Anti-racism from the margins: Welcoming refugees at Schengens' northernmost border
Carolina S. Boe, Aalborg University
Karina Horsti, University of Jyväskylä
Pre-publication copy of a chapter published in
Peter Hervik (ed) Racialization, Racism, and Anti-Racism in the Nordic Countries, Cham:
Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 183 – 201.
Anti-racism from the margins: Welcoming refugees at Schengens' northernmost border
Images of men, women, and children riding bicycles in a snowy-white Arctic
landscape wearing sneakers, jeans, and light jackets captured international media attention in
the autumn of 2015, as they crossed the northernmost external Schengen border from Russia
to seek asylum in Norway. In a community of some 3,500 inhabitants, 5,542 asylum seekers
arrived within a time period of a few months.
The so-called “refugee crisis” had already been a daily news topic in Europe for
several years. The attention had, however, so far, been drawn further south, on fishing boats
and rubber dinghies crammed with people in the Mediterranean Sea. This form of irregular
border crossing had perhaps become such a familiar visual trope that it had become a
normalized part of the refugee experience in the eyes of the publics in the global North. Were
the images of Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi asylum seekers cycling in the Arctic landscape
necessary to wake these publics up to realize how bizarre European refugee politics were
becoming? Just as the progressive closure of the border between Morocco and Gibraltar led
smugglers to charge more money and migrants to take higher risks, leading to inflations of
deaths by drowning (Pian, 2009; Migreurop, 2009, pp. 116-118; Anderson, 2014; Migreurop,
2017), the building of fences by Balkan and Eastern European countries led migrants and
human smugglers to find alternative routes. The images of Arctic border crossers, hence, also
symbolized the creativity of smugglers who organized flight tickets from Istanbul to
Moscow, from Moscow to Murmansk, and adapted to local legislation by providing their
clients with overpriced bicycles to cross the border. The banal reason for the necessity of the
bicycle was a seventy-year old ban by Russians to pedestrian traffic on the border and a
recent threat from Norwegian authorities to prosecute drivers who would transport passengers
As the inhabitants of the Norwegian border town Kirkenes discovered through news
media that refugees had started crossing the border a few kilometers away from their town,
completely unprepared for the arctic winter, several groups organized to gather warm
clothing and other basic necessities to welcome the refugees. Their solidarity network soon
expanded to networks in other regions of Norway and of Europe, through social media.
Sympathizers, from as far as Italy, sent boxes with clothes and toys. Solidarity messages, but
also hate mail, arrived from other parts of Norway.
Two years later, in February 2017, we were among nine academics of the Nordic
network Borderscapes, Memory and Migration who visited Kirkenes, and had the chance to
meet Eirik Nielsen, a former miner, and Merete Nordhus, a nurse, and other inhabitants of the
region. When we met them, the Russian authorities had started to control the border again,
and there were no longer any asylum seekers cycling to Kirkenes. The municipal sports hall,
that had been a temporary shelter for the refugees, was back in use for the local Taekwondo
and handball teams. Some refugees had been relocated in the town but most had been sent to
various reception centers elsewhere in Norway.
The memory of the event, however, was still vivid. It had forged friendships,
solidarity networks, and a new geography of affect. Inhabitants from Kirkenes told us how
they now perceived news from afar much differently, whether bombings in Syria, bomb
attacks in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan (in spite of the involvement of Norwegian troops)
were no longer distant events but touched them because the arrival of refugees to Kirkenes
had created knowledge of and affective ties to these regions. Meeting these locals who had
chosen to welcome refugees in spite of living in an economically challenged region of
Europe. Kirkenes was built around an iron ore mine in 1906, and just before the arrival of the
refugees, in 2015, the local mining company Sydvaranger Gruve had gone bankrupt (Gullvik
& Mortensen, 2016). All the miners, including Eirik, lost their jobs. Meeting the inhabitants
of Kirkenes reminded both of us of encounters we have had with locals who have mobilized
to help refugees in Lampedusa, Calais, or the marginalized neighborhoods of Paris (Horsti &
Neumann, in press; Boe & Mainsah, 2017; Boe, in press).
