Focus on Focus: Volunteering Centre of Vojvodina – Travellers/Companions: Women’s Activism on Western Balkan Route

Volunteering centre of Vojvodina, an organization from Novi Sad, which, in addition to volunteering, promotes progressive practices and values such as anti-fascism, struggle against xenophobia, racism, nationalism, has recently organized a series of meetings of women activists supporting people on the move, with the support of our program Special Focus.

The meetings, focused on the experiences of the activists from Serbia and the region, meant a space for exchanging field experiences, collecting and exchanging effective practices, as well as joint reflection on the challenges women activists are facing, personally and collectively. On this occasion, we talked to the activists of the Volunteering Centre of Vojvodina. 

1. One of the challenges in hosting the meetings of the activists was the pandemic which moved the activities into the online space, and it seems that this challenge was skillfully solved. There are also the challenges of facing right-wing comments and defamation. Yet, it is probably most interesting to hear what were the topics and conclusions of the conversations between the activists – what were the main challenges in the field and in working with people on the move, both in pre-pandemic and pandemic period?

The meetings were, on one hand, envisioned as a safe space (as safe as the internet framework allows it) for women activists who work around similar topics and activities, who do not have too many opportunities to meet online or offline, and on the other hand, it was devised as an informative introduction into the current situation of forced migrations towards Balkans and through Balkans for all those who wish to learn from first-hand, reliable sources, bypassing the shocking media titles and dry statistics. 

During the first meeting, we discussed the movie Midnight Traveller, about the experience of the director and his family in Serbia and along the route, as well as about the experiences of the audience and their motivation to partake in the meetings. The second meeting dealt with the current position of people on the move in the region, as well as with the impact of the media on shaping the opinions of wider population, and the subject of hate speech directed at people on the move and those who express solidarity with them. On the third meeting, we talked about the situation in the field in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, highlighting the interaction of local population with people on the move, as well as the absence of interaction, while the fourth meeting was devoted to the position of the women activists supporting people on the move and criminalization of their solidarity. 

The impression we had after the series of meetings is that the working challenges are numerous, from the hardships in establishing contacts with people on the move, who are oftentimes intentionally placed far away from the local population, in places where their basic rights are often eliminated to the fact that punishing for solidarity impacts personal and collective experiences of the activists, as well as people on the move. 

If we can even say that before the pandemic it was easier to make contact with people on the move in the need of support and whose experiences the activists wanted to hear and share with the public, now we can freely say that the state of emergency has disrupted these already difficult activities: as it happens in each social, economic and political crisis, the least protected people pay the highest price. Hence, in this situation, people on the move have been even more marginalized, closing the reception centres disabled any contacts with the outer world (in Serbia and Croatia), and all across the region, those who haven’t had any other (and better) shelter, were repudiated from the streets. 

Another challenge brought on by the pandemic is the increase of the anti-migrant propaganda as well as spreading fake news, such as those connecting nightly installations of 5g network cables with the alleged increase of number of migrants in the streets of Belgrade, or those dealing with other conspiracy theories. Standing against such news, our activities are a grain in the sea of tendentious, ungrounded, unverified contents which are very easy to access by the internet users. 

2. This time, your activities were quite illustrative of the discrepancy between the online and offline world. On one hand, in the offline world, there are people on the move and the activists providing them support, oftentimes also exposed to different types of stigmatization. On the other hand, online world is dominated by the problematic policy disabling or making it difficult to boost posts relating to social issues, which imposed certain problems for you to promote the events on Facebook. We have a situation in which the anti-migrant propaganda spreads almost without any obstacle both in the traditional media and on social networks, while progressive actions face diverse sabotages. What do you see as an alternative for timely information sharing in the atmosphere of narrowed options for reaching the wider audiences?

On one hand, transitioning to online activities has enabled us to reach more interlocutors, enriching our meetings program with new perspectives and experiences. On the other hand, losing the option of live meetings, we have lost the opportunity to gather local like-minded people and those potentially interested in more information about this topic even if they haven’t had direct experiences. In the described context, online format has narrowed the options of reaching anyone who isn’t fully ready to face such issues. 

