Desperate Quest for Transnational Sanctuaries with Hopefulness

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Desperate Quest for Transnational Sanctuaries with Hopefulness

  • November 25, 2021
  • By Admin: Osman
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By Abdulkadir Osman Farah, PhD

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[Malak, a 26 years old pregnant Iraqi refugee, was according to reports willing to go “through chest-deep water, hiding in cold forests with her three small daughters in the hopes of giving them a better life in Germany. The Iraqi woman said: “She did not regret her efforts”, even though she said she and her family had been shunted between Polish and Belarusian border guards six times in the last few weeks: “The future of my children, I have to think about this first, because in Iraq, there is no future, neither for us nor for them]                                                                                                                                                 Routers, November 2021[i]

“We don’t want to be hopeless. Every time when the police deporting us we are saying to ourselves ok no problem we will try to go again; We are country less, we are illegal in all over the world, what should we have to do?”                                                                         Zahra, a refugee mother from Afghanistan responding to a BBC journalist inquiring “are you going to try again?”[ii]

“It was necessary to prepare for the fact that the situation … will not be resolved quickly, we have to be prepared for months; I hope not years”                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Mariusz Blaszczak, Polish Defense Minister, November 2021[iii].

“Since Monday we had hardly any interventions. So probably the people we meet in the forest this week are those who crossed the border before Monday. It’s almost impossible to cross the border right now,”                                                                                                   Kalina Czwarnog, representative of Polish Rescue Foundation, Fundacja Ocalenie, responding to the emergency declared by Polish authorities, November 2021[iv].

Shocking to witness Europe’s inability to properly handle such a low number of migrants stranded at the Poland-Belarus border, especially as I have just flown out of Iran which is receiving up to 5,000 Afghans a day. A few thousand people at Europe’s Polish border, many of whom have fled some of the worst crises in the world, is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people displaced to countries that are much poorer elsewhere”                                                                                                                                                  Jan Egeland, Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General, November 2021[v].


In search of transnational sanctuaries, often ending with unsuccessful border crossings, migrants and refugees insist on prospective hopefulness. The displaced mainly count on own resources, support from relatives as well as links with multiple formal and informal networks. With own steadfastness and resilience, most of them hope for their efforts eventually triggering and consolidating counteractions from transnational civic associations as well as potential interventions from top level representatives of humanitarian organizations and multilateral institutions.

In the meantime, migrants and refugees confront numerous intermediary groups including traffickers, informants and agitated violent right-wing clusters, as well as dispatched border armies. Such diverse groups seek either implementation or exploitation of national policies designed for controlling and expelling refugees. For the involved refugees such uncertainties between visceral realities and hopefulness might last for years- if not for generations.

So far, limited research addresses the transnational challenges migrants and refugees confront within, across and around borders. Much of it from state centric perspectives-stressing security policies and implementations[vi]. However, recent scholarship examines the dialectics of transnational constellations opposed by state oriented structural geographies[vii]. On the other, not much research exists on the current diverse extreme limbos in which migrants and refugees often transnationally navigate and negotiate to overcome.

Edward Said’s “negative dialectics” inspired socio-political movement conception[viii] in combination with Abdulrazak Gurnah’s socio-political focus on imagining narrative freedom of the formation of distinctive transnational social lives’[ix] could advance better understanding of the connections between top-down institutional framings and actions against migrant and refugee histories and priorities. Through their work and beyond, the two thinkers personally and professionally confronted and challenged diverse forms of identity subjugations and border-crossings,  


In November 2021 Polish army contingents violently dispersed refugees poised to crossing the Polish-Belarus border. For several weeks the refugees suffered under freezing weather conditions. Many of them did not expect ending up in such unbearable situation. Despite living through extreme challenges with potential human cost, many of them prefer pushing forward. Others reluctantly give up by accepting a temporary repatriation arranged through collaboration between transnational NGOs and countries of origin.

In another comparable deadlock, a refugee family (a father, mother and their small children) crosses the EU border from the Croatian side. The desperate refugee family unsuccessfully attempts crossing the heavily militarized Croatian border- not just once but numerous times. In their latest attempt, a BBC journalist accompanies them reporting and documenting the family desperation to the world. The journalist meets the Afghan refugees at a refugee camp in Bosnia. For the journalist, it is another working day, for the family the move precipice existential risk.

