We Want Justice for Afghan Refugees Declaration of Afghan Refugees at the Vienna Refugee Protest Camp 2017
* This blog post contains a policy critique by the ROR-n editorial, written by Monika Mokre, and the full declaration published by the The Afghan Refugees in Austria of the Vienna Refugee Protest Camp 2017
By the end of August 2017, a four-day protest of Afghani refugees took place in Vienna. We publish here the demands of the protesting refugees as well as some background information on their situation.
According to UNHCR, „ the most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.“ (UNHCR 1977) This so-called „Non-refoulement“-principle is enshrined in Article 33 (1) of the Geneva Conventions on Refugees: „“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
The principle of non-refoulement also applies to people who are not refugees according to this definition if their lives are threatened in their country of origin. In this case, they are eligible for subsidiary protection when there are „substantial grounds for the presumption that they are at risk of serious harm in their country of origin and that they cannot take up the protection of their country of origin or do not wish to take it up because of that threat. Serious harm can originate from both governmental and non-governmental players.
The following are regarded as constituting serious harm:
To summarize: According to international law, EU legislation and national laws of the EU Member States, people must not be sent to a country where they are threatened by inhuman treatment or death. This is an individual right, based on individual situations which have to be assessed individually.
However, the Asylum Procedure Directive of 2013 (APD) opens up the possibility for Member States to define so-called „safe third countries“: (30) „A key consideration for the well-foundedness of an application for international protection is the safety of the applicant in his or her country of origin. Where a third country can be regarded as a safe country of origin, Member States should be able to designate it as safe and presume its safety for a particular applicant, unless he or she presents counter-indications.“ According to the Directive, this does not mean that individual asylum procedures will not take place for nationals of these countries, however, the European Commission stipulates: „Applications from nationals of countries on the Safe List will be fast-tracked, allowing for faster returns if the individual assessments of the applications confirm no right of asylum. This will:
Faster asylum procedures form certainly a valuable political aim; however, fast-tracking here means a fast negative decision. Both the safe-country-principle and the fast-tracking method stand in a certain tension with the individual right to a fair asylum procedure. After all, there are several countries in this world which are safe for some people but not for other ones, e.g. safe for white people but not for people of color or (in rare cases) vice versa, or safe for cis-gender or heterosexual people but not for homosexual and trans-sexual people.
In addition to these fundamental problems of the safe-country- principle, in recent years, the EU and its member states have applied a very broad definition of safe countries. Turkey is a case in point: In March 2016, the EU signed an agreement with Turkey allowing to send back all refugees coming to the EU from Turkey. According to EU leaders, this agreement is in full accordance with international and EU law. However, this assessment has been flawed from the beginning as Turkey only signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees but not the Protocol which means, inter alia, that only Europeans can qualify as refugees in Turkey. Furthermore, since this agreement has been signed, Turkey has frequently been criticized for non-democratic procedures and human rights-infringements. Accession negotiations with Turkey were, thus, once again stopped – but not the refugee agreement.
Even more surprisingly, Afghanistan has been dubbed a safe country by the EU already for some years. This definition only became relevant in fall 2016 as, at this time, the EU signed an agreement with Afghanistan promising 1.2 billion Euros in development aid until 2020 as an exchange for Afghanistan to take back deported Afghani nationals.  This agreement took place after Afghanistan asked in 2015 the EU Member States not to send people back due to the worsening safety situation there. And the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called the first half of year 2016 the worst in terms of casualties since 2009. Even the European Commission itself published in 2016 that it was „difficult to map out the safe areas due to the unpredictability of the conflict on the ground.“
The EU-Afghanistan-agreement makes it possible for EU Member States to send people back to Afghanistan – by deportation or by voluntary return. Whereas it should be noted that „voluntary“ in this case frequently just means that people prefer to go back voluntarily when the only alternative is deportation. However, obviously, the agreement does not oblige any Member State to send people back. Currently, three states carry out large scale deportations to Afghanistan – Sweden, Germany, and Austria.
Germany, however, stopped these regular deportations to Afghanistan for some months after a bomb attack on the German embassy in Kabul in May 2017. From this time until the end of August “only” criminals, and so-called “dangerous people“ were deported – it should, however, be mentioned that also these people should enjoy protection of their human rights. By the beginning of September, Germany re-started regular deportations.
