Beyond Voluntourism and Holidarity? White German Activists on the ‘Balkanroute’ – (Self)Reflections

Read first: About us and this text.

1. Introduction: Man spricht Deutsch on the ‘Balkanroute’

Summary: Many activists from Germany started going to the ‚Balkanroute‘ during last summer to support migrants– it seemed like a new trend. After our own trips to the ‚Balkanroute‘, we wanted to reflect more about the connection between this kind of activism and our own privileges. On the one hand, direct signs of political solidarity with migrants1 seemed important. On the other hand, we realized that sometimes our presence and activities stabilized our privileges and the system of white supremacy.

Heading from Belgrade Eastwards to the Croatian border. Stopover in Adaševci, the gas station where most of the migrants are waiting for hours, before continuing their journey by train. While searching for a parking lot for our van, we recognize two other vans: German license plates, full with kitchen equipment, clothing and shoe donations. Some people in their mid-twenties with hoodies and outdoor jackets hang around the cars and smoke. As we approach them, it’s clear very quickly, man spricht Deutsch, the common language is German. The group has just arrived, isn’t quite sure whether they will stay at that border or travel to the Southern Serbian border. Some consider to go to one of the Greek islands as well. Their plans? Cooking food and tea, distributing info material. Pretty much what everyone is doing on the ‘Balkanroute’. Pretty much what we have been doing.

The so called ‘Balkanroute’2 seems to have turned into the place to be for emancipatory left German activists. The powerful protests of migrants in the Hungarian capital in August 2015 were followed by the ‘March of Hope’, the de-facto opening of borders and the establishment of a state organized transport through the (South-)Eastern European states.3 Within the German left, more and more car convoys aimed at transporting people across borders as well as kitchen collectives got organized and headed to Hungary, Serbia, Greece or Macedonia.

Thinking about young people travelling to other countries brings up the terms ‘holidarity’ and ‘voluntourism’. The terms ironically point to the assumption that people go on a kind of activist holiday to ‘Balkan’ countries to do volunteer or support work in solidarity with migrants. Having the resources and capacities and feeling so confident and empowered to take the decision to do such kind of work is related to privileges we have (for example our German citizenship and whiteness). Scenes we experienced or have been told about brought up the picture of white charity: We – and others – are more often taking advantage of our position than dismantling it.4 What are the pitfalls of going to the ‘Balkanroute’ as white Germans from a perspective critical towards racism and privileges? How to go beyond mere ‘holidarity’ and ‘voluntourism’? How is support work along the ‘Balkanroute’ connected to other privileges many of us possess, for example gender, class, or citizenship? Besides thinking about the relation of privilege, holidarity and voluntourism, we examine our lack of understanding of the local context, pitfalls in the contact with local structures and how we profit from being active along the ‘Balkanroute’.

We need to think about ‘support’, the relationships it produces, and how it can be seen as another form of humanitarian aid, with all its (problematic) aspects. Also, we think that white German citizens doing solidarity work for migrants in itself reproduces hierarchies, as well as racist and colonial relations – no matter whether we reflect on this or not. Since these general phenomena are written about in other texts5, we focus only on the special features we came across on the ‘Balkanroute’. We reflect on our experiences in contact with migrants only in the last section, while the rest of the text primarily focuses on the relationship with local activist groups and support work in terms of information work (we skip the reflection on distributing clothes and food).

2. Being in solidarity on the ‘Balkanroute’ – a privilege?

Activism on the ‘Balkanroute’ by German activists has many parallels to a holiday. It is often done by people with a lot of privileges, by those with a certain class background, who are flexible, have time and/ or money, citizenship, and are without care-responsibilities. Furthermore, our activism is also influenced by our whiteness. Pictures of white charity and white saviors are being reproduced.

A small circle of people, sitting together on mattresses and sharing lunch. The house close to the center of a Greek city was squatted a few months ago and is now mainly inhabited by migrants. A white guy in his late twenties approaches the group. ‘Where can I support here? Where are activists needed in this city?’. ‘You have to ask at the general assembly of the squat’, someone is saying. Someone else suggests to go to one of the Greek islands, as there was a call out for support. Another call out for activists came from Belgrade, proposes someone else. Growing disappointment in the face of the guest. Not exactly what he was asking. ‘I am just coming from Lesbos and in ten days I am going to Serbia. Now I am looking for something that fits in between.’ Something for in between. For our activist holiday plan.

