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Race, Gender, and Migration at an EU periphery: A View from Bosnia and Herzegovina

Participants at the BLASFEM discussion on BASOC radio: Paulina Lanzerotti, Danijela Majstorović (host), Elissa Helms, Gorana Mlinarević, Edina Čović.

The radio program / podcast published here in translation was broadcasted on the Banja Luka Social Center (BASOC) radio on 28 November 2020 as part of their regular “BLASFEM by Any Other Means” series. BLASFEM is a feminist festival that started in Banja Luka in the summer of 2017 by assembling feminist activists, workers, artists, and theorists from the former Yugoslav region at BASOC. In the organizational sense, BASOC deals with memory politics, feminism, and social justice and is a unique space and collective promoting equality and left politics in this part of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). BLASFEM is run by Danijela Majstorović and Leila Šeper together with the BASOC team and every year has a specific theme and focus followed by roundtables and discussions including exhibitions, concerts, and performances. During the Covid-19 pandemic, BLASFEM moved online, including more feminists who were invited to speak on specific topics.

On this occasion, BLASFEM’s guests were: Paulina Lanzerotti, a Montenegrin-Croatian poet and migrant worker currently in Ludwigsburg, Germany, whose poetry book Made in Germany was published by Jesenski i Turk, Zagreb, in 2020; Edina Čović, a Yugoslav and Bosnian-born researcher associate currently advising migrants to Germany and dealing with migrants’ diploma recognition at INBAS (Institut für berufliche Bildung, Arbeitsmarkt- und Sozialpolitik GmbH) in Frankfurt; Gorana Mlinarević, a published Sarajevo feminist and researcher dealing with migration and peace studies; and Elissa Helms, anthropologist and gender studies specialist and associate professor at CEU, Vienna. The host of the podcast was Danijela Majstorović, a University of Banja Luka English and cultural studies professor and activist.

Danijela: As you are currently in Germany, Edina, I would like to start with you if you don’t mind. According to 2020 Eurostat data, in the previous year 71,375 people from BiH got work permits, out of which 31,765 went to Germany. So, if mothers and fathers get their permits, the odds are that they’ll pull their families with them. That means we could hypothesize that approximately 200,000 – 250,000 people could have left the country recently. In what way do you think this third wave is specific and different compared to the 1960s, and then the ‘90s?

Edina:  Probably Paulina can describe it better, since due to her Croatian passport she doesn’t have travel limitations, she has free access to the labor market, whereas people from BiH don’t have such freedom and can’t do whatever they want. They can’t just move in and start working. There’s the famous Western Balkan regulation according to which there is currently an option for people to move to Germany for work purposes. Aside from that, there are other tools that Germany uses to regulate workforce supply on the job market, for example, when there is a shortage in some professions. Healthcare workers, healthcare staff, above all nurses and technicians, then doctors, and of course people with no qualifications who end up as construction workers in Germany at a so-called Baustelle. Now, your question was to compare this third and previous waves. You and I were talking the other night about it, and here is what caught my eye about the first wave in the 1970s and migrants who were arriving then.

Germany as a country, and the German population, everyone thought these people did arrive but were going to leave. So they arrived to stay for some time, achieve some of their goals, and then leave. This is why the integration into the German society of the so-called first wave was close to zero. Society did not engage at all and there were no German language courses like today. There was no obligation to know the language, nor to be integrated anywhere. So, that was the first wave. The second-wave migrants were people who didn’t come of their own will. When they found themselves there, some did want to stay but didn’t have the opportunity, because German politics was directed in such a way that people who came because of the war in ex-Yugoslavia could not seek asylum. Had their asylum requests been approved, they could have stayed in Germany permanently. However, this was not possible because Germany back then saw the ex-Yugoslav war as a civil war and one with limited duration. When the conflict was going to end, the people would return. Some people did wish to go back but didn’t have anywhere to go. Some didn’t want to return, they wished to stay here, but they had no opportunity to do so. So, in my opinion, this was the tragic wave, the second wave. In this third wave, people come of their own volition. So, in the first wave, people came because they wanted to, and also in the third wave. In the second wave, the one in the middle, they came because of a set of external circumstances, not because they wanted to. What differentiates the third wave from the previous two is that all of them came of their own desire and are willing to stay. Of course, as I mentioned before, there are still some men who come alone and end up working at construction sites. So, men come alone while leaving their families in BiH or Serbia, but here we are talking mostly about entire families. When we look at medical technicians or nurses, usually the wife comes first, gets a job, and then after three months or so, the entire family arrives.

Danijela: Okay Edina, thank you for the intro. Paulina, you came to Germany due to a set of circumstances as well. How come you ended up working, taking up a job on the assembly line? You have a degree in architecture. What happened when you came and what was your work experience like?

