A hybrid two-days conference in Sarajevo created space for grassroots activists, academia, media professionals, policy-makers and others engaged in the region to discuss timely issues around migration and refugee policies in the region and on EU level.
As a result of the war in Ukraine and the unfolding refugee crisis the issue of forced migration is back on top of the agenda in Europe. Before this dramatic expulsion, the number of asylum seekers in the European Union was relatively low, while at the same time more and more people were displaced globally, especially after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Thousands remained and still do remain stuck in the corridors to the EU.
With a joint conference in Sarajevo (31 March and 01 April 2022) the Heinrich Boell offices Sarajevo and Thessaloniki tried to shed light on the situation of these displaced people in the region.
“Not only the people are stuck…”
In overall six panels over two days the participants gave an overview over the current situation for people on the move from Turkey to Belgium, focusing on Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in the neighbouring countries and beyond. As one of our first panel’s speakers rightly stated: „Not only the people are stuck, but also the discussion around the issue of migration“. Therefore, we tried to gather new perspectives and insights on all relevant aspects around the topic of migration.
The conference managed to bring together grassroots activists, academia, practitioners and policy-makers from almost every country in the region, along the so called Balkan route as well as from the EU level:
Panelists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France discussed with each other either online or in person in Sarajevo.
In fact, the vast majority of panelists made the effort to come to Bosnia and Herzegovina for this conference. Two years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic with all its restrictions with regard to in-person meetings, it did indeed feel rewarding to be able to meet in person again. At some point, during the discussion on shrinking space for activists and NGO someone asked, how those engaged in refugee solidarity cope with the enormous pressure and how they manage to maintain their mental health. The answer of one of our panellists was straightforward: “Not least through exchanges and meetings with other like-minded such as the one we are having here [during the conference].” It became clear, that this aspect of personal support and solidarity was largely lacking during the period of exclusive online meetings.
“What a small neighbourhood we are!”
Indeed, there was an overall sense of a deteriorating situation in the region. Whether with regard to challenges around shrinking space and the ongoing criminalization of people on the move and those showing solidarity with them or with regard to the biased media coverage of migration and the evermore occurring phenomenon of hate. In a panel dedicated to this issue, we learned about the mainstream narratives and local media reporting on people on the move in three different countries in our region namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece and Turkey. With a view to the striking similarities between all three contexts, one of the panellists perfectly summed it up: “What a small neighbourhood we are!”
Despite all obvious differences between the countries in the Balkans and South-eastern-Europe in general, there are many similarities in the way these countries react to migrants and migration.
While the first day of the conference focused on challenges and issues coming up in this region, the second day broadened the perspective, looking at the EU and its institutions and Member States and other international or external actors, such as IOM.
The combination of externalization of protection to third states, such as Turkey, and the high level of securitization of the EU’s external borders including systematic breaches of international and EU law through so called “pushbacks” and deportations were discussed in a panel dedicated to Human Right’s breaches and questions around accountability.
Of course, the latest developments in Ukraine, the unfolding refugee crisis and its effects on the EU and the region, but also the different reactions from EU Member States towards these refugees as compared to refugees from other countries, were also discussed in a separate panel.
The two days closed with a panel on asylum politics and alternative perspectives for refugees to stay in their host countries, giving an outlook and exploring how potential positive scenarios for both people on the move and the regional policies could look like.
Understanding each other through art
Besides the panel discussions, the conference also offered a cultural programme: On Thursday evening we screened two documentaries in the Meeting Point Cinema in Sarajevo: "Shadow Game" by Eefje Blaknevoort and "When we were them" by Damir Šagolj. We had the pleasure and honour to have Mr. Šagolj with us in person and Ms. Blaknevoort joining online from the Netherlands for a discussion on both movies. While being very different in terms of cinematography and style both movies are moving documents of our time providing lots of food for thought and discussion.
We also exhibited a selection of refugee stories and portraits from the “1000 Dreams” project by the NGO Witness Change. 1000 Dreams is a storytelling project that seeks to change prevailing refugee narratives by telling the stories of 1000 refugees across Europe, authored by storytellers with their own refugee background. This Witness Change project provides insights into the individual lives of refugees and the emotional impact of current policies and attitudes. Therefore, these stories were a perfect addition to our discussions and panels. The exhibition was placed just outside the conference room, in the same venue, so everyone joining the discussions was also exposed to those portraits, which challenge gender stereotypes and refugee clichés. We had invited one of the photographers of the project to join us in Sarajevo, so we had firsthand elaborations on the exhibition and its background.
As Heinrich Boell Foundation we are most thankful to everyone who participated in these two rich and fruitful days, be it as participant or panelist, in Sarajevo or online. This was indeed a team effort.
And we are thankful to those artists in particular, both filmmakers and photographers, who generously shared their work with us and allowed us to add to the otherwise rather theoretical discussions over two days. After all, no discussion on migration policies must ignore the human perspective and art can help us to connect as humans and to better understand each other.
Read out the full report on Bosnia and Herzegovina here.