To support on the ‘Balkanroute’, we take time off from work, school or university, coordinate with other responsibilities back home. From our point of view, there is nothing wrong about this. But thinking about holidarity just reveals once more the structural inequalities – for some it is an activist holiday, for others an existential struggle against borders. Who is able to go on an activist holiday? Who stays at home? The collectives we have met were composed quite homogeneously. That is why in order to explore the notions of ‘holidarity’ and ‘voluntourism’, we started thinking about the privileges of ourselves and other activists6 we have met. Doing support work along the ‘Balkanroute’ requires (or is made a lot easier) through certain privileges. For us, being active in solidarity turned out to be a privilege.

We see privilege as something that we have as a result of a global system of inequality. While privileges can’t be shared, the resources coming from them can: It is possible to be in solidarity with people without European passports as Germans, but it will never be possible to pass over our citizenship.

What kind of privileges influence who is going to the ‘Balkanroute’ to do support work? One important privilege that makes it a lot easier are travel documents from nation states of the Global North. Also, the class position matters: Most people we have met were quite flexible with time capacities as some have just finished university or are not bound to a strict working schedule. All of us are in more or less privileged economic positions and somehow have enough money in order to be able not to work for a couple of weeks – including those who rely on social benefits. These observations also apply to this article: Who has got the time to reflect? Who has the energy and ability to put thoughts like this into an article? A lot of groups and individuals we have met travelled on a very low budget – sleeping in vans and tents, preparing food for themselves.7 But even then, doing this kind of support work is made more accessible with the privilege of not having too tight responsibilities like inflexible work schedules, or care-responsibilities for children, relatives or others. As care work is still mainly done by *women, these structures of privilege are related to gendered divisions of labor within the left scene (also see section 5).

Thinking about ‘race’, most collectives we have met along the ‘Balkanroute’ were predominantly white. Being perceived as white meant that our presence was rarely questioned. The imagination of Western Europe as white is persistent. In the dominant racist ideology, non-white persons are not perceived as part of the imagined communities of the Western European nation states – no matter whether their families live there for generations. Therefore, the dominant racist imagination of the volunteer/ activist/ supporter is white, and the image of a migrant is a non-white person. As white people, we were never mistaken to be migrants and there was no need for us to explain our presence. For the police and other officials, it was clear that we are volunteers or something similar. Persons of Color who are active along the ‘Balkanroute’ as volunteers or supporters are constantly confronted with the imagination of the white volunteer, as they experience much more police controls, double checking of passports, racist comments and so on. During the ‘Refugee Movement Journey to Greece’, we witnessed several times that the travel documents of the non-white persons in the group were checked rigorously by the police, for example when entering the ferry to a Greek island.

Another aspect of whiteness in this context is that we always feel like knowing everything and having a plan about how things work or should work. We felt entitled to go to a different country and share information that we gather. Since our childhood, most of us have learned that we are the ones who can make impact! We just need to get into action and that’s how we will change the world! The images of white saviors and charitable donors are engraved in our minds. In addition to that, we also perceive this attitude as a patriarchal feature of our activism: In a white, patriarchal society, it’s the visible, loud and spectacular action that ‘counts’ and ‘makes a change’.

It is hardly possible to see these categories of oppression disconnected from each other, as they determine one another. Our long term goal is to destroy this system of privileges. For us, analyzing them in more detail seems to be a first step in this direction – even though racism and white supremacy won’t be destroyed through self-reflection. Is there a way of making resources available to those who don’t share these privileges? One attempt to tackle this was the ‘Refugee Movement Journey to Greece’ – an idea that evolved in our structures and in groups in Berlin and other cities in the beginning of 2016. In March and April 2016, mainly people who moved on the ‘Balkanroute’ as refugees themselves or who are active in the refugee protest movement went to Greece. Some people focused on media work, others on networking with refugees and local activists, others did mainly individual support work. The different activities are documented on We don’t present this as the ultimate solution to the critique we elaborate here. But we find it important to practically try out ways of creating a situation in which more people are able to do this kind of support work and activism.

In the next section, we will argue that along the ‘Balkanroute’, we might catch some words of the local languages, but in general we don’t understand a lot of the local political context.

3. Lack of knowledge of the local context and German arrogance: Voluntourists on the ‘Balkanroute’

Main problems of going to ‘Balkan’ countries as German activist tourists were the following: 1 We can’t fully understand the local political context and fail to explain certain phenomena. 2 Racist stereotypes were reproduced from ‘left’ German activists in the attempt to scandalize the situation in Balkan countries. 3 In our own behavior and in the behavior of other activists, we perceived an arrogance towards local activists.

