This essay is the first instalment in a multi-part series exploring shifting geographies of enclosure and mobility for refugees in the Balkan region.

AUGUST 28th, 2018- Trieste, Italy:


n the summer of 2018, Trieste – an Italian port city a few kilometres away from the Slovenian border – seemingly overnight became a new arrival point for the informal refugee Balkan Route. The development was in no small part due to a personal intervention on behalf of the deputy Mayor Paolo Polidori, who is a member of the right-wing anti-migrant Lega with Salvini party. On 25 August 2018, together with a group of other people, deputy Mayor Polidori took the initiative to remove the refugees sleeping outdoors along the Trieste waterfront, near the Port Authority headquarters, and a few hundred meters from the spectacular Piazza Unità d’Italia, the political and tourist core of the city.

The intervention was filmed by the deputy Mayor, posted on Facebook and immediately made available online by a number of local and national newspapers (Cartaldo, 2018; Il Gazzettino, 2018). What the clip shows is a group of sleepy migrants taking their few belongings and moving away in response to the deputy Major’s authoritarian request to leave: “Hallo… You cannot stay here! You have to come… Ok? Now…! Please… I call police!... Please… Thank you… Go away…You cannot stay here!... Today!... Tomorrow!... Another days!... You cannot stay…! You cannot stay…! Where are you from?... How many days are you here in Trieste?... Here is not possible to stay! Ok?... Why are you here? Is there somebody who told you… that you can stay here? Information from whom?... Is there somebody that told you… that you can stay here? Don’t you know?... Are you from Caritas or ICS? Don’t you know?... Caritas, ICS?... Remember, is not possible to stay here!” (Il Messaggero, 2018).

The refugees, intimidated by this intervention, moved to another site. Someone in the background can be heard asking: “where are they going?” While the question remained unanswered, the silence revealed a deeper politics behind such intervention: on the one hand, the deputy Mayor, with this unconventional showdown of power, displayed the strength and determination of the local government in addressing the issue of unruly presence of ‘aliens’ in the most iconic sites of this beautiful Adriatic city; on the other, alternatives were not offered, since the removal of the refugees from the waterfront was not part of a long term solution, but rather a spectacularised relocation of unwanted presences. The refugees simply went to spend the night in another corner of the city, away from the public eye.

Displacement, especially when performed in public space, is a key element of anti-migrant politics: “you cannot stay here!” was shouted with no real alternative given, keeping the ‘refugee problem’ alive and the anti-migrant rhetoric effective. The episode was followed by many critical comments from the opposition, especially from the local Catholic Church, which claimed that the deputy Mayor had no mandate for such an intervention and undermined the role of the police. This event also reignited the controversial debate over the tradition of hospitality in Trieste, whose population doubled after accepting 100,000 Italian refugees fleeing territories lost to Yugoslavia after World War II. The strong rhetoric employed by city officials did little to deter the flow of migrants into the city in the following months, it simply forced them into the margins of the city and away from the public eye.

These migrants cross ‘irregularly’, that is not through an official point of entry, and the first signs of these irregular migrants from the Balkan region in Trieste came in the previous weeks, when a few hikers and the local authorities found evidence (bags, shoes, clothes, blankets, plastic bottles, etc.) of temporary dwellings in the forests surrounding the city and along tracks coming from the nearby Slovenian border. Despite the official closure of the Balkan Route in March 2016 and the erection of walls at many borders, many refugees have continued to use this informal corridor in the past few years, often being pushed back by Hungarian and Croatian border authorities and stranding them in Serbia, where they could receive aid from the network of humanitarian support from the Serbian government.(Župarić-Iljić & Valenta, 2018; also, Minca et al., 2018; Umek et al., 2018).

However, the hope to enter the EU from the Serbian border has progressively faded away in the past few months, due to tighter (and increasingly more violent) border controls. Refugees have instead sought to enter Bosnia-Herzegovina from Serbia, which has created a new corridor across Albania and Montenegro, and positioned Sarajevo as a new hub for the preparation of the journey further North and into the EU via the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. In the first 8 months of 2018, over 16,000 refugees entered Bosnia-Herzegovina (IOM, 2018), most of them continuing on to Croatia, Slovenia and then Trieste. As with all informal mobilities, the figures are uncertain and approximate. What is certain, however, is the sudden appearance of dozens of refugees (mostly young single men) along the waterfront in Trieste and in some of its green public areas created a public display that resulted in the removal of the refugees by the deputy Mayor.

While this is not the space for a full engagement with the new Italian government populist agenda and the related criminalisation of irregular migrants, it is perhaps worth noticing how the presence of ‘alien’ bodies in the urban cracks of the stunningly beautiful Trieste waterfront has allowed the local government – in line with the national government – to speculate on the danger and unlawful invasion of refugees from the nearby Balkan region (see Il Piccolo, 24 October 2018). A result of the increase in refugees has been the scapegoating of local humanitarian organisations, who have been accused of attracting these refugees by offering them assistance and allowing them to freely roam the city; sometimes squatting in abandoned buildings near the highly visible train station (Altin, 2017: 39-40).

This episode raises important questions about how the presence of refugees and asylum seekers in highly visible urban spaces may be read as a “claim of rightfulness” (Squire and Darling, 2013). For Darling (2017: 190), “whilst the city provides the context in which claims are made possible, […] as a space through which forced migrants may become present to one another and to urban authorities”, at the same time, we must acknowledge that “there is a danger in visibility […] being visibly present can invite the increased ‘policing’ of forced and irregular migrants” (ibid., 190-191).

Trieste is just a terminal point of a new Balkan route in-the-making. The interplays between visibility and invisibility, and between repressive intervention and neglect, are constitutive parts of a geography of informal refugee mobility in the Balkan region. It is the formation of this new informal corridor – in particular of its key border passages of Bihać e Velika Kladuša, in Bosnia-Herzegovina – and some of its broader geopolitical and humanitarian implications that we will to discuss in this series.

Check out part two of this series!


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