In the last few months, Sweden and Austria have not changed their deportation practice. The Austrian government has thereby referred to an expert assessment by Karl Mahringer, CEO of several businesses active in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. His opinion has been contested in legal procedures, contradicted by other experts and does not correspond to assessments by the UN. Still, it is the base for return decisions to Afghanistan in Austria.
The deportation of people to Afghanistan stands in contradiction to international conventions signed by the EU and its member states and rhetorically held in high regard by them. Afghani refugees in Vienna protest against this politics threatening their lives and have published the following declaration:
“Honorable Prime Minister of Austria, Mr. Christian Kern, Leaders of the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and relevant authorities,
Since, the withdrawal of the international military forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 the security situation in the country has seriously deteriorated with increased civilian casualties and a growing internal displacement crisis in the country. The Taliban and the Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan now control more territory than at any point since 2001.
The deadly terrorist attacks on civilians in the past 8 months of this year 2017 and the inability of the Afghan government to ensure their adequate protection show that Afghanistan remains an unsafe country for refugees to be returned to. The capital Kabul has suffered the highest levels of civilian casualties, followed by Helmand, Kandahar, Paktia, Balkh and Nangarhar provinces. The other regions, where (high profile) attacks are not frequently taking place, are mostly overcrowded by returnees – especially those who have been forced to leave Iran and Pakistan. Even the relief help by International Organizations is not reaching and cannot cover sufficiently the suffering population and their needs.
On the one hand, Afghanistan is seen as a place where armed groups like the so-called Islamic State pose such a danger that the USA felt compelled to drop the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb and has forced the Trump Administration to announced a new strategy on 21 August 2017 that calls for more troops to combat Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan, Al-Qaida, Taliban and other terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the Afghan government is not capable of reducing harm to civilians, due to corruption and warlords’ control over key government security positions; civilians received higher levels of casualties, confirmed by various valuable reports issued by United Nations, Amnesty International and other international organizations.
While civilian casualties remain high, with women and children suffering the worst of the violence, we the Afghan Asylum seekers are forced to return to such a country!?
In issuing this declaration, we put forth the following demands and kindly request the concerned Austrian and EU authorities to respect our rights taking into consideration the international instruments, the EU conventions protocols related to human rights and refugees as follows:
1) Immediately put a halton deportations to Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is not a safe country.
Considering the volatile security situation of Afghanistan we demand an end to asylum decisions influenced by the inhuman commitment or agreement between the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the EU, which fundamentally violates the Convention & Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951, 1967). We - in collaboration with humanitarian organizations – emphasise that Afghanistan is no safe place for Afghans to return. We want the Austrian government to take a diverse set of official reports into serious consideration giving them a higher priority – and not only mentioning them, such reports as from UNAMA, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations from 2016/17 compared to singular assessments such as the Mahringer Gutachten,
We are convinced that it is necessary to consider the rise of casualties across the country in suicide attacks; bomb blasts, militant attacks, and rampant violence from both political and criminal elements which serve as a sign of the inability of the state to maintain the security of the vast majority of the population. In this light, we request that both the Austrian government and the European authorities review Afghanistan's safety and security situation anew and acknowledge that Afghanistan cannot be considered a safe country.
2) Immediately reconsider and reevaluate all asylum cases which were rejected based on singular reports – like the Mahringer Report -- as a Basis for Safe return to the Country. Presupposition: Afghanistan is not a safe country.
The Mahringer Report portrays Afghanistan – especially Kabul - as safe enough for a return. However, its assumption about safety rests solely on the major metropolitan centres. While, according to some estimates, there exists a perpetual war in thirty of the thirty three provinces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, today we can no longer speak of safe centres as the capital itself is a continuous war scene. Recently, Herat, Nangarhar, Kabul, Paktia, and other urban centres have become a target of the Taliban and Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan where not only military personnel, but also children and elderly have become victims of vicious massacres of civilians. The guideline of UNHCR for protection of refugees from Afghanistan (UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs of Asylum-Seekers from Afghanistan) has to be taken more seriously and consequently applied. The high amount of internal displaced persons and the lack of economic resources followed by the high jobless rate make a survival in Kabul and a new settlement of former refugees impossible and this procedure is risking their survival. The core of reasoning of the Mahringer report – the traditional supportive networks from former times, has been destroyed by war, conflict, poverty and corruption. Several reports dissent the Mahringer report – not only referring to his estimation of minimum income for survival at Kabul, but also the chances for returnees finding an accommodation or a job and getting support by a social network. Moreover, the networks of anti-government elements – such as the Taliban or the Daesh/Islamic State Khorasan and others are frequently underestimated, as they are acting nationwide in Afghanistan. Consequently, the persecution of concerned persons is crossing provincial borders – and so cities like Kabul cannot offer a safe alternative.