I have problems with some lines of your live feed. Please update and say that people can go with a taxi for 50-60 Euro per person. I am a registered taxi driver and I have problems with people who check your website. Please say it’s a 600 km trip one way and we have to drive 1100 km to make 80 Euro profit and then people call us Mafia. I can’t handle this. I have kids and wife and we live from my work. People think Taxi is some Mafia job.8

This e-mail has reached us as a response to the travel information we provided – or not provided – on the Welcome-to-Europe-live feed. We were quite puzzled. Indeed, we already had debated beforehand whether we should include the information that taxis are going from the Serbian-Macedonian to the Croatian border as well. There were also reports from German activists that taxi drivers cheat migrants. The term ‘taxi mafia’ was used widely. As we had a strange feeling about the use of this term – because of racist connotations in the use of the word ‘mafia’ in the German context – we decided not to include any information about the taxis.

Ignorance about the local political context

We had to realize that for people who are active in Western Europe, it is not possible to fully understand local mainstream and activist debates. Most of us have only a very vague picture of the domestic politics of the countries along the ‘Balkanroute’ and of the local political structures. Apart from that, we often blamed Germany as the state that is responsible for the closing of borders/ the people drowning in the sea/ the ill-treatment of migrants etc. In focusing our critique only on Germany as the most powerful country in Europe, we were not able to recognize that also states like Macedonia have their own interests when they close borders, their own racist discourse, and are not just puppets controlled by Germany.

Reproduction of racist stereotypes

At the same time, some German activist groups were reproducing explicit racist stereotypes about Eastern Europeans: In some travel reports, the narrative of corrupt, run down, Mafia-like societies was prevalent. Furthermore, conservative mainstream arguments were unconsciously repeated. While criticizing for example police violence in Bulgarian detention centers, it was demanded to kick Bulgaria out of the European Union. This pushes the picture of white saviors even more: White Germans saving poor refugees from uncivilized ‘Balkan’ people – in the form of the brutal police, ruthless taxi drivers or undedicated lawyers.9 While we are supporting people on the move from the Global South, let’s not lose sight of the wider context of racist and capitalist structures of inequality within Europe and get trapped in superficial explanations. The ‘Balkanroute’ is not located in a political vacuum.10 Structural inequalities also influence activism in Balkan countries: Who has the possibility to spend an activist holiday at the outer borders of the EU? Many of our comrades along the ‘Balkanroute’ are (much more than the average German activist) bound to wage labor (if lucky enough) or struggling to survive without it, due to the lack of a social benefits system. Showing presence at the borders needs time and flexibility, as well as the financial means to fund travels and stay. In our opinion, a position critical towards capitalism is needed, while being active in ‘Balkan’ countries (and of course, also elsewhere)! It is a privilege of our Western European positions that we often don’t see and stress the links between migration and capitalism, which are so clear to people holding different economic positions due to their everyday experiences.

Arrogance towards local activists

Seeing our own style of being active and explaining the world as the correct and only way – maybe that’s nothing specific about the German left, but we did realize a tendency to be very dogmatic and arrogant about our own ideas. One example: Taking pictures of refugee children is highly problematic. Most of us know about the arguments against victimization of migrants and the instrumentalization of such kind of pictures. But: Do I really have to lecture the Syrian independent photographer? In our opinion social positions matter. This doesn’t mean that there should be no debate. But the way of discussing makes a huge difference.

Another example: Our own political ideas have been deeply shaped by self-organized refugee struggles, which highlighted a focus on migrants’ self-organization and mostly independent organizing of refugees and supporters. These and other ideas on the subject of the supporter seem to be prevalent in wide circles of the German anti-racist scene. This understanding of activism is confronted with different concepts of political organization along the ‘Balkanroute’. A long history of emigration from ‘Balkan’ countries as well as the struggle against austerity shape the political self-understanding of local activists. Let’s listen to their ideas and ways of organizing, learn from them, engage in political debates and learn more about the local political contexts!11 Let’s not be sure that ‘our’ understanding of things is the right one. And that’s also what we suggest in the next section: Taking the local structures seriously.

4. Pitfalls in the Contact with Local Activists: Respecting, Supporting, and Overburdening the Local Structures

When reflecting on our contact with local activists, these points came up: 1 We found it important to acknowledge the work that has been done for years by local structures. 2 Networking among foreign activists often happens in a bubble and sometimes ignores local structures. 3 Asking the local structures for help all of the time sometimes creates more pressure for them. 4 Sharing money is one attempt for redistribution within activist circles, but also creates problems for the relationships between activists and strengthens the focus on money-centered activism.