This has also exposed us to the uncertainty regarding the present audience, as well as the general reactions of the environment and internet/social media users: the online promotion was a double-edge sword in our case. While it has enabled us to reach the participants fro, other places, it has exposed our activities to a general criticism of a large number of people expressing intolerance towards the organization, activities, project team, as well as people on the move. 

Disseminating the information (outside of these meetings) is something we see as an opportunity for collaboration with similar groups (whether they are groups and channels on social media, formal groups or groups of individuals who occasionally gather and organize activities), with the existing groups and initiatives that do not necessarily deal with the issues of freedom of movement or human rights, but we can still find common sensibility with them (such groups are actually the most important to grow aa network of allies and contribute to increasing the number of like-minded people), as well as an opportunity for improving the collaboration between the media and groups active in the field, education of journalists regarding ethical reporting, and finally, as a tool of sharing direct experiences, which was vastly taken away from us during the pandemic, but it is still important to work on it. 

3. What does it mean to you and other women activists who partook in these activities to be a companion to the people on the move in the region, in the circumstances of strong, virtually paranoid anti-migrant sentiments?

Activism in this field had, and still has, significant consequences regarding professional and personal lives of many participants of our meetings: perhaps, currently, the most significant example is the situation of Tajana Tadić from the group Are You Syrious?, whose activism against illegal and forced deportations brought to her partner losing the refugee status, as well as the possibility of staying in Croatia. Also, the same group has on numerous occasions experienced their premises for language learning, providing free legal support and a free shop being vandalized. 

Tajana and other interlocutors at our meetings talked about banning the work of organizations, death threats to the women activists and their families, as well as the consequences suffered by the people on the move that they have represented in situations such as processes for requesting asylum.

All the interlocutors agreed that things such as dehumanization in the media, passive, neutral or negative tone of journalists’ reporting on this subject, using wrong or unethical terminology such as “illegal persons” or “illegal migrants” by the dominant communicational channels (media and institutions) equally contribute to forming negative viewpoints of the wider community, which later on entice hostile or numb reactions of the local population regarding people on the move, activists and organizations supporting the mentioned population. 

4. What conclusions from the meetings and conversations would you highlight as the most important lessons you are taking away from this project? Do you have any strong thoughts and ideas from the participants to share with us?

Considering the characteristics of the migrants’ route on the Western Balkans, where the politics of neighboring countries have such a strong mutual impact (which is also the case with other routes and bordering countries), we consider that there is a strong need for continual communication to exchange information and experiences. The participants of these meetings have spoken, besides from their specific activist experiences, also from the perspective of their professions and shared significant information regarding legal and political treatment of people on the move in the entire region. 

Although all of the participants have enriched the quality of the meetings, here we will share only some of the conclusions, experiences and ideas, while we remind you that the videos of all the meetings are available on our YouTube channel

Viktoria Zakinski Toma shared with us the results of her research presented in her PhD dissertation “Media reporting on migrants in Republic of Serbia and Hungary from 2016 to 2019”, which helped us to better understand the influence of Hungarian media on prominently negative viewpoints of the residents of border areas in Vojvodina. 

Nidžara Ahmetašević and Gorana Mlinarević have pointed to the responsibilities of the European Union as the main “purchaser” of the fences, wires, forced deportations, even though the media attention, especially within the EU itself, oftentimes focuses on the Western Balkan countries as the main or even the only actor of violence and human rights violations. 

Silvia Maraone reminded of the importance of being present within the centres, in the places where people are not more protected, and frequently are exposed to violence, far away from the eyes of the local community, organizations, legal representatives and people in solidarity. 

Also, we found the perspective of Mia Kisić quite informative; during the meeting, she was engaged as an expert from an organization supporting women in Iraq, including internally displaced Yazidis.

The overall conclusion is that many women who partook in the project are directly damaged for their activist work. This implies the ruinous consequences of speaking about this subject publicly and publicly representing the interest of people whose rights are violated. This has shown how important it is for the activists to share their experiences and receive the adequate support one from another, when such support is missed in the wider community. 

Interview and translation by: Galina Maksimović.

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