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“Since the beginning being present in the field I rejected to be called a humanitarian worker. I am not. I am a citizen. I am a woman. I am a feminist. I am a scholar. I am a journalist. I am a human being and I believe that I have a duty to respond in the way I have responded”Sara
This is how Sara In accordance with our interview partners’ wishes their names have been partially anonymised in this article. , a very vocal supporter of migrants’ rights based in Sarajevo, described the way in which she views her engagement in the struggle of migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). Her self-description makes it clear that the position she finds herself in is a complex one, as is the field of her engagement: The struggle of people on their way to Western Europe on the so-called Balkan route. In 2015-2016, the Balkan route, which was then “open” as a formalized corridor (Beznec et al., 2016, p.4. Kasparek, 2017, p.43), was at the centre of Western European attention. It was not only politics and the media that focused on the people moving towards Western Europe. There were also myriad groups, organizations, initiatives, and individuals showing their solidarity and support for these people in the places they arrived, as well as along the Balkan route (Cf. Hameršak, 2021). This attention faded after 2016, parallel to the EU’s efforts to integrate the Balkan states into its border regime, thus pushing the border southwards for refugees entering EU-territory (Cf. Hess and Kasparek 2017, p.67). Today the situation for refugees on the Balkan Route, which is characterized by long periods of waiting, enduring, and violence at the borders, is only debated in public when there are acute humanitarian catastrophes like the recent fires at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos (Greece) and at Camp Lipa in BiH (Cf. DW, Tagesschau). Despite the absence of media coverage, the struggle of migrants goes on and is especially visible in the regions around external EU borders. People are still moving. Support and solidarity structures have changed but they are not gone.
In this text, we want to take a closer look at how, after the long summer of migration (Cf. Kasparek and Speer, 2015) and away from western European publicity, people act in solidarity and connect with each other to form transnational networks of support for people on the move This is the way our interview partners referred to the migrants along the Balkan Route. The term is also used in literature regarding migration.. We will focus on the topic of collaboration between very different actors in the field of migration support. The starting point for our engagement with this topic was a student research project lasting two semesters, dealing with “Humanitarian landscapes and civil society in the Balkans”. The geographical focus of our research was the Bosnian-Croatian border region, but the field can be understood as one where people of different nationalities and citizenships are engaged, building networks quite literally across multiple borders. This is an important distinction, especially in the context of the Balkans. Therefore, it is impossible to properly examine the topic using a clear and distinct physical locus. Additionally, having started in spring 2020, it quickly became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic would have a tremendous influence on our research, shaping both our methodological approach and the content itself. Compelled to conduct our research from a distance, we could see that the pandemic has an increasing influence on the dynamics at the EU’s external borders and on the practices of groups and individuals who are supporting people on the move. We decided to make a virtue of necessity and see the pandemic as our central lens to get insights into the constantly adapting landscape of solidarity with migrants. Our research took place in a dynamic field, in which a myriad of, sometimes seemingly dichotomous, actors, networks, actions and agendas come into contact with each other, clash and interweave. As the above quote from Sara shows, this complexity is not only due to the variety of actors we met, but can be seen as a result of the different and often overlapping social roles and positionalities of those actors. To grasp this, we understand our field as a ‘contact zone’ (Cf. Pratt, 1992) – a social space where different histories and interpretations meet and shape each other.
At the beginning of this research project, we tried to focus on a very specific geographic area, the Bosnian-Croatian border and its migrant hotspots, Bihać and Velika Kladuša. But already, in the pre-research phase, we had to acknowledge that the field is hyper mobile and takes place in multiple online and offline spaces: migrant support does not only happen ‘on the ground’ – for example in the form of medical aid – but through advocacy work, on social media, etc. At the same time, even the work on the ground is shaped by the more or less constant movement of people. Rather than focussing on one locality we began instead to follow practices and actors. Georg Marcus describes this research practice as central to ‘multi-sited ethnography’ (Cf. Marcus, 1995). In order to understand the effects of Covid-19 in the Bosnian-Croatian borderland, as well as ongoing bordering practices, and the role of solidarity groups, NGOs, civil society organizations and (inter)national activists, it is necessary to take a step back and contextualize them in a broader historical and geographical framework.
The Balkans and the EU border regime – a place of in-betweenness?