Let’s say we accept that during our political work on the ‘Balkanroute’ we are most of the time clueless activist tourists. We acknowledge our own limited perspective. What follows from that? Our idea was first and foremost to appreciate the activist structures along the route. In Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, grass root organizations and collectives working in solidarity with people on the move are active for many years. Since the wide media coverage in summer and autumn 2015, big parts of the German left are interested in what is now called ‘Balkanroute’. For local activists, people travelling through on the way to Western and Northern Europe is not a new phenomenon. In our opinion, it is crucial to take their political work, their knowledge and positions seriously.

Networking among activists

With so many German activists and groups present along the ‘Balkanroute’, it is very easy to rely primarily on networks that result from our political work in Germany. It is fairly easy to connect with the autonomous kitchen collectives and use them as a source of information as we might be acquainted with some of them from past events. There is nothing wrong about that! It only becomes a problem as we tend to overlook long-existing political structures and fail to take their evaluation of the situation seriously. As an answer to the questions ‘Where to go or what to do, we heard: ‘In xy (border town/ city/ island) there is no one else around. There is such a need of people. You should go there.’ Such a statement might be true for a lot of places along the ‘Balkanroute’. But often, there are people active! We just tend to ignore them as they might not be the ones who address a left German-speaking audience via social media, to give just one example. For us, this brings up the following questions: Which collectives are visible(or not)? For what reason?

For those active on the ‘Balkanroute’, a pragmatic division of activist labor presented itself as an option, as there are so many (more or less) like-minded activists around. Local groups used their contacts to Western European collectives to get first-hand information about the situation at the borders and even to pass instructions to them. Also, a more long-term political connection and exchange between political tourists and local collectives can start a mutual flow of information and inspiration for concrete actions and organization.

Asking the local collectives for help

The contact with local collectives contains several pitfalls. The presence of activist groups from Western Europe wasn’t only a support for the local groups and wasn’t necessarily based on a relationship of mutual support. From conversations with some local activists, we learned that the presence of Western activists sometimes led to overstraining these collectives and to an increase of the workload. Local collectives were contacted with the same questions over and over again. This meant explaining the local context, showing people around in the local squat and giving their opinion on ‘where to go’ or ‘what to do’ over and over again. Additionally, for local structures, it is a challenge to count and rely on our political work if we stay only for a limited period of time – being on holidarity means being active somewhere only for a couple of days, weeks or months.

Once we realized some of these problems, we aimed at making the work of local groups visible. For example, we tried to give them space in our media channels. Instead of writing travel reports or statements ourselves12, we asked the local groups for interviews13. Additionally, we reached out for their opinion as often as possible – for instance after receiving the above mentioned email about the ‘taxi mafia’ – accepting them as the experts of local circumstances. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that ‘they’ – activists in South Eastern Europe – don’t speak with one voice. In asking for advice and opinions, in the end we always remain in the position to choose whom to listen to. As voluntourists, we always choose our tourist guide. We guess that just being aware of these dynamics can at some point already make a difference.

Sharing money and other resources

Another attempt to overcome these power divisions was to provide material resources for the local groups. This reinforced the very same hierarchies we tried to fight against: Western European groups as the wealthy donors, spending easily 500 Euro on a generator for a financially weak collective in Eastern Europe. From this perspective, these attempts for a redistribution failed, which doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen at all. From our point of view, it still does make sense to share our resources, because in Germany we indeed can easily fundraise money through bar evenings in autonomous centers, crowd funding campaigns or leftist foundations. However, from our comrades there, we learned that even if material or financial support is needed, that’s often not the crucial point! Political work is dependent on so many other aspects, for example social atmosphere, the whole political circumstances or state repression. Our activism seems sometimes quite focused on finances. It also makes us less creative in trying to create a long-term and sustainable form of activism that not so much draws on consumption. Anyhow, the question of sharing resources or not and how reveals a field of tension, which can’t be dissolved at all as long as the structural injustices produced by capitalism exist. We think it is about fighting against these structures on the long term, while trying to be aware of and to live within the tensions it produces in our everyday activism.

In the following paragraph, we argue that these structural inequalities underpin the reactions that we get as white German activists, from people on the move as well as back in Germany from fellow activists or mainstream society: Going on holidarity or voluntourism on the ‘Balkanroute’ means experiencing high appreciation.

