Moving People

A Regime of Immobility

This is the second piece in the ‘Moving People’ feature, which explores the ways in which people on the move are labelled, remembered, and constrained. The series offers a historical understanding of present-day structures of asylum and immigration.

In April 2020 the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina established the refugee camp of Lipa as a response to the migration flows in the region in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, reports from the camp have alerted of the lack of basic infrastructure and poor hygiene conditions. At the same time, news of violent push-backs on the border with Croatia revealed the  intense policing of refugees’ movement and  the practical halting of asylum-seeking.  The case of refugees stuck in Bosnia-Herzegovina has not been unique in Europe. Whether in Greece, France or the United Kingdom, camps have been sites of strict confinement and misery. Reports of dire living conditions, prohibition to leave camps in the name of public health measures, fires and destruction, limitation of humanitarian aid, or delays of asylum have made the news time and time again. Europe’s refugee camps have been designed to be temporary and largely transitory, in response to mass displacement in the Middle East and North Africa caused by poverty and conflicts. However, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees’ immobilization in camps has taken on shades of permanency, with an aggressive policing of borders and even efforts to bring the asylum-seeking process to a stop. Moreover, the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic have limited the presence of non-governmental and international organizations and their on-site humanitarian programs. A crisis-driven regime of immobility has taken shape in Europe, with refugees’ containment becoming the crux of governance.

The case of the Lipa camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Europe-wide control of refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic arguably mirrors the rationale behind the establishment of a network of refugee camps in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War. Over 1 million people were forced to leave their homes during the war. Much like the contemporary case of the Lipa camp, officials in wartime Austria-Hungary claimed that control of the refugee population also meant a so-called sanitary control, which they considered  difficult to achieve in big cities or rural regions. Taken in this context, the core of refugee policy was the practical immobilization of these populations and the swift interruption of their seemingly chaotic movement. 

The crystallization of modern refugee camps can indeed be traced back to the First World War. Then, refugee camps incorporated agendas and practices of population containment and relief, sustained by a matrix of administrators, experts, and on-site professionals. They policed movement in the camps, monitored living conditions, managed related infrastructure, and provided assistance. The aftermath of the war saw the rise of a regime structured around the international governance of migration, with the establishment of the League of Nations and the Nansen International Office for Refugees. But it was during the war that refugee confinement in camps became the core of migration policy. This was particularly true in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In 1914, a Russian invasion in the Eastern part of the Empire led to the first wave of wartime displacement, as populations living in Galicia and Bukovina were forced to leave their homes. State authorities immediately established of a network of refugee camps placed far from the hot points of war zones. Their main purpose was to stop people’s movement, largely due to early concerns about refugees being carriers of potential epidemics. Most of these initial refugees from Galicia and Bukovina were Jews, with the state reinforcing long-standing discriminatory stereotypes of these people as lice-carriers and typhus-spreaders. Authorities then used a few hastily built barracks as provisional structures to contain these refugees from the peripheries of the Empire, in the name of sanitary control and to protect host communities. However, as the conflict went on, camps became permanent features of the home front landscape.

Street in Refugee Camp Pohrlitz. Image courtesy Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Austria-Hungary’s refugee camps employed a rigid categorization and division of refugees based on nationality, confession, and financial capacity. While private relief schemes did operate, primarily in urban centers, the state was responsible for delivering assistance to refugees living in the barracks. The refugees were therefore managed through a state welfare scheme [Ger. Flüchtlingsfürsorge], operated by administrators, health professionals or educators. This included in-camp measures to address crises of nutrition and epidemics, while pushing the use of refugees’ skills for labor and their rehabilitation through education. Authorities also established small factories, agricultural programs, and schools which taught in both German and refugee children’s language of communication. At the heart of these endeavors lay officials’ belief in the molding of refugees into productive human capital. From authorities’ perspective, this depended on the refugees’ immobility in the confined structures of camps. After all, it was in this securitized confinement that refugees’ bodies and minds could be controlled.

The Interior of a Barrack in the Refugee Camp Landegg. Image courtesy Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

The case of the Roma refugees in the Austro-Hungarian Empire offers a particularly poignant example of instrumentalization of immobility. Efforts to confine the Roma population were nothing new. Solutions to “sedentarize” this highly nomadic population or simply expel Roma groups had circulated in the Habsburg Monarchy since the eighteenth century. Thoughts of interning wandering “Gypsies” and the containment of the so-called “Gypsy plague” ( Ger. Zigeunerplage) through encampment also made the rounds among officials prior to the war. However, these ideas found little financial support and often were left only in the planning phase. Many officials considered the First World War as an opportunity to solve the so-called ‘Gypsy nuisance’ (Ger. Zigeunerunwesen) and end their nomadic lifestyle. Ironically, it was precisely the forced displacement of the population in the Empire that provided a solution for the immobilization of the Roma.

On 28 August 1915, a group of Roma of Austrian nationality who had fled from the border areas, particularly Galicia, was placed in the refugee camp of Hainburg, a small town in Lower Austria. Authorities considered this Roma population to be a group of refugees because they were evacuees of war zones, who did not display any violent behavior, and were politically harmless. Much like in the case of the other refugees living in camps, administrators, doctors, or educators implemented the welfare program and assisted the Roma living in Hainburg via health and hygiene measures, as well as schooling for children. However, putting the Roma in a refugee camp was not a mere relief measure, as it represented a practical institutionalization of racial discrimination towards this minority. The belief in the invasion of a “Gypsy plague,” perceptions of their backwardness, and the recurrent criminalization of this group had long been part of political rhetoric. Ultimately, the encampment of Roma refugees became a solution to what authorities had long called the “Gypsy nuisance.”

As the war went on, the camp in Hainburg was demobilized because of its decaying infrastructure conditions and the Roma refugees living there were transferred to Weyerburg, in Lower Austria. There, they were encamped alongside prostitutes and other convicts. The organization of the camp in Weyerburg quickly indicated the criminalization and heightened policing of the Roma refugees. For one, they were transferred alongside charged criminals. Furthermore, the camp became a hyper-securitized space. Barbed wire fences, intense guarding, and rejection of resettlement plans for the Roma population were part of physical and bureaucratic infrastructure put in place in Weyerburg, in order to maintain a form of “sedentarization” and segregation of these refugees from local communities. It addressed a public anxiety about the Roma presence resulting in mass thefts and burglaries, fears that they carried disease carriers because of the authorities’ perception of their physical dirtiness, and their alleged moral backwardness. In the end, officials claimed that the Roma refugees represented a “special danger” and their immobilization entailed a protection of society at large.

The case of Austria-Hungary’s Roma refugees and their eventual placement within the established network of camps offers a glimpse of the ways state authorities instrumentalized containment. This perspective gives insight into the ways states have responded to crises through systemized refugee containment.  Nowadays, fear, lack of resources, and marginality of refugees have enabled protracted suppression of movement through securitized camps across the continent. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the delays in processes of asylum, lack of burden-sharing, and a limiting of humanitarian assistance of refugees have brought movement to a stop. Ultimately, much like in the case of Austria-Hungary during the First World War, a veritable regime of immobility has pervaded crisis governance in Europe.


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