Migrations, then and now
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A leading writer of Serbian modernism, Milos Crnjanski was born just north of what is now the Serbian-Hungarian border. Haunted by themes of exile and migration, much of his writing resonates with the experience of migration in the Balkans today.
Published in 1929, Migrations is set on the Habsburg military frontier in the 1740s, an area which is now part of the Western Balkans migrant route north to Germany and other northern European Union countries. The novel tells the story of two brothers who have left their native Serbia to escape the domination of the Ottoman Turks. Cold-shouldered in the Austrian dominions of Empress Maria Teresa, their goal is to settle among the Slav peoples of Russia.
Crnjanski writes: ‘He was tired of migrating, tired of the restlessness that plagued the people he led as much as it plagued him. If he left the army, he would have to join his brother and travel as a tradesman from town to town, his daughter in tow; if he remained in the army, he would still be forced to travel, his duty being to pacify the migrating populations.’
Today, migrants are trying to use the Balkans as a route to the EU, but have been blocked at the border between Serbia and Hungary. Belgrade has been described as a ‘new Calais’ because of the numbers of migrants gathered there. Migrants are left with a quandry: to try to settle where they are would mean giving up on the dream of a prosperous life further north.
What can Crnjanski’s novel tell us about the migrant experience today? What does it mean for the Balkans when that these countries are now seen only as escape routes, not as potential places to settle permanently? Should our sympathy for the dreams and experiences of migrants affect our policies towards them?