The so called Balkan Route, that became known as such during the long summer of migration 2015, connected the Mediterranean states of Turkey and Greece with Western Europe via the so called Western Balkan states. Scholars in migration studies have shown that what has been framed in public debates as a newly developed “infrastructure of mobility” (El-Shaarawi and Razsa, 2019, p.2), is actually based on networks that are decades old (Cf. Beznec and Kurnik, 2020). Hameršak et al. (2020, p. 16) point out that since the late 19th century there have been multiple infrastructural projects, such as the Orient Express or the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity in former Yugoslavia, which have facilitated mobility along the Balkans. During WWII there was a huge movement of people fleeing from Western European countries to Turkey and the Middle East. During the wars of the 1990s following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, many people sought refuge in Western Europe, travelling using existing infrastructure and building networks that still exist and are used by migrants today.
Maria Todorova describes “the Balkans” as “semi-colonial”, highlighting the historically uneven power relations that have structured the relationship between Western Europe and the Balkan states (Todorova 2009, p.16). In hegemonic discourses, “the Balkans” are often referred to as a bridge between the West and the orientalised East. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, ‘lagging behind’ and ‘transition’ have become the dominant narratives in Central Europe describing the Balkan region. According to Horvat and Štiks, the “concept of transition as an ideological construct based on the narrative of integration of the former socialist European countries into the Western core actually hides a monumental neo-colonial transformation of this region into a dependent semi-periphery” (Horvat and Štiks, 2015, p.16).
The nation states that emerged from the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation have been in the process of becoming EU member states, each achieving different levels of status – from full EU, Schengen and Eurozone member states like Slovenia to candidates like Serbia and potential candidates like BiH (Cf. Stojić Mitrović et.al., 2020, p.15 ). These processes, while opening up the possibility of becoming an EU member state in the long run, lead to a top-down integration of these countries into the EUropean Border and Migration Regime, as well as the adoption of the so called Schengen acquis (Cf. Stojić Mitrović, 2019).
The result is a geographically stretched borderzone, encompassing countries from the southern edges of the EU, over the Balkan countries to central and northern Europe (Cf. Santer and Wriedt, 2017. Hess and Kasparek, 2017). Since 2016, European border and migration policies include an increased securitization and externalization of EU external borders, leading to systemic (chain)push-back Chain push-backs are an illegal practice where people are pushed back across multiple countries and borders. practices BVMN, 2020b. Jalušič, 2019). Countries like Serbia, BiH, and increasingly Montenegro fulfil an important role in the EU border regime. As one of our interlocutors stated, they became “dumping grounds” for people on the move (see also Hromadžić, 2020); they are part of the EU border regime while not having any decision-making position within it.
However, people on the move also co-produce the political landscape via their continuous movements. They react to changing border zones and the closure of routes, opening others and showing a high degree of flexibility (Cf. Rydzewski, 2020). As migrant routes change and move, so do solidarity groups, NGOs and activists (Cf. Borton, 2020, p.40). Our interview partner Valentina, who is working for the NGO NoNameKitchen, explained their mobility in the following way: “We just go where the needs are. We moved to Šid because people on the move were telling us, ‘Sarajevo is getting too dangerous, everybody is moving in the north’”. The dynamics of border struggles along the Balkan Route has created a series of “bottleneck”-like places (Beznec, Kurnik, 2020, p.38) along the EU’s external borders, where people on the move are stuck. The Bosnian-Croatian border is one of these places.
