National Geographic Society Newsroom

Europe’s Border Quandaries in a New Age of Exodus and Terror

Around the time of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on November 14, I was arriving at the airport in Zagreb, Croatia on a brief visit to observe the impact of the Refugee Crisis on border communities in the Balkans.  There was sobering sense of connectivity between the news flashing on my mobile about the...

A gnarled ivy trunk delineates a stark boundary on a wall in the old city of Zagreb, Croatia near the Museum of Broken Relationships. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali
A gnarled ivy trunk delineates a stark boundary on a wall in the old city of Zagreb, Croatia near the Museum of Broken Relationships. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

Around the time of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on November 14, I was arriving at the airport in Zagreb, Croatia on a brief visit to observe the impact of the Refugee Crisis on border communities in the Balkans.  There was sobering sense of connectivity between the news flashing on my mobile about the Paris attacks and the refugee predicament. Although the refugees are coming from far and wide, the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts have no doubt been the main spur of this epic migration. News that one of the Paris bombers had disguised himself as a Syrian refugee was likely to further complicate the quandary that confronts European countries.

Through the Schengen Treaty process, the Europeans have slowly begun to dissolve barriers to access along their political borders, as a remarkable testament to peace-building between erstwhile adversaries. Yet with the current crisis, the borders are again rising all across the continent.  For the Balkan states, that are at the front-lines of transitioning the refugees towards their “promised land” of Germany, the re-emergence of borders has a particular emotional sting. There is a sense of loss for many older citizens of how the former Yugoslavia had fallen apart, and so many of their own citizens had been relegated to being refugees. Borders had arisen then, and after much effort had begun to dissipate as economic expediency triumphed over ethno-religious tribalism.

The gradual accession of some former Yugoslav republics into the European Union (EU) and the Schengen system had again led to some border restrictions emerging. Slovenia had largely escaped the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, since its secession as a largely land-locked state of 2 million had proceeded largely unopposed by Slobodan Milošević. Therefore, Slovenia had been the former Yugoslav republic to most easily become part of the EU and indeed even the Euro-zone. The Croatian – Slovenian border thus has particular salience in the history of the Balkan conflicts as it was perceived to be the frontier where wars of the East ended and the peace of the modern West began.

Sadly, that peace is now illusory for East and West in what Pope Francis has ominously called a “piece-meal Third World War.” Razor wire is again being laid across the Croatian – Slovenian border and military vehicles can be seen patrolling the small border villages that speckle the gentle landscape. The modest hills in this region have been sculpted over millennia by the Sava River, which starts in the mountains of Slovenia; flows by Zagreb, forms the Croatian border with Bosnia; and eventually reaches its confluence with the Danube near the Serbian capital Belgrade.

The ecological connectivity of this region has fascinated me since I first visited the former Yugoslavia as a quarter of century ago. Subsequently, I have also co-taught an experiential learning course with environmental field educator Todd Walters in the Balkans, focusing on various conservation science and policy aspects of developing a peace park in the post-war border areas. I was thus keen to see how the fallout from the current conflicts was impacting this sensitive region. There was clearly palpable concern in the streets of Zagreb about the renewed “securitization” of the region. Protesters in the city centre held caricatured flags of the European Union replacing the circle of stars with a circle of barbed wire.

Refugees inside a police-secured camp in Dobovo, Slovenia – Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

The short 30 minute drive from Zagreb to the border crossing with Slovenia along a modern highway is still very active with commerce. Much of the refugee activity here is contained near the Slovenian border town of Dobova. I had no difficulty crossing the border in my Croatian taxi but access to the refugees was completely restricted. Driving past the large refugee tents erected by the Red Cross, we could see hundreds people being lined up, inspected and loaded onto buses. Volunteers from across Europe were working here. There were cars with friendly fliers welcoming refugees with German license plates. Slovenian paramedics were frequenting the local café and referred me to Facebook blog with latest updates on the crisis that had been set up by one of their colleagues Marko Gavriloski.

In such times of crisis, the passion and drive of volunteers deserves our foremost respect and often they are the ones who can inform the broader public and separate fact from fiction. The village residents of Dobova have limited contact with the refugees as I conducted impromptu interviews across the village that is otherwise known for its wellness spa and discount tyre shops. Impressions from the volunteers’ online postings reaffirmed the impression I got from conversations that many of the border village residents had a skeptical view of the refugee’s plight. Some of the questions people were asking included: “Why don’t the men just stay in Syria and Iraq and fight the ISIS groups?” “Why are they so well-dressed if they are running away from war?” “Why are volunteers buying cigarettes for them?” Gavriloski’s poignant article on the Slovenian site Delo, translated as “What is our Crime” also addresses some of the more prejudicial aspects of how residents are responding to this crisis.

No doubt the residents of a small border village cannot be blamed for feeling unsettled when hordes of foreigners descend on them from distant lands of conflict. Yet, the Balkans, and Europe more broadly, which has endured so much conflict within the last century itself can be expected to have empathy for those who are fleeing terror as so many of their own relatives did in the not too distant past.  As we drove by a large flag of  the EU near the border, I reflected on how remarkably bold an attempt to peacefully mend the wounds of the past, that flag represented.  Returning to Zagreb, I visited the city’s famed Museum of Broken Relationships. Borders and the human dramas that unfold upon them are emblematic of broken relationships and loss. All partings are traumatic and there should be no doubt that adjustment of these refugees will have its share of challenges.

There will possibly be some refugees who may not like what they find in Europe and be less willing to adapt. A danger of some infiltration of the refugees by enemy elements may also remain as with recent revelations of the Paris attacks. But these are risks which must be managed rather than used as an excuse for apathy. The wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and other nearby lands have multiple causes. Ethno-religious rivalries have been a common human failing and  accentuated in Islamic tradition by absolutist literalism and austerity of some Muslim sects. That is perhaps why some refugees are keener to move to Europe than to Saudi Arabia as many Western commentators have suggested, even though the Saudis  and other Arab states have absorbed more than a million Syrians in various migrant categories (often not registered officially through the UN system). The virulence of the ethno-religious conflicts in the regions from where these refugees are fleeing are also stoked by external influence, interference and perceptions of abeyance or injustice in the resolution of regional disputes. These refugees come from lands whose geographies have been crafted and re-crafted for political expediency by local and international forces.  As we consider a response to this tragedy, let us keep a sense of perspective about the loss and renewal that these migrations represent for our common humanity.

I would like to thank my driver Marko Gledec for his efforts during the border field visit for this article.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.