The family’s latest stage of border-crossing starts from a refugee settlement in their current temporary shelter in a non- EU refugee encampment inside Bosnia. A fragile country which has yet to join the EU. The father carries his young girl on his shoulders while the rest of the family follow behind. In simultaneous expression of protection for the family combined with anxiety over the Croatian police, the father tells the BBC journalist: “when families [the Croatians] close to the border see us they will call the police”.

The family seeks asylum in the EU- so far crossing over 6400 km to reach the border –just to find additional rejection and violence. Some of their children were born on route. Soon after crossing the border, the Croatian police detects and deports the family back to Bosnia. So far, this happened in 39 times. Reportedly, the Croatian police hits both the father and the mother. Despite such immense obstacles, the parents care their kids while strategizing how to potentially outmaneuver Croatian informants and armed guards. Meanwhile, anxious Croatian informants call the police whenever they see refugees crossing the border. The police comes and subsequently deports the refugees to the camp they fled, just on the other side of the border. Though demoralizing, the family keeps hope alive in an obviously hopeless situation of transnational exclusion of non-identity.

While the refugees act and strategize in an obvious limbo, Europeans representing diverse civic platforms, including health workers and other humanitarian groups, initiate rescue attempts for the refugees. Activists pursue the idea of resisting and modifying unbalanced state demands and priorities. Other transnational NGOs together with UN representatives caution for balanced rational approach through dialogue, respect for human rights and reflection of agreed international conventions protecting displaced peoples. For the NGOs it is not just about providing humanitarian assistance to refugees at borders and potential financial support for countries of origin- but also a critical issue of opening borders and the acceptance of refugees as an end in itself.

While NGOs and the UN representatives regret the death of migrants and refugees at Polish-Belarus border, states such as Belarus allows the refugees continuously transiting its territory. In response, Poland mobilizes troops to rebel and expel refugees. The EU sympathizes and reinforces member state concerns and actions. Poland even goes further in introducing additional restrictive laws designed to expel migrants and refugees as soon as they arrive close to Poland- prohibiting them from returning to Poland and to other European countries for years[x]. 

Transnational structures confronting refugee agency   

Traditionally national armies defend national borders from actual or potentially opposing presumed enemies. More recently, though, armies defend internal and supranational borders, not necessarily from conventional armies but from refugees and other non-state actors. In addition, instead of deterring other states, armies now also, among others, threaten and deter desperately displaced suffering refugees, potentially deploying violence against such defenseless groups. Currently, border armies therefore defend a supra-national territories-against migrants and refugees. By unleashing violence against the refugees, authorities expect the current and potential refugees to realize the risks of border-crossing. The threat might then persuade some refugees to return home- whereas it could prevent others pursuing similar adventurous cross-border activities.

Ironically, the refugees remain hopeful expecting, from particularly democratic countries to not long tolerate the continuing deployment of violence against civilians. The mobilization of transnational civic communities within democratic societies might eventually reject militarization, eventually allowing refugees to potentially achieve dignified care if not resettlement.

Meanwhile, informants and neo-Nazi groups from Germany, following more or less direct encouragement from right-wing parties, mobilize in preventing migrants and refugees reaching the German border.

Refugees and their border crossing activities divide the public among those insisting on institutionally defensive platforms opposed by others supporting the struggle for humanity and co-existence.  The first concerns the protection of national identities and boundaries, with the support of public border informants coupled with armed military and police operations. The aim includes securing and protecting the territories of a nation-state and society. If necessary the police and other relevant authorities deploy violence. They might or might not be punished for committing such acts. With prescribed monopolization of violence within national borders combined with supporting mechanisms of supranational institutions, authorities resist migrants and refugees. Though much of the policies emanate from the instrumentalization of internal public and political pressures, EU institutions externalize the recent migration crises at Polish-Belarus border describing the situation as a” Hybrid-Belarus attack” not at a Polish border but at an EU border.