Post-war landscapes: International interventions, humanitarianism and re-traumatization
The field of civic migrant support in BiH is shaped by the presence of actors – individuals, groups, and institutions – that often operate on a transnational level. In order to understand the nature of transnational collaborations and conflicts, we must take a closer look at BiH’s history in terms of the influence of international intervention (Gilbert, 2020). Since the wars in the 1990s, the Western Balkans and especially BiH have been confronted by a tremendous amount of international organizations on their territory. The impact and traces that international intervention has left among the population and the socio-economic environment of BiH can still be felt. On one hand, international organisations were among the main and best paying employers for part of the Bosnian population. On the other hand, people were often only contracted for short periods of time under precarious conditions and offered limited project-contracts, which lead to what Baker calls the “projectariat” (Baker, 2014, p.92). Jennings analyses this situation as part of a “peacekeeping economy” (Jennings, 2010). The working opportunities that international organizations offered, mostly to educated English-speaking Bosnians, came with the constant reproduction of hierarchies among the Bosnian population, but also between the ‘international’ and the ‘local’ workforce. The often paternalistic, humanitarian, and depoliticizing attitude of international organizations towards BiH (Cf. Coles, 2002) was also mentioned and criticized by our interview partner Sumeja, a Croatian person who is working for an NGO on the Bosnian-Croatian border: “In the wartime it was very hard and they [the Bosnian population] also had these international interventions, like UN and helpers and so on and first of all they came too late and then they had this colonizer attitude. (…) I think this frustration is from even that period, war period, and till now nobody was held responsible and nothing changed too much” (Sumeja). The complicated dynamic between the international organizations in BiH and their reception by parts of the local population becomes clear when listening to a Bosnian activist and journalist, who works with people on the move, during an online Book presentation:
For us [people in the Western Balkans] this is deeply re-traumatizing, not only these push backs, (…) for us we are surviving what we had to survive in the 90s. The volunteers will not bring the change. (…) Please just open the borders. Don’t do anything else. Don’t send humanitarian aid. Don’t send donations. Don’t come to the Balkans to be part of this. Open the borders and give us equal chance”.Ahmetašević, 2021
While it is extremely important to mention the hierarchies present in the field and the power dynamics unfolding in what can be called the Europeanization of the Western Balkans (Wedel, 2001), it is also important to highlight that the biographies of the people involved in providing support were also highly transnational. It appears to us that it is even more productive to look at the way different actors perform in different situations and how they reflect their possibilities of representation. A person could frame themself as a ‘local’ while simultaneously following an international academic career. Alternatively, one could be a former refugee from the war in the 90s and now volunteer in BiH for an international organization, switching between being ‘local’ and being an ‘international volunteer’. Similarly, someone could present themself as an activist while writing or producing journalistic content. The ‘fieldwork’ (that is what most of our interlocutors called their work as volunteers in BiH) is “kind of performative”, summarizes one volunteer at the Bosnian-Croatian border, who is contemporaneously doing research.
Digital networking: From physical distance to digital closeness under Covid-19 conditions
As briefly mentioned above, some actors in the field of migration solidarity work decided to step into the digital sphere, due to limitations caused by Covid-19 and its effects on the mobility of people and goods (for this topic see i.e. Guild and Bigo, 2020; Coronavirus and Mobility Forum; Manolova and Lottholz, forthcoming). While digital networking is nothing new among activists, journalists, and researchers, from spring 2020 onwards, we witnessed a huge increase of webinars, streamed panel sessions, workshops, social media content, etc. As a lot of people were limited in their activism concerning border areas, various activist groups and NGOs tried to amplify the voices of those who were in the field via streaming. They chose to use digital platforms to keep each other updated on the situation, generate donations and connect with each other. The pandemic was partly also seen as an opportunity to bring various actors together and build new connections as well as to initiate debates (see for example: United we talk).
There are a few keywords that we might associate with our research, but there is perhaps one image that is especially characteristic of it: little windows with faces in them, arranged in a display. The headsets and earphones, the variety of backdrops (some more professional that others), the technical struggles of connectivity, were all symptomatic of this way of interacting with people that was quite unusual for us as anthropologists. This was a situation that we had to get used to during our research project. When we started our project in March 2020, we still hoped to be able to visit the ‘geographic’ field of our research, BiH. We started doing the first interviews as video conference calls, assuming they would be part of our preparation – our pre-research work – to be continued once we were in BiH. As it became increasingly clear that being in ‘the field’ was not only difficult for volunteers and activists at this time but affected us and our research planning as well, we began to keep our eyes open for the opportunities these research circumstances allowed. When it became clear that this research project could not be done in a ‘typical’ anthropological, ethnographic way, involving in-situ field research, the challenge we faced then turned into an opportunity to get in contact with actors we probably wouldn’t have had the chance to talk to otherwise due to their geographically dispersed locations. Certainly, conducting the research from a distance prevented us from grasping the everyday practices – the almost invisible acts of everyday life – and what we will, inspired by our interlocutors, call ‘hidden solidarities’. By this they mean acts of solidarity by ‘locals’ in their everyday life practice without being part of a group or organization. It prevented us from viewing the interactions of solidarity workers with the people on the move and the dynamics among the volunteers. But, as already mentioned, NGOs and solidarity work for people on the move partially shifted to the digital sphere and so did we: We participated actively and passively in several webinars, panel discussions, workshops, and video talks organized by various NGOs and initiatives regarding the situation of people on the move in the Western Balkans. We did not delimit our ‘digital field’ in advance but mainly followed the lead of our interlocutors. In doing so we shifted from a classic form of ethnography to what could be called “netnography” (Cf. Kozinets, 2010). What Kozinets points out regarding the research method of netnography could easily be applied to this research project: “Across academic fields, netnography has been found immensely useful to reveal interaction styles, personal narratives, communal exchanges, online rules, practices and rituals, discursive styles, innovative forms of collaboration and organization, and manifestations of creativity” (ibid, p.3).
