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The Balkan Route: What Civil Society Can Do – Interview To Adna Camdzic

The first time I met Adna’s sweet and witty eyes, we were at University, in the same classroom with Mihaela, one of the precious protagonists of HUMANS… I have always admired her resourcefulness at lesson and the ability to work in group, discreetly drawing the trajectory that would lead everyone else to a good result. It was enriching and enjoyable to collaborate with her at University and, surprisingly, our paths have met again, outside the walls of our beloved Einaudi Campus.

A short time ago, Adna wrote an interesting article published by Il Pulmino Verde, a Piedmontese association, I am extremely fond to, which is particularly active on the borders’ issues and on everything concerning what, since 2015, is called the “Balkan route”, one of the main corridors to Europe for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers – mainly from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

When and how was the Balkan route defined?

The latest Dossier published by the network RiVolti ai Balcani, which analyzes the main developments of the Balkan route from 2015, speaks very clearly. The year 2015 is taken as landmark becaus during that year almost 1 million people pass through the Balkans. The Mediterranean route that crosses Italy takes a back seat: the sea is too dangerous and the number of victims increases. It is not by chance that the Dossier opens by recalling the tragic funding of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, the Kurdish-Syrian child who drowned while he was trying to reach the Greek islands. The story marks a turning point, but above all, it highlights the weight of the Syrian conflict on migratory flows.

In 2015, refugees were still able to move, more or less, freely within the Balkan territories, traveling by bus or train to Austria or Germany. Faced with these movements, some EU countries are beginning to take drastic containment meaures. First of all, Bulgaria, which already erected barbed wire fences, but also Hungary, with the wall on the border with Serbia: both EU countries were acting by their national interests. Slovenia also arbitrarily decides to admit only Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans to its territory.

There are difficulties in defining a common European policy on migration management. Attempts to operate emergency relocation mechanisms within the EU have been blocked, especially by Eastern European members, and the achievement of a full sharing of responsibility seems an utopia. Slowly the doors are closing.

The war in Syria led Turkey to becoming the largest host country for refugees, in 2014. During 2015, the situation began to change. An increasing number of Syrians have taken the Balkan route to reach Northern Europe. There have been several reasons for this modification, such as the precarious situation in Turkey, the decrease in international resources for refugee camps, the persistence of the Syrian conflict, and the loss of hope on the possibility of an imminent return.

With the 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey, the borders and the Balkan route have been closed: a de facto monitored and legalized channel was interrupted. Since then, the journey to Europe was back to being an ordeal. The new measures within the EU countries and the delegation of control of part of its external borders to Turkey have made the route through the Balkan countries an illegal and inhuman task…

What specifically does this agreement require? And what the consequences in the short and long term?

I would like to point out that, despite it has been taken as a watershed several times, the EU-Turkey agreement does not represent a decisive break point with the past. As I said before, the doors have already been closed by the action of European governments. Moreover, the Balkan route has never been completely closed. Instead, a window has been opened for the traffickers and extremely dangerous transit routes. I remember that, at that time, my uncle, a truck driver for a Bosnian company, was stopped at the Austrian border. He risked an endless legal process because of an Afghan hidden under his trailer. The story has a happy ending for my uncle, who has been released after a few hours and continued his journey to the highways of the internal market, the one in which workers, goods, services, and capital have full freedom of movement… This market is the only one that truly reflects the reasons why the EU has been created: to facilitate the economic cooperation and preserve the interests of each member.

With the European Agenda for Migration of 2015, the EU decided to adopt a more flexible and pragmatic approach to addressing the migration crisis. How? Giving much more decision-making power to the member states. The EU-Turkey Treaty falls precisely within this new orientation. Without going into detail, there are still doubts concerning the real signatory of this agreement: the Member States or the EU?