Not everyone in these regions is supportive of refugees, and the communities are
divided on how the so-called refugee crisis should be dealt with. Also, the nationalist populist
Progress Party in Norway has grown in popularity in the North. Hate mail was either
anonymous or came from people who didn’t know them.
Through the case of Kirkenes, we will first analyze some more general trends that
relate to the analysis of humanitarian actions and solidarity with asylum seekers and refugees.
We will then analyze what happens when citizens discover and act upon law and legal
practice, which they find unfair, engaging in moral arguments, illegalities, and legal struggles
to redefine justice. Finally, we will discuss the pitfalls of explaining racism with social class:
white working-class or persons with shorter education from rural or formerly industrialized
regions of the Nordic countries are often represented as allegedly more prone to xenophobia
and racism. A common analysis is that their experiences of dispossession and marginalization
go hand in hand with xenophobia and a feeling of threat from sexual minorities, women,
migrants, and the specter of a multiculturalist society that has taken away their former
privileges. Politicians, at least, often argue that it is to protect these voters that they are forced
to become more and more populist and create increasingly repressive laws that favor border
control and strict immigration policies. Yet, the example of Kirkenes tells us another story.
Drawing on the analysis of French collective Cette France-là (2012), we ask, what if
xenophobia stems less from “below” than from “above”?
From Humanitarian Involvement to More Political Human Rights Activism
Merete Nordhus was one of the first locals of Kirkenes to start organizing a solidarity
network. When she learnt of the refugees from the media, she was shocked that they weren’t
dressed appropriately for the weather: “I saw them on the news at the Storskog Border, and
thought, “these people must be freezing to death.” She started to collect winter clothes and
boots through Facebook and donated them to those who had arrived and those who were
waiting for the border crossing in Nikkel on the Russian side. As an inhabitant of the border
region, Merete has a multiple entry border visa that makes it possible for her to travel 30
kilometers into the Russian side as often as she wishes to. Such visas allow frequent border
crossings for Norwegians and Russians of the region alike. While the Norwegians mostly use
the visas to buy certain commodities such as cheaper petrol, alcohol, and cigarettes in Russia,
Russians from the other side of the border enter Norway regularly to sell their handicrafts on
the market square in Kirkenes. As Merete and other inhabitants responded to the arrivals of
refugees, their visa took on new significance and provided invaluable support for their
Humanitarian responses to the arrivals or transits of refugees in local communities
had been happening across Europe that same summer and autumn. A regional group,
Refugees Welcome to the Arctic, followed the Refugees Welcome movement that was
spreading across Europe, and their reactivity was often made possible by the swift
constitution of groups on various social media. The stencils of a family holding hands and
running started to appear not only in the liberal neighborhoods in Berlin, Copenhagen, and
London, nor just at border localities such as Lampedusa, Calais, or Idomeni, but also in small
towns in the Nordic countries.
The group continued their engagement with those who had crossed the border or were
about to do so. Donating clothes to the aspiring asylum seekers who were staying at a run-
down hotel in Nikkel was only the beginning for Merete and several others from Kirkenes.
While doing their humanitarian work, they became more and more engaged with the legal
conditions of the people whom they were helping. As Merete says, she has two lives, the one
before refugees and the one with them. As she became more engaged, then friends, with
some of the asylum seekers, it was soon obvious to her that warm clothes were not enough.
The gap between the helper and the helped can be, at least partly, bridged by the encounter
Another major change occurred as she and the other inhabitants of Kirkenes became
witnesses of the treatment of asylum seekers whether by human smugglers, corporations, or
state authorities. The more they knew, the more unjust they found the position of the asylum
seekers. One of the issues that shocked Merete and others in the Refugees Welcome to the
Arctic movement, was their poor housing conditions for the asylum seekers. The reception of
asylum seekers was organized by a private company, Hero, which had been hired by the
Norwegian state. The Norwegian Hero is the largest private operator of asylum reception
centers in the Nordic countries. They run centers in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Germany.