Furthermore, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is suffering from chronic corruption and internal divisions that perpetuate a state which propagates instability and insecurity. This has further deteriorated the condition of the average residents of Afghanistan. Therefore, it is a threat to the safety of Afghan asylum seekers to be deported to Afghanistan as the country poses a constant threat to the life of its inhabitants. According to the Convention on the Status of Refugees this is a ``well-founded reason`` to not return to Afghanistan.
3) Provision of qualified interpreters for both the initial interview and the appeal process
Lack of qualified interpreters has been a major source of misunderstanding and miscommunication which has led to asylum case rejections. It is necessary to have a clear oversight of interpreter staff in the initial interview process, as well as the appeal process in case of initial rejection. This means: adequate training and education of interpreters; ensuring adequate accountability of interpreters through secondary evaluation of the initial interview for appeal process (availability of audio recording and transcripts of the interviews for appeal reevaluation), and of course, has the asylum claimant been sufficiently informed in advance about the right to decline a specific interpreter due to biases perceived by the claimant.
4) Provision of Legal Support for the adequate understanding of refugee rights by the asylum applicant.
According to the Convention & Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951, 1967) ``a refugee shall have free access to the courts of law on the territory of all Contracting States.``(1951 Convention, Chapter II, Article 16) Free access must be interpreted as access to appropriate understanding and representation wherever necessary. Access to legal counsel for the initial asylum interview and throughout the process with adequate interpretation is a right. This right – affordable legal counsel - should be extended to the instance of the highest court.
We need more access to information and judicial advice in our native languages; a quicker handling of our cases; the recognition of our refugee status; and the right to family reunion on timely manner.
5) Provision of education facilities for children, young adolescents fifteen (15) years of age and older, as well as, young adults for better integration
It is commonly an accepted conclusion among scholars and professionals that integration is directly tied to education of children, youth, and young adults. It is to this end that we request that education – in public schools, as a necessary part of integration -will be available to all refugees – also for those who are over 15 years old and their compulsory school attendance has ended. Vocational training for young adults, as well as language classes for all ages are fundamental to a cohesive integration.
We will continue our protest until all deportations are halted!
The Afghan Refugees in Austria of the Vienna Refugee Protest Camp 2017“
 The background information was compiled by Monika Mokre of the editorial team of ROR-N.
 See e.g.:
By Niki Kubaczek
It has been two years that Germany's and Austria's governments opened their borders following the pressure of migration movements. Since then, a lot has changed, and not much for the better. Did the demarcations and enclosures of the nation states win once and for all? How does the present situation differ from the one of 2015? And what has migration got to do with social networks, affect and forms of commons?
On Friday 4 September 2015 thousands of migrants made their way from the train station Keleti in Budapest towards west and hundreds broke out of the so-called reception center, in Röszke. Multiple actions of support followed, which were then celebrated under the term 'welcoming culture' ('Willkommenskultur'). Suddenly, everybody wished to play a part in helping people to arrive or to get further, at least that's how it seemed. Here and there, pictures of furious police officers on the German-Austrian border fighting on the correct interpretation of the border management circulated in the media. Politicians and mass media had wild debates on the proper way of dealing with the cross-border movements. The European migration regime arrived at a crisis point. Borders that seemed unchangeable and unbreakable were suddenly open. A rupture took place, something new was happening.
Not new was the fact that movements along forbidden, illegalized, routes are often accompanied by immense violence, danger and exploitation. Living and moving as a refugee got a lot to do with living a life of crisis, in a state of exception, be it before or after 2015. Hence, what was new was not the fact that refugees suddenly lived under extremely precarious and dangerous living conditions. What was new that summer was the obvious crisis of the migration regime, not the bad living conditions of migrants and refugees. This means that the term 'refugee crisis' is quite misleading, when what is at stake is actually the crisis of the European border or migration regime.