By the way, this was an informal agreement, with no guarantee of respect for human rights. On the contrary, it could be a tool that allows the member states to turn a blind eye on the rejections and abuses, to safeguarde their national sovereignty. The treaty short-term consequences: A decrease in arrivals by the sea on the Greek islands, favored by the militarisation of Turkish borders. And an increase in readmission processes. In the long run? Just look at the Balkan route today.

The health crisis triggered by the spread of Covid-19 has led to a further worsening of the refugees’ living conditions, too often ignored. After the reopening of the borders last summer, there has been an increase in Italy’s rejections, as well as readmission to Slovenia and Croatia – where people are violently sent to the starting point, in Bosnia or Serbia, and, therefore, left in critical conditions.

In theory, the set of rules that make up the Common European Asylum System, the principles enshrined in the Geneva Convention (1951), and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, put an important limit to the principle of State sovereignty, in order to guarantee, recognize and protect the human rights under the jurisdiction of each State. Nevertheless, the practice of rejections is dramatically consolidated in defiance of International law…

What does the rejection ban (non-refoulement) provide? And, considering the current health situation, what consequences does the ban violation have for the border management of non-European countries, such as Bosnia?

There are two elements of “non-refoulement” that have to be taken into consideration. First of all, International law makes conditions for asylum seekers to have the right to lodge their applications for international protection in an EU country. Secondly, it prohibits the expulsion of individuals to situations where they would be exposed to a risk of persecution.

Despite the existence of international protection for asylum seekers, member states have been sued several times for their involvement in “pushback” operations. I could mention, for example, the recent order of the Court of Rome concerning the action brought by a Pakistani citizen who arrived in Trieste via the Balkan route, first rejected in Slovenia and then in Bosnia. The order clarified the illegality of the readmission carried out by the Italian authorities, both because it violated the right of the person to submit an asylum application – which provides an assessment of the individual case (preventing any collective expulsions) – and because the authorities could not ignore that he would be subject to a rejection chain and degrading treatment.

According to the Danish Refugee Council, in 2020, 20.000 people were expelled from Croatia to Bosnia (a non-EU country), violating the human rights. The Border Violence Monitoring Network has further observed that the pandemic has led to an increase in controls, in response to the anti-virus measures, accompanied by extreme brutality perpetrated by border agents in their pushbacks. The EU’s “external” borders have become increasingly militarized.

A key player in the implementation of externalization policies is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency – Frontex – repeatedly sued by international organizations for its involvement in return operations. Also, the Rapid Border Intervention (RABIT), put into practice in March 2020 by Frontex agents, has contributed to further exacerbating the process of borders’ militarization and human rights violations along the Balkan route. Although the implementation of RABIT should have expired on 3 April 2020, the measure has been prolonged due to the health crisis, marking a gradual transition from emergency action to lasting policy.

What is Frontex? Who does manage it? And what responsibility does the Agency have for the massive violations of humans and refugees’ rights?

Frontex is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency established in 2004. It should assist the EU Member States and Schengen countries in the protection of external borders and in the return of illegally staying third-country nationals. Recently, the staff also have a uniform. Consulting the document in which the design and specifications for the uniform are defined, we can see how its strategic importance is highlighted: uniforms should convey a sense of credibility and trust, – reads the file – be authoritative but not intimidating. As if to highlight the innocence of Frontex in relation to the recent accusations for the rejections to the Greek-Turkish border, as well as the transparency issues that emerged following the investigation initiated by OLAF.

Moreover, it is the first official uniform of a EU Agency. The first uniform of the EU, which is being accused of its failure to coordinate and harmonise policies between Member States and now, more than ever, is determined to give a consistent response to the crisis. But beyond the framework of the nation-state, which leads us to look at the borders as well-defined spaces placed to protect sovereignty, what seems interesting is the deterritorialization of borders that provides greater powers to agents established on a transnational basis, such as Frontex, which operates outside the classical mechanisms of protection. This makes the attribution of responsibilities even more complex. On the recent accusations against Frontex I invite you to consult the Pushback Report 2020 of Mare Liberum.

