The end of the "Lampedusa strategy"? Part 1: The people behind the numbers - the story of Ahmad

"Due to instructions by the authorities, the train service to Germany via Salzburg has been suspended" - these are the announcements at Vienna's train stations for the time being. This very formal rhetoric is masking the very informal way in which one of the seemingly matter-of-course "freedoms" of Europe - i.e. the freedom to travel across borders at will and without any control - has been shaken by "urgent contingencies".

Fortress Europe: the fence at the Schengen external border
 of Hungary (Magyarország) with Serbia, September 13, 2015

Introduction: as it happens

Central Europeans are currently faced with people, whose fate is - as far as their personal "lifeworld" is concerned - far removed from their own, (relatively) orderly circumstances of life, or at least far removed from abject poverty, existential plight or even fears for their own lives. They are, as opposed to the past years and months, not faced with their fate in the news anymore, but now in the flesh, in person.

The topic of the constant periphery-centre migration had already been in the focus of the broader newscast audience in most European countries for several times within the past decade or so - but only for brief periods of time, let's call them "Lampedusa moments" (most recently, when almost a thousand "boat people" drowned earlier this year). This has now changed, as unprecented numbers of people are now reaching "the centre", i.e. the prosperous countries of Western and Northern Europe, for the first time in more than a decade, i.e. since the wars in Yugoslavia in the mid and late 1990s. Ironically, it is now from the same area, the former Yugoslav countries and their respective the borders to Hungary and Romania, that many of the refugees have been trying to enter the more prosperous areas of Europe, namely Austria and Germany.

The current waves of migration are dubbed a "refugee crisis" in the mainstream discourse. However, these didn't come out of thin air - the "refugee problem" and the topic of asylum had and has not comprehensively been dealt with by the individual European (and other) governments, let alone on a transgovernmental level. On the contrary, oil has been put into the geopolitical fire several times ever since those late 1990s. Even more fundamentally, this is a systemic problem, i.e. the crisis of a global capitalist "world system" (Immanuel Wallerstein) based on inequality and accumulation. Since the ludicrous "Dublin Agreement", first signed in 1990, and in place virtually unchanged ever since, (it contradicts the Schengen Agreement of 1995), and the (restrictive, regressive) creation of Frontex in 2005, nothing fundamental has been done on a major policy level (Immanuel Wallerstein calls this inaction the "Lampedusa strategy of the neoliberals"). Makeshift "solutions" have ever since been offered by those governments, such as rescue missions to save (mostly unsuccessfully) the "boat people" in the Mediterranean (and most of these efforts have only been temporary and/or abortive), and financial support for the countries neighbouring the respective "crises areas" and war zones, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and, within the EU, Italy, Greece, and Hungary. Now, as a short-term "solution" of the momentary "refugee crisis", a quota for the distribution across the continent of the several million who have been and will be arriving has been imposed on the EU level; it is very unlikely, however, that many countries outside of Austria, Germany and Sweden, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe, and the UK, will commit to fulfilling this quota.

Wien Westbahnhof (Vienna Western Station) - top of the screen: Arrival of the Sonderzug (special train) from Nickelsdorf at the Austrian-Hungarian border, and of another (delayed) train from Budapest Keleti (Eastern Station). Bottom of the screen: all train services from and to Germany via Salzburg are suspended.

                            Refugees at Wien Westbahnhof (Vienna Western Station),
               having arrived on the special train from Nickelsdorf, September 20th

The people behind the numbers: the story of Ahmad 

Despite the increased "immediacy" and "proximity" of the refugees now having arrived in Central Europe, most of them remain mere numbers in the public discourse, where the main questions are about quotas and distribution, not about individual stories. With most of the asylum seekers being distributed across the countries (so far mainly Austria and Germany) into specific camps or other provisional housing, otherwise uninvolved locals going about their normal chores and daily lives are unlikely to meet them in a non-encamped situation. However, it occasionally does happen. I had seen them arriving in drones the day before at Vienna's train stations, but then I met eight of them in person, with Ahmad (pictured above) willing to progress into a conversation about more than how to go about washing the laundry in the laundromat in Vienna's 10th district. At first glance I wasn't sure of his background, as he looked very similar to many of the local young men of Arab, Persian or Turkish descent, who have been living for decades, or were even born, in that very district of the Austrian capital, Favoriten. But as our conversation started and then progressed, it turned out very quickly that he was a (now former) employee of the IOM (International Organization for Migration) in Latakia, Syria, until he and his colleagues there lost their jobs as their building was shelled by IS forces, on September 10th. So, he and his group fled Latakia, and made it to Vienna, through nine countries, in ten days. After a bus trip to Beirut, they boarded a plane to Izmir, where their northbound journey into the unknown began in earnest. On "a small boat carrying only 16 people" they made it across the sea to the Greek island of Leros.

Ahmad Moussa, from Latakia, Syria, who I met at a laundromat in Vienna's 10th district, on Monday evening. He told me he dreamed of studying music and becoming a professional musician, but at the insistence of his father, he studied international law instead and worked for the International Organization for Migration. Now, he is a refugee himself as his IOM/UN building was shelled by ISIS recently. His favourite composers are J. S. Bach and Franz Liszt and he likes to listen to "Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2", but as well as the violin and the cello, he likes to play his favourite "Western rock songs" on the e-guitar.

A ferry brought them to Athens, from there, they went on to Northern Greece, and crossed the border into Macedonia following the train tracks to Skopje. With the "help of the local police", they caught a train to "the last village in Macedonia" and then two more trains, a twelve-hour train to Belgrade and then another one to Subotica. It ended there due to the closure of the Hungarian border. When they walked the last bit towards the border, they witnessed "war between the refugees and the Hungarian police" due to the fence being closed about one and a half days earlier. After spending the night "sleeping in a car park", they were taken to the Croatian border the next day on buses. Along with 3000 people, they were stuck there for a couple of days before they managed to cross over into Croatia and then Hungary, where they were seized by the police. The police "accompanied them" to the Austrian border, where they stayed for a night before being taken to Vienna last Sunday.

Ahmad told me that his destination for now was Halle, Germany, via Frankfurt, and that he mainly wants to go to Germany because he already has contacts there in several cities, as opposed to all the other European countries. There were leaving for Germany the next day, Tuesday. Ahmad, of half Christian, half Muslim descent, describes himself as "secular" and sees "religion as the root of all evil". He couldn't follow up his dream of becoming a professional musician, or at least of studying music, as his father insisted he study something less artsy ("music doesn't feed you"), so he went into international law and had worked for the IOM for a couple of years before now having to flee due to the war in his hometown. In his opinion, Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, the UNHCR, and some governments, such as the Italian and the Swedish governments, have been rather helpful in the current situation (that he knew first hand as an IOM worker), whereas the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the Emirates "don't help, but just train more forces for the IS". As for the prospects for Syria, he is very pessismistic - "the war will never end", he said, and Western (and Russian) forces have always made things more complicated. "Assad is still better than ISIS, but they both kill civilians and just want more oil and power". A bleak picture that Ahmad left me with as we parted on that Viennese warm late summer's night.

"Part 2: Analysis and conclusions", will follow shortly.

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