Pictures of desperate people standing in front of the new iron curtain at the European Union’s border dominated European news and headlines. A lot has been written about the dramatic and inhumane conditions of the refugees’ route to Europe and the hostile politics of states like Hungary. As I have travelled from Austria via Hungary to Serbia and have witnessed many of the “hotspots” in the last weeks, I can confirm it all from my own viewpoint as a volunteer in these places. But after the first encounters with people lacking the most fundamental needs had left a strong impression on me, one almost gets used to the conglomerate of refugees, police, helpers, media and the omnipresent although not directly visible politics behind it all. After these intense days at the borders in Nickelsdorf, Röszke, Horgos and in Belgrade, two questions came to my mind: What have I actually seen and what follows from that?
In Röszke, at the Hungarian-Serbian border, most of the refugees arrived at night. Two days before Hungary closed the last hole in the fence, 1,2000 people made their way to the improvised camp on the Hungarian side in one night. As they were entering the EU along old railway tracks, volunteers gave their best to supply them with water, food and warm clothes of which they were all desperately in need. What was also needed, but far more difficult to give, was information about what would await them in the EU. How could they get to Germany or Sweden? It was impossible to give answers since the political situation changed every day. What followed from this was a feeling of helplessness and anger on both sides. Obviously for most of the women, men and children, I tried to deliver information to, it was not about a better life, but about a life at all.
The camp in Röszke was almost entirely run by volunteers from all over Europe. For political reasons the large aid organisations only took part in the final days. Most of the volunteers were in their 20s, not very experienced and had decided spontaneously “to do something”. Their professional background was quite mixed. I handed out muesli bars with a bank consultant and a real estate agent one night, but there were also musicians and of course a lot of students. Many of them went far beyond their limits. Only the lack of coordination was sometimes bigger than their good will to help. When everyone wants to do something but there is no clear structure things get stuck. In emergency situations like this you need hierarchies. As one French volunteer said: “Democracy doesn’t apply to all situations”. If you don’t have a clear direction, help becomes inefficient. If you have one, it’s amazing what can be achieved by a group of people who haven’t met each other before. In Serbia, due to the coordination and organisational talent of a Swedish activist, 20 volunteers managed to give out food, water and hygiene items to over 2,000 people in a matter of hours. The biggest achievement in this situation was to make the tired crowd actually wait in line. Because there is one rule: Never open a food truck in a refugee camp. It will cause unnecessary situations of people fighting to stand in the first line and the strongest will get the most.
The first time I saw cameras focussed on people in these exceptional situations I interpreted it as inappropriate. How can you film if you see that this young girl and her grandfather need a blanket and something to eat? It took a while until I understood that journalists and refugees are allies. Worse than filming these situations would be not to show the world what happens at the European Union’s borders. And as one could observe the roles of journalists and activists began to mix. Journalists became helpers when distributing water and helpers became journalists when they took pictures of the situation and posted it in their social networks. By the way, almost all of the spontaneous coordination was done on facebook.
The illegalisation of people crossing borders is completely unnecessary. People suffering and dying on their way to Europe is not a tragedy. It is a politically caused catastrophe that could have easily been avoided. Once again it became clear that you can’t talk about the refugee crisis and be silent about capitalism.
For the moment it is especially true what Rosa, one of the many volunteers, wrote on Facebook: “we can greet them as friends or as enemies – they will come either way. However, our choice will define our shared future: if we chose to define them as our enemies, we will live in a country full of enemies. If we chose to call and treat them like friends, we will live knowing that we helped our new friends find safety, stability and peace.”
article and photos by Lukas Stolz