5. Profiting from Holidarity: Experience, Knowledge, Social Appreciation

Especially after our first ‘support trips’ we thought about the effects it had for us: We profit from going to the ‘Balkanroute’ through experiences, knowledge, and social appreciation. This kind of support work is highly visible and acknowledged by the society. Also, within the left scene, going to the ‘Balkanroute’ or similar places is much more attractive and appreciated than doing activist ‘care’ work on the ground in Germany. As German citizens, we also receive extra appreciation for our activism by migrants.

People sit close to each other to get most of the fire’s heat. Hands and feet stretching towards the burning wood. The nights in Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border are freezing cold. Conversations start easily. Our neighbors in this round are stuck in Idomeni since the closure of the border few weeks ago. “Where are you from?” The compulsory question. “Germany.” This time, the respond turns out to be fairly different. “Germany? Then I don’t want to talk to you anymore.” A rare answer. After listening to countless hymns of praise to the great country and nation of Germany, our anti-national hearts are beating faster. A political discussion on the dirty role of Germany in Europe’s border system and global warfare is evolving. We can only nod and agree. But our conversation partner won’t be satisfied with our consent: “Your country and your government looks better when you are here and help people.”

For sure, the motivation to do this kind of work is not selfish in the first place. Asking ‘who profits from something and how?’ helps to analyze power hierarchies. It is quite usual and not per se bad that we ‘profit’ from the things we do – but it is important to make these processes transparent in order to understand power dynamics in our activism. And we are profiting a lot from this work: We not only gain social appreciation, but also experiences and knowledge, stories we can tell, knowledge about the border regime, personal contacts with migrants and so on. Thus, the neocolonial system of privileges is often more stabilized through the support work we do than destabilized. On the short-term, we don’t see a possibility to escape this complicity. In our current status of reflection, we just can honestly acknowledge it and try to fight it on the long run.

Appreciation by the German society

In autumn, the German society perceived the developments on the ‘Balkanroute’ as a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ and sympathized – to a certain degree – with the migrants. Many people who haven’t been active before got organized and started collecting donations for the migrants at the Hungarian border or welcomed them at German train stations.14 Traveling to the ‘Balkanroute’ is highly appreciated in wide circles – much more than any other kind of refugee support work. In our experience, the support of migrants in radical political fights – such as hunger strikes for their right to stay or against their deportation – is met with a lot more hostility in our not-activist surroundings. This appreciation of ‘traveling to the ‘Balkanroute’ reminded us of the appreciation young people experience when spending some months as a volunteer in the Global South. We also see other parallels between support work along the ‘Balkanroute’ and voluntary work in the Global South: The people who volunteer profit more from the structures they visit than changing anything about the neocolonial system that produces global inequalities.15

Appreciation within the activist scene

Focusing more on activist circles, the parallel between support on the ‘Balkanroute’ and ‘going to the jungle in Calais’, a similarly popular destination of ‘voluntourism’ over the last years, is striking: Both contain the equally problematic notion of going ‘into the wild’, on an activist adventure.16 In our observation, stop deportation work, anti-repression or everyday asylum case support are much more invisible. This kind of activism might appear not as exciting, as it involves a lot of paperwork, communication with lawyers and authorities, it remains in the background and in the mindset of many lacks the spirit of adventure. We would frame this as a kind of activist ‘care work’ and like most of the care work in society, in anti-racist circles this labor mainly rests on the shoulders of females* (with and without migration experiences) and Persons of Color/ people with migration experience.17 If you have a closer look, the distinction between adventurous activism and care work blurs. Most support work which is done on the ‘Balkanroute’ could also be framed as some kind of care work: Distributing food or clothes, caring about people’s asylum cases and so on. Nevertheless, this kind of care work involves travelling and going on an activist adventurous holiday. This makes it more attractive than the care work which is taking place in the refugee camp around the corner or in our neighborhoods. We don’t want to forget this – the political fight for the right to leave and the right to stay. Let’s get to know the struggles of the people in the camp next to where we live!

What we often overlook are the silent, small steps which organize solidarities, empower communities and tie long-lasting networks of trust. These invisible processes are often not perceived as ‘political’ work and maybe they won’t lead to immediate visible outcomes – such as a demonstration, a public debate in the autonomous center or a zine. We want to challenge this narrow definition of the ‘political’ and stress the importance of this kind of political work.

Appreciation from migrants

As described in the scene above, another kind of appreciation was present in the contact with migrants. Many people on the move expressed a special kind of gratefulness that people from Germany are supporting them. Referring so highly positive to Germany could be one strategy to demand one’s rights: When Germany is such a great country that protects human rights, it has to accept the asylum applications of people. You are great people, supporting us here. Then your government has to support us equally. But the high appreciation we experienced goes hand in hand with a devaluation and mistrust against people from Eastern European countries that we sometimes heard. Again, the trope of white Germans saving refugees from ‘Balkan people’ arises.