Paulina: Considering everything Edina said in the intro and you before that, perhaps I’m not a model example, because of my documents. I was born in Boka Kotorska in Montenegro where I spent 18 years. Then I went to study in Zagreb where I stayed after my studies to live and work. That means I spent 18 years in Montenegro and 18 in Croatia and, of course, I have Croatian documents and that made it easier for me to come. I came to Germany for completely different, arbitrary reasons, which means, of my own volition. I didn’t have to and I wasn’t forced by anyone. My thinking was, and perhaps it sounds a bit banal, but I came so I wouldn’t ask myself some 10-15 years later what would have happened if I hadn’t tried. Considering that the discontent with my life in Zagreb grew and considering the entire social climate which I suppose I don’t have to elaborate on here, I set off on some sort of adventure. How come I ended up in a factory line with an architecture degree? Well, by getting rejected from a few jobs in the field and, I think, due to a combination of factors. I still couldn’t speak German, although I had taken some German lessons in Zagreb, in combination with being inexperienced. I never worked in my field. In Zagreb, I did jobs for which my degree was welcomed. However, I had no work experience in projects themselves. So it was a combination of things, and of course, some time had passed, and I spent my savings in the meantime. One needs to have different types of insurance, first of all – health insurance. You need to start working and, what’s really interesting now, related to the nature of the job I did: when you are trying to find a job in the field and when you talk to counselors in the Arbeitsamt – the employment bureau – whenever you talk about what you would and what you could do in terms of your education, the question that follows is whether you had done it before. Do you have the experience? It’s an obstacle if you don’t. And a certain level of language proficiency is needed. But once they have placed you into a categorized box, in terms of what you could do and when you are taken in, or recognized, like I was by an employment agency (Zeitfirma or Leihfirma), then it is no longer an issue. You get a manual job, either on an assembly line or in some kind of production in a factory.

Danijela: Paulina, one of my interviewees compared these Zeitfirma – employment agencies – with modern prostitution, these are the exact words he used, modern prostitution.

Paulina: Well yes… that means the issue of experience is no longer an issue. Nor do they ask you whether you’ve done it before, whether you have ever entered a factory in your life or not, whether you know the raw materials you’ll be working with, or if you’ve seen the machine which you would be working with the next day. And so on. Suddenly, it is no longer an issue. Conditionally speaking and based on my experience so far in Germany, a three-year degree is necessary, the so-called Ausbuildung, if you want to work in any kind of normal job. It goes as far as to say that you will need Ausbuildung if you want to use the toilet. But for jobs for which only your body is required – not too much brains, and your time – so for a job where you directly give your health and your time in exchange for a salary, your work experience is not required. Especially if you stay longer in that job, you directly exchange your health and time for the salary and for that job, no work experience is needed. They no longer ask about your diploma, education, or anything else. And this works provided that your employer respects all the legal obligations they are required to respect but, consequentially, you see that it is about extracting the labor force from you. The question is only how strong you are, what your health condition is like, how much you can take, and how long you can endure this type of work. They know everything. They know very well about the work conditions, they have around fifteen people in factories who circulate. If one cannot do it, another stands in. One should have no illusions that someone cares about you. You are a number, you have a chip, and that’s it.

Danijela: Edina, you wanted to say something briefly. Then Gorana and then Elissa. Here, Edina, please go ahead.

Edina: I’m just going to add something briefly about the work experience and the diploma recognition in Germany, which Paulina mentioned. So, first she was asked if she had any work experience. That’s what they ask everyone. And in our region, people finish college and then they go off into the world, without any work experience, which is very interesting. If you spend five years after you get your diploma without working in your field, the employment bureau considers that diploma worthless. So, Paulina, if you don’t do anything related to architecture in five-years-time, they will tell you your diploma is pretty much worthless. Besides, there are options, they don’t have to pay for the recognition and internship, but they could if they wanted to. So, it all depends on what kind of officer a job-seeker runs into. Some people get the approval, but most of them don’t. I find it interesting, from a feminist perspective, that a woman who gives birth, for instance, maybe has two kids, she spends two years on pregnancy leave, two on maternity leave, a little bit here, a little bit there, and those five years pass very quickly and the woman doesn’t stand a chance anymore. Such people often come to my office for counseling and they are terribly disappointed. It is also the case with men, but women are affected the most, and in jobs that they occupy – such as social workers or teachers – they have minimal chances here and end up like Paulina, with these agencies or intermediaries. Employment agencies outsource workers. They don’t even want to deal with that. They give it to somebody else and they send them, like Paulina, to work for half the money she could actually earn if she was employed directly.

Paulina: If I could just add something briefly to what Edina has just said; from my experience, as far as I could notice, it is not just the issue of diploma recognition. I think that here, it is generally the German experience that is valued the most. It is enough for a person to have at least half a year or a year of experience of any kind of work in Germany. A German employer immediately sees you differently and they treat this item on your CV differently from anything you did earlier outside of Germany.

Danijela: Thank you very much. Now we go from the European Union to a country that is on the European periphery and that country’s name is BiH. I would like now to ask Gorana to present her view – Gorana, you have researched and written many reports dealing with migration in BiH. What is the situation now? Is it worse than ever? Has it been better and where are we headed with migration into BiH? Can we speak about it in the context of our country and can we talk about integration? If we cannot talk about integration, then what can we actually talk about?

Gorana: Well, I am not sure if we can talk about migration to BiH. BiH is primarily a transit country, for a number of reasons. One of them is the militarization of and the violence at EU borders, which are closing more and more each day. That, of course, applies to people who unfortunately had no other way of reaching Europe and who were promised a supposedly better life. So, speaking from that point, BiH is just a passage. On the other hand, BiH is not interested in accepting people who are passing through. At best, for some, it provides subsidiary protection. But BiH is absolutely not interested in any kind of reception of people. Due to its location, BiH is the country where people have been trading for decades and centuries, this includes trafficking of people, as well as drugs and weapons. So, there is nothing new here. Currently, there are just a lot more people, so they are more visible. Since 2015, with the opening of the so-called Balkan route, more and more people are choosing to pass through BiH.

