When it comes to immigration debate, there are only two types of people – those who have never feared a border control officer and those who have.
Perhaps it’s a cliche to say that one can no longer imagine Europe with borders but I can and very vividly.
In August 1989, my father took us on a trip to Vienna. The actual journey did not take very long at all – less than an hour in our mustard coloured Zhiguli. The journey from the contemplation of the trip to obtaining the visa? Four months of statements and proofs that we had the right amount of money allowed by the socialist state and that we weren’t planning to abscond. Not to mention the fact that my father had to sign the dreaded clause: ‘he would lend his services as an informant should the need arise’.
His worries did not end there, the border officers were checking our car inside and out as if we were major drug smugglers. It is then I developed that strange mixture of fear and trepidation every time a border is passed – feeling like a criminal though I have not done anything.
Little did we know that a few weeks later the world will watch the ‘Velvet Revolution’ unfold. The border wires snapped open and people were able to walk through freely, without a fear of being shot or hounded by dogs.
My fear of crossing did not stop completely and, rightly so, I was caught smuggling large amount of Hungarian sausages on a bus crossing into Czech Republic – this was after my native Czechoslovakia split to two countries. Even after I emboldened and found my way to international universities’ circles I was still very much aware of the power of border control – I will never forget when my beautiful Moldovan friend was mistaken for a ‘striper’ and held up the bus for full two hours.
My most dreaded memories, however, relate to queuing up for visas at British Embassy in Bratislava. The name of the street where this queue normally formed was ‘Panska’ – very appropriate when you think of it translated as ‘for those of high class’. I don’t have the stats but it appeared to me that in 1990s only a small percentage of young people successfully obtained the visa. The questioning was tougher if you were a woman – God forbid if you wore a good lipstick. The worst thing you could say was that ‘the purpose of the trip was to visit a male friend’. Looking for work opportunities was equally bad and so was not having enough money to sustain yourself during the planned ‘sightseeing tour’.
I could go on but “why dwell in the past?”, I hear my daughter say. “We have heard it million times how hard you had it when you were growing up. The world has has changed. It’s all open borders now, we can go anywhere we want.”
But can we? Will we? What about our relatives who live abroad if Britain really exits? Will they be able to visit? And what about those people stranded in refugee camps? When will the wires snap for them?
As I see my kids grow up surrounded by the world in turmoil I do not take our freedom for granted. I am becoming certain of 3 things:
1. every generation will revisit the fundamental questions we thought we had cracked a long time ago;
2. we must not always assume that we ‘have learnt’ and things are going to turn out for the better;
3. we are never too far from a ‘tough border control officer’.
Panic? No, just a good old Central European realism.