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Refugees & Volunteering: Beyond the Culture of Giving

Having returned from my volunteering activities in the Balkans, I started reflecting on certain aspects of refugee aid in a number of schools, universities, and in my interviews. After my talk, some of my listeners would come and say: ok, you’ve kind of discouraged us from helping them. However, their reaction stemmed from a misunderstanding, because after all, my goal was to present some of the problematic aspects of volunteer aid work that came from my critical self-reflection. In any case, how did the purpose of volunteer aid work disappear from my consciousness? 

Author: Michal Pavlásek, July-August 2015, Macedonia

Help’s lost ideals

Let me use a metaphor from my stay there. During our work on the Macedonian-Greek border, one of the volunteers stuck a “Help for migrants in Macedonia” sticker in our car, on the place where an airbag should be. Our volunteering work had, in a sense, similar function to that of an airbag in a car – to provide the only possible help on the spot. The idealism of our first vision of aid work was quickly shattered by our driver’s response: there is no airbag under the dashboard…

This was when my first doubts were raised. A month later the sticker was already partly torn. You could only read “in Macedonia”. Apparently, we had lost the rest of it in the meantime, just as we had lost faith in the purpose of our work. And all because of the rising doubts that we were just supplying aid designed only to put out small fires on the migrant route, and then what… ?

And then (you’re right), nothing. I remembered a thesis by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who criticized the charity forms of help: charity degrades and demoralizes. Žižek seems to build on the ideas published as early as 1891 by Oscar Wilde in his essay The Soul of Man under Socialism. According to Žižek, the greatest threat to society isn’t the passivity of the people, but their pseudo-activities and obsession with participation. Instead of doing “at least something”, according to him, sometimes it is better to not do anything at all, and so speed up the breakdown of the status quo. Žižek was inspired by the following thesis of Badiou´s Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art: It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.

Author: Michal Pavlásek, July-August 2015, Macedonia

The world is bullied by securitization

According to Žižek, our collective ideal should be perhaps faith in the catharsis of the restrictive migration policies designed to create conditions for safe migration to Europe. This should keep refugees safe from smugglers and from other forms of misuse. Incidentally, a significant part in the creation of these policies was played by some of the countries on the migrant route, such as Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia, namely by shamelessly overpricing the public transport assigned to refugees the moment a potential for economic gain was seen in the refugees’ situation.

However, this ideal ended up a mere dream which soon turned into a nightmare thanks to the reinforcing “politics of fear” from the immigrants that thrives on cultural racism and islamophobia. The present climate of hatred seems to push political leaders of European states towards a growing securitization of Europe, building physical and mental fences, seriously considering abandoning Schengen, a tendency to outsource the problem to Europe’s outer borders either though the deal with Turkey, or without it. The blame game is of no lesser importance: which is the responsible party – Turkey, Greece, or maybe Angela Merkel?

Author: Michal Pavlásek, July-August 2015, Macedonia

Aid as a means of self-approval – exactly who is helping whom?

Having returned from my first trip, I created a video, whose sole aim was to motivate people to help refugees, as well as to make them understand, that “refugees don’t need our tears – they need us to stop making them refugees.” How was then the general grief displayed over the photos of innocent children on all of the Facebook groups dedicated to refugee aid (Oh, sweet Angel! God bless them! So cute!), or over the dead bodies of the drowned, the right and well-adjusted reaction?

I agree with Susan Sontag, that images also anesthetize – living with the photographed images of suffering does not necessarily strengthen conscience and our capacity for compassion. It can also corrupt them.

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

We are becoming image-junkies. We need to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs. According to Sontag our need for photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Moreover, it is we who speak on behalf of the refugees on the shared photos, and by doing so we deny them the right to be an equal subject.

Moreover, we often tend to objectify refugees upon seeing them in reality in the same way we do when we grieve over their photographs: we tend to regard them as objects of our patronizing aid that gives meaning and a sense of necessity to our desire to help. We are drugged by our self-approval, which seems to whisper to us words of comfort: “you are a good person!” As if a simple smile, a handshake, and a sincere “welcome” won’t do!

If we keep objectifying refugees from the privileged position given by our (European) first-class citizenship, which is confirmed by the incredible power of the passports we hold in our pockets, we actually stamp on the dignity of those we want to help. Instead of showing the minimal amount of respect, we degrade them by putting them in the position of “clients” of our aid. Is this not a mere validation of our privileged status? The fact that we have the comfort of being able to help? Or that our gestures help build up our social capital on the social networks and beyond them? Exactly who is helping whom?