The circumstances dictated by the pandemic generated an awareness among us of the inseparability of the online and the offline sphere of the field. Hence, we incorporated Covid-19 not only as a lens to look at the field but also as a tool for shaping our methodology. We did several online interviews and informal talks with fellow researchers and people engaged in migrant support. In addition to this, we took part in online workshops and panel discussions as an opportunity for participatory observation. Nearly all of the interaction between our research partners and us took place face-to-screen-to-face. Approaching the Covid situation as a method meant dealing with physical distance while creating a digital closeness.
The effects of the pandemic-management on practices of solidarity
“The State of Emergency now in force in many countries of the region is a basis for the continuation and reinforcement of social inequalities and unfortunately is already serving as a rationale for the further stigmatization and repression of the most unprotected among us. But this exceptional situation must not become an excuse for continued politics of exclusion, restriction and expulsion, suffering and distress”.TRANSBALKANSKA SOLIDARNOST
As the quote above points out, the institutionalized measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 can be read as an enforcement of the European border and migration regime’s already existing and practiced politics of exclusion. In BiH, a variety of repressive measures have been adopted that target the mobility of people on the move and the support for them (Cf. Lipovec-Čebron et al. 2020; BVMN 2020b; BVMN 2020c). While ‘campization’ (Kreichauf, 2018), has been a common practice of (Eu)ropean countries for years, our interview partners pointed out that mobility for people on the move was relatively easy in BiH until march 2020. Migrants used institutionalized camp facilities located close to the border areas as springboards for border crossings, which are cynically called ‘the game’ by migrants and solidarity workers. “In BiH, most of the camps were open camps and they did not initially have detention camps, but with Corona all the camps became detention camps. In BiH, there was really a pressure to push all the people on the move in the camps” explained Marijana Hameršak, who is a researcher for the topic of migration in the Western Balkans. The declared state of emergency in BiH led to a militarization of the camps, with the implementation of police forces at entrances preventing people on the move from leaving the camps, and simultaneously denying access to international NGOs (Cf. BVMN, 2020a). Besides the eviction of informal camps and squats and the concentration of people on the move into camps, there has been an ongoing ‘borderization’ on a national, cantonal and communal scale. Cantons like the Una-Sana Canton and municipalities like Velika Kladuša ban people on the move from entering their territories (Cf. Infomigrants.net; BVMN 2020c). This practice was already witnessed before Covid-19 but increased during the pandemic, as Marijana Hameršak pointed out. “There was this decision from August 2020 to not allow migrants to go to Una-Sana Canton. So, a few hundred people were stuck in Otoka and they were not allowed to go to Una-Sana Canton, not allowed to go to Sarajevo, not allowed to go to Republika Srpska. So, in a way they were stuck. They were unwanted from every side” (Marijana).
Despite the attempts to concentrate people on the move into camps during March and April 2020, there have been ongoing border crossings and pushbacks throughout the lockdown. This led to an almost paradoxical situation: People on the move being mobile, although in a reduced way, and crossing nation-state borders, while a large number of volunteers, activists, and donations coming from outside, usually moving without larger restrictions, were stuck without admission to BiH.