Since 2018 BiH became part of the route because everything else was far too militarized and violent. BiH’s borders are harder to militarize because they are rugged and dispersed. I am not saying the borders around BiH are not being militarized at all, but they militarize with more difficulty. So, naturally, the Balkan route was directed through BiH, and BiH simply has become some kind of passage.

I would like to point out something important here. There are a lot of people who would actually like to stay in BiH, but BiH is not in any way interested in something like that. The only way for those people to potentially stay in BiH, which our authorities are prone to call illegal, is to seek asylum. Asylum in BiH is mission impossible. Even for those coming from Syria, we only give subsidiary protection. I personally know people, with founded requests for political asylum, and they were either rejected or, at best, they receive temporary, subsidiary protection, which has to be renewed every year. So, we are not talking about any security, especially if someone gets the opportunity to stay here for a year. There is no interest to offer to that person anything beyond that. Subsidiary protection is not about giving someone a chance to stay. It is also important to mention that asylum seekers are entitled to seek jobs nine months after their asylum application. That is, of course, if their asylum application is not resolved within that time – which at the moment is usually the case, as there are very few officials working on the asylum claims and there are quite many applications. And if someone even manages to get a job, they can’t open a bank account because they need ID cards valid in BiH. And before they get asylum, as they can be approved either asylum or subsidiary protection only once, they become entitled to get an adequate ID card. In the process of applying for asylum these people, as asylum seekers, receive so-called yellow cards. Those are like some identification cards that confirm that they have asked for protection from BiH. The law provides them with certain protection mechanisms until their actual status is decided. But in reality, this is not the case. Some issues might even be due to the slowness of administration, so maybe not even intentional obstacles. These yellow cards have expiry dates and must be renewed every three months. What happens is that a card usually expires before they get a new one. So, the moment they lose the card – they have had it for three months, and then they don’t have it for a month – what happens is that they will lose their status and the bank will close their account regardless of them still being in the process. I think it is important to say that anyone who has sought asylum and who is trying to do everything legally, in fact, is deliberately made “illegal” in BiH, as the authorities like to refer to them. This attempt to make people illegal (which is impossible) is what forms the discourse of racism and the entire discourse of fascism, but let’s not talk about that right now.

Danijela: Yes, so they become illegal very easily due to all these procedures which lead to it. Elissa, you are fresh from the field, you have just completed your year-long fieldwork in Bihać, you talked to a lot of people. How do people in Bihać react, what’s the mood among ordinary people? There is even a Bihać female politician, Aida Sejdić, who wrote that famous letter in October 2020, which in my opinion was very affirmative towards refugees. She was the first politician to say that Bihać wasn’t and shouldn’t be allowed to become a camp. This is a very strong statement—she spoke about how Bihać citizens have a lot on their plate and how they could not be expected to resolve a global crisis. This is true and I think we agree on that.

Elissa: Well yes, it’s true, due to Bihać’s geography and place in the structures of power. They are right between the various levels of authority – and the border feels distant from Sarajevo and the BiH Federation authorities. More recently, people also feel cut off from Croatia and Zagreb, which has always been around the corner so to speak. There is a talk by some European institutions or human rights activists that Bosnia is not acting properly, that there are violations of human rights of migrants, that Bihać, and especially the Una Sana Canton is full of racists who won’t respect migrants’ rights, who don’t let them move freely, who attack them, who spread hatred. Yes, these things exist in the canton, but their position in the whole structure is not taken into account. The European Union, the border regime and its rules, and what Croatia is doing – I mean they return people brutally, with violence, people get stuck in that part of Bosnia. I don’t know if this answers your question.

Danijela:  Of course it does, so – you are mentioning something for the first time here when you speak about the big systems. Gorana is right, these are not really migrations, Bosnia is a transit country, but what I am afraid of is that the EU shows very clearly that they don’t want these people and that Bosnia will become a country of permanent transit. It is not an immigration country, but it has been assigned a role. Somebody mentioned periphery and peripheralization. This means that a role has been assigned to a country in the periphery. I don’t need to remind you of the metaphors of ‘warehouse’, parking lot’, ‘landfill’ and so on… So people come here to Bosnia, EU doesn’t want them. these people will have to stay here, like – oh well, I guess you’ll have to stay here. There are popular theories about exchanges of population, I’ve heard that too, exchange of people, of entire populations. Elissa mentioned the big system, like the EU as a big system. Can we talk about a larger European migration system and politics, and how you see it, let’s say, from a German perspective? Germany is one of the most prosperous EU countries. So Germany uses the services of immigrants and is also a client of the big EU system, it imports a foreign labor force which later on will be drained dry, as Paulina said. It is about laboring bodies, living labor, whereby the most brilliant are taken via the Blue Card system – so let’s talk about the system, big systems, and the European migration system is definitely one of those.

