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’.