Perspectives | Migration

The tale of ‘good’ migrants and ‘dangerous’ refugees

A look through the eyes of six scholars from the post-Yugoslav space.

Birds migrate; people migrate. Seasons migrate; sparrows migrate; parrots migrate; words migrate; fish migrate; penguins migrate; butterflies migrate; whales migrate; feelings migrate; people migrate. We all migrate. Migrate…Migrate…Migrate…

 – Lemn Sissay

There is this image of 11-year-old Petrit Halilaj, wearing a green jacket packed among other refugees escaping from Kosovo in 1999, as if it is carefully curated and exhibited in some museum. 

Today, Petrit is a world-class contemporary artist exhibiting internationally. If you have seen any of his installations, it is discomforting and nearly impossible to separate his artistic work from his personal experience captured in 1999. 

Migration experience can profoundly influence our worldview, ethics, and profession, irrespective of the reasons why we are forced or choose to leave our homes.

The recent refugee crises in Europe and the U.S. exposed Western countries’ lack of humanity and unified, pragmatic response, eliciting countless images of Petrits. 

Good and unwanted migrants

Stories of Hungarian policemen feeding people on the move in camps like they were animals; the violence against refugees from border police in Greece, Croatia and elsewhere; policing and off-shoring of borders well beyond the imaginary borders of Europe; the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey in 2016; the three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi dead on the Turkish shore; overcrowded and inhumane living conditions in a migrant camp previously serving as a landfill. 

Along with the images of a father and a two-year-old daughter dead in the waters between Mexico and the U.S. and detained children in cages in the United States, we have had plenty reminders and stamps of dehumanization of those considered “other.”

This has made us wonder about how refugees and migration in Western societies started to be analyzed and justified on account of what “good migrants and refugees” bring. As if displacement because of war, failed systems, and structures of oppression is not justifiable enough. As if, as Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan powerfully remarks in a different context, this demand for people (on the move) to prove their humanity does not primarily speak about the humanity of those demanding it.

The "good migrant" reaffirms the self-perpetuated superiority of the Western country where she is living, working, or simply dwelling.

Much of the discourse in Western countries about people on the move in recent years, especially with the unravelling of the Middle East since 2003, has been shaped around two seemingly opposite categories. 

There is the so-called “good” migrant, whose acceptance in the new society is based on performing a certain way, understood within discourses as “integrating well.” This ranges from a certain level of education and skills and abiding by the laws at the minimum, to increased expectations of superhero abilities and strict non-display of nationalist feelings toward the homeland. 

The good migrant is grateful to the host state and “melds” well into the socio-cultural fabric of the local host society. More importantly, the good migrant reaffirms the self-perpetuated superiority of the Western country where she is living, working, or simply dwelling. Ideally, she does not become part of the migrant discourse, as she might be highly skilled, or simply “essential,” as many Romanian care workers, arriving in specially sanctioned trains in Austria during the first months of the COVID-19 crisis.

On the seemingly opposite side of the spectrum are unwanted migrants and refugees. 

“Unwanted migrants and refugees” live in places nobody else would live, such as camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina that are surrounded with landmines. Photo: Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik.

They remain on the sidelines of the countries in which they seek refuge, including being left to die if not violently pushed beyond the shores of Fortress Europe or the U.S.’ borders. 

There is no desire to “integrate” these individuals. Beyond debates about refugee integration and skilled migrant labour in health care and education, this increased securitization of various other migrants in comparison to the seemingly harmless and wealthy “expats” has chipped away and dehumanized populations in need.

Meanwhile, the “foreigners” trying to cross borders into the “European Fortress” are finding the bar raised.

Based on our embodied experiences as subjects waiting to cross borders, we notice a seemingly stark, albeit not self-evident change of rhetoric regarding refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, people on the move and overall “foreigners,” when comparing the refugee crises in Yugoslavia with contemporary ones. 

For most people fleeing turmoil from Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the political, economic, or war miseries were seemingly “enough” evidence to be “accepted” as refugees and migrants. Meanwhile, the “foreigners” trying to cross borders into the “European Fortress” are finding the bar raised — fleeing war and persecution is no longer authentic or legitimate “enough” to gain entry. 