What disturbed the activists was that the asylum seekers were stored in an unused military
camp next to the airport, 15 kilometers from the town. By isolating them, they thought, the
Norwegian state tried to make them invisible for the locals and for the tourists who had come
for the Arctic experience. The asylum seekers had no access to the internet, were served
insufficient food and had few toilets and only two showers that could provide a maximum of
40 liters of hot water a day for 200 persons. The asylum seekers had no space except their
bunk beds, as the cold weather made it impossible to stay more than a few minutes outside of
Inhabitants from Kirkenes started to visit the center and drive some of the asylum
seekers to town for coffee and a shower in their private homes. As one of the former asylum
seekers, an economist Ashraf Alio from Syria, told us, these small actions of solidarity were
very important, as they gave hope, warmth, and countered the dehumanizing effects produced
by state bureaucracies and the privatized reception system at an individual and a one-to-one
level. Attentiveness to asylum seekers as human beings was driven by humanitarian ideals
but also by solidarity in front of injustice. And those engaging with the refugees felt that the
injustice by the state, the European Union, and by the industry profiting from the crisis was
directed also to them and their community. Acts of solidarity were also the means to counter
the central authorities.
The volunteers in Kirkenes increasingly wanted to express their solidarity in more
public ways and they staged a protest on the 23 January 2016 in freezing -30°C weather “to
show our solidarity,” as Merete describes. A group of about 50 locals dressed up in their
outdoor outfits, drove to the camp, and approached the gates holding torches and signs saying
“Not Us and Them but We”, “UNJUST” (URETT), “Not Human”, “How is it with human
rights?”. Silently they waited at the fence and the asylum seekers began to come out, join
them, start conversations, and hold torches. The volunteers took pictures and videos of the
event and published them on the Refugees Welcome to the Arctic Facebook group, from
which they were spread to other social media sites, and in the general media. While the first
demonstration with torches at the camp was a peaceful expression of solidarity, a
performance where the locals expressed that they were with the asylum seekers and that they
didn’t accept the private company’s and the government’s treatment of them, it prepared for a
second moment of public and mediated protest, which was more confrontational. Moreover,
another turn had come when the local authorities took a stance against national policy and
supported the activists’ position. The mayor of Kirkenes, Rune Rafaelson, publicly stated that
he was “ashamed” of the ways in which the asylum seekers were treated at the reception
center. He stated that it was an insult to the reputation of the North’s tradition of hospitality.
This distinction between the people in the North and the central government in Oslo also
came up frequently in the conversations we had with people in Kirkenes, as we will discuss
The humanitarian actions (donating food and clothes) that Merete, Eirik and the other
volunteers started out with are based on the idea of a common humanity and dignity and on
the moral responsibility to help those who are suffering, whoever they are. Such humanitarian
action nevertheless often constructs a hierarchical relation between the one who helps and the
helpless victim, keeping them distinct and distant. The one who feels responsible and
compassionate has already identified the other as being in need of care, and this may allow
her to feel distinct and even better. The politics of compassion, therefore, are not contrary to
or outside of the politics of inequality.
This paradox of humanitarianism often contrasts with rights-based solidarity, a
practice that strives for a more equal relation between the two (Ticktin, 2011; Fassin, 2012,
pp. 2-4). At one end of the continuum of politics of solidarity there is a naïve
humanitarianism (Squire, 2014) that perceives the Other as different and separate, yet in a
stereotypically positive way (Horsti, 2013; Andersson, 2014; Squire, 2014). In this process of
making someone deserving of compassion, racialization intersects with other categories of
gender, age, and class. A suitable victim who can be “saved” is often a woman who accepts
Western values. In this dynamic, humanitarianism does not carry reciprocity but it is a gift,
and the one who receives compassion is forever in debt to the one who gives (Mauss, 1923-4;
Neumann, 2013, p. 4). At the other end of the continuum of solidarity, the Other is perceived,
fundamentally, as an equal human being, and the suffering and injustice that one meets is
taken as a common fight against injustice. The actors involved are aware of the power
dynamics and the privileges that one has and the Other lacks. There is no illusion of
similarity, but the fight against injustice unites the different actors. This division between
discourses on rights and humanitarianism manifests what Lilie Chouliaraki (2013, pp. 11-13)
calls two forms of solidarity: revolution and salvation. The humanitarian solidarity of
salvation is based on the morality of altruistic benevolence and compassion, whereas
revolutionary responses to suffering take a more political form of solidarity that calls for
attention to social justice and rights for all.