Edina: While Gorana was talking about the illegalization of refugees in BiH, I could not not think about the German Duldung (eng. Toleration), because Germany had a similar system of making people leave. Duldung is a type of stay, where we haven’t done anything – we haven’t done anything wrong – and people lose their temper, their health gets ruined, they get evicted from their flats. There is no possibility to stay legally, your stay here has expired, which is why we have to “tolerate” you. Duldung means toleration. Our people, or shall I say refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, were tolerated in Germany, their stays were extended for six months, those were the lucky ones, or for three months, some even got it for a month. So children go to school for a month, people work, they have to submit their residence permits and they are valid only for a month! They have to leave work to extend them, you get the idea. German politics, maybe it’s just nicely packaged, but it’s not naïve and is comparable with these attempts to illegalize people so they would leave on their own. So that’s first. Then, concerning the global migrations, German politics has been directed in such a way as to focus on and to want only the good ones. In March 2020, they passed another immigration law. So, all people from third countries who up until then were prohibited from entering with the purpose of seeking work are now allowed to enter and seek work. Everybody can come, but when you look at the conditions that have to be met in order for a person to come as part of the qualified workforce, you see two tendencies: either what Paulina was saying – someone with amazing work experience, or somebody who is an expert in a very particular thing that no German person can do. If someone just wants to come to seek work, the criteria for this person to obtain a legal permit are super high so everything boils down to sheer capitalism. We just want what we can make use of.

Danijela: And Gorana, maybe you can refer to this big system and say why BiH doesn’t make use of that integration. Let me be a proverbial devil’s advocate here.

Gorana: The state of BiH, what is that? It is very debatable who is really running the politics in BiH. Let us not forget that BiH still lives under the Dayton Peace Accord, which separates territories giving power to the ethno-kleptocrats. And they only exist because they give purpose to the international community and vice versa, I mean they mutually enable and sustain each other. It is important to note that right now the EU is paying an international organization to “manage migrations.” Currently, this organization is the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which in the past twenty years has had all sorts of mandates. This is very strange, to say the least. This is very problematic, but it is also very strange, why and for what purposes they receive the funding. It is not the state that is given the funding so it can provide humanitarian aid to people in need, and show its human face, but the money is given to the international organization to “manage” the migration flows.

Let me also go back to your question regarding the system. What is the role of BiH in the context of “migration management” in the EU? First, let us be clear, in 2015, when the corridor was opened, the discourse was that it was opened for the Syrian refugees. And let us not forget that Syrians are highly educated and white, thus the idea of the open borders through the corridor has been set up in a very racist, very Euro-racist way. But wars were also going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, just to mention a few. And EU was part of both of these wars, it was happily bombing people there. When it became obvious that these were not only Syrians but that other people joined this migration “wave,” then the borders were closed. Because Afghan people, now I am going to be very sarcastic, regardless of them being very educated and fast learners, they are not white enough, they are “darker.” Even though Kabul was not safe, the EU has been organizing deportations, very, very cruel deportations. Children who spent ten years in some EU member states just get thrown back to Kabul, and some of them weren’t even born in Afghanistan but Iran, for example.

As far as BiH as a peripheral country is concerned, it presents an additional obstacle for people to reach the western EU because we are the “internal” border of the EU. Let us not forget this. All the people passing through BiH first had to be in the EU, before arriving in BiH. They have to then pass through BiH to come to a more western EU. Because when they were in Greece and Bulgaria, they were in more southern or eastern parts of the EU so to say. So, BiH somehow represents an internal border, we have been made into an internal border. We are some sort of a buffer. We are some sort of “purgatory” to make sure that only those most resilient can get to the West. They have to manage to pass through BiH, they have to manage to survive the Croatian violence at the border as well as the pushbacks. We have a lot of chain pushbacks from Austria and Italy, to and from Slovenia, to and from Croatia to BiH. So only those who are a little bit more resourceful are “allowed” to reach the western EU.

The third thing that is happening very clearly in BiH – and we are not really dealing with integration and accepting people – is only the general humanitarian aspect. Our constitutional obligations are that we have to be humane towards the people who are here. At the end of the day, the Constitution states that everyone who is in BiH has to equally enjoy the human rights listed in the Constitution. But, it seems, we don’t have a problem with violating those rights when it comes to people who are not Serbs, Croats, or Bosniaks. BiH is very speedily working on bilateral agreements with the countries where most of these people are from. These are Pakistan, Morocco, Bangladesh, and Algeria for example. And in the media, they have been threatening these people with group deportations, which is absolutely outrageous, uncivilized, according to any human rights standards. So it seems the EU is going to appropriate its orientalism by shifting the group deportations to BiH and making BiH do it: the “civilized” Europe, i.e. EU won’t be doing these deportations, but the “wild” people of the Balkans will. The so-called “wild people of the Balkans” are going to confirm the stereotype about themselves as racists, of course.

In 2018 the number of people passing through Bosnia increased, and it was visible that BiH will become a point of passage and a lot of people would be coming through Bosnia. Europe decided to give the money to the IOM and not the state of BiH, stating the state being corrupt as one of the reasons for such a decision. But the state is not corrupt when it comes to giving money for the police, and for the militarization of borders! Only when the state is supposed to show its “humane” face, then the money is given to some international organization with a very problematic history in BiH. This is the organization that did not handle things well regarding the trafficking of women in the early 2000s. I mean, we can debate whether these were omissions or deliberate actions. Who can say this organization is not corrupt? Why is the organization with a very bad track record in BiH considered less corrupt than the state of BiH? I mean we are deliberately being made into wild Balkaners. True, we are not the perfect picture of humanity, we can be racists too. This can be seen in some examples when Bosnians and Herzegovinians migrate abroad and use the white privilege no matter if we come from the periphery. But that is not the excuse for the EU to “encourage” the Bosnian government to enter into agreements with the governments of the countries the EU has determined the “least desirable” people are coming from. We continue being wild Balkaners so that Europe wouldn’t have to do it.