Since then, the European nation states try to regain control over this migration regime crisis, that is, over the migration management crisis, at all cost. Restoring the image of normality is sometimes done through the exercise of repression and at other times through the construction of consensus. One moment it's humanitarianism and inclusion, a bit later it's suppression and state legitimized violence which serves as coping strategies. But invariably, these two sides work in parallel and simultaneously, with different intensities. The terms 'welcoming culture' and 'refugee crisis' are in this sense central elements of these nation state operations insofar as they decisively contribute to a very specific striating and stratifying of the multiple events of the summer 2015. As the term refugee crisis locates the crisis 'in' the refugees, thereby distracting from the crisis of the migration regime, also the term and imagination of a 'welcoming culture' establishes one specific perspective and renders other stories and histories invisible and impossible. The notion of a welcoming culture paints an image of national bodies and national cultures of generosity, that invites the Others, the aliens, the maltreated bodies and passive victims to stay. With the normalization of those terms, it seems as if it was up to a few national subjects, like Germany and Austria, and their generosity, to make the summer of migration happen.
This form of storytelling and history writing hides, not just accidentally, some of the most important points I wish to elaborate here. What initiated the opening of borders was not a national culture of welcoming, but first and foremost the self-determined and autonomous movements of those that were said they should not have been moving in that way but still did so. The cross-border movements that took place despite all the resistance only then brought into existence actions of solidarity, and support for flight and shelter. Therefore, migration didn't result from a supposedly pre-existing national culture of welcoming but the opposite, was it migration that produced those practices, affects, networks and ways of coming together, forms of commons. A certain sociality and economy bellow the grid of the nation state, fleeing from it and undermining it. What was later named and celebrated as welcoming culture - that is, the many and multiple practices of support and helping people’s arrival and moving further, as well as the resulting micro politicizations of the resident population - was therefore not the reason nor the condition, but the result and effect of migration.
This productive and inventive force of cross-border movements can also be read out of a letter written shortly before the summer of 2015 by representatives of the municipality of Alberschwende, a small village in Austria. This letter already implied the politicizing potential of migration: "It brews in the country, it rumbles in the municipality! Through our activity with asylum seekers, we got an insight in the insufficiency of the European asylum system (Dublin agreement). We are no longer willing to join the shoulder-shruggers. We, people on the ground, seem to be more progressive in terms of asylum politics than the discouraged and, in this case, dishonest 'high' politicians” (Gemeinde Alberschwende 2015). This means that not only the migrants were depending on local support, but also those local networks of support depended on the presence of the migrants: If these migrants had not come in the summer of 2015 with their stories, experiences, desires and perspectives, these networks of support would simply never have existed. The presence of those who traveled or fled enabled the support networks to hear new stories and histories. They heard stories first-hand, face to face, which they might have heard before through the mass media but had long forgotten behind other broadcasted horror stories.
Therefore, migration brought about a politicization of those that enjoy - seemingly naturally - the rights of the citizen through which a denormalization of the state and the nation took place, irrespective of whether the people affected by this politicization considered themselves as helpers, supporters, activists or voluntaries. Through these forms of connection and of support debates emerged on who should be able to live “here” and under which conditions. Who was to be considered “from here”, who should not be living under certain given conditions, and with whom one wants to live were questions that exceeded the limited realm of law. Instead, these questions were discussed in shock, quiet, shame or fury next to the toilet at the railway station, the sidewalk in front of the refugee camp, during a common dinner, or on holidays at the sea.
The present nation state model of distribution of rights and duties, which enables a relatively good life for some while deporting, incarcerating and criminalizing many others thereby making them even more exploitable, suddenly appeared as no longer the only option. Rather, it stood for what it is: just an alternative among better ones. Thus, the summer of 2015 revealed that political conditions are certainly not set into stone. "To question the state through the detour of immigration leads, in final analysis, to 'denaturalize' what is almost considered “natural”. As a consequence, the state (or that what is within it), infected as it was by a history amnesia, is getting historized again, which in turn means that we are remembered of the social and historical conditions of its formation" (Sayad 2015: 39).
