Stuck between borders: Transportation of humanitarian aid from Sweden to Western Balkans
‘Due to the slowness of bureaucratic procedures, many lorries were forced to wait at the border between Hungary and Serbia for several days.’ All images by the author.
Nowadays, many developing and transition countries find it challenging to compete in the global race for economic investments and cooperation. In this context, many countries rely on their diasporas and emigrant organisations as potential donors and investors. Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a third of the nationals lives abroad, are two of the countries that turn to their organised diaspora for economic cooperation. Drawing from my interviews with members of Serbian and Bosnian diaspora organisations in Sweden, I investigate the ways in which humanitarian aid has recently been transported from Sweden to the Western Balkans.
The majority of the transnational projects implemented by diaspora organisations in Bosnia and Serbia are humanitarian-oriented and related to social causes. The severe floods of 2014 and 2017 brought together people from different diaspora organisations to carry out joint activities. Setting up humanitarian projects is one of the ways for emigrants to support the development of their home country. These humanitarian activities are motivated by their emotional ties and connections, as well as by their sense of moral obligation to help their friends and families back home. Migrant organisations in Sweden collected tons of food, clothes and medical supplies in 2014 and 2017, not only from members of Serbian and Bosnian communities but also from the wider Swedish society.
One of these shipments was de subject of some of my interviews. The collected food and humanitarian relief items were sent in large lorries from Sweden to the flooded areas of Western Serbia. Due to the slowness of bureaucratic procedures, many lorries were forced to wait at the border between Hungary and Serbia for several days. Interviewees explained that they were aware of how slow domestic institutions were at that specific moment, so they were not surprised by the inefficiency of the state in times of urgency. As one of the interviewees explains,
I get that when there are goods pouring across the Serbian border, they need to be properly examined, as we are not registered as a charity, but as a diaspora organisation... After a few days it looked like the whole system down there did not function and sometimes that can be very frustrating.
Another example of bad practice involved a project to collect and buy electric wheelchairs for the hospital in Novi Sad, Serbia. According to the person who was in charge of this project, they gathered more than twenty wheelchairs. The first problem was transportation, as it took more than two weeks for the wheelchairs to travel from Sweden to Serbia, and for several days they were unable to track the delivery. It is worth noting that this project took place after the so-called ‘migrant crisis’, when the border controls between Serbia and Hungary became even more rigorous than before. When the shipment arrived at the hospital, there were only ten wheelchairs. Diaspora representatives claim that corruption and transportation problems are the biggest obstacles in the implementation of these projects. As the head of the project mentioned,
We can somehow try to understand the situation in the Balkans, but it will not be possible to improve it until the political and social circumstances in Serbia and the region change. We can only hope that politicians, organisations and individuals in Western Balkans, and also the border control authorities in Hungary, will be more open for collaboration because that will make things so much easier for us and for our work. Sometimes it seems that they expect us to collect money and to send it, but they do not understand that we are not obligated to do that, it is our free will.
The interviewed diaspora members acknowledged that the main problem in the past has been the lack of collaboration between migrant organisations in Sweden and governments in Western Balkans. Diaspora organisations are also aware of the issues of corruption and slow administrative responses that affect governmental institutions. Moreover, most leaders and coordinators share the opinion that the implementation of similar humanitarian-oriented activities will encounter the same logistic troubles in the future.
Dejan holds a Master’s degree in Migration and Intercultural Relations (EMMIR), an Erasmus Mundus programme, issued by the University of Oldenburg. Previously Dejan obtained a Bachelor's degree in Ethnology and Sociocultural Anthropology from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade. Dejan was selected as a participant in the European Voluntary Service (EVS) and he spent one year in Berlin, working at the youth and migrant centre. An activist for social change, Dejan has lived and worked in Kosovo, North Macedonia, Norway, Germany and Sweden. Currently, he works as an international migration consultant and researcher at Westminster Foundation for Democracy in Belgrade.