On the contrary, over the past 15 years, political and border technologies in Europe have been developed and proliferated to do exactly the opposite: make it impossible for the “foreign” subject to even approach its borders.

Racialized hierarchy

In this new, bended narrative, we observe that people on the move are not looked at, problematized, or empathized with because of their sheer human subjectivity. Rather, whether they have the potential and the capacity to become a good investment in our multicultural, democratic, and Christian-secular societies is openly questioned. 

In this new gaze, the migrant is inadvertently asked to cast aside the reasons that brought her to our gates, and instead entertain the Western imagination of her worth to Western society.

This change of narrative and politics is not entirely new. It was partly there already during the Yugoslav refugee crises when the EU countries “offered” only temporary protection and precarious legal statuses to many fleeing the violence. The story of how hospitable the Western countries are toward refugees is retroactively invented in the present.

Because we are racialized as white, people don’t immediately assume we are migrants or refugees.

This Collective’s members were close to Petrit’s age as the wars unfolded in former Yugoslavia. We left the region as refugees accompanied by our parents, economic migrants of system failure, “foreigners” who came to study on scholarships, and/or as skilled migrants in our adult lives. We have been intermittently living and working across the Global North, from the U.S. and Canada to the UK, from Western and Northern Europe to New Zealand.

In these countries, we have the “right” kind of accent and the “right” kind of job, and we are seen as the “good migrants.” Because we are racialized as white, people don’t immediately assume we are migrants or refugees. Sometimes, it is only when they hear us speak (“Where are you really from? Oh, your English is so good!”), they realize we are. 

But, being racialized as white, even when they find out some of us are refugees, we are seen as “the good migrants” because the host countries do not see us as challenging the assumed racial aesthetics. Reflecting on how this image of the “good migrants” from Yugoslavia is used, we argue the intersection of race and class has played a pivotal role in the narrative-shifting. This has sometimes resulted in disparaging situations where commentaries were made dehumanizing the “other” migrants.

The “good post-Yugoslav migrant,” however, is also part of the racialized hierarchy in the Global North. Our “whiteness” has oftentimes been conditional on our performance as a “good migrant.” 

Being part of the intellectual elite, although more often economically precarious than the citizens, and expected to perform a gratitude utterance to the countries where we migrated is part of that conditionality. In the racialized hierarchy of the Global North, it seems we are always “white-but-not-quite” and whiteness is assigned as a conditional privilege. 

Simultaneously, this conditional privilege given to some post-Yugoslav migrants is waved at current refugees, asylum seekers and other unwanted migrants perceived as not quite meeting the standard for the privilege. The “bad non-white refugees,” be they from the Middle East, Africa or Latin America, are juxtaposed with “the good migrants,” as they still “need to earn” some of the most basic rights, as being reunited with their families.

Special treatment 

Working in academia, we embody spaces traditionally associated with the upper middle class. In a matter of years, we became fluent in the local languages of the countries we live in, if we did not arrive already speaking the languages. Oftentimes, this is a result of our frequent moves across countries and continents. While the academy is certainly not the ideal professional path toward economic “success,” it is nonetheless considered an elite space, separate and specific from the rest of society.

Academia has provided us comfort through its international environment, the exchange of ideas, and the ability to travel to conferences and conduct fieldwork, remaining connected to the post-Yugoslav region. As a result, we have been largely neglected from migrant discourses, as we are not considered “problematic.” 

In fact, our engagement and employment has been touted as part of internationalization and diversity efforts, as token non-natives who speak the languages and are well-integrated. 

When we step outside academia, we step back into the structures in which we are considered “other”.

In Austria, there is a migration status category label — Forscher — researcher, which is specific and reflects the hierarchies of migrant statuses. Similarly in Belgium, Marie Skłodowska Curie Postdoctoral Fellows (considered to be among the most prestigious fellowships in Europe) are exempt from certain taxes citizens pay, but still have social security benefits and are included in the pension scheme. 