Danijela: Thank you Gorana, this was fantastic. Paulina,  your poem “I’m happy” is about your friend Wasi, you were both working together on an assembly line. If you could say a word or two about this encounter in a German factory, you from the Balkans and him from the Middle East, and then later we’ll read some of your poetry.

Paulina: Well, I really wanted to follow up on what Gorana and Edina have said, while Gorana was talking about these countries some images were appearing in front of my eyes, so let me say a few words. What does it look like when that periphery of the periphery manages to pass through a somewhat smaller periphery like Bosnia, in order to get to that center, if we are going to call Germany the center to which most of them aspire? What does it look like when we meet, which has been my experience over the past year and also part of this one. When we meet in one factory hall – and here I will list just some parts of the world we were from. So we worked and we are still working in three shifts. The work was organized through three groups of workers. In the group I was in, only two Germans worked. There were people from South America, India, Russia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Afghanistan, Ghana, Somalia, and who knows what other parts of Asia. There were many experiences, from very comical ones to some very shocking to me personally. This particular poem you mentioned was created right after a spontaneous conversation: he showed up at the factory and, just by accident, I was working on the same machine as him. Some of the machines are serviced by two people.

The boy was from Afghanistan, twenty-five years old. He was all smiles, cheerful, and through our conversation on what needed to be done, who would do what and how, we got to know each other a little bit better. He managed to tell me a few things about himself. He counted the countries he had passed through. He had walked for three months and arrived in Germany three and a half or four years ago. This is what Edina said earlier and Gorana too. I would not say that Europe does not deport, that it is exclusively left to the wild people of the Balkans. I believe that it is done through politics and the organization of the entire system, and they are working hard so that they are not really forced to deal with deportations. But here, specifically, that particular guy was talking of his acquaintances and friends who also came from Afghanistan and who were deported literally in their underwear. So they were pulled from their beds, put on a plane, and the next day they called from Afghanistan. He was also constantly under some sort of stress. Unlike Edina, I don’t know how this organization is formally organized and what laws and rights they are supposed to respect.

What I learned through him is that he was always under some sort of stress, waiting to see what the next document brings. They are always concerned about obtaining some far-fetched, unreachable status. So they can’t get hold of any kind of security because they are mostly undocumented. Or they get work permits which are only valid for as long as they work, or they have some restrictions or some hearings that they have to go to within certain time intervals. To prove where they have been, why they are here, I mean in Germany. A boy whose father was slain by the Taliban, who sends all his earnings to his family stuck somewhere in Turkey or Greece, he has to explain why he is in Germany. And then he shows up at work with I don’t know how many sheets of paper. And what Edina also mentioned, of course, he can’t be sure if one day he will be able to do those eight hours normally. Because one day he will show up late for work because he had to show up for his appointment. Ever since he came to Germany, he is paying a lawyer, a legal representative to represent him in front of the state to make it easier for him, only to find out, at least that’s what he told me, that the lawyer didn’t put in a good word for him, nor did he manage to get any court decisions in his favor. The only thing this lawyer did was to inform him about a verdict that was not in his favor.

Danijela: Thanks Paulina, we’ll come back to that, this was an excellent intervention. Gorana had a quick comment regarding deportations.

Gorana: When I was talking about deportations, I referred to what can be seen as the new plans. BiH does not deport, at the moment. And it has no money to do so. BiH for the time being only has voluntary return agreements with some countries as part of its contractual obligations, and a bilateral agreement with Serbia on the return of a certain number of people who came to BiH from Serbia. But this is a very small number. Currently, Western Europe is the one making the selection, which is why I used the example of Afghanistan because it makes this kind of dynamic visible. 

Paulina: Sorry, just a sentence or two. It was interesting to see that last year, during the summer, one could notice that a larger number of people from Africa were coming to the factory. Black people from Africa. It is interesting that of all of them who passed through the factory during a month or two, I don’t know if even one stayed for a little bit longer. All the others left.

Danijela: We have mentioned race and racism a lot, and this is an omnipresent, never-ending topic. But let us briefly touch upon gender. Elissa, you have written and spoken about gender a lot, you teach gender and gender-related courses. I am putting a big question on your plate, sorry, but I have to. How do you see gender dynamics in terms of migration? You are an anthropologist and you did not deal with people on the move, rather, you spoke with people in Krajina and Bihać and I think you can reflect on their perceptions. What about migrant and refugee women coming to Bosnia, what about other gendered subjectivities? How come we see them so much less frequently? In line with what Gorana was saying about the security-humanitarian nexus, who has been allotted to deal with humanitarian and who with security aspects, and how beautifully has it all been concocted in this theater? Does it leave any void spaces? So if you could comment on the gender dimension of migrations and how you saw it, you and your respondents.

