03/12/2013 09:00 am ET Updated May 12, 2013

Erased and Forgotten

One of the most remarkable and disturbing aspects of the Erasure in Slovenia was that it took nearly a decade before it became a public issue. After the country became independent, roughly 1 percent of the population lost their residency in the country practically overnight. Thousands were deported. Many were sent to detention centers. And they were practically forgotten, erased not only from the administrative records but from the consciousness of the Slovenian majority.

When Jelka Zorn was doing ethnographic research for her social work degree, she visited a Slovenian detention center with the intention to write about asylum issues. She was taken aback when the head of the center asked her, "Do you want to talk with our foreigners or foreigner foreigners."

Our foreigners?

With that one visit, Zorn stumbled into a world that only Franz Kafka could fully appreciate. It wasn't just a nightmare that issued from a bureaucrat's pen -- it was a nightmare that had been going on for nearly 10 years.

"The scene was really terrible at the detention center," she told me in an interview in Ljubljana last October. "Some people there were on medication -- no wonder. I had coffee with one man, and I asked him how I could help him. 'You can cry with me,' he said. This shows a state of resignation, that they had nothing to hope for. They told me, 'We worked here for years. We gave our best years here. Now, look where we are? Six beds to one room.'"

She decided to switch her research topic to the Erased and do everything she could to publicize the issue. Around the same time, the Erased themselves were breaking the silence, starting organizations, and campaigning for their rights.

"It's quite remarkable that in a small country like Slovenia something like this could remain hidden for a decade," Jelka Zorn told me sadly. "When we started to tell students that they had to make interviews with Erased persons, they said, 'But we don't know any Erased people!' In the end, though, it turned out that everyone did know someone. This shows the level of oppression. If the Erased weren't so oppressed, they could have gone out and talked about their situation and journalists could have written about it. But there was such a heavy sense of oppression. Not everybody who experienced the Erasure wanted to talk about it. Some people believed that talking about it would make it worse."

Talking about it eventually led to public campaigns, legal cases, and a European Court of Human Rights decision in favor of the Erased. It's a story of a wrong that is now, finally, being righted.
I talked with Jelka Zorn about what brought her to the issue of the Erased, her involvement with the famous Ljubljana squat called Metelkova, and the economic challenges that currently face Slovenia. I've also included, below that, excerpts from an earlier interview from 2008.

The Interview

How did you first get involved in the Erased issue?

We were angry that the borders were closed and that asylum seekers were being terrorized and put in detention centers. Slovenia was becoming part of the Schengen system, so this oppression became more and more normalized. Every day there was news about how many "illegals" were caught by the border police, detained or deported. I felt terrible about this. I felt that we should be supporting migrants and refugees, not oppressing them. So, we tried to organize something about this.

I decided to do my Ph.d on issues pertaining to the asylum system, including detention centers. I was doing ethnographic research, meaning that I got involved with people whom I met at the asylum home and the detention center. When I first came to the detention center, well, I had some problems. The head of detention didn't say, "Welcome, please do interviews!" They didn't want me there.

When I first came to the detention center, the social worker asked me, "Who do you want to interview? Our foreigners or foreigner foreigners?" And I said, "What do you mean, our foreigners?" Then she introduced me to four people who actually spoke Slovene or Serbo-Croatian. I didn't understand what was going on.

I got sick due to the stress I experienced in this mad situation. I had a temperature all the time. It is also true that I was stressed because I was worried that I would lose my job if I didn't do the research within a certain period of time.

One of the first of erased persons I met during my research in detention centre said to me, "They are sending me to Montenegro. I was Erased. Look at these papers. I'm a sportsman. I ran a club here in Slovenia. Now they want to send me back to Montenegro!" The scene was really terrible at the detention center. Some people there were on medication -- no wonder. I had coffee with one man, and I asked him how I could help him. "You can cry with me," he said. This shows a state of resignation, that they had nothing to hope for. They told me, "We worked here for years. We gave our best years here. Now, look where we are? Six beds to one room."

I also had a friend living here from Croatia. She had a terrible problem getting papers. She was not a refugee. She just wanted to move here for personal reasons. I helped her with the papers. This took five or six years! She moved to Slovenia in 1997, and she got Slovene citizenship last year (in 2012). This was such a struggle. She's very good at describing her feelings. Through her, I got to know how it is to come here from ex-Yugoslavia how people were treated administratively and what consequences this had for their life. She could best integrate into Metelkova. All other places and scenes were full of obstacles (of an administrative or emotional nature, such as prejudice).

Her experience helped me to understand the situation of the undocumented in general, among them the Erased.

During the research period I met Aleksandar Todorović, the initiator of the movement of the Erased, at a round table on European integration. Instead of talking about integration, I took "border" as a departure point. Some of the asylum seekers attended the round table with me, and we were talking about the conditions at the asylum home and detention center. That's when I met Aleksandar Todorovic, who could immediately link their stories with his own.

One of the problems was also that 10 years after the Erasure still nobody knew about it. Only the movement of the Erased changed this cultural anesthesia and ignorance. The good thing was that Jasminka Dedić and myself got a Soros grant for research. We both applied for the same topic -- exclusion from citizenship status. Jasminka worked on the legal side and I did interviews.

Also we felt a strong need and obligation to tell the wider public about the Erasure. The silence surrounding the erasure was terrible. One woman said to me that she tried to explain her situation to her friend one time, two times, three times, but her friend didn't understand and at the end of the day "thought it was my fault."

Somehow we had to let the public know. We tried to do as many roundtables as possible. The anti-racist community gathered around Metelkova immediately understood and started to act on issue. And so the movement began.

The word Erased -- izbrisani -- where did it come from?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.