As tens of thousands of people took part in rallies to welcome refugees in several European cities on Saturday, the contrast between the attitude of many in Western European countries and their counterparts in Eastern Europe to the influx of migrants to the continent in recent months was thrown into sharp focus.
While rallies welcoming refugees took place in Western Europe, demonstrations opposing their presence took place in some Eastern European cities. About 5,000 people chanting anti-Islamic slogans marched in the Polish capital Warsaw, according to the BBC, while in Prague, about 800 protesters carried banners reading "I do not want refugees and Islam in Czech Republic" and "Protect the borders."
European leaders, such as Germany's Angela Merkel, have called for a united response to the refugee crisis, which would include mandatory quotas of people that each EU member state would have to accept. While some Western European countries, including the U.K., have balked at this idea, rejection of it in among countries in Europe's east has been almost universal.
Their objections are based in part on economic arguments, that as less economically developed nations, they are not as well-placed to accommodate refugees. There are also, however, large elements of ethnic and religious prejudice behind Eastern European nations' objections.
Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland all rejected the EU plan for quotas earlier this week. In addition, Slovakia's prime minister, Robert Fico, has said that his country will only accept Christian refugees, while Hungary's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has pledged to launch a crackdown on what he dubbed a “rebellion by illegal migrants.”
"We don't know who's coming here," Barnabas Kovacs, a restaurant owner in a southwestern Slovakian town that has seen hundreds of refugees arrive, told Agence France-Presse. "We're afraid of terrorism and disease," he added.
Eastern European countries, unlike their western counterparts, are largely ethnically and religiously homogenous -- since the extermination of their Jewish populations in World War II and later expulsion of Germans -- and have little experience in integrating migrants from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds into their societies. Poland, for example, is 98 percent white and 94 percent Catholic.
“The countries that have very little diversity are some of the most virulently against refugees,” said Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times.
There is little sign that Eastern European counties will moderate their stance in the near future. In Hungary, new laws will come into effect on Tuesday allowing authorities to jail refugees and migrants, and mooted legislation will see the army deployed and law enforcement given wide-ranging new powers, Al Jazeera reported.
European ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels Monday to try to break the impasse, but such a development, for the time being, seems unlikely.