What we learn from the story of the activists of Kirkenes, however, is that
humanitarianism is not always entirely apolitical, as many critics often claim, but that it is
possible for a critical rights-based agency to develop from humanitarian action. The phase of
engagement and friendship that followed the initial phase of basic humanitarian care not only
shows a shift from one kind of moral response to another, but we also witness an
entanglement of humanitarianism and solidarity. Further, the first engagements prepared the
volunteers in Kirkenes for the more confrontational ways of demanding justice that we will
examine in the next section.
Breaking the Law to do Justice
When the government (Conservatives and nationalist populist Progress Party),
decided to deport those who had valid Russian visas back to Russia, the volunteers in
Kirkenes took to more explicit political action and defiance of the state. Merete explains,
“The Norwegian government deported 13 men on 19 January 2016 by bus. They just dropped
them off in Murmansk … in -38°C with nothing else than a sandwich. The ones we heard
back from were either sleeping rough in the street or living in the hallway of a building, some
had made it to Moscow. The government now planned to let another bus drop a new group of
refugees including families with children off in Russia, and what would happen to them?
They were stripping these people off their rights to have their asylum applications examined
and wanted to drive them back to Russia, which had suddenly become a safe third country.
We had to do something.”
The asylum applications of those to be returned forcibly to Russia were hastily
examined. After the negative decisions, Norway bussed those people who had valid Russian
visas back to Russia.
The locals had heard rumors of when the second bus would leave for Russia. Several
of those active in the Refugees Welcome to the Arctic had already arrived to the center and
tried to prevent the returns. The local and national media was there, too, and a large police
gathering, including support from other regions. Merete spontaneously took a family of
asylum seekers from Syria into her car, in front of policemen and journalists. “A policeman
stopped me. I said ‘I am just taking this family for a cup of coffee in Kirkenes, are they under
arrest?’ The policeman answered yes. I demanded to see their arrest warrant. When he didn’t
show me one, I just acted on pure adrenaline, I didn’t think but drove. I hadn’t reached
Kirkenes yet when I saw a human chain of policemen blocking the road. I didn’t want to be a
murderer, so I stopped the car. I cried. The mother was hysterical, ‘No Russia!’ she cried,
‘No Russia!’ The policeman told me I was banned from going back to the camp and that I
should follow him to the police station, the family, too — they had a 1-year old! I was so
angry! I yelled at him that he was a MF.”
At the police-station, Merete was told that she was under arrest: “He said, ‘You have
trespassed paragraph so-and-so of the foreign-law,’ or something.” Merete was submitted to a
strip-search, which she found as humiliating and demeaning as pointless: “I said to the police:
‘Do you think I have a refugee up my bum?!’ I was then taken to a cold cell. I have never
been arrested before, but I know from the movies that you have the right to call a lawyer. I
could hear one of my friends getting arrested, too. If you don’t know her, she has a very
strong voice and knows a lot of swear words. We were scared.” The two women and Eirik,
who also took asylum seekers into his car and drove them to Kirkenes, was also prosecuted
for “helping undocumented migrants in Norway.” After the asylum seekers sought refuge at
the local Lutheran church. People from Kirkenes came with food, clothes, money, and a local
supermarket sponsored food for them.
The national and international media attention, spurred by Merete, Eirik, and other
volunteers’ actions, the condemnation by human rights organizations, and finally the
Russians’ unwillingness to allow the people to return made the immediate forced returns
Three activists, including Merete and Eirik, were sentenced to pay a 5,000 NOK fine
(approximately 546 Euros). While Merete and the other woman paid their fines thanks to
donations from concerned citizens from Kirkenes and from all over Norway, Eirik refused to
pay his and has appealed his case. He told us that he wouldn’t pay because he hadn’t done
anything wrong. Judging his acts as criminal were not fair, nor just. Eirik eventually won his
case in July 2017.