This “special treatment” varies widely from our earlier experiences as refugees and asylum seekers, or today, as foreign nationals seeking temporary visas to travel to academic events beyond the borders of the states that have accepted us, often temporarily, until the end of the academic contract.

However, even in countries that have provided us employment, our visas are often temporary and conditional on the same. When we step outside academia, we step back into the structures in which we are considered “other,” where our documents are scrutinized and we are questioned, feeling the need to justify our contributions. As soon as we are left without our jobs, we are again a part of the nameless mass of dehumanized temporary migrant workers, asked to “go home” and not be a burden on law-abiding tax-paying citizens. 

This is how the privilege of whiteness is removed, and without it, we are also “dangerous” and unwanted migrants. This brings us back to the treatment of current refugees and migrants “stuck” in the countries who have in recent narratives turned themselves into transit zones.”

Aspirations to “Europeanness”

The post-Yugoslav space from which people once fled, and from which they still continue to migrate, is now also known as a “transit” zone for those fleeing ongoing violence elsewhere. The region once known for “the Yugoslav wars” is now “the Balkan Route,” the EU’s imagined “Badlands,” the outer periphery where border security funds are channelled to prevent the onward migration of racialized “others.” 

The so-called “Balkan route” became an alternative once the sea crossings were deemed too dangerous; today, it has become so entrenched in the violence of the EU’s border-keeping that just one monitoring group in the region has recorded more than 700 reports of police brutality and asylum denials, with 70% of incidents reportedly taking place in Croatia.

Countries of the Yugoslavia, most notably Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, whose “good migrants” have often managed to leave the region and arrive in relative safety to countries of the Global North, are now implicated in the EU’s border-keeping to the extent that they regularly participate in the violent “push backs” of men, women and children from the EU’s external border. Their aspirations to “Europeanness,” understood primarily as EU membership, are exercised through the protection and legitimization of the European superiority, even though their own citizens’ mobility within the EU is limited.

Through the management of common borders the EU keeps the borders of the Balkans closed. Photo: Slađana Lazić.

Through cooperation in “management of common borders,” the countries of the former Yugoslavia, as Piro Rexhepi notes, play a role in Europe’s imagined divisions of Occident/Orient and generate a “specific kind of border politics” based partly on “the increased racialisation of religious difference that pits Balkan Muslims as secular white and autochthonous Europeans, against the more darker and thus more fanatical migrant Middle Eastern Muslims.”

This is also reflected in how local populations along the Balkan route responded to recently arrived migrants, in complex and contradictory ways. Some have shielded migrants in their houses, provided food, repatriated bodies of those who died or were killed on the route, organized funerals, used their “connections” in police stations and hospitals to get help or treatment for those who needed it. 

The region is, thus, simultaneously othered and implicated in further othering in migration discourses.

But, others have also racialized others and complained about the displaced people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Morocco — “It was different when it was just the Syrians!”

The region is, thus, simultaneously othered and implicated in further othering in migration discourses. These racialized and classed hierarchies of people on the move are perpetuated, despite thousands of people from the post-Yugoslav space continuously lining up in front of EU and other Global North countries’ embassies or looking for ways to get EU citizenship so they can migrate more easily.

Going back to our initial question of how the image of the “good migrants” from Yugoslavia is used in current Western discourses about people on the move, through our experiences we point to the double use. 

On the one hand, it is a feel-good narrative, reimagining a good-Samaritan past through the present lens. On the other hand, it also serves the purpose of creating a false dichotomy between the “good” migrants, who are skilful, educated, grateful, and other ever-multiplying standards, and the “dangerous” and unwanted refugees and asylum seekers, who will “merely” be a “burden to the system.” 

The falseness of the latter becomes evident when one scratches the surface of our experiences, exposing the defining role race and class play within these narratives. Ultimately, we suggest that the distinction between the two categories is about who is recognized as a human and who is dehumanized, even though the pursuit of happiness or survival, for that matter, is perhaps the most basic human characteristic. 

In the words of Sissay, “say it! Normalize it! De-pathologize it! Migrate. Migrate. Migrate.”

Feature image: Nidžara Ahmetašević / K2.0.

This article was originally written for The Disorder of Things and has been republished with permission.