Author: Michal Pavlásek, July-August 2015, Macedonia

Volunteering as a feel-good ideology

The criticism of the humanitarian discourse is well illustrated by that, which Žižek calls feel-good ideology, which is hidden behind (our) consumer decisions. Therefore, volunteering as a representation of the “culture of giving” can in a way represent the “ethical trap”, as we know it from the famous campaign “Starbucks good coffee karma”: When you buy eco-friendly products, fair trade goods, or products that yield some kind of charitable dividend, you don’t have to think twice about the cost of your consumerism.

Things seem to be not that different with helping refugees – we all share our feel-good ideology, in which we don’t have to think twice about the cost of our support of the current economic system, which is a less visible, but more significant, form of violence that chases the “economic migrants” we all hate to Europe. Volunteering then represents a kind of feel-good consumption that leads to our satisfaction. Therefore, our conviction that we are helping somebody and thus doing good, can hide a dangerous ignorance of other forms of violence, based on economic, environmental or climate inequalities. At the same time, these are one of the reasons for people to abandon their homes to become economic and environmental migrants.

Author: Michal Pavlásek, July-August 2015, Macedonia

One encounter, two outbursts of shame

I regard refugees as fighters for undeniable human rights, equality, and recognition. The legitimacy of their rights is consecrated by the refugee status as defined in 1951 by the Geneva Convention. Though in a desperate situation as victims of geopolitical conflicts, refugees are still persons with their own agency and dignity, capable of confirmation and requests even in the chaos of a migrant route.

For instance, when my friend Abdul from Kobanî refused my food offer with the words “thank you, but I don’t need anything,” a sense of uselessness came over me, as well as a shameful feeling of rejection and offence. “I just want to help…,” I heard my own sad voice speaking to me. He explained his refusal several months later in the refugee camp in Germany: “I never needed anything from anyone in my life. I felt ashamed to be offered help, and also there were many, who needed it much more than I.”

One encounter, two outbursts of shame. A showcase of the inequality created by the relation between those who want to give, and those who should, we assume, receive our help almost automatically.

Author: Michal Pavlásek, July-August 2015, Macedonia

Would Oscar Wilde help refugees today?

Wilde, who in his 19th century criticism of charity aid proclaimed that “it’s much easier to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought”, would nowadays probably propose: of course we should help the refugees and attempt to lessen their sufferings on the route at any cost. This is our collective aim, but…in the long run, we have to think about our complicity in creating structural conditions for inequality, which often occurs along with migrant crises.

Friedrich Nietzsche once compared the West to an apathetic animal without any passion or determination, which looked only for comfort and safety. Given today’s daily search for enjoyment and fulfilment of personal needs, the comparison still seems relevant. Hence we rarely see, or want to see, the consequences of our everyday actions.

Again, it is not a question of cheap self-flagellation, nor does it go against the work of volunteers or NGOs on the Greek islands, on the so-called Balkan route, or in Central and Western Europe, who often, at the cost of self-sacrifice, take part in self-organised, “grassroots” forms of humanitarian or charity work. At the same time we need to be aware of the side story our actions tell: certain forms of hypocrisy embodied in the paradox in which one hand attempts to fix the problem for which the other hand is partly responsible.


Searching for alternative courses

Let us get back to Žižek for a moment. If we agree with him, we walk straight into the trap of nihilism. Complete identification with his position is a potential dead end, like the sentiments expressed over the moving images of the afflicted. Though we could hardly do more than offer help in the form of food and information, what we can keep trying to do is to search for other possible courses of action.

As one of the most important persons of the new millennium, Aaron Swartz, has provoked us (1986-2013): “What is the most important thing in the world you could be working on right now? … And, if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?” 

At no cost must we drown the refugees in our tears of compassion, because they are already dying in the sea , and no less thanks to our everyday apathy concealed in the bubble of comfort and the ill-advised feeling that the world is split into “here” and “there”. The mental barrier is territorially tied to the notion of nationality is constantly being confirmed by the conversational phrase “where are you from?” Together with the acceptance of an economizing newspeak and its figures of speech, the legitimacy of “people in migration” is being evaluated against the key of deservedness. Are you from a country other than Syria, Iraq, and you want to come to Europe? Sorry, you are not welcome, you are unwanted! What is happening is a collective discrimination and segregation at the borders of the EU member states and candidate countries Serbia and Macedonia, which, based on nationality, denies refugees their right to seek asylum set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is not sufficient to raise compassion for the refugees by spreading their personal stories and narratives through mass media, because such produced empathy is often accompanied by a depoliticization of systemic issues. Moreover, the visual age of information that we live in creates all-devaluating smog that dulls our orientation abilities.