De- and Renormalization
Since this summer of 2015, much effort has been invested in the renormalization of the migration regime. The fantasy of closing and opening of migratory routes proliferates as never before, as if the streams of migration could be opened and closed as a water tap. The ghost of integration is haunting the present as if Kanak Attack, Maiz, 1.März, the many Refugee Protest Camps since 2012, Non-Citizen Conferences, No-Border Camps, Refugee Forums, flight support convoys, smuggling networks, post-migrant theater, Sans Papiers occupations, and many more antiracist and post-national forms of cross-connection of the last years and decades never existed. However, there is something primal to those dreams of control, desires of integration, processing, and job creation that is worth remembering: a force against which to react, that should be governed; a movement that forever differently runs riot, gets carried away, and never lets itself be totally managed. It is a potentiality that will make the water tap leak again and again, no matter how many other taps or how much thread seal tape is added. This resistance, this force, that is continuously challenging government and management, was often referred to as the autonomy of migration. "If necessary, we will find loopholes over mountains, through villages, or through the jungle." 
The autonomy of migration does not primarily describe a kind of heroic practice that originates from just neglecting the existing obstacles and controls. Instead, the term autonomy is an attempt to understand the capability of braving control and confinement in a given moment only to escape in the next moment, to maybe come up with an unexpected story in another situation that is capable of distracting supervisors. Just as it is pointless to wrap migrants or migration in imaginations of pity and victimization, it is also absurd to heroicize and romanticize migration. Repeatedly withdrawing itself from representation and placement, migration is neither victim nor heroine. It is maybe both, but probably something completely different.
The cross-border movements of people that made their way to a given destination even though they supposedly should have stayed put, crosses as often well as not the secured border lines. Transport is at times expensive and at other times not, sometimes dangerous, other times funny, in one moment quick and full of hope, in the next tough, wearing, deadly and traumatizing. The movements of migration run along very different lines and realities - paths significantly affected by state obstacles, filters and barriers, as well as by violent or pleasant smugglers, by the availability of money, and by information and infrastructure. And all this, depends for sure much on one’s friends. The autonomy of migration lies thereby less in a romantic, independent heroism but much more in getting further “partly-in-common” despite all the opposition - “partly-in-common” because the networks of support are not homogeneous communities of unbroken solidarity and collectivity, neither are they free of exploitation and violence. Yet, the existence of these conflictual and ambivalent networks of support, care and exchange are the very condition to migration. Networks of exchange among migrants (in which, as mentioned above, here and there also non-migrants might be involved) are especially important here because they enable migrants to move faster or to arrive despite hindrance and deterrence. The summer of 2015 has shown us that it is possible that those not taking this governance of migration for granted, this distribution of rights, possibilities and affects, become more both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of differences. At the same time, the summer of migration contradicted this governing and this division in government and governed insofar as it referred to the fact that politics can never be the business of a few professional politicians but rather it is an ongoing work on the question of how we, who are here in this very moment, want to deal with each other and the problems we face together.
Whether migration is welcomed, exploited, included or criminalized, she will carry on by finding new paths; "if necessary“, as stated above by the person at the Belgrade train station. Its capacity to create forms of connection and of commons that perpetually produces social realities, different than those provided and prescribed by the nation state, is decisive for this resistance and persistence. Autonomy thereby lies in the creative and inventive force of uttering new social networks, narratives, and affective connections that repeatedly undermine, surround, besiege and put under pressure the enclosure of the nation state - whether it is revealed or concealed in a given historical moment.
Gemeinde Alberschwende (2015): Manifest Alberschwende URL: http://www.alberschwende.at/fileadmin/Download/Asylverfahren-Manifest_und_Aktivit%C3%A4ten.pdf [12.09.2016].
Kuster, Brigitta (2017): Europe's Borders and the Mobile Undercommons. In: Texte zur Kunst 105.
Papadopoulos, Dimitris / Tsianos, Vassilis S. (2013): After Citizenship: Autonomy of migration, organisational ontology and mobile commons. In: Citizenship Studies 17 (2). 178-196.
Sayad, Abdelmalek (2015): Immigration und »Staatsdenken«. Translated by Birgit Mennel. In: Birgit Mennel and Monika Mokre: Das große Gefängnis. Vienna: transversal texts.
