Accession to the European Union, followed by increasing flows of immigration over the past ten years, has led to a wide ranging discussion on the hospitality of Croatian society towards newcomers – from EU citizens to economic migrants and refugees. While most Western European societies have not had recent experience with migration flows caused by conflict, Croatia has.

Fifteen years ago, Croatia came out of one of the most ruinous modern wars, one that created huge numbers of refugees and economic immigrants originating mostly from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Numerous Croatians have emigrated to Western European societies obtaining refugees status and/or enjoying employment and education opportunities. This experience could have led to self-reflection on politically forced and economically motivated movements of people, yet there has still been a rise in xenophobic sentiment within Croatian society.

Public judgment and fear of immigrants with different physical appearances surfaced after the war in the 1990s when a small community of Chinese people moved to Croatia and launched dozens of clothes shops and restaurants in several bigger Croatian towns. Epithets of ‘hoarding yellow ones who came to take our jobs and sell cheap clothes’ –  despite making up only 0.03% of the Croatian population – have followed them every step of the way and maybe even influenced the visibility of that group.

The deeply rooted prejudices and stereotypes of ‘others’ repeatedly occur towards economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Local inhabitants of Stubička Slatina organised major protests against the opening of an Asylum Seekers’ Shelter, claiming the asylum seekers would bring them diseases, steal their jobs and commit serious crimes. They could not accept anyone interfering with the way they lead their lives in their community. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor has shown its face again on the same matter when inhabitants of two towns, Kutina and Zagreb the capital, organised petitions and protests against ‘criminals, thieves, blacks, Muslims, disease carriers’ and many European societies witness similar sentiments in relation to migrants [1].

The ability of societies to overcome xenophobic and racist sentiments to build up multicultural, pluricultural or intercultural societies on all structural and horizontal levels is rather low when bearing in mind the deep social differences and divisions nowadays with the crisis of modernity as well as the ideas and perspectives of social development that are shaken more than ever.

Overcoming difference in Europe

To what extent are societies able to overcome concepts of domestic people (us) vs. guests and newcomers (them)? Inspiring social and structural practices that lead us to more than co-existence with permuting cultural differences are not commonly seen in Europe. What can be seen are hazardous practices often called multicultural practices that are incompatible with the values of tolerance and mutual respect for ethno-cultural-religious diversity.  So called ‘integration policies’ have changed through the decades in some European countries that sought to encourage the distinctiveness of minority communities.

For that matter, many European societies, as well the Croatian society, are far from hospitable due to a lack of an acceptance of difference and fear of any reshaping of common habits and traditional homogenous social structures. Receptiveness towards future visible and non-visible cultural and other identities that could change the common way of living is a key of future development of European societies avoiding negative and exclusive social practices.

Assimilation and problems with integration

Integration, mainly seen as a positive, hospitable gesture, often means assimilation whereas multicultural practices within European societies are seen in traces and those intercultural ones almost do not exist. A recently published report on racism and Islamophobia in Europe by ENAR – European Network against Racism, claims that the majority of European countries have fears that Muslims will not accept local customs and therefore they have chosen an approach of assimilation as a way of integration.

Assimilation stands for the process of adaptation by individuals and groups who must adopt their customs, norms, values and social characteristics to that of the ‘receiving’ society and become culturally absorbed by the dominant society. This one way process burdens an immigrant while the role of the state is to provide insurance in the mechanisms to ensure efficient and quick adoption of the dominant culture. This mechanism does not ensure full structural assimilation such as full access to political rights, decision making and acceptance to institutions of dominant group. Assimilation does not recognise cultural differences whereas it does when it comes to deeper involvement in society.

Integration should be, on the other hand, dynamic and multilateral creation of conditions for receptive societies and individuals, from lifestyle to cultural identity. It requires constant and wide ranging approaches in shaping and allowing full participation of ‘guests’ in the social, political, economic, cultural and civic spheres.


Multiculturalism, as opposed to assimilation, refers to a social environment where ethnic, cultural and religious minorities co-exist within society as distinct communities and where politics encourages this distinctiveness (Indian and Pakistani communities in the UK, Turks in Germany, and North African people in France etc.). Some argue that multiculturalism is a radical social project which aims to cut ethnocentric strings and promote the inclusiveness of the unprivileged through civic and citizenship rights. However others believe multiculturalism falls under corporative managed pluralism and the decolonisation of global cultures. The modernity and non-modernity of multiculturalism practices are reflected in these contradictory approaches of multiculturalism, with concept of egalitarianism easily slipping into assimilation.

Multiculturalism recognises cultural and ethnic pluralism as well as rights of different social groups to keep their cultural specificities. From that perspective, multiculturalism can be perceived as a positive practice, opposite to exclusiveness and assimilation, advocating for co-existence of minority groups with dominant population. On the other hand, it often means essential support of cultural distinctiveness and invisibility, isolation and segregation of those minority groups. Many would argue that multicultural integration is a good approach which many European societies have proven well. However, there is an increasingly prevalent view that European multiculturalism is not working well, and not only due to the views of some leading European politicians.

Interculturalism: a way forward for Europe?

Somewhere between these two poles, assimilation and multiculturalism, occurs the concept, discourse and desirable practice of interculturalism aiming at an open models of culture, dynamism and dialogue. Interculturalism, sometimes called transculturalism has been kept mostly within the academic discussions being described as a complementing tolerance model – a model of a high ethical tolerance towards individual choices with no tolerance towards social exclusiveness, negative treatment and totalitarian ideas. It is founded on the ideas of critical questioning of an integration and social cohesion based on common values, equality of dignity and trust, loyalty and devotion.

The intercultural integration model approach is based upon open dialogue between individuals and groups of different ethnical, cultural, religious and language backgrounds requiring constant critical questioning of integration and social cohesion based on mutual values, dignity and trust. This model embraces the continuous changes of cultures and human interaction and goes beyond concepts of majority and minority, host society and newcomers. It requires deep reshaping of nation-state foundations and expansion of citizenship concept as well as dealing with homogenous societal structures.

The intercultural integration model could be a new approach, a good European experiment to create ‘salad bowl’ societies shaping opportunities for integration and articulation of different cultural expressions and pluricultural structures of hospitality in contrast to the assimilationist or multicultural integration policies of the past.


[1] Example: Movie ‘Everything White in Barking’, Mark Isaacs. UK, 2007

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