How can we develop practices of solidarity that go beyond ‘help’ and ‘support’, two activities which create someone who supports and someone who needs support? In the following section we elaborate more on the type of support work which is being done on the ‘Balkanroute’.

6. About our Support Work and Responsibility

Concerning the concrete support work we did, we thought about five major issues: 1 Our interaction and relationship with the people we want to support creates a responsibility. 2 Is ‘being present’ as Western European citizens a form of low scale intervention? 3 In all support work, material hierarchies between those who ‘support’ and those who supposedly are ‘supported’ are fundamental for this specific relationship. 4 We should not take ourselves too serious, because migrants also manage to get by without our ‘help’.

“So my feeling is that here in Idomeni we live in a zoo. We are here not human beings. Many people come here, take pictures, play with our children, and then go home and play with their own children. And we remain here, in these tents.”

– Interview with Taysir A., Idomeni (April 2016)18

Taysir A. is stuck at the Greek-Makedonian border since February. His statement reflects a critique of Western activists/ volunteers who go to borders or camps for a very limited period of time. Also the Syrian photographer Manar Bilal claimed: “Our refugee camps are not tourist attractions”19. Therefore, how long do we have to go on holidarity to move beyond the position of a tourist? How many weeks, how many months? In our opinion, there is no such kind of easy calculation. What’s clear for us is that – no matter what kind of support work is done – we need to be aware of the responsibility that comes with our presence.


To put it more clearly: When are we giving promises to people on the move which we can’t fulfill? Promises we might not articulate but which are anticipated by others? Do the people assume that we will be there tomorrow as well? An example: Not only once, we heard from migrants they had previously told the story they told us – about police violence, a push back or the treatment in a camp – to other people who had recorded it. They have never heard from them again, and don’t know what happened with their testimonies. Also, they hoped something might change after their story was recorded. Often, in our autonomous style of organizing, our groups or collectives don’t have names. But it seems a matter of accountability to communicate clearly who you are, what you can do, what you can’t and also how they can contact you again. Can people reach us if we are back in Germany, for example via social media? In our opinion, it is important to be clear about that when we get involved with people on the move.

The value of ‘being present’

Thus, is our solidarity work as voluntourists merely stabilizing the racist status quo or could we see the presence of Western Europeans as a rejection of European border policies? The fact that Western citizens are around, proves – according to racist ideologies of media and state – that it matters what is happening at the borders, in the camps or detention centers, shows state authorities and migrants alike that someone is watching and caring. This is important! But at the same time, we strengthen the system of domination and supremacy as we count on the position we have in this racist system. We rely on the fact, that we as Western Europeans will be treated and perceived by state authorities and media in a better way than the people on the move. We rely on our European citizenship rights. We rely on the fact that our lives count more than the lives of the people who are stuck at the borders. This contradiction is again something we will not be able to change through reflection, but the awareness about it might help us in understanding and acknowledging the positions we have. It also once more stresses the necessity for a destruction of the system of white supremacy in the long run.

Positions of power – producing truth

Let’s think in more detail about the support work that is done along the ‘Balkanroute’. Many collectives cook and distribute donations – reflecting on this opens up the huge debate on humanitarian aid. We decided to skip that and focus here primarily on support work as gathering and selecting information, bringing it to online and print media. In both cases, the harsh hierarchy concerning resources is striking: On the one side there are people on the move, who experience such a huge lack of existential things, as water, food, a dry, warm shelter for the night as well as a lack of legal information. We are on the other side, have access to all kinds of material and financial resources as well as a wide network of different activist groups, NGOs and lawyers, whom we could contact with legal questions. We are the ones who know where to get the information, take decisions on which information is valid and important. This brings us into the very powerful position of producing truth. While spreading the leaflets and chatting with migrants we realized that the information we give, does sometimes – not always – influence people’s decisions. Additionally, the truth we produce also has an impact on others, as the E-Mail by the Serbian taxi drivers shows. This knowledge production continues when we have returned to Germany and are referred to as experts for the ‘Balkanroute’. When we accept this position, we are making even more use of our discursive power and enforce the picture of the white German activists who travel to other countries and do good. One idea we had was simply to refuse these offers – not to speak at public talks on the ‘Balkan route’ or to give interviews. By doing so and explaining why we refuse this, we would ideally start a discussion about the structural inequalities within this kind of activism with the organizers of these events or journalists. There are many people in Germany now who had experiences on the ‘Balkanroute’ themselves. Migrants, but also local activists from Balkan countries could give a different picture about the situations and developments. This could be an alternative.