 This text is based on an article published under the name dealen, schleppen, willkommenheißen - Kämpfe um Bewegungsfreiheit nach dem langen Sommer der Migration in the edited volume Der lange Sommer der Migration - Grenzregime III 2016 with assoziation-A.
 For more details, please visit f.ex. http://moving-europe.org/march-of-hope-3/
 This is my translation of the translation of a quote by an interviewee at the central bus station of Belgrade in the summer of 2015. https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article146507736/Wer-die-historische-Grenzoeffnung-wirklich-ausloeste.html
 For more information in this topic see Papadopoulos / Tsianos 2013 or Kuster 2017
by Lukas Milo Strauss
In the coverage of the EU’s self-proclaimed ‘refugee crisis’, some of the most widely circulated images in the Austrian news media concerned the ‘breaking through’ of refugees at the Austrian-Slovenian border in Spielfeld in October 2015. A few containers and mobile fences proved insufficient for containing thousands awaiting entrance under increasingly harsh conditions. The purported state of lawlessness made the successful management of Spielfeld's border crossing a top priority for Austria’s center-right government.
Consequently, the modestly equipped border post was enlarged to a full-fledged militarized camp. Replete with search lights, armed vehicles, the distant drone of a helicopter scanning the area with thermal imaging cameras and seemingly endless police barriers, it created a ‘state of exception[i]’ like no other state intervention at that time. The camp was conceptualized as a “transit camp”, meaning those newly arrived were only to be detained on a temporary basis. A bus service was established to forward the refugees to their next destination – usually the German border or the permanent camp at Traiskirchen – as quickly and uneventfully as possible. Large tents were set up to provide rudimentary accommodation. Bag searches and basic identity checks were conducted separately, whereas a full registration protocol was not in place until 2016.
I began fieldwork in the region in November 2015[ii], at a time when high-security approaches to border management were gaining prominence in the wake of the Paris attacks. Still, despite its militarized set-up and the presence of large numbers of federal police, Austrian Armed Forces, a private security company and the BVT (the 'Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism'), the camp also involved large civil organizations. Red Cross staff were responsible for providing medical aid, handing out pre-packaged travel provisions and beverages, while Caritas Austria handled clothing donations and the enrollment of lay translators. Also, an activist-operated mobile kitchen was striving to provide hot meals for all newcomers. All three non-state organizations relied heavily on volunteer labor. While the bulk of the workload was carried out by volunteers – usually middle-aged men and women from the region – professional NGO staff were charged with assigning tasks and supervising work routines.
The camp was organized according to a very tangible hierarchy. Refugee-internees and NGO volunteers were ranked at the bottom, NGO staff and contractors at the medium levels, while the higher echelons were constituted by members of the executive. This hierarchy for the management of large numbers of people in the camp assigned concrete and unambiguous locations and tasks to each group. For refugees, this meant staying in the tents until ordered to proceed to the food distribution or pick-up area, except when using the mobile toilets located in small, fenced-off areas on the sides of the tents. For volunteers, it meant having to pre-register 24 hours before starting their shifts and being subject to identity verification processes at two checkpoints upon entering the camp. Just like other camp personnel[iii], volunteers needed to be identifiable at a glance, with colored vests displaying a unique identifying number and their organization. Thus, their assigned tasks and appropriate location in the camp were also made visible. When working a shift, they were expected to stick to their assigned workplaces (food and clothing distribution counters or the kitchen) or a container designated as a common room for NGO staff. They should act only on orders and comply with an extensive set of rules that governed their conduct in the camp, especially their relationship to the refugee-internees. Personal contact was to be kept to a minimum, individual favors could not be granted and volunteers were to stay clear of the refugee accommodation and the border zone. Non-compliance could be punished with immediate expulsion, blacklisting the offender for voluntary work on a nation-wide basis and, incidentally, legal prosecution. Some volunteers were subject to non-disclosure agreements, preventing them from discussing any aspect of their work outside the camp.