The second concerns desperate refugees, including families and children, insisting on achieving better and dignified livelihood. Even if it means through dangerous border crossings regardless of rejection and violence. Important for them is to keeping hopes and dreams alive.

In the middle, transnational NGOs and multilateral institutions seek solutions for humanitarian support and shelter for the refugees while urging countries and societies in the EU and beyond to live up to their international obligations.

Challenging transnational connections with hopeful displacements

People often expect that living in exile (hereunder been a refugee, a migrant or a diaspora) should supposedly be devastating experience. Certainly, fleeing from own home, embarking into complex journeys of uncertainties, brings disappointment as well as actual and potential loss. If otherwise successful, migration and refugee life expand prospects of personal as well as social empowerment and development. This has to do with the multiple circumstances, challenges and opportunities people encounter. Edward Said, personally experiencing an authentic refugee and exile life, recognizes the greater risks of identity and integrity loss for the involved and their associates . On the other, the process of migrating, the experiences, of becoming refugees and subsequently living in exile exposes people to diverse transnational spheres and impulses-including rewarding human capital potentials. This include the efforts of reinterpreting and reengaging oneself with the surrounding societies and with the wider world . Such transformation and alternative awareness and consciousness requires serious intellectual as well as socio-political engagement and solidarity with multiple locations at the national and transnational levels . Transnational connections, including that practiced by migrants and refugees from below, provide for the involved opportunities to overcome limitations imposed by dominant national and transnational discourses and socio-political priorities . The perceptions, conceptions and images remain critical in overcoming and projecting oneself during difficult cultural circumstances where one’s existence and living conditions are constantly observed, if not ridiculed, denied or even physically assaulted. People will have to overcome their fear and isolation and move toward social and political articulation and mobilization. Such positions remain temporal and transitional as living a life continuously transforms. People at transnational levels, especially those at the margins, should first understand dominant transnational conceptions of the societies they interact. Then from there inquire capabilities of moving forward in projecting their ideas and concerns.

For Edward Said the real transnational process starts when a transnational person (for instance a person in exile, migrant or a refugee) finds members of the adapted or potentially hosting societies questioning, and might even delating, not just one’s current socio-political existence but also one’s past, meaning history. The confused persons then make sense of the prevailing discourses and, together with immediate associates and friendly networks, eventually mobilize counter transformative processes aimed at fixing the existing disequilibrium. Success, in this regard, is not guaranteed as people generating or sponsoring the dominant discourse also simultaneously improve and adjust to potential counter contingencies and strategies. Eventually transnational diversification emerges in which people have options to have diverse socio-political opinions and conceptions.

For Abdulrazak Gurnah people pursuing transnational lives are always in exile and potentially even without leaving from or travelling to a particular region of the world. Transnational connections are not just a process emerging people migrating or for instance seeking refuge in foreign countries. People in the South, Africa and Asia, historically, and also in contemporary times, practiced lesser privileged forms of transnational connections. These include transnational connections between African peoples- those at the interior and those at coastal and urban areas. Then there are the connections of people trading or for some other reasons- probably for colonial enterprises, coming to and interacting with diverse societies. Then we have also the transnational connections that emerge more recently in relation to regional and global political and economic upheavals and shifts producing refugees. In all of these circumstances, though transnational challenges emerge and disappear, the most resilient dimension remains the expressive capabilities of the involved migrants and refugees in making sense of the transnational contradictory meanings, dynamics and dialectics. How the involved people see and interpret the world they dwell and act upon, in different levels from the superficial to the deep, characterize the temporal socio-political processes.

In this regard, hierarchy and dominance is not equal to a unidimensional state-centric socio-political activity. No-one has comprehensive exclusive permanent power and hierarchy over others and no one remains completely in an eternal powerless and agentless situation. People, such as refugees, might be powerless and impoverished in certain social and political areas as well as in material projections. But some of them, despite suffering from diverse oppressions, continue imagining, creating and living with resilience and hopefulness. Migrants and refugees in this regard explore potentialities and openings in adjusting to not just the current obstacles but also to emerging situations.