When it comes to migration, therefore, it is not possible to ignore the continuous and ruthless restrictions of freedom of movement that occur in detention spaces. Refugee camps, reception centers, temporary detention centers… They all have the aim of sorting human beings, with the dangerous consequence of placing a stigma on clandestinity.

The European Union is dotted with transit areas and camps for migrants, and in a very short-time, train stations, distribution centers of necessities, medical clinics, etc., are built in the proximity. But practical action by international organizations and civil society is not always sufficient and sometimes it acts as a “stopgap”. It must necessarily be translated into a deeper reflection, individual and collective, on the responsibilities and the potential of our work, so that it does not fall into oblivion.

To help anyone who wants to make a concrete contribution in support of migrants on the route, which associations can they refer to?

I would like to answer resuming and amplifying the speech I started in the article that you mentioned before, which takes a critical look at humanitarian interventions and welfare. Let me explain better, using the words of Gorana Mlinarevic, an independent Bosnian researcher and journalist, and administrator of the Facebook group “Help for refugees in Bosnia“, who points out that spending too much time and money on humanitarian assistance, on collecting clothing and food for refugees, takes away fundamental time that could be devoted to politics.

“We do not need humanitarian aid, but we need political commitment.”

Gorana Mlinarevic

Luca Rastello, writer and journalist, who was personally involved in the Balkans in the 90s, has often sued the problems related to the professionalization of non-profit activities, which he defines as the “good place”, full of contradictions and certainly not immune to power dynamics. For this reason, while I understand what Mlinarevic says, I find it difficult to draw a clear distinction between political and humanitarian action: they communicate and intersect continuously. Every humanitarian action is also political and has significant impacts on the populations living in the places where the intervention is carried out. Rather than refusing to take humanitarian action, I think we need to care about their social and political impact. Which brings us to the hundred dollar question: “What can we do?”. Should we delegate our action to representatives of “civil society”, to someone who can fight the battles for us and who can seek a solution to suffering and violence?

On the contrary, joining an association and getting to know its internal dynamics, following debates, and finding ways to take responsibility can be a good starting point. And then, at a later stage, try to give support to other people who work in the field and who are rooted on the ground, who therefore have awareness of socio-political dynamics. IPSIA, for example, is an association in Bosnia which has been active since the war and today it is at the forefront of the Lipa camp.

In her article, Adna carefully conducted a detailed historical analysis on the role of the Italian civil society in the Balkan countries, since the 1990s, when “Italy found itself in the position of receivin a large number of refugees from the former Yugoslavia”, until its most recent forms of activism which, through the creation of informal networks (also online), reach a wide number of participants, aiming “to give an increasingly effective response to violence”.

In order not to risk falling into the paternalistic trap that hypocritically marks the member states as “benevolent savior”, it is essential to dismantling the stereotyped, passive, and victimized role often attributed to the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia, during and after the war and, in particular, to women. In the 1990s, the main promoters of pacifism throughout the area were the feminist groups of women intellectuals, who were the spokesmen of the silent and heavy atrocities occuring in the Balkans.

From an act of disobedience to the predominant ideology, the spontaneous association of women has carried on a civil commitment, aimed at creating a network of international solidarity based on the moral authority of individual people. A pluralist civil society based on respect for the human rights. A new narrative of dissidence and resistance, a truly deep lesson in democracy. An example of change that, linking individual needs with those of others, has the potential to reform the lives of all of us, women and men, making us more aware, respectful, and happy.

Adna, what is happiness to you?

At the moment the search for happiness seems to me a search for lost time, which can be caught in small and often imperceptible signs, able to activate our memory. Memory, unlike history (which concerns the chronology of events), is the way we organize our experience, the past ones, but also the one we have not realized yet.

It is in this timeless, personal and, at the same time, universal dimension that happiness emerges, as an expression of the essence of things and the very meaning of life.

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