The structured organization of the camp was reflected in an information hierarchy that provided camp personnel only with a bare minimum of contextual information. Kitchen staff received word only on whether they should continue their work or pause, and usually didn’t know how many people they were cooking for, or if the newcomers would be allowed to the food distribution counters or sent straight to the tents (and if so, why). Rumor became a primary source of information for all those excluded from the levels of decision-making. These attempts at ‘crowdsourcing’ the truth were not limited to volunteers and refugees, but appeared to include lower-ranking security personnel as well. Among the talk of great numbers awaiting entry, fights erupting and guns being seized, some oft-repeated stories acquired the status of self-legitimizing myths, justifying administrative decisions (or, occasionally, justifying ignoring those decisions). An example was the claim that refugees could never be granted WiFi access[iv], because the deceptive proximity of Germany in GPS-based mapping services like Google Maps would lead them to believe their final destination to be within walking distance, thus provoking unrest and possibly rioting. Similarly, volunteers would interpret the absence of an order to hand out blankets not as a lack of need for blankets, but as a commanding officer not wanting to deal with “the fuzz” (i.e. the commotion about bedding) – only to be informed that if there was not one blanket for each internee, it would most certainly lead to rioting. These stories acquired both their ‘legitimizing’ and their ‘mythical’ qualities against the backdrop of the ‘chaos days’ and perceived lawlessness that had supposedly reigned at the border crossing prior to the establishment of the camp order[v].
The subordinated status of their work presented many volunteers with the danger of their labor power being separated from their political convictions[vi]. After all, they were contributing to and being directed by the state's border management regime, although frequently skeptical of its intentions. Volunteers often seemed to confront this dilemma by introducing their own ideas whenever supervisors and executives were absent or undetermined on how to proceed. Gaps in the organizational protocol would then readily be filled with their own conceptions of how their work should look like, e.g. how much and which food should be given to each person, what clothes should be handed out to whom and what amount of social interaction and additional services (e.g. charging of cellphones, provision of information …) should be granted to each ‘customer’.
Supervisors and executives were generally aware of this and sought to counter it whenever possible. The volunteers' status as civilians with unclear motivations and agendas – voluntary work lacking the rationale of wage labor – led some policemen and soldiers to regard them as “dangerous subversives”, treating them with suspicion and sometimes open hostility. Other perceptions, especially among some higher-ranking officials, ranged from considering volunteers a “necessary evil” (as being part of “the civil society” that could not effectively be excluded from state operations) or a “welcome support”. Their appreciation of volunteer work was often phrased in disciplinary terms, for example when stating that “the food makes them [the internees] calm down”.
To summarize, volunteer work in the militarized setting of the Spielfeld transit camp differed sharply from other situations where volunteer-activists became involved in refugee arrivals (cf. the ‘Train of Hope’ engagement at Viennese train stations). The joining of civil organizations and a number of diverse government bodies in the hierarchical structure of the camp not only raises questions of governance, it also points to the complexity of state practice in times of crisis, of which civil voluntary work is but one layer. The organizational structure at Spielfeld is by no means self-evident, as even a superficial glance at the transit camps in Šentilj and Bad Radkersburg reveals. Both – Šentilj being Spielfeld's Slovenian counterpart; Bad Radkersburg an Austrian border crossing only 35km to the east – exhibited a different structure, with comparatively little police presence, a stronger emphasis on humanitarian concerns, and most noticeably for me, an organizational ethos that promoted the ordinary over the exceptional in the face of crisis.
[i] Agamben, Giorgio. 2014 . Ausnahmezustand. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
[ii] I conducted participant interviews by volunteering for various NGOs working in the camp. Supplementary data stems from informal conversations I had outside the camp, usually with off-duty camp personnel, residents or regional activists. With several interruptions, the fieldwork process lasted until January 2016, when the flow of refugees was redirected to the Carinthian border crossings.
[iii] Seeing as refugees were the only people in the camp not wearing uniforms, it could be argued that in the closed setting of the camp, their everyday clothes took on the meaning and function of a ‘uniform for internees’.
[iv] The minor Viennese political party ‘Der Wandel’ had provided mobile WiFi access points for refugees.
[v] ‘Myths’ also in the sense that they were employed frequently by people who had never actually experienced the ‘troubles.
[vi] Without exception, the volunteers I talked to perceived their work as political contributions in the specific setting of the refugee situation, rather than general philanthropy or conceptions of ‘civic duty’.