For Gurnah, transnational connections are internally generated imaginative processes rather than external impositions. Such encounters and connections remain integral part of people finding their ways in increasingly complicated human conditions. It is also an issue of where people are, what can they do or not do at which time and where should they be heading to and with whom. It is both a matter of simultaneous association and elevation through concrete actions, conceptions, reflections, utterances and remembrances.

When dominant transnational platforms amess power, people have the option to adopt or reject. They also have the opportunities to learn from such processes of adjustment and articulation, while simultaneously interacting and positioning themselves into a better situation. In this regard, no one is in real total control of the situation but everybody should have the option of participating what might perfectly or imperfectly emerge. Outcomes whose merit future generations might classify and debate about. 


The recent cases of unbalanced clashes at the Polish, Croatian and other European borders between armies confronting suffering refugees poses obvious dilemmas not just for the involved refugees and nations but also for the wider humanity. Most nations adhere to reducing such avoidable human sufferings. Some do it through the assistance of conflict inflicted societies and countries whose citizens often flee. Others share the burden of transnational refugee resettlement efforts.

Instead, with a selective regional focus, The EU helps the Baltic countries and Poland whose politicians request for the construction of border-fences. The EU also increases joint border-patrols combining it with sanctions against companies and entities within and beyond Belarus- suspected of supporting the movement of the refugees[xi]. The aim is to temporarily reduce national political tensions while controlling refugee mobilities.

From their part, the refugees, though occasionally feeling besieged, remain hopeful. In prospect, hopefulness will have to be combined with organizational and institutional capabilities, potentially linking to established civil societies already engaged in alleviating the suffering of refugee families dealing with the urgent need of protection as well as concrete strategies to address the obvious rejection by the authorities, informants and extremists waiting them with violence within and around border-crossings. In the end, an ideally sustainable solution for the recurring crises should involve transnational NGOs, the UN agencies and state authorities sincerely collaborating in finding balanced transnational non-military solutions for human emergencies.







[vi] Costello, C. (2018) Refugees and (other) migrants: will the global compacts ensure safe flight and onward mobility for refugees?. International Journal of Refugee Law30(4), 643-649; Lemberg-Pedersen, M (2018) Security, industry and migration in European border control. The Routledge handbook of the politics of migration in Europe, 239-250; Hirsch, A. L. (2017) The borders beyond the border: Australia’s extraterritorial migration controls. Refugee Survey Quarterly36(3), 48-80; Sajjad, T. (2018) What’s in a name?‘Refugees’,‘migrants’ and the politics of labelling. Race & Class60(2), 40-62.

[vii] Heinsen, J., Jørgensen, M. B., & Jørgensen, M. O. (2020) Coercive Geographies: Historicizing Mobility, Labor and Confinement: An Introduction (pp. 1-19). Brill.; McNevin, A., & Missbach, A. (2018) Luxury limbo: Temporal techniques of border control and the humanitarianisation of waiting. International Journal of Migration and Border Studies4(1-2), 12-34.; Jørgensen, M. B., & Schierup, C. U. (2021) Transversal Solidarities and the City: An Introduction to the Special Issue. Critical Sociology47(6), 845-855; Agustín, Ó. G., & Jørgensen, M. B. (2018) Solidarity and the’refugee Crisis’ in Europe. Springer; Feischmidt, M., Pries, L., & Cantat, C. (Eds.). (2019) Refugee protection and civil society in Europe. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan; Heins, V. M., & Unrau, C. (2018) Refugees welcome: Arrival gifts, reciprocity, and the integration of forced migrants. Journal of International Political Theory14(2), 223-239.

[viii] Said, Edward W. Culture and imperialism. Vintage, 2012.

[ix] Gurnah, A. (2017) The Urge to Nowhere: Wicomb and Cosmopolitanism. In Zoë Wicomb & the Translocal (pp. 34-48). Routledge.

[x] (Law allowing immediate expulsion of illegal immigrants comes into force in Poland Translated by Content Engine LLC.  CE Noticias Financieras, English ed.; Miami [Miami]. 27 Oct 202).

[xi] Lithuania paper: EU tardy tackling migration crisis BBC Monitoring European; London [London]. 26 Oct 2021.