Elissa: Thank you. Yes, my project was about the local population, I wouldn’t dare do research with the people on the move because I cannot speak their languages. I did not spend time in their countries, but what was interesting for me was to see how this small community either accepts or does not accept migrants, and how it reacts to them. I am an anthropologist and my previous research dealt with gender. I teach gender studies so I still have this perspective to look at gender dimensions and ask about women. Women are everywhere, even among those protesting in front of Camp Bira in Bihać, but they are mostly present among the volunteers, among people aiding migrants, refugees. It’s not that difficult to see what the structure is, who is engaged in activities such as caring. So you asked about women migrants – where are they? It’s mostly men; and then you have people who say “these are not really refugees. They can’t be refugees because refugees are women and children, vulnerable people.” I’ve written about it before, this image of what it means to be a victim, a “real” victim. When we look at structures, what a society has been through during a war, the assumption is that men have to take up arms and fight, so these people fleeing have got to be economic migrants. And then we can ask people in Krajina, and this area has traditionally been migratory, why people from Bosnia emigrate, they go to work temporarily, like Edina mentioned, they always answer “well, we’re taking the legal way. We have papers,” although this is not completely true. But it is an answer. And this further illegalizes this population which is already placed outside the law in the way Gorana described. There are not only men, but mostly younger men, and we forget they are part of extended families which they have left behind. They are connected with women, with mothers, sisters, and extended families hoping they will arrive somewhere in the West. Bosnians and people from the region too have a similar idea of what they will find in the West, where life will be better, more affluent and more orderly. They hope they will arrive there and find jobs and then send money home or bring their families to them. It’s not that women are not part of it, although there are also plenty of women on the move who are less visible on the streets – they are more likely to get a place in a “family camp” – and less visible as “single” because they travel in groups assumed to be their families even when they aren’t. It’s another thing when we talk about reactions towards younger men, as sexual threats and so on, which is connected with the old colonial, orientalist discourses about men, especially darker men, so these threats are further rationalized. People tell stories about young women who cannot walk the streets freely because migrants will sexually assault them, but then they also talk about helping migrants and knowing volunteers who help them by distributing aid from abroad. My neighbors helped a group of young Pakistanis and I know other families who “adopted” some young men, who helped them, who let them use their bathrooms for bathing, who fed them, they don’t allow them to spend the night because this is forbidden, even though no law formally prohibits it, but I don’t want to get into that. So there are people, ordinary people who have adopted such groups and talk about them as their children. They are either like children who need to be taken care of and nurtured, or they are threats, sexual threats or terrorist threats, soldiers and so forth. They pick and choose what they talk about to support different positions.

Danijela: Edina, what is it that Germany “takes,” how come they can pick and choose who they want and who they don’t?

Edina: I wrote about this in the chat because I wasn’t sure we would have the time to reflect on it. Official state policy always uses the labor market argument. This is their alpha and omega, so to say. Just to meet the needs of the labor market. And in order to satisfy those needs, they introduce various instruments. If there is a deficit in certain professions, they will bring people from countries where we know that such jobs have attained a higher level of professionalization. For instance, the Italians are great cooks, ex-Yugoslavia had the best construction workers and nurses. They were able to bring people from different parts of the world this way. There are countries in the world where the educational system was more like the one in Germany, more similar than those of BiH and Serbia, because  Germany had signed agreements on employment of nursing staff with these two countries. And who did they make the agreements with first? With people from our part of the world, the Balkans. They don’t officially talk about it, but it is clear these people are white. What Gorana mentioned before, racism. Only when they have exhausted the labor force from the so-called white countries, do they start bringing people from Mexico and now they are discussing making an agreement with the Philippines. So it’s always nice, we’re clean, but racism does exist despite being out of sight, hidden. As for the Black people that Paulina mentioned, only the church will advocate for them in case of asylum-seeking, so a lot of Africans can be found around churches because some good people run certain churches and religious associations. Not only churches – there are different religious movements which see these people as their children, as Elissa said. But unfortunately, officially, racism is present.

I would like to add one thing briefly regarding what Elissa was saying. My parents’ house has been broken into. The house is empty, it is in a little border village called Šturlić. Maybe you passed through it, it’s close to Bihać. It’s very close to the Croatian border, the border is maybe five minutes from their house. Some refugees broke in and my parents didn’t protest. My mother even commented that “someone’s child took a bath.” That was resounding in my head: they came to take a shower, this is what the neighbor said. But my mother is like a black sheep in the family. Even my father was against it. It is rare that someone reacts as my mother did. I am especially disappointed with those people who were refugees themselves during the so-called civil war in BiH. Those are the ones arguing against allowing black people into our country, unfortunately.

Danijela: Thank you, Edina. Gorana, I find it fascinating that you can talk about complex things in very simple language, you are a dear interlocutor and I always like to exchange views with you. You mentioned the pushbacks, and the Croatian police are the closest to us. The news on violent pushbacks has entered public discourse via various solidarity networks, via engaged individuals, and yet ordinary people say they don’t know about it. My Facebook wall abounds in images of tortured, beaten-up bodies of people on the route attempting “the game.” But maybe you can suggest something for all those who are listening to us. What would be three easy steps to change something in this respect? We know we cannot solve those problems or slay these dragons, but what is it that ordinary people can do, what is it that we should be pushing for? What are the activists saying? What have their efforts been? I know that certain initiatives were successful in reporting and denouncing violence, but the violence at the Croatian border has somehow gone unpunished, without any sort of criticism. Sometimes you need to get loud about those things. What can citizens do and what can activist groups do, those who’d like to get engaged? What can they do specifically in this particular moment?

Gorana: You asked like twenty questions at once, so I’m not sure how I can answer all of them. First things first, it is really “wonderful” that the EU is opening the question of Croatia. However, they are funding their border guards at the same time. So, I think we are constantly spinning in circles.