NGOs reacted and adapted to the situation by increasingly relying on the local population and people on the move in the activities that are usually carried out by volunteers. They rely on local activists for the distribution of humanitarian aid by granting them access to the warehouses and financial resources. As one interview partner working for an NGO in BiH explained, “[…] when she [a local volunteer living in Bihać] was alone during Corona we would give her the keys to the warehouse where all the donations were. So, we shared with her and another woman whatever we had. We also share information, (…) she informs us about many things that we don’t know because she is part of the local community” (Sumeja). Besides this, NGOs increasingly include information coming directly from people on the move in their periodically published reports about pushbacks and human rights violations. Whereas before Covid-19, the people writing the reports were volunteers on the ground, now they use different means, such as Facebook groups, to gather information from the people on the move. Communication and networking between NGOs, associations, researchers and groups, both locally and internationally, is shifting to social media due to travel restrictions. One can see how different means and techniques of research and representation are (re)used or newly developed. Our interlocutor Bojan, an activist and scholar in the field of migration, who also deals with this issue, resorted to other ways of visualising the situation on the ground.
Mobility restrictions for volunteers and activists, alongside the criminalization of migrant support, had dramatic effects on the infrastructure of solidarity in BiH, especially throughout spring 2020. Our research demonstrated that international organizations are highly dependent on local networks of solidarity. These local acts of solidarity and cooperation are mostly invisible in the public sphere. Only a few local initiatives and activists dare to stand up in public due to the criminalization and the violent reactions towards solidarity with migrants, that often include threats and physical as well as psychological violence (Cf. Frontlinedefenders, UN). Sumeja explained the tense situation for local solidarity workers and highlighted the importance of what she calls ‘hidden acts of solidarity’. “Many people are usually scared from authorities and from other local people who have an anti-migrant approach and they are hiding, but they are helping in some other way. Like, if somebody is passing [near] the house, they put a cable with electricity outside the house to charge the phones” (Sumeja). As well as providing direct support for people on the move, locally based supporters of NGOs are essential for the communication between the local communities and international actors, such as volunteers. NGOs often rely on informal information channels, for example regarding police controls so that they can be avoided while engaging in activism. “Everything runs through private contacts. The reason we are probably less targeted by police repression than other organizations is simply because we are probably better connected with locals. And they are again better connected with authorities or the cops and in this way, we are better protected” states Lukas, who since finishing his studies volunteers for the Austrian NGO SOS Balkanroute operating in BiH.
Many NGOs working with international volunteers collaborate with locals to provide so-called “white cards”, a type of tourist visa used by volunteers during their stay in BiH. All volunteers we spoke to pointed out the high obstacle they face to be granted the status as a registered humanitarian worker in BiH. For this reason, local supporters rent houses and warehouses for the NGOs and their volunteers providing them with “white cards”. The strategy to pose as tourists when confronted with the police is quite common among volunteers and activists, but it is not the only strategy they have developed. As we have already shown, activists and volunteers can perform different roles according to their necessities. A volunteer explained it as follows:
“Before I came, all the volunteers were registered as tourists. But a week before I came the chief inspector in the office suddenly wasn’t happy with the story anymore, so we changed it. And the story was that we are guests [of a registered NGO] and we had the paper explaining that we are guests. And that’s a grey area, because what does it mean to be a guest. And they said, ‘No, but you have to explain what you are doing’. And then I was saying: ‘Look, we are just young experts, for example I am a researcher…“Danjel
“Nobody is saving anyone”- Lines of reflection and differentiation in the field
With the multiple and very differently positioned actors of migrant support in BiH working together, different perspectives and values meet and sometimes clash. As shown above, there is potential for conflicts that these actors have to deal with. Concerning this, we got to know our research field as one in which individuals and groups are very aware of their positions and constantly reflect on them. In the following section, we want to introduce three central dimensions of reflection: The differentiation between ‘international’ and ‘local’ supporters; the positioning of one’s own work between charity and solidarity; and the position of supporters in relation to people on the move, especially concerning the whiteness of activists.
