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’.
by Josef Kohlbacher
When the so-called “refugee crisis” of summer 2015 became a persistent issue in the media throughout Europe it quickly transpired that most of the popular discourse about refugees in Austria was based more or less on speculation. There was a substantial lack of empirically gathered and systematically analyzed data about the people who were arriving. Depending on the popular mood and political-ideological interests, threatening images of a mass influx of young men were counteracted by those of small children and old grandmas. These extremes dominated the media discourse. However, as in other fields of social reality, human biographies and personal destinies are extremely diverse and the superficial knowledge presented in media reports could not come close to providing satisfactory answers to many of the questions that arised.
Thus, to offer a more objective and realistic image of the spectrum of the reality of refuge, the ROR-n decided to carry out an academic analysis. Based on the available expertise, a qualitative method of data collecting was decided upon. Thus, from December 2015 to March 2016, 60 biographical interviews with refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan living in Vienna were compiled mainly through networking and the use of “snowball sampling”. In each of the three communities about 20 interviews were made. The interview duration was approx. one hour but in some cases also considerably longer conversations could be recorded by native speakers of Farsi-Dari, Pashto, Arabic and Kurdish, who had undergone previous interview training with experienced researchers from ROR-n.
The collected information provided a wide range of insights into biographical topics in the context of refuge, for example, flight motivations and the often traumatic experiences which were made in the countries of descent but of course also during the long way to and in Europe. Most of the respondents had lost relatives, some almost their whole families and many had suffered severe personal or religious persecution. There were Christians, Yezidis, Shiites and Sunnis among them. Some had been persecuted because of their professional engagement in NGOs or government institutions, others were victims of forced marriage or were physically disabled.
A further important field of investigation was the educational and qualification background of those interviewed. This ranged from university graduates and Qur’anic school graduates to those unable to read or write. The hopes and expectations for a better life in Austria were as varied as the respondents themselves. In particular those, who already had stayed longer in Austria realized that many of their initial expectations remained unrealistic, that gaining a foothold in the Austrian labor market was extremely hard, even for the better educated and in many cases they had to accept some kind of de-qualification . The challenges of integration into the Austrian society proved to be diverse and even such “simple” things as accommodation proved to be a very challenging project.
There was an explicit focus on the particularity of individual experiences during the flight. These unique dynamic experiences of fleeing and integration formed the basis for a comparison and interpretation of the content of the pilot study interviews. It was possible to reveal structures of action and of individual coping strategies to meet the challenges of flight, arrival and early residence in Austria and also the processes of long-term integration as some of the interviewed refugees had already lived for up to one or two years in Austria.
In view of the political importance of the discussion relating to an equal distribution of refugees between urban and rural areas and the different federal states of Austria, the residential preferences of refugees concerning rural or urban social contexts were investigated too. It turned out that there is a strong interrelation between the sending context and residential preferences. Refugees moving from rural areas usually prefer village life in Austria too. Those who moved from metropolises such as Kabul, Baghdad or Damascus wanted to stay in Vienna or other urban agglomerations.
A broad range of different experiences of social contacts between the refugees and the Austrians was evident, obviously depending on specific variables such as gender, level of education, language proficiency and country of origin. Women usually reported different experiences than men, younger persons experienced other interactions and paths to integration than elderly refugees. Only a minority of respondents reported experiences in which rejectionist attitudes of local people were demonstrated against them. This may be a visible outcome of the general mood of politically and medially fostered “welcome culture” which dominated the refugee discussion in Austria until the turn of the year 2015/16. The experiences in the countries of transit, for example Greece or Hungary, were more precarious and a considerable number of cases of violence and financial exploitation were reported.
Many interviews illustrated that it is generally through initial social contacts in Austria that refugees gain a first insight into the modes of interaction with Austrians as well as into the reality and characteristics of the receiving society. One initial setting for such interactions can be found in refugee homes or camps (the refugee camp Traiskirchen was often mentioned) where most of the respondents had to live immediately upon arrival in Austria. Thus, interesting insights into the refugees’ relationships with their immediate social environment in these homes were also collected in the interviews. Some were rather positive, others extremely negative.
Some of the casual relationships with Austrians even proved to be long-lasting and helped the refugees a considerably in gaining a foothold in the receiving society and in establishing a social network in Austria both with compatriots and Austrians, too. Many long-term implications of positive inter‐ethnic relations were reported.
A qualitative and interpretative research approach was used to understand how the refugees make sense of their experiences and networks on their path to social embeddedness into the Austrian society. At the time of our interviews the range of interactions with locals spanned from living together with Austrian friends to a complete absence of social contacts with the local population. The study provides interesting insights in the refugees’ perspective of their situation, their hopes and expectations, specific problem constellations, and the challenges they have met in Austria. These aspects of seeking refuge and refugee life contribute to a deeper and more realistic picture of the living environment of forced migrants.
The research results will be published later in 2017 in a booklet as part of the series “ISR-Forschungsberichte” and will be open access and advertised by ROR-n when available. Based on the results of this project, further research projects have been planned and designed and are currently at various stages of implementation. One project focuses on refugees from Afghanistan and how their values change over time as they live in Austria, another focuses on Syrians and Iraqis, using a participatory approach and involving NGOs and other institutional stakeholders.
