Debate: Border Closures, Deportations and Independent Volunteering

Many independent volunteers work with refugees on the Balkan route, but people are also working with refugees in Germany, Italy, France and other European countries. Many independent volunteers understand their work with refugees as a political act, but others don’t. A plea why independent volunteers should understand their work as a political act.

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Image: Graffiti on one of the squatted barracks in Belgrade. The barracks were evicted yesterday.

Written by Riot Turtle

Yesterday I wrote an article about the eviction of the barracks in Belgrade, Serbia. More than 1000 people lost their temporary home and a space where they practiced many self-organised projects like language courses and cooking groups. One of our collective is in Belgrade and witnessed yesterdays eviction. I myself worked in the barracks two times.

I was in many places on the Balkan route and had a lot of different experiences, some where good, but some of my experiences were really bad. Often I heard people saying things like “I am not political, I am just helping refugees.” In my opinion these people didn’t know that helping refugees is already a political act. But were they really helping refugees or were they supporting authorities? Supporting authorities without being aware of it? Probably without reflecting to much on what they were doing many people actually did help authorities.

When I was in the refugee camp in Opatovac, Croatia in October 2015, I had some really bad experiences. This state-run camp which was closed by EU and Croatioan authorities a little bit later, was one of the most awful places I have ever been. The camp was subdivided into 4 zones. Refugees were not allowed to go into another zone without policemen or volunteers when I was there. After a refugee was beaten up by policemen, one of the independent volunteers said: “It was his own fault, he knew that he wasn’t allowed to leave his zone.”

The conditions in the Opatovac camp were really bad. Policemen were patrolling everywhere and refugees told me that there was a lot of police violence. Like we already experienced in state-run camps in Slovenia, volunteers were not allowed to take pictures or film inside the camp. The media were not even allowed to come into the camp. Many independent volunteers were putting pressure on other volunteers not to take pictures or film because they were afraid that the police would throw all volunteers out of the camp. By doing that they were supporting authorities to avoid that the outside world would be able to see how band refugees were treated in these state-run camps. Our group decided to ignore this and filmed (videos below) and took pictures anyway.

Two people of our group (I was one of them) decided to leave Opatovac after only two days because we were not willing to help Croatian authorities to run their inhuman camp. It was really cold with minus temperatures during the night. The night before we left UNHCR officials decided not to give out blankets anymore “because the camp would soon be closed anyway.” People had to sleep on the ground in army tents without blankets and most volunteers accepted this without any protest. And yes… they still thought they were helping refugees. Some volunteers didn’t accept this at all. They stole a lot of blankets out of the UNHCR storage container and distributed the blankets to the refugees in the camp.

We went to Sid, where refugees had to wait for hours and hours on a rest area at the highway. We informed ourselves and asked refugees what was needed most and how things were working in Sid. The refugees said that there were not enough electrical sockets where they could charge their phones, so we decided to come back the next day to build-up a mobile charging station. An official of the commissariat told us that we needed permission to do that, but we decided to ignore that. The next day lots of people charged their phones with our mobile charging station and the commissariat officials decided not to interfere.

When we drove back to Germany we stopped in Salzburg, Austria. Many refugees were all over sudden stuck there because German authorities decided to reduce the daily amount of refugees that were allowed to cross the border. It was before the borders were closed again (before the summer of 2015 the borders were closed for years). We builded up our mobile charging station because many of the refugees in the main train station in Salzburg could not charge their phones. There were many cops and soldiers in and around the train station but they did not interfere.

For us it was clear that we did political work. We did everything we could to work with refugees and always first asked what was needed most and than decided what we were able to do.

After we came back to Germany I went to Tenerife (Canary Islands). I had some serious health problems in early 2015 and needed a long break to get fit again. As I came back from Tenerife the Balkan route was closed again. Several countries were building fences and EU authorities finalised a deal with Erdogan. The border closures changed everything.People lost hope and didn’t know what to do. They were stuck.

After I came back from Tenerife, I went a couple of times to Idomeni to work with refugees there. Again and again refugees were blocking the highway from Thessaloniki to Macedonia (the E 75), in the Idomeni camp people were protesting against border closures almost every day. A few days before Idomeni was evicted independent volunteers were not allowed to enter the makeshift camp anymore. Most volunteers accepted that. I didn’t because I had promised a few families to come back. I heard that the normal roads were blocked by the police but I managed to come into the camp over the hills and since there was no police there I wasn’t even stopped.

After the eviction of Idomeni our group rented a few apartments in Thessaloniki and Chalkidiki, so some families did not have to go into the Greek military run state camps where the conditions were really bad. Later another group rented some apartments and some refugees are still living in these apartments.

A lot of volunteers were worried that they would not be allowed to work in the state camps. I didn’t even try and started to work with the refugees in the apartments and later I supported the refugee shelter project of the autonomous social center Micropolis and Soul Food Kitchen, both in Thessaloniki. Micropolis is organising apartments for about 80 families and is a self-organised project. Soul Food Kitchen is also self-organised and cooks for homeless Greeks and refugees in Thessaloniki.

For me it was an important political choice to work self-organised and cooperate with other self-organised projects. Apart from my work on the Balkan route I was involved in organising actions and demonstrations for safe passage, against boder closures and the EU-Turkey deal. Our group also joined a local initiative to take in more refugees in our city (Wuppertal, Germany). Refugees who were stuck in Greece and other countries now.

In my opinion independent volunteers cannot say we are “not political” but we help refugees. Our political and economical system is one of the resons people have to flee. Our export of arms, our trade treaties. Our wealth is build on plundering other countries. The border closures, the EU-Turkey deal… The whole subject is political. The extrem right is understanding that. They treat people who help refugees as enemies. People, cars and buildings of people and groups who work with refugees are being attacked again and again by fascists in several European countries. EU politicians blame people who are actually rescuing people from being drowned at the Mediterranean sea because these politicians see it as a political act against their border regime. These EU politicians know that their border regime is the real reason why people are drowning.

And people who fled war and persecution are not only drowning or stuck at European borders. In the EU member state Hungary refugees get convicted and imprisoned for many years in show trials and in many EU states people get imprisoned just because they were fleeing for war, persecution and/or poverty. Poverty caused by our economic and political system.

In my opinion its important that independent volunteers understand that they have to make a choice. Either independent volunteers work with refugees together in a self-organise way and organise resistance to demand the freedom of movement and equal rights for all people, or  they are in danger to become lackeys of authorities. Supporting those who are part of the problem is not helping anybody. Not anybody actually isn’t true.. it helps the political and economic elites who are at least partly responsible for the problems that is forcing people to flee. And that is also a political choice.

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