Political Structures and Power Dynamics

As borders continue to close and re-open, policies to restrict and permit movement, and international and local laws amend to block or allow for asylum we see the that the future for refugees in Europe is dim and the present is even more uncertain. The abrupt and ever-changing nature of this crisis has dictated the livelihoods of millions of people and added a layer of unprecedented complexity to the way in which state actors, non-state actors and refugees interact. How this interface occurs within the setting of a refugee camp has especially been affected by the additional complexities of this unique context. Barbara Harrell-Bond argues that the greatest corruption of power in the camp setting is that of the hierarchical relationship between the humanitarian worker and the refugee and that because of the inherently patronizing design of the refugee camp and provision of resources and services within, that this dynamic can only ever be asymmetrical, where refugees are “symbolically disempowered”.  Building upon this notion, I offer that in the context of the European refugee crisis, specifically focusing on Greece and Serbia, this power dynamic is disrupted by the overriding presence of integral other actors, such as state authorities, and by the spontaneous formation and unpredictable nature of the camps within these countries. To properly illustrate the complex reality of the various manifestations of power dynamics in the context of Greek and Serbian refugee camps, the parameters of specific camps and the presence or absence of crucial actors must be discussed.

Non-Governmental Organizations and UNHCR:

International Non-Governmental Organizations have been instrumental in the response to the refugee crisis within the limitations the refugee camp. Although these entities are technically not aligned with any state to say that they do not add an additional layer of politics to the camp setting is untrue. In an interview with Greg Ramm, the Vice President of Humanitarian Response at the international NGO Save the Children, he contended that the best strategy in a setting like Serbia was to help in building the capacity of the government to better serve the refugees.

“In Serbia, especially the border areas like Presovo and Sid that until the deal acted only as transit sites, it is in the best interest of Save to operate within the existing government structures that exist to provide aid to the people. It is our mission to nurture the existing system within the camp rather than disrupt it.”     

Based on my observations in the field, outside of the official government run camp in Serbia, this neutral diplomatic approach would simply not work. For NGOs operating in informal settlements or camps that were created spontaneously as a result of refugees simply being there, there is no structure put in place therefore they have the influence to build it. NGOs such as Refuge Aid Serbia, who formed as an organization in September 2015 in response to the influx of people in Serbia, are operating in public parks in Belgrade that became camp settlements and daily hang-out spaces for refugees. Besides patrolling local police there are only NGOs operating in the parks, therefore the role of both the authoritative figure and basic needs distributor is expected by the non-state actors. In this case to secure a position of authority the NGOs use information about asylum and border policies as their mechanism for control. While water, food and other necessities are vital, in the constantly shifting context of the European refugee crisis information is golden. In an interview with Lissette Fermoselle, the Operations Manager for Refugee Aid Serbia she described the situation.

“ What the refugees really want is information, they want to know when they can leave Serbia and move on to Western Europe. If we can continue to provide people with what it is that they really want, we hope that they will continue to be peaceful in the public areas and allow us to distribute food and NFIs (non-food items) without problem.”

The setting highlighted above serves to support Harrell-Bond’s argument of the asymmetrical relationship between humanitarians and refugees, as in this instance the refugee is made entirely dependent on the aid worker for a means of both physical and mental survival. Although in an informal, less government regulated camp setting such as this, there is space allowed for organizing and resistance within the refugee community complicating the simple power dynamic of provider and recipient. This past week the refugees from the park and asylum center outside of Belgrade staged a hunger strike and marched 250km to the Hungarian border to protest the newly restricted laws around border crossing, exerting their political power and turning camp dynamics upside down.

Central and Local Government & Military and Police:  

In Serbia, the Commissariat for Human Rights and Refugees is responsible for the management of all official camps.  While in country I spoke with several NGOs about their experience and tactics working with the government as the camp managers. Marija Cveij, a case manager at NGO Atina based in Belgrade, reported that when the camps first opened to receive the first massive wave of refugees in fall 2015 that the Serbian government was incredibly restrictive regarding what service providers they allowed to operate in the camp. NGO Atina, who works specifically with victims of Gender Based Violence (GBV), was not allowed to function within the official camp setting, as the government did not recognize psychosocial support as a basic necessity. This is an example how state actors can act as barriers to the asymetircal relationship Harrell-Bond refers to, by maximizing complete authoritative decision making and control over how and who operates in the camp  setting state actors ultimately prevent the infantile dynamic between NGO service provider and refugee or in this case assume that role themselves.

Written by: Alex Wynn