 This is a non-probability sampling technique where existing respondents recruit further respondents from among their acquaintances. Thus the sample group is said to grow like a rolling snowball.
* Monika Halkorts essay was originally published in SCORES, an interdisciplinary journal published by Tanzquartier Wien linking performance theory with critical practice across a wide range of artistic and intellectual fields.*
Every year hundreds of refugees and undocumented migrants are kidnapped in Ethiopia, Sudan and the surrounding areas. Once captured they are sold to organised gangs in the Sinai desert, who trade their bodies in exchange for ransom from relatives and friends. Ninety-five per cent of the hostages are Eritreans desperate to escape the repressive and poor living conditions in their country. They include men, women, children and accompanying infants, in search for a better life in Europe or Israel. Their vulnerability makes them a particularly inviting target. Leaving Eritrea requires hard-to-obtain travel visas, leading many to pay traffickers to smuggle them out. Once across the border they often deliberately burn their passports so as to avoid repatriation. Others are forcefully dispossessed of their IDs once they have been sold off to criminal gangs.
Relatives and friends rarely seek help from security forces for fear that the hostages will be arrested or killed in release operations. Human-rights activists have reported numerous occasions where captives have been shot by Egyptian or Israeli border police soon after they were freed (van Reisen, Estefanos, & Rijken, 2012). This pervasive fear enables the kidnappers to operate by and large untroubled by unwanted attention. Demands for ransom can reach up to $50,000 for each hostage held.
All this is well documented by human-rights activists, researchers and the news media, yet their reports have so far not produced any effective response. The Egyptian authorities reject any responsibility for the hostages, based on the fact that they have entered the country illegally. Going after the kidnappers themselves, on the other hand, has proven difficult, because of the ongoing conflict between the Egyptian military and the armed insurgency in Sinai.
The ineffectiveness of testimonial evidence in preventing crimes against humanity is of course nothing new in the history of human-rights violations. The lack of political intervention against the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur comes as powerful reminder that visual or oral evidence is by no means a guarantee for mobilising political action or support. Yet the fateful trap of the Eritrean hostages points to a constitutive shift in the political economy of suffering and testimony, whose ethical implications have yet to be fully understood. In what follows I am reading this shift in context with the wider neo-liberal restructuring of political and moral publics and their articulation with new communicative domains. The current juncture of personalized mass communication and human mobility, I will suggest, introduced a whole new layer of sovereign authority upon the contemporary order, in which new states of exception can flourish and traditional domains of power over life are fundamentally transformed.
Visual or oral testimony are never self-evident or self-explanatory. They require purposeful interpretation to produce cultural sensibilities for action or change. As Keenan (2002, p. 115) writes, left to itself the image compels nothing, nor does it dictate any particular response. It remains a cultural form without guarantees, just like the testimony; always available for reinterpretation, “where everything is open to abuse and appropriation …. shaking ground indeed” (ibid.). 
And yet the testimony persists as a primary medium through which ethical claims are negotiated. Human-rights activists heavily depend on the circulation of images, symbols and personal accounts of suffering to connect audiences to political projects and to evoke sympathy and compassion in support of bodies in need (McLagan, 2007, p.309). For most of the post-WWII era, this mobilisation of conscience has relied on the highly regulated networks of television. They have enabled groups such as Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières and others to create political momentum for a humanitarian or moral cause. As McLagan (2007, pp. 309 - 310) suggests, the corporeality of the body has provided a critical vehicle for the strategic conscription of human empathy into political action. Confronting audiences with testimonial evidence of bodies in pain created a sensuous link between the bodies represented on screen and the bodies in the audience, enabling viewers to recognise themselves in the vulnerability of distant others on display. The shared human condition of embodied existence, in other words, provided the interpretative foil necessary to create an intersubjective space of exchange and identification. It made room for the account of individual suffering to reappear as a recognisable part of the shared human condition from which ethical responsibilities and obligations could be inferred.
The highly individualised landscape of contemporary mass self-communication has radically changed the conditions of possibility for the cultivation of ethical sensibilities through such crafted choreographies of affect. It invited a whole new range of actors to participate in the moral economy of mediated suffering, using far more flexible and targeted modes of assembly to create private publics that do not necessarily share common causes with the public domain. The propaganda machine of ISIS and the communication strategy of the Sinai kidnappers are just two examples here. They come as a harsh reminder of the fact that the persuasive power of testimony is no longer solely in the hands of the victims but rather has become an active instrument of war.
The Sinai kidnappers have proven extremely resourceful in exploiting the affective resonance of mediated suffering. They do not contact the family and relatives of their prisoners directly, but rather force the hostages themselves to call and beg for money in exchange for their release. The hostages are often tortured while still on the phone to increase the emotional pressure and to push for rapid payment. Those who cannot or do not pay risk being killed or harvested for organs that can be traded to make up for the outstanding sum. Emotional blackmail by phone is of course a tactic used in most hostage situations. The key difference here is that these calls do not come from secret or untraceable locations. They are made on regular phonelines registered with mobile service providers which, at least in theory, would allow anyone interested in freeing the hostages to locate and identify the kidnappers. What prevents their arrest is the legal and political impasse and complacency surrounding refugee and migrant populations. This impasse cannot be explained with the ineffectiveness of state and humanitarian actors alone. It requires taking a closer look at how long standing political and moral deficits articulate to the emergence of new forms of sovereign power as a direct result of global communication networks on a planetary scale.