The ‘internationals’ and the ‘locals’
During our conversations with activists and volunteers, a theme that frequently came up was the differentiation between ‘local’ and ‘international’ supporters. The relevance of these categories has to be understood against the backdrop of massive international interventions in BiH, which took place during the Yugoslav wars and their aftermath. As shown above, this has had a lasting impact on the image of so-called ‘humanitarian aid’, and on how the work of organizations engaging in migrant support is perceived. Our interlocutors used these categories to draw attention to an inequality of options for action, privileges, and power. Sara, who lives in Sarajevo but is frequently active in the border region, states:
“My opinion on international volunteers, and I was one of them, is very …different, I think. Based on experience, I very often ask myself: ‘What are they doing?’ Are they just helping to preserve the status quo? I mean, put it this way: Are we talking about solidarity or charity? Charity does not help. Solidarity has some potential. […] Often they [international volunteers] don’t understand that they are coming from very privileged positions. And even when they are in the field, they’re still keeping, unaware often, their privileges with them. And sometimes I feel it is not fair, not fair to all the local population, it is not fair to people on the move”.Sara
In particular, the volunteers’ citizenship of EU-member states is often mentioned as a privilege. The term ‘internationals’ is used by our interlocutors to differentiate between those activists that live in BiH or close to the Bosnian border, who do usually not draw on the structures of professionalized NGOs to a large extent, and those who come from abroad with an NGO and stay for a limited amount of time. We observed that the categories of ‘local’ and ‘international’ can blur and can be ascribed by others. One of our interlocutors, Sumeja, is active at the Bosnian-Croatian border and is from Croatia. She works with NoNameKitchen, an NGO that is very active in the Western Balkans. Sumeja describes how, even though she is a citizen of an EU member state and part of an international NGO, she lives close to the EU external border and, as someone from “the Balkans” who shares the language with people in BiH, often acts as a translator and mediator between international volunteers and local population or authorities in the border region. In one of the conversations we had with her, she reflected on the way in which she positions herself in relation to the field, and how in comparison others, in this case journalists, attribute a different role and function to her as a ‘local informant’. In this way, it becomes clear that her own positioning as ‘local’ and ‘international’ is situational and that both categories can interweave.
Regarding the cooperation between ‘international’ supporters and the activists and initiatives based in BiH, we noticed differing interpretations of its effectiveness. Lukas describes a close cooperation between ‘local’ and ‘international’ supporters, which he experienced during his period as a volunteer, that made the work of the NGO in BiH possible in the first place:
“Since the NGO has been active on the ground, there has been a lot of cooperation with locals, especially with locals who are actively involved in the support of refugees. There are people we know very well who have been delivering food and clothes every day for three years. What people do there is really good. We work very closely with them and also try to support them financially or logistically.”Lukas
On the other hand, the issue is sometimes seen as creating ambivalence: While acknowledging the potential for effective cooperation, interlocutors raise the concern that ‘internationals’ ‘crowd out’ the local supporters. Here, again, activists seen as ‘internationals’ are expected to critically confront their privileges and to tactically use them in order to cooperate in a productive way with ‘local’ activists and initiatives.
Whiteness as the privileged social position of supporters
The effects of supporters’ own whiteness in the field is another central narrative that we found in their self-reflection. When it comes to the relationship between activists and people on the move, we noticed that our interlocutors reflect on structural inequalities of the field by applying a critical lens to racial power dynamics. Ilka, an activist and scholar who has been active in different places along the EU border multiple times, comments on the inequalities she perceived:
“[…]some German comrades were leaving in an empty van and it was like three people in a whole big car […] and they could have taken people, and take them to Germany and we just couldn’t. Any of this saying goodbye moment and looking how three of my friends are leaving but 20 of my friends are staying […] I think I just couldn’t bear this whiteness. […] I was quite in a bad position when you’re on the border and you’re trying to support people but then it really comes in this position ‘another white person, another privileged person giving out things’ […] it’s so hard to be together and to be equal in this position because you are not equal”.Ilka
In her anecdote, the uneven social positions of supporters and people on the move are made visible. We noticed the omnipresence of whiteness and privileges influencing the interactions while working ‘on the ground’ to be a central line of reflection for the activists we spoke to.. Categories of distinction and the hierarchies that come along with them change and reset according to the situation. So, while there are inequalities and discrimination between EU-citizens and locals from the Western Balkans, this power gap becomes less important when related to racialized categories of otherness applied to people on the move. Sumeja shows this, in the context of her whiteness, when she speaks about her migration experience, comparing it to the experience of people on the move: “Well, I am a migrant but I am a white migrant so it is fine for me […]”. Our interlocutors emphasize the importance of reflecting the dimension of uneven power relations between actors in the field. They demand this reflection not only from themselves but from other volunteers and activists as well.