In terms of activist and political issues, on one hand, we need to open up the issues of justice and redefine the issue of justice. We need to find ways of talking about these issues, but it’s hard to change the system. These issues have been put on hold, as we are in reactive mode. We can see this by using BiH as an example. We are not talking about politics and justice; we are only talking about the Croatian police violence. And Bosnian and Herzegovinian police are not so gentle either. Even BiH police are beating people on the move in some cantons. I mean, let us be clear here, we have a situation when patterns of violence repeat. Our police use the same methods as the Croatian police. And so do the Greek and Bulgarian police and so on. But it is important to make some connections, as “our” police have used violence against us too. So, it is not sufficient to just call out one form of violence and only as isolated events. Rather, we’ve got to stand up against militarization, including the militarization of the police. Let us not forget about Justice for David. Let us not forget veterans, people who were protesting in front of the Federal BiH parliament, the elderly who got beaten up. So, if we follow these things, we see that they are systemic. A lot of things need to change in order for us to become a more humane society.

On the other hand, when we discuss individuals, I mean I am strongly against organized humanitarian aid simply because it can go on forever and provides an excuse for the system not to respect its obligations. We have all levels of white racist behavior in the context of humanitarian aid provision. We are the “wonderful white guys” who are helping “non-white” people. There are lots of problems there. But unfortunately, at the moment, we have no other way either. So whoever sees a person or talks to the person is helping in a way, especially at the moment when we have violence and lynch mobs organized to attack people. There are so many levels to address, but it means a lot even to say hello to the people, to smile at them, have a chat, help if you can, buy something, some food, help them take a shower, let them sleep over. I mean anything, I do hate organized humanitarian actions, but it is humane to help a person at any given moment in time, this is very important.

Also, we need to organize politically, to act politically to change the system. Let me be clear here when talking about the political system: of course, change the political system in BiH but I have a huge problem with the entire EU and also globally. We are dealing with a global system that is putting us in chains as slaves. But let me not get into these big pictures.

Danijela: Paulina, could you say a word at the end and then you can read some of your poetry. Maybe just a final word for all those listening to us tonight.

Paulina: The thing that came to my mind when listening to Gorana and Edina, was that when I see those people, and we were in the factory together literally in the same shit when it comes to work conditions, we formed a small group, to help. I’d like to reflect on the theme of helping and what can be done. So this (Germany) is already a destination and not just for people on the move. We are in the same sort of a controlled situation, enclosed under similar conditions. That young man I was talking about, he was from Afghanistan, so he was a bit darker than us. There was never a time that he went to the vending machine that he didn’t bring something for the person working next to him. When he saw you getting tired and falling asleep, he was the one to say “go get some fresh air, I’ll stand in for you,” whenever he could. He was the one to leave you an apple when he had two. And so on and so on. I speak from my personal experience and I don’t want to generalize. A girl working over the break, she was German, she worked very briefly, she’d say she was going to get coffee but she would never remember to ask you if you wanted coffee too. This is something that goes without saying in our mentality, and in the mentality of people from these faraway countries, rather than from Germany, Italy, or Poland. Those are the things that one cannot forget when one has experienced them. Again, I don’t want to generalize here, I don’t think some are black and some are white. I don’t want to be an exclusionist here but those are some examples and some images that remain with you. So those who are in the worst situation, who came from Turkey to Greece on a speedboat with 48 other people – and he was the one who didn’t drown by pure chance, this was the kid who managed to get here – the one who has the least is the one who will help you first. This has been my experience in the last year and a half. And a general conclusion, again, I am not as acquainted with the systemic opportunities and laws as the other interlocutors, but speaking of migrations in the so-called countries of the core, of orderly Western Europe, I think that ways of respecting other people’s freedoms have been regulated, and that freedoms exist insofar as you don’t go against the grain of profit. The entire regulation has been harmonized so that it is conducive to profit. But this is a known story about capitalism, what’s relevant and what’s irrelevant. So as long as you are that cog in the wheel which contributes, which can work so that you can pay taxes and be a consumer and so on and so forth; for as long as you are useful to that system and willing to obey at least in principle, you are good. You are functioning.

Danijela: Thanks Paulina, what you just said was wonderful and it gave me an idea about what to ask Elissa. You probably know this question. So our people here went through the war. Now, we have some other people who have been through their wars. I’ve also written some papers about this common experience, the affective ties among people who are products of different genealogies of war and conflict, how much can they learn from one another. Do you think that any sort of dialogue can happen there? I think that in that very dialogue, in that conversation that is to happen between two, three or five peripheries, some new restructuring of Europe will also take place, not just Europe as an idea but also as a physical space.

Elissa: You mean if there are possibilities for solidarity, something like that?

Danijela: Well, I’m just asking…

Elissa: Yes, yes.

Danijela: You’ve been to the field, I haven’t.

Elissa: Well, that was the question in the beginning. BiH went through the war – will these people have some understanding, empathy and all that? In the beginning, a lot of people had empathy, this is what they are saying now, when they thought of them as Syrian refugees. And now everything we said about race, color, and education comes forth. But then they figured some were darker than others, or they came from countries not recognized as being at war, and then attitudes started changing a bit, also because the novelty wore off and problems started because of lack of decent accommodations. You have BiH and within it, everything is distributed according to ethnicity and gender. They (migrants and refugees) are at the bottom of the hierarchy, both in BiH and globally. Some people in BiH see them and realize there are people who are lower than them in status in relation to Western Europe and Germany. And for them, this is an opportunity to see that they are not the lowest of the low, that they are still white and European. Of course, I’m talking about stereotypes and stereotypical understandings here.