On the one hand, it is true that in social science theories revolving around feminism, antiracism, and the struggle against xenophobia, empathy played key roles in a number of movements for the achievement of cross-cultural and transnational social justice; yet on the other hand, according to Sukhmani Khorana, the evocation of empathy in refugee narratives is often accompanied by a depoliticisation of systemic issues. This occurs by shifting responsibility onto the feelings of the ethical citizen rather than the imperative of international obligations and/or the power imbalance in regional relationships.


Political solidarity is our weapon

On the one hand, it is nice to know that self-organised volunteers from all around the world keep establishing informal networks which sometimes grow into real transnational communities held together by common goals; on the other hand, the potential of the resistance seems to lay dormant.

The proper aim then is to try and reconstruct society based on the ethical course of collective responsibility for the world as a whole, where the requirement of equality is more than a mere phrase taken from the history books on democracy. The inclusion of political solidarity in the field of volunteer refugee aid means opening new courses of action, and critically opposing:

1/ the migration policies created by “our” political representatives,

2/ the concrete acts against humanity that lack respect towards refugees (the dreadful conditions in detention facilities across Europe; in my own country, the captured migrants even have to pay a daily fee of 10 EUR for the period of 3 months),

3/ the displays of new xenophobia and cultural racism that are spread by the so-called “decent citizens” accompanied by radical Islamophobes and right-wing extremists,

4/ the mental and symbolic distance defined by the articulation of the categories of “us” vs “immigrants” through so-called “cultural fetishisation”: a media-represented phenomenon, when the immoderate emphasis on the mythical “cultural values” of Europe turns into the new opium for the people.

We should take participation in self-organised assemblies (such as the meeting in Hamburg), whose aim is to empower existing networks of refugees and to develop new network structures connecting refugees, migrants, and their supporters. This seems to be the only way to create spaces founded on sharing, equality, and togetherness.


Contesting culture of giving with contemporary struggle for the commons

This seems to be the only way to create islands of positive deviation, which could be the alternative course for young generations to life in permanent uncertainty, which stems from the increasing precarity in the job market, as well as from the immoderate emphasis on individualism, rivalry, and apathy, at the expense of solidarity. This is also the only reason why I became again, this time “in my old age”, a pro-refugee activist .

Instead of keeping the “devil may care” attitude, it might be wiser to take participation in the creation of the alternative story, which at the same time accepts that our freedoms and safety always rely on the others’ lack of freedom. In the same way, our opportunities and our resources will depend more and more on what is going on in the worlds beyond our comfort zone, which we would rather not know.

The overcoming of these particular limits and borders (the limits of our volunteer work, as well) does not really comply with the contemporary hegemony of the rationality. However, by giving up the search for new ethical and moral means and ways of political solidarity, we distance ourselves from the collective responsibility for the world we all live in, where we also want to help the state-less and/or democracy-less people.

These principles are embodied in the idea of No borders (as a practical political project): it rejects notions of citizenship and statehood, and clarifies the centrality of borders to capitalism. Borders just create and produce injustice and inequalities – their work is all about fixing, categorizing and setting people into new relations of power. Borders are not fixed, but they follow people and surround them as they try to access paid labour, welfare benefits, health, labour protections, education, civil associations, and justice. That is why the transnational movement No Borders is, according to Bridget Anderson, Nandita Sharma, and Cynthia Wright, “a necessary part of a global system of common rights and contemporary struggle for the commons”.

Rather than just imitating the two-faced culture of giving, which merely establishes the asymmetry between “us,” the rescuers, and “them,” the victims, who seem to have appeared out of thin air at our borders, and to whom we should feel no responsibility whatsoever, as if their forced migration wasn’t partly caused by the conditions created by Europe’s colonial past, the global economic, social, and environmental inequalities, and our present-day participation in conflicts taking place in the Near East and Africa, every effort for political solutions should begin with a debate on our collective responsibility for the mutual past. These efforts should then be connected with the activities of other marginalized groups, who are often attacked by those who fell threatened by the contemporary neoliberalism.

In other words, rather than talks of building bridges between “us” and “them”, we must open our windows to the reality of the shared world, which is represented by the idea that we have always lived and are still living on the same island.


michalMichal Pavlásek, Ph.D. is social anthropologist, university teacher, freelance journalist and documentarist, Turkish coffee lover, researcher at the Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Co-founder of Anthropictures – flexible association of social scientists providing independent field research. In his research focuses on migration and multuculturalism. 

Some of his writings you find here:

One reply on “Refugees & Volunteering: Beyond the Culture of Giving”

I’d like to talk to you further about this Michal. Do contact me if you’d like on @Hayeslaughton. Thanks! Rebecca, Community Theatre Director, London,UK

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