Between Solidarity and Charity
Very closely linked to both topics mentioned before, we were confronted with the distinction between solidarity and charity. This ties in with the narratives and differentiations that we have already mentioned, and relates them to the discourse around humanitarianism and charity. Sara terms “solidarity” and “charity” as a distinction between support seen as transformative, and humanitarian aid, viewed as “preserv[ing] the status quo” (Sara). The latter has been extensively discussed in the notion of humanitarianism (see e.g. Walters, 2011. Ticktin, 2011). In our interviews it became clear that the activists were indeed very aware of the pitfalls of humanitarian forms of engagement.
Walters describes the ‘humanitarian government’ as:
“[…] a complex assemblage, comprising particular forms of humanitarian reason, specific forms of authority (medical, legal, spiritual) but also certain technologies of government—such as mechanisms for raising funds and training volunteers, administering aid and shelter, documenting injustice, and publicizing abuse on an argumentative basis of moral and human rights […]”.Walters, 2011, p.143
The practices of NGOs present and involved at the borders in BiH can be seen as an echo of this arrangement. The characteristics mentioned by Walters can be found in their work, no matter which organization or initiative. But, while the people we spoke to do explicitly frame some of their practices (for example the distribution of food packages or medical care) as aid, they make it clear that it is always connected to political work aimed at structural change. Hence, as Hameršak shows in her research on border-violence reporting practices of NGOs in the Western Balkans,
“(…) reporting seems not as contradictory to the humanitarian assistance, but in a way provoked by that assistance and even a necessary precondition for further provision of that assistance. (…) [F]or solidarity driven groups reporting comes as a form of non-complying with the context in which they participate by the logic of humanitarian involvement”.Hameršak, 2021, p.11
It is possible to break up the dichotomy of aid or charity vs. transformative activism: “[B]lending between providing aid and denouncing violence is one of the hallmarks of new forms of humanitarianism, influenced, among all, by the human rights discourse that dominated the moral sphere of the liberal international order of late 20th century” (Barnett, 2011, p.195-212 in Hameršak, 2021 p.10). While some supporters clearly distinguish between ‘political’ work (for example, advocacy or reporting practices) and fieldwork on the ground, both categories go hand in hand and are understood as steps towards one goal. To get a deeper insight in these assemblages of humanitarianism that we encountered, we found it to be productive to look at different scales and meanings given to humanitarian acts by our interlocutors. While studies on humanitarianism often focus on the larger scale humanitarian work of international NGOs (see also, Fassin, 2012; Ticktin, 2011), Brković contrasts these with the concept of “vernacular humanitarianism” (Brković, 2017). The term refers to locally rooted “practices of help that are called humanitarian, although they do not fit with the work of organizations and agencies such as the UNHCR, Medecins Sans Frontiers, World Vision, Red Cross (…) or their local partners” (Brković, 2017). The digitalized nature of our field research led us to focus on NGOs and the people associated with them and prevented us from exploring what some of our interview partners call “hidden solidarities”: everyday actions of local residents of the border regions that are nearly invisible, yet helpful to people on the move. Nevertheless, we observed that even members of NGOs interpreted their actions within a frame of everyday support and solidarity rather than as top-down acts of charity:
“I mean these people are six years on the route, they survived everything, with me or without me they will survive. Nobody is saving anyone. […] What we try to do is to support someone who is in the need and on the move. I also don’t want to support them in a way: ‘okay, stay here and live from my mercy and my help’. It is just the same like a man is riding a bicycle in front of my house and he is thirsty I give him a bottle of water. This is what our support is. He is not depending on me, and I don’t pretend to think: oh, they are depending on us so I will save them”.Sumeja
Here, the “help” given is framed as a casual act. The autonomy of people on the move is highlighted and victimizing narratives are rejected. The blurring of the line between aid and grassroots activism goes along with a flexible use of the formalized structures of NGOs, as explained by Jovanović (Cf. Jovanović, 2020), and loose network practices. Although our interview partners acknowledge the criticism of NGOs – that they often have a paternalistic and humanitarian agenda; are often bureaucratic and hierarchically structured; and do not grant the flexibility that activist networks are able to offer – for different reasons they decided to found or join various organizations. Among the most common explanations we heard was that the visibility and the infrastructure of formalized NGOs grant a certain safety for the volunteers, especially with the ongoing criminalization of solidarity. Hanna, a German activist that we met shortly before her trip to BiH, stressed that while she is used to working in “left-activist networks”, she and her friends decided to found an association to be able to collect donations and give donors donation receipts. On the other hand, she reflects the risk of being expelled from BiH as an organization, while if she was there as a single activist, her expulsion would not put in danger the solidarity work of the rest of the group. It can be seen that people active in migration support use the infrastructure of NGOs and less formal groups strategically and are, to a certain degree, flexible in their identification with them and their own positioning.