We are not so important!

On one hand side, we definitely perceived it as a part of our privilege that some migrants would listen to us more carefully and trust our judgment more, just because we are Germans. By how we present ourselves, we seem to tell that we have some expertise. Not only for this reason, we see support work as a responsibility and plead for being accountable: Do we make it clear to people on the move who we are, where we got our information from and how we selected it? On the other hand, we find it important not to overrate our own role: Migrants find their routes to Western and Central Europe, with or without information from NGOs and anti-racist activists. Information is circulating widely within communities, via personal contacts, Facebook and many other channels. People on the move mistrust and question information they receive from Western activists and NGOs and make their own decisions. More trust is put into the information that is provided by people who have also done this journey or share the same experiences, speak the same language etc.. That is why in our eyes it also makes much more sense if people who share this experience do this information work – such as in the Refugee Movement Journey, which was mentioned earlier. Another example is the Journey back to Greece20, organized by Youth without Borders. Since 2013, groups of young people travel back to the places they had arrived fleeing to Europe – such as Lesbos – and pass over information to newly arriving migrants. Acknowledging those activists as experts who made this experience of migration and flight seems important to us, as well as being aware that we tend to present ourselves as experts too often.

7. How to move on? For a Collective Reflection Process and the Struggle for the Right to Stay!

Hopefully, this text can be part of a discussion on white privilege and racism in the context of support work on the ‘Balkanroute’. It is crucial to constantly question ourselves and the things we do to finally get closer to the world we want to live in. Let’s start a collective reflection process and an exchange of ideas! However, reflection shouldn’t be the endpoint of our political struggle. Let our analysis influence our practice. We won’t change this racist, patriarchal and capitalist system by reflecting on it – but the reflection can further our work for social change, can shape and transform it into a different kind of political practice. Activism and politics are in our opinion ongoing processes of making mistakes and learning from them. We often felt stuck in a wrong fear of making mistakes – but we aim for an activist culture of criticizing each other and learning with and from each other!21

Should German activists not go on the ‘Balkanroute’ anymore to support people on the move? Is it possible to go beyond holidarity and voluntourism? Our answer to the last question is somehow a ‘No, but’. No, in the context of support work along the ‘Balkanroute’ we will probably always be activist tourists. But: We could try to be behave as activist tourists in a different way. In this article, we tried to give some ideas for that: For example, learning more about the local political contexts, taking the local political activist structures seriously or being open about other ways of organizing, being committed on the long-term and building relationships of trust. We also suggested to be accountable to people on the move and transparent regarding our means and possibilities. Concerning some of the aspects we brought up, there are no concrete solutions – especially when reflecting on the power dynamics within relations of support and underlying structures of white supremacy. Sometimes it is more about understanding that we are complicit with the system we are fighting against, and learning to stand this complicity. To get back to the first question: Yes, often it seems to us that it does make more sense if others than us go to the ‘Balkanroute’ as supporters or activists – people with more language skills, who share certain experiences with the people who arrive in Europe. The right to go is inevitably connected to the right to stay, and the people who come along the ‘Balkanroute’ are at some point arriving where they plan to arrive. The ‘Balkanroute’ is in Germany, as the fight against borders knows no borders.

1 In this text, we use the terms refugee, migrant, Non-Citizen, asylum seeker or people on the move synonymously. Through all of these terms human beings are put into boxes by state authorities. At the same time, all of these terms get reclaimed as self definitions.

2 Migrations from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia are commonly referred to as movements on the ‘Balkanroute’. The term has surfaced in Western Migration Studies as well as in migration management discourses. Since summer 2015, the term is widely used in German mainstream media as well as in activist circles. We feel that in a German context the term ‘Balkan’ carries many problematic generalizations and assumptions about Eastern European states, we are not completely happy with it. Anyhow, we use the term to simplify matters and to recognize that our comrades in ‘Balkan’ countries use the term themselves.

3 This is just a selection of events. Read a chronology in:

4 We understand whiteness in the context of a white supremacist world, as a power structure which advantages white people and disadvantages People of Color. We as white German citizens are constantly reproducing and profiting from this structure in personal relationships and everyday life. It is a system of power and knowledge, which tells us what is right and wrong, which knowledge is important, whose voice is being heard and who is visible. As we grew up within this system of power and knowledge, we constantly have to question ourselves in order to be able to destabilize instead of enforcing it or at least to know what to fight against.

