What’s It Like to Have Refugees Stream Into Your Town?

Residents of a tiny Slovenian town are welcoming but have mixed emotions as tens of thousands of migrants flood into local roads and fields.

Rigonce, Slovenia was a quiet, bucolic town on the border with Croatia where farmers tended crops and neighbors greeted each other warmly in the street. That changed last week.

Overnight, the sounds of cows mooing, hens clucking, and tractors turning over the land gave way to the roar of military tanks, the buzz of bullhorns blaring commands in Arabic, and the endless whirring of helicopter blades.

Thousands of migrants—mostly refugees fleeing war and violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq—crossed over a bridge from Croatia into the town on their way to Germany and Austria. They had already spent weeks traveling by boat, train, and foot before reaching this spot. They’re weeks behind a flood of others who had passed through Serbia and Hungary. But when Hungary closed its border with Serbia, these later migrants changed their path, leading them to Rigonce, a town of 176 residents, most of them Catholic. Town officials estimate more than 70,000 migrants have passed through the village.

“This is a catastrophe,” said villager Janja Hribar, 19. “Our cows ran away.”

When they first started to arrive, the migrants streamed down Rigonce’s dusty main street, which is barely wide enough for two cars to pass. It is lined with about 20 houses and a few small gardens of lettuce and cabbage. The migrants discarded trash along the way, leaving the country road littered with plastic bottles, crumpled paper, blankets, and coats. This is a town that’s been a contestant for tidiest village in the county.

It overwhelmed the villagers, many of them from families who have lived here for generations. They came out of their homes, stood inside their fences, and stared in disbelief.

“This was a peaceful place with no problems,” said resident Branko Proselc. “We had all the things unlocked—cars, tractors, doors—we live by the border and there was never a problem.”

The temporary visitors crowded in a field behind barriers and a blockade of police in riot gear, waiting to be told to walk through the villagers’ fields, behind their homes, and down a road to buses to take them to camps in neighboring towns where they would, again, wait for space at camps in Austria and Germany.

<p>Alfonz Dvornik Martin is a resident of Rigone, Slovenia.</p>

Alfonz Dvornik Martin is a resident of Rigone, Slovenia.

Photograph by Ciril Jazbec, National Geographic

Many villagers tried to accommodate their guests. “I saw faces that were really peaceful and we really felt sorry for the families with kids,” Proselc said. He worked with officials to find a way to provide a sufficient supply of clean water to the migrants waiting in the field. They fill a tank by connecting it to a hose from a fire hydrant a few times a day.

But it hasn’t all been peaceful. There was a group of young men who were fighting.

“They were shouting and loud. They were bringing fear between the people,” Proselc said. “The families with kids were afraid of this group of people.’

Sitting on the cool, damp ground, the migrants and refugees huddled under blankets—as evening temperatures dipped below freezing. They burned trash and plastic to keep warm, adding to the wariness of some residents.

“At night, when they start burning plastic, it’s a problem,” said Stanko Vucajnk, 63, who is retired and lives with his son’s family in the home that abuts the migrant’s field. “I have a cough from the smoke. I had to get antibiotics. There should be a way for them to burn wood instead of plastic.”

Some villagers said they would harvest corn and wheat crops earlier than planned, due to concerns that the food would be destroyed or contaminated.

“We are all farmers. We live from this land. This is a small village,” said Albin Jurkas, 64, a retired Army officer. “ Some of these people are ill. They will bring some different diseases. This will all stay here and we can’t clean all of this—all of this trash.”

More than 700,000 migrants and refugees have made it to Europe since the start of 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration. On Sunday, leaders of Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, and Germany met with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and EU officials in Brussels to discuss how to better control the flow of migrants.

“We are not impatient to the people,” Proslec said. “We are not bothered by what nationalities they are. We don’t know if they will stay in the country or if they will go forward.”

Many in town have family who know what it’s like to be displaced. Some of the older residents of Rigonce, including Proslec’s father, were sent to work camps in Germany during WWII when their village was invaded.

Several of the villagers on the front lines, including Ana Petric, provided help for the migrants. Petric, a 57-year-old cleaning lady, had an NGO stationed in her fields cooking meals. 

 Anka Vucajnk provided warm clothing for children—and she says her 5-year-old son carried 11 liters of water out to the field before the hydration system was established. The kids weren’t able to go to school because the bus can’t drive down the street.

While most of the villagers in Rigonce didn’t express animosity toward the migrants themselves, they did get angry when talking about where the migrants just came from—Croatia.

“Slovenia and Croatia don’t have agreements or communication,” Jurkas said. “Croatia is sending big numbers. We were not ready and no one let us know that they would come. We were surprised.”

During the first days of the influx of migrants to this village, they came in the thousands, pouring out of trains and walking aimlessly across the Croatian border, confused as to where to go. There’s a small bridge that allows for river crossing but, initially, some were wading in wet areas spanning wide, walking without any kind of guide.

“If I would look 30 years back and 30 years to come, not as many people would pass through this village,” Jurkas said. “I hope it will end and go back, but right now this situation seems endless.”

Slovenia’s president and foreign minister have both talked about the possibility of erecting a fence along the border at Rigonce. But most of the villagers said this is not a solution. Some suggested the borders should be closed in Greece and Turkey. Others said the migrants and refugees should be allowed to move through Europe safely until they can get to Austria and Germany.

But they expressed concern when discussing reports suggesting that Germany will start repatriating migrants from Afghanistan in an effort to discourage them from fleeing.

“If Germany and Austria close the borders, we just can’t handle this mass of people here,” Proselc said. “There was a big fear at the beginning of how we would live with all these people if they stay here.”

And the future of Europe is top of mind.

“There are so many coming that I fear that the peace in the countries where they come would crumble,” Petric said. “In the future, this could bring things that won’t be so good to Europe. There are too many of them.”

Follow Meghan Collins Sullivan on Twitter.

Follow Ciril Jazbec on Instagram.

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