Danijela: But you said this was at the beginning, and as time passed, the conversation didn’t happen really. Do you think there is still a chance?

Elissa: Yes, but people find other reasons to think of them as different. This is a different experience. Others say “I know how it is to be homeless, I know how it feels to be on the move, I know those insecurities.” That’s why they have empathy and keep helping.

Danijela: Thank you Elissa, thank you all. On behalf of the BASOC radio, I wish you a pleasant evening. Thank you for talking to me about migration and integration in Europe on this late November evening.

Toilette-Schwabien (Germany)

Workers’ toilet 
Handwritten by marker:
Bitte, die Toiletten
sauber und gespüllt verlassen.
Wir sind nicht im Schweinstall!!!

The tiles are from the 60s,
the toilet paper is as thin as cigarette paper,
the flusher’s a bit rusty,
hands are not to be wiped but dried.
There is a printed sign on one of the cabins
in German, English, and Polish.
Nothing in Cyrillic, sorry,
but imperatives abound.
They mention that the rat problem has been — resolved.

Office staff toilet
There is hand cream and an air freshener:
Für unseren liebe Kunden.
The towel dispenser automatically rotates the cloth.
The request to maintain cleanliness is in verse. 
With cartoon characters and smileys.
In color.

When I sneak during night-shifts
closer to their rhymes,
and wash my hands in warm water
I figure –
the suits don’t shit flowers.
Their thicker toilet paper is in vain.

Made in Germany

On one side of the assembly line, I control the parts
on every piece I put a sticker with my number and I pack them.
I walk 16 steps to the other side.
There, I cut out surplus plastic from every other piece with a small knife
Every 36 seconds, new parts are added to the assembly line.

I sort them in eights in ready-made polystyrene cases
on every one, I put a “Made in Germany” label.
The cases are then loaded onto pallets in columns.
Above them goes a huge lid
and the main label with a barcode.

Today’s is one of the slowest and dullest machines in the factory.
Except that I do a lot of walking within 8 hours
so that I can reach both sides.
As if I were a ping pong ball.

In those 16 steps, I see many faces.
I experience many states –
I break and patch myself together
as if I was made of porcelain.
Almost everyday
I curse myself
and praise, alternately.
in seams where the light is reflected from the assembly line,
taking and tossing the parts,
I toss my memories of the beloved dead who are so alive.
And of the living who seem so dead. Am I one of them?

Tens of different “whys” are soon replaced by rather banal worries –
am I entering into the right rhythm for this machine,
have enough labels been prepared for my shift,
is some packaging missing for which I’ll need to run to the warehouse,
is this part of the factory hall too cold or too hot,
when and if I’ll be able to drink water and go to the toilet,
have I brought something to eat during lunch break,
do I have enough change for the coffee machine?

Every chipped checkout,
before I go to get air,
is a whole little victory –
the body endured,
concentration persevered,
thoughts that haven’t completely gone wild.

Tomorrow, I start over again.

I’m happy

Wasi is a new factory worker.
He started yesterday.
Today we work together on a fast, kick-ass machine.
He manages well.
The same agency sent us to work here.

He’s been in Germany for three years.
He came from Afghanistan.
On foot.
Via Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary…
He lists the states he was crossing on foot for three months.

Before the factory, he worked at a car repair shop, at a warehouse, at McDonald’s
He cannot get vocational training for a craft because he sends all his income to his mother and sister.
His father had been slain by the Taliban.
In six days, he has the last meeting, on the topic  “Why are you in Germany.”
Either he gets a passport or will have to leave the country.

Wasi is 25 and already has grey hair
He’s cheerful.
He offers me wafer biscuits and Red Bull.
He doesn’t understand why people leave Croatia.
“It’s a long story,” I reply and hand him his part.

We continue to place plastic clips,
seven per piece.
I exchange a quick glimpse with a colleague,
a Macedonian engineer,
who has jumped in to help us.

“Are you happy in Germany,” I ask Wasi,
“Do you have any friends here?”
He comes closer and says with a smile:
“I’ve had a girlfriend lately and I’m happy.”

Translation: Danijela Majstorović and 3rd year students of the University of Banja Luka’s English language and literature department: Nina Bukša, Ljiljana Debeljak, Marko Gajić, Marijana Gnjatić, Marija Jotić, Jovana Jovanić, Nenad Jungić, Branka Kaurin, Andrea Lukač, Tamara Lukanović, Milica Lukić, Anđela Majstorović, Jelena Mirjanić, Tamara Mitrović, Nevena Pekez, Nemanja Pjevač, Milica Polić, Tanja Radulović, Ivana Skrobonja, Teodora Spasojević, Tamara Tomić, Milana Tutorić.

Danijela Majstorović is Professor of English Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the University of Banja Luka’s English department. Her research interests involve critical discourse analysis, critical theory, feminist theory, post- and decolonial theory, and post-Dayton Bosnia. Her new book Discourse and Affect in Post-socialist Bosnia and Herzegovina: Peripheral Selves was published by Palgrave in 2021.

Leila Šeper has a BA degree in economics and is also a graduate engineer of agroeconomics and rural development. She works for the Banja Luka Social Center as a project coordinator covering a broad range of activities from paperwork to construction. She is also a cofounder and program directress of BLASFEM feminist festival.