5 For example, in the following articles: Nadiye Ünsal: Challenging ‘Refugees’ and ‘Supporters’. Intersectional Power Structures in the Refugee Movement in Berlin. In: Movements. Journal für kritische Migrations- und Grenzregimeforschung, Ausgabe 2/2015.–refugees-supporters-oplatz-intersectionality.html. Teresa Mair: Support vs. Solidarität. Fallstricke und Chancen der Zusammenarbeit zwischen Refugee Aktivist*innen und Supportern. S. 17-19, In: ZAG, Ausgabe 71/2016. Dorette Führer: The supporter-stigma as a tool for escapism. An Interview with Rex Osa (The Voice Refugee Forum). S. 28-30. In: How is your liberation bound up with mine? Ideas about mixed organising-processes, the power of definition and critical whiteness, 2014.

6 We, and most people we have met and worked together with identified themselves as activists – also in contrast to volunteers. At first glance, it was clear to us, that the difference between us as activists and volunteers in neon-colored jackets is clearly defined by our radical anti-national attitude and our ‘autonomous’ way of organizing. However, while distributing food, drinks or warm clothes, this boundary was often blurred. After members of the kitchen collective in Idomeni were blamed as political agitators, a declaration of ‘independent volunteers’ was published ( This could indicate that the term ‘volunteer’ was at a certain point used as a strategic self-definition to escape the label ‘activist’ and to bridge the perceived gap between ‘humanitarian’ volunteers and ‘political’ activists.

7 During the time we have travelled with the project ‘Moving Europe’, which was funded by Medico International, it was an even more privileged form of being on the ‘Balkanroute’, because our expenses for food, accommodation and transport were covered.

8 The text of the email was slightly changed for a better readability.

9 An example is a report by a German activist group about Macedonia (German only), which bashes the existing local structures (in this case a lawyers group) and takes time to elaborate how insufficient the health care system is, without considering the local context, the fact that they had just arrived there and therefore had no clue about the support structures. Throughout this article, they present themselves to be the German saviors of ‘poor refugees’ in an otherwise ruthless country:

10 Most Southern and Eastern European societies witness increasing youth unemployment, an ongoing exodus towards Northern and Western Europe, social relegation of the middle classes and wide poverty amongst the elderly. At the same time, new and old racist images on Southern and Eastern Europeans surface, are tenacious and vary according to the context and the purpose: ‘Lazy Greeks’ who are unwilling to work and are therefore responsible for ‘their’ crisis, Bulgarian and Romanian ‘robber bands’ who invade metropolitan cities since the membership in the EU, and so on.

11 We are often ignorant about the local political history. For example, keeping in mind that Serbia was bombed by the NATO only 20 years ago makes a difference in the political consciousness of the people. This argument is not about blaming, but showing up the blind-spots we have. One book that we recommend in this context is ‘Imagening the Balkans’ (2009) by Maria Todorova. Also for example the blogs in English language, and provide knowledge about the local political contexts.

12 Admittedly we wrote one article:

13 Interview with No Border Serbia: and with Clandestina:

14 These movements soon became much more visible in the German media than for example self-organized struggles had been. See for example the debate about newly formed ‘welcome initiatives’ and self-organized refugee struggles of the last years:

15 We would like to refer to the brilliant brochure of ‘Glokal e.V.’ “Mit kolonialen Grüßen..”, an easy to read text on travel reports of young people volunteering in countries of the Global South. (German only).

16 The motivations for doing support work on the ‘Balkanroute’ are also described in an article by the Guardian: “The feeling of being needed and the gratitude of refugees are rewarding. Young volunteers from all over the world come for an experience that wealthy societies don’t provide: a reduction to the essentials. They can be independent, have responsibilities and do meaningful work, with a dash of adventure and no time to fret over what to wear or where to eat. More than anything, it’s a chance to be part of a community that shares the same ideals.“

17 This observation is informed by our own experiences. Also the article we mentioned above discusses the topic of gender in more detail: Nadiye Ünsal: Challenging ‘Refugees’ and ‘Supporters’. Intersectional Power Structures in the Refugee Movement in Berlin. In: Movements. Journal für kritische Migrations- und Grenzregimeforschung, Ausgabe 2/2015.—refugees-supporters-oplatz-intersectionality.html.



20 Check the reports of the journeys: and

21 Melanie Bee is writing on the danger of separating reflections from our anti-racist practice in this article (in German):

107 thoughts on “Beyond Voluntourism and Holidarity? White German Activists on the ‘Balkanroute’ – (Self)Reflections

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