The universal addressing scheme of cloud computing and mobile phone companies, as Benjamin Bratton (2012) suggests, has linked bodies, objects and events into an abyss-like field of information exchange in which the old Westphalian order of territorial jurisdiction is increasingly overwritten by new bio-political regimes. The flexible system of IP addresses and geo locators, in this view, confronts us with a new type of sovereign that shifts the ability to regulate movement, transactions and the well-being of populations away from inter-governmental organisations and the state.
Bratton’s observation rests on the following assumption: for a thing or event to participate in the world it needs to have an address, a unique identity that makes it available for connections with other things. On its own, it is not present. It needs to be made into an “it”, with a discrete location, to become recognisable, addressable and marked. This has traditionally been achieved by formal addressing tables, such as post codes, street addresses, or unique citizen ID numbers. Together they have provided the key political technologies for the organisation of political space in the modern era that has both demarcated and legitimated the sovereign authority of the state (Bratton, 2016, p. 193; Bratton, 2012). The global addressing scheme of mobile phone and internet providers no longer corresponds with the political geography inherited from this Westphalian order. It has superimposed a whole new layer of sovereign actors onto the territorial grid capable of transcending national borders and jurisdictions, leading incommensurate logics of governance and geography to overlap and collide.
Social media such as Facebook, Google Maps, or mobile phone apps do not distinguish between citizens, migrants, kidnappers or refugee populations. They are just as likely to provide their services irrespective of the user’s legal or political status or circumstance. This is not to suggest that there are no authentication mechanisms and security checks built into the global communication infrastructure or to ignore the increasing encroachment on personal data by national and international security agencies. The paradoxical coexistence of ever tighter mechanisms of electronic surveillance and biometric regimes and the acceleration of unregulated population movements rather points to the asymmetrical mix of formal and informal jurisdictions that defines our current moment, and that lead public and private laws to feed off of each other in ways that render the nature and scope of sovereign jurisdictions ever more uncertain and unclear. As Bratton (2012) remarks, states are increasingly taking on the form of cloud-based platforms by extending their reach to far-flung data centres that are formally not part of their political control. Data and communication service providers, on the other hand, increasingly overrule the state’s capacity to regulate and track social connectivity and participation, re-scripting the public sphere alongside the competitive market principles of corporate law. The result is an explosive mix of “productive accidents”, Bratton (ibid.) concludes, in which new states of exception can flourish and new boundaries can be drawn.
Bearing this in mind it becomes possible to see how the tragic fate of the Eritrean refugees, stacked away in secretive desert prisons, stands for a far wider shift in the troubled history of publicity, indifference and mediated suffering. The fact that their testimony has so far not succeeded in attracting sufficient attention is not simply the effect of the political and moral deficits or the over-saturation of pain in human-rights discourse. It shows how the privatisation of political and moral publics through new addressing schemes articulates with the wider neoliberal restructuring of common interests, and recalibrates social and ethical imperatives alongside individual interests and capital gains. The result is a radical transformation of the public sphere into an infinitely scalable entity that enabled the kidnappers to cynically exploit the strategic purchase of human testimony and to perform the most inhuman acts of violence “live” in front of carefully crafted audiences, whose compassion has effectively fenced off unwanted public attention and drastically reduced the ability to mobilise action in support of the refugees. Being able to contain the persuasive power of testimony within the private networks of family and friends has left the decision to let live or let die safely in the hands of the kidnappers, conjuring up a system of affective capture in which the distinction between lives to be saved and lives to be abandoned is made contingent on the availability of capital and private funds.
Bratton, B. (2012), “The Cloud, the State, and the Stack: Metahaven in Conversation with Benjamin Bratton”, Metahaven interview, retrieved 15 May 2016, from: http://mthvn.tumblr.com/post/38098461078/thecloudthestateandthestack
Bratton, B. (2016), The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Keenan, T. (2002), “Publicity and Indifference (Sarajevo on Television) ”, PMLA, 117 (1, Special Topic: Mobile Citizens, Media States ), pp. 104-116.
McLagan, M. (2007). “Human Rights, Testimony and Transnational Publicity”, in M. Feher, G. Krikorian, & Y. McKee, Non-Governmental Politics (pp. 304 - 317), New York: Zone Books.
van Reisen, M., Estefanos, M., & Rijken, C. (2012), Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death, Brussels: Wolf Legal Publishers (WLP).
 The images of ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica, Bosnia, here are a powerful case in point. They eventually convinced the international community to intervene, Yet only through peace-keeping forces, without a legal mandate to stop or confront the warring groups. This allowed genocidal killings to persist right in front of the eyes of international peace keepers, leading to widespread condemnation of the UN’s response.