The closure of international and national/local borders, together with the criminalization of independent support for migrants in BiH, and the institutionalized measures of disease prevention, has greatly effected the field of migration and migration support. It has changed the environment of solidarity in a way that caused some actors to become more visible in the local sphere, while others decided to move to digital spaces. Especially during spring 2020, international NGOs were not able to be as present at the borderzones in BiH with their volunteers as they used to be. They instead had to rely on connections and networks on the ground – with locals and with people on the move – for information and for action. These networks of solidarity were mainly established through personal connections. The way in which activism and migration biographies have become transnational, shape the way solidarity work is done. We recognise the need to adopt different perspectives to reflect on the multiple positionalities, identities and roles that we encountered in the field of migration support in BiH.
The field of migration has increasingly been influenced by non-state actors. Especially during and after 2015, a myriad of NGOs, activist networks and other groups (both formal and informal) were founded to express solidarity with people on the move. While a large number of volunteers who are active at the external border zones of the EU come from the West, there have been local (infra)structures of solidarity for migrants reaching back decades. What our student-research-project shows is that there cannot be a clear separation between “western-based” solidarity structures and local ones. In the field, different actors are connected through transnational networks and cooperate with each other (see also Greenberg and Spasić, 2017).
As our planned excursion ‘to the field’ had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, we began to shed light on how solidarity work with people on the move was affected by the Covid-19 response. In fact, the pandemic affected our research as well as the work of volunteers and political practices. In particular, the multiplication of borderzones, governmental attempts to immobilize migrants, and the criminalization of solidarity with migrants intensified under the mask of the ‘state of emergency’. To respond to the current situation, NGOs developed strategies that partly included a broader net-activism and net-working. Covid-19 has definitely had, and continues to have, disastrous effects for people on the move. They are often excluded from access to appropriate hygiene and medical services to protect against infections. Regarding support structures, we found some (rare) potentially positive aspects of the pandemic: it helped to increase and improve the cooperation of diverse actors. This collaboration, and the deepening of networks, has a lot of potential for shaping a landscape of transnational solidarity with people on the move.
We have demonstrated how personal networks of activists and volunteers have enabled the fieldwork of NGOs to continue during the pandemic. During the research, it became clear that the field of solidarity work is highly transnationalized, and actors have developed a deep and critical knowledge of the field of international migration. The people we spoke to combined local solidarity actions for people on the move with political claims, showing their knowledge about the complex space of power relations, particular interests and entangled effects. Many solidarity workers are thus in some way ‘experts of migration’. In fact many are active on different stages and different scales, including journalism, academia, political activism, etc. and strategically choose on which scale they want to act and how to present themselves to their audience in order to reach their goals. Hence, the field of migration support in BiH is characterized by negotiations, conflicts, and alliances. It can therefore be understood as a contact zone where hierarchies are contested and where people fight for change.
For us it was an interesting and instructive experience to work on this topic in such an unusual way. Although we could definitely not illuminate every aspect of the field, especially not the characteristic dynamics of personal/physical interaction in the field, we had great and informative interviews and chats with our research partners. We want to thank them for their productive cooperation. This article is intended as an acknowledgement and an appreciation of their important work.
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- Interview with Valentina (online) June 2020
- Interview with Sara (online) September 2020
- Interview with Sumeja (online) September 2020
- Interview with Marijana Hameršak (online) September 2020
- Interview with Ilka (online) December 2020
- Interview with Hanna December 2020
- Interview with Lukas (online) January 2021
- Interview with Danijel (online) February 2021
The images were kindly made available by Bojan Mucko. All rights are reserved by the photographer.
|↑1||In accordance with our interview partners’ wishes their names have been partially anonymised in this article.|
|↑2||This is the way our interview partners referred to the migrants along the Balkan Route. The term is also used in literature regarding migration.|
|↑3||Chain push-backs are an illegal practice where people are pushed back across multiple countries and borders.|