The meaning of loitering

Last year, as part of a research conducted for ICMPD’s project that studied smuggling of migrants (http://research.icmpd.org/projects/irregular-migration/study-on-smuggling-of-migrants/) I was interviewing refugees in the refugee reception center in Bicske in Hungary. I could write pages about the emotional burden this task left on me, but I find it distasteful to speak about my pain of having to hear about people sleeping in forests for weeks, travelling on top of trains, being beaten up by police officers, robbed by gangs, leaving their children behind, wondering around moneyless for months, walking barefoot through countries in the face of people actually experiences these. Thus, instead of, or apart from the content of my interlocutors’ narratives, I have focused on the expressive function of the messages they were conveying as well as the context in which they spoke and acted.

The strongest impression the Bicske reception center left on me was the feeling of prolonged time. Even though both the staff and the tenants of the center emphasized the transitory nature of the place and the state (people were supposed to be there only for a short period of time, until their status is regulated, until they move on to their final destination or return to their countries of origin), time in Bicske seemed to pass much more slowly than outside the gates of the center. The tenants were walking between the barracks seemingly aimlessly, they were in a constant state of waiting, for a document, for a social worker, for legal aid, for the interpreter, for their status to be solved, for an email for relatives, for an opportunity to leave the center, for a decision to move on.

Half a year later, on the day after the refugees’ clash with the Hungarian police, my friend and myself decided to visit the old border crossing / new fence next to Horgoš and see for ourselves what the situation was (Hungarian-speakers can read about our impressions on http://hu.autonomija.info/there-is-no-country-van-honnan-de-nincs-hova/). Even though it was only a day after media outlets from the entire region and further broadcasted images of battle-like fight and violence, upon our arrival to the site in 30+ degrees, the general atmosphere was not agitation or anger, not even desperation (even though, talking to some of the refugees there, I got the impression that being stuck in a country no one ever dreamed of staying because of being forbidden to enter a country they only wanted to pass through was a shock that was still to sink in) but that of waiting: the sight of people walking up and down, the smell of tired bphotoodies, children walking from one charity stall with food to another to pass the time, adults trying to persuade one another to go on strike to do something, but not really being serious about it themselves.
The only thing that was sure that they needed to wait: for friends, for relatives, for a bus, for a taxi, for information, for the fence to disappear, for alternative routes to come up. Again, like in the Bicske center, the half day spent there seemed like eternity.

On another hot day, this summer, two colleagues and I visited the Krnjača refugee reception center, another transitory place without a proper institutional name but referred to by the toponym. Administratively in Belgrade, geographically in Vojvodina, the place is both isolated from and surrounded by the urban landscape characteristics of any suburb in the Balkans and beyond: a Roma settlement, unfinished houses, industrial buildings, bus stops, kiosks, car repair shops and retail stores, but one can also smell and feel the swampy desolate Banat terrain behind it. Upon entering the former workers’ barracks, I automatically adjusted my walking pace to that of the residents, my movements became slow and I felt tired even though I haven’t done any physical activity. Like the refugees, we loitered around looking for things to look at, people to speak to, a language to find in common with the temporary residents of the reception center.

None of us spoke any Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, or any other language used by the refugees who stay in Krnjača. After the few hours spent there, we went back to our comfortable homes and our uncertainties about the future were ridiculous compared to that of the people we didn’t speak to. I could relate to them in one way though: upon entering “their” spaces, I also felt the suspension of time, of daily routines, of activities and rules that would structure it, of the future and of the meaning we attach to the present.

 

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