and a state that signed (all?) international conventions on the protection of human rights and refugees, established the Center for the Removal of Foreigners. For those whose blood has not boiled at the reading of these words, or who find such a choice of the name completely natural, let me explain a few things: usually one removes pests, dirt, rubbish and waste, then stains, fruit skins and stones, but also tumors and other useless ‘parts’ of the human body. In short, we remove things that are not only redundant or obstructing our way, but we also want to get rid of them beyond any doubt and once and for all. One could almost say that we want to eradicate them from the face of the earth. Societies that consider themselves civilized, or want to be seen as such, usually do not remove people. Somehow it appears bad taste, and it has also been highly unfashionable/unpopular at least since the end of the WWII - to name only two reasons in case nothing more essential or rational has come across your mind. No doubt many criminal organizations deal in removal of people, but governments, at least most of them, do not belong to this type of organization or at least they do not want to. The unwanted foreigners are usually ‘deported’, a (legal) term that has been widely in use implying a forced departure from a country. After all, they could as well be returned or turned back, or something like that. However, removal suggests that the most likely places they could be found after such an act is dustbins, sewers, or even some free floating fumes.

Slovenia obviously does not remove unwanted foreigners in such an absolute and total way. And, of course, what we have here is just a minor awkwardness in choosing and using a specific term. But this is precisely what I would like to draw attention to: when state-appointed merchants-in-words begin to take pleasure in their business, when they begin to see verbal equilibristic and ventriloquism as something natural, not just their professional task but as something they are and something they are called upon to do (‘and nobody else does it as well as they do’), or something they are qualified to do, the meanings inherent to words become dependent on their wish and their will exclusively. Anything else is awkwardness, misunderstandings, and insinuations. Yet if, despite all, we give in just another fraction and allow that ‘removing foreigners’ is only clumsiness or misunderstanding - doesn’t the utterer’s ‘clumsy’ choice of this particular word say more about what he/she had in mind and actually wanted to say, than if the words were carefully weighed? Doesn’t this misunderstanding suggest other readings of the message?

Yet I am afraid that ‘removal of foreigners’ does not point to any clumsiness or misunderstanding but to an increasingly obvious global, indisputable and profound conviction that, after all, we are not all equal. Proof comes from a seemingly different sphere of activity: in the search for solutions of how to put to use fats, which are a by-product in the processing of waste parts of potentially ‘mad’ cows into bone meal, there was a downright serious proposal that it should be used to make soap for less developed countries. Make no mistakes, this proposal originated in Slovenia. Very innovative, one could say, given the fact that some EU countries quite open-heartedly suggested that BSE infected beef should be exported to countries struck by famine. This would probably produce some beneficial demographic effects too.

Therefore, we are still (and increasingly so) “we” vs. “others”. Foreigners. And that is the reason why we decided to reprint this book.

Ljubljana, 10 September, 2001
Igor Ž. Žagar

1 The Slovene word for a refugee is ‘begunec’. It is derived from the verb ‘bežati’ (to flee, to run away from danger, escape) and the noun ‘beg’ (flight, escape). In contrast to the English term, it does not place stress on ‘seeking refuge’.

2 Prebežniki is derived from the verb ‘prebežati’ meaning to ‘arrive in another place by fleeing’. In contrast to ‘bežati’, where the implication is ‘run away from danger’ (see note 1), ‘prebežati’ does not imply any specific cause for fleeing; moreover, it is commonly used in the sense ‘defector’.

3 The essential difference between the two terms stems from the prefixes ‘pre’ and ‘pri’ when combined with verbs. While the former suggests chance, instability, shortness, the latter points to intention, permanence, duration.

4 Although the term (illegal) aliens is often used in English in similar contexts, the Slovene ‘tujci’ is closer to the English ‘foreigners’.