‘You like Iron Maiden?’

Matthew Porges

Parviz (not his real name) is an Iranian man in his early thirties, born in Tehran and now living in Ljubljana. He fled Iran after taking part in anti-government protests, which made him a target for the secret police. Like many Middle Eastern migrants bound for Europe, he spent time in temporary camps in Bosnia, waiting for an opportunity to cross into Croatia and then Slovenia. The first six times he tried to cross along the ‘Western Balkan route’, he was illegally pushed back by Croatian police, denied the right to apply for asylum, and dumped in a freezing Bosnian forest. The seventh time, he made it across the border, and was taken to a Slovenian police station along with around twenty other migrants.

The officer who initially interviewed him seemed bored and dismissive, but at the end looked up from his notes and examined Parviz – who has shoulder-length black hair and often wears T-shirts branded with the logos of bands – more closely. ‘Are you a metalhead?’ he asked. Parviz, who speaks English, said he was.

‘You like Iron Maiden?’ the policeman asked. ‘What’s your favourite song?’

‘Bring me a guitar,’ Parviz said. ‘I’ll play any Iron Maiden song you like.’

He was allowed to stay in Slovenia to have his asylum case adjudicated. The others, he says, were not.

For a migrant moving north along what is known as the Western Balkan Route, parallel to the Adriatic, getting into Slovenia means getting into the Schengen Area, which makes it a key border to cross for migrants trying to reach Western Europe. (Greece is in Schengen, but has no land borders with other states in the zone; Croatia is set to join in 2024.) According to Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, there were 60,541 ‘irregular’ border crossings along the Western Balkan route in 2021, the highest since 2016 and more than double the number in 2020.

I first met Parviz at a migrant collective in Ljubljana, in a smoke-filled basement where the group’s kitten, Comrade Nina, swiped at a sandwich held by one of the migrants as he lectured her in Arabic about table manners. Parviz went there almost every day – to play chess, drink coffee, get free legal advice, listen to music. In a sense, everyone in the room – there are maybe a couple of dozen people there on a typical evening – was among the lucky ones, despite the challenges they face in Slovenia. Many migrants are pushed back more than a dozen times, some in ‘chain pushbacks’ that can see them deported from Italy to Slovenia to Croatia to Bosnia, undoing potentially months of difficult, dangerous progress. They face violence along the route, mainly from local police but also from cold, from gangs, and even from bears.

There were as yet no Ukrainians in the collective and, given the bureaucratic expediency with which they were being received by the EU, there was not much sense they would need recourse to such a grassroots integration programme. At a tense meeting in the collective, several people spoke angrily about the different way Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion were being treated. It was, one man said, ‘completely racism’ as well as ‘really fucking rude’. Of the Slovenian government’s handling of the situation, he said: ‘Nobody gives a shit about how [non-Ukrainian migrants] sleep, how they live … Your social worker, always head down because they cannot do anything, and now you see everything is possible … If it’s possible for Ukrainians, it’s possible also for Iranians.’

There was a sense, though, that this could be a moment to push for change, that the pro-refugee sentiment in Europe, however temporary and conditional, might offer opportunities for broader reforms. In just one week, someone said, the asylum home at Logatec had been overhauled, with new mattresses and repainted walls. The money was there; for once, all that was required was political will. Last week, an open letter from residents at the Kotnikova and Vič asylum homes drew attention to poor living conditions and limited access to work. Expressing solidarity with Ukrainian refugees, the letter asked that the support being offered to Ukrainians should be extended to all migrants in Slovenia.

To point out that Europe is more welcoming to some refugees than others is not to question or to undermine the necessary solidarity being shown to people fleeing their homes in a time of war. A more interesting question is why this is happening. At the migrant collective, I listened to an Iranian and a Palestinian debate whether ethnicity or religion was the main reason Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed. Both are factors, of course, but there are others, too. Most men aged between eighteen and sixty are barred from leaving Ukraine, so the majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children. Welcoming them is framed in Europe as a key component of an ideological struggle with Putin’s Russia, an integral part of the war effort. And, assuming the war ends on somewhat favourable terms, the refugees are expected eventually to return to Ukraine.

The Middle Eastern refugees in the Ljubljana collective, by contrast, are all men. The wars they are fleeing are not framed as civilisational struggles in which Europe’s balance of power is at stake. They are not expected to return to Iran, Palestine, or Syria. For some of them, it is more likely that their families will eventually join them in Slovenia. And in any case, the sympathy being shown to the people fleeing Putin’s invasion does not apply uniformly to all Ukrainians. A Ukrainian friend of mine, who has worked in British academia for several years, told me he has fewer rights in the UK than people currently arriving from Ukraine. For many years before the war, reaching Western Europe from Ukraine often meant resorting to illegality. My friend described relatives and neighbours who had bought fake passports to enter the EU, and his cousin’s husband arrived in Italy hidden inside a cardboard refrigerator box.

Slovenia’s far-right prime minister, Janez Janša, is up for re-election later this month. His administration is unpopular, and has been so repeatedly rocked by scandals that it is difficult to imagine its having any other mode of operation. He has also taken the country down a quasi-authoritarian path, explicitly mimicking the Orban playbook. Janša, until now extremely hostile to immigrants, has gone out of his way to showcase his solidarity with Ukraine, even visiting Kyiv last month with the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic. He portrays himself abroad as a consummate Atlanticist, while domestically he pursues a familiar agenda of reactionary nationalism, illiberal populism and aggressive privatisation.

In the migrant collective, this was viewed sardonically. One of the activists rolled his eyes and told me to expect a nuclear-armed Slovenia in the near future. Nevertheless, there was also a sense of precarity, a feeling that the sympathy for Ukrainian refugees would run out. With so many things in flux, the window for positive change seemed to be open, but it wouldn’t stay open for ever.