Several scholars have shown how deportation can be stopped and legalizations
obtained due to the activities of pro-immigration groups within civil society (Balibar, 1999;
Coutin, 2000; Lippert, 2004; Nyers, 2003), who “become border guards” and “gatekeepers of
the nation-state” (Ticktin, 2011, pp. 24-25). As Susan B. Coutin stresses, the law should not
be perceived as monolithic or entirely determinant, as it can be contested and negotiated. This
leads to a processual understanding of the relationship between the law that creates illegality
and illegal practices and the laws’ implication in the redefinition of identities, and in
generating new forms of citizenship (Coutin, 2000, p. 23). This understanding is prevalent
among the inhabitants of Kirkenes, as it is in many other communities who have experienced
various kinds of class-based legal and economical vulnerabilities, often due to their
geographical distance from the power centers of the capital.
Memories from the Margins
What turned the two locals, Merete, a nurse, and Eirik, an iron miner, who had
recently been laid off due to the closing of the mine, into human rights activists? And when
they were both sentenced to pay a fine for preventing the forced return of asylum seekers,
what made Eirik decide to meet the state in court for not paying the fine?
The identity in Kirkenes is open to multiple identifications. We already mentioned
“the traditional hospitality of the North,” which both the mayor and the inhabitants of
Kirkenes often stressed. Sometimes, this narrative identity of hospitality and strong
community spirit, dugnadsånd, is explained by a rough climate where survival depends on
helping one another. However, this sense of helping the neighbor isn’t necessarily
unconditional. In this case, it is particularly interesting to examine how these narratives of the
Northern identity translate into arguments for welcoming responses to refugees. Oftentimes,
these same arguments of community spirit are used in anti-immigration actions. Therefore,
we explore further how this Northern hospitality is constructed. What are the memories and
shared notions behind this hospitality that made such movement of solidarity possible?
First of all, Kirkenes needs to be understood in the framework of borderland. All
inhabitants of Kirkenes are aware that the tracing of the border was somewhat accidental, that
Kirkenes might as well have ended up in Russia, Finland, or Norway, and that this tracing
came from “above”, and artificially traced into local allegiances. We were often reminded
that many of the indigenous Sami who inhabited the area upheld a semi-nomadic lifestyle,
but also that all have friendly daily exchanges across the border. Intermarriages, friendships,
and business relations are common and visits frequent for those who hold a multiple entry
borderland visa, whether they have Norwegian, Finnish, or Russian citizenship. While the
end of the Cold War increased cross-border connections, perceptions of the neighboring
Russian citizens had been positive even before. There were cultural contacts when the Soviet
border was closed and the elderly locals in Kirkenes recalled Russians as allies in the partisan
battles against the Germans in the war 1939 – 1945 (Viken, Granås & Nyseth, 2008, p. 27).
The sense of borderlessness or open borders goes back much further. The European idea of
nation-state borders reached the North relatively late, in the early 1900s. In addition to these
memories and sense of the region’s history, people have other family memories of more or
less voluntary movement in the region, due to wars and nation-state boundary-making.
The inhabitants of Kirkenes experienced displacement and disposition during World
War II. Merete explains that her response might be inspired by her grandmother who
experienced the destruction of Kirkenes during WW II when the Germans and Russians
fought in the area and German troops ended up burning everything as they withdrew. Both
she and Eirik tell us how during the fighting, 3,000 locals hid in the tunnels of the local mine
for three months with their cows and other animals, with the snow providing them with clean
drinking water. Eleven children were born in the tunnels. They said that everyone in Kirkenes
knows this story, and part of the narrative is that the villagers were saved only because they
took care of one another.
The winter of 2015-16 was not the first time Kirkenes has welcomed refugees. The
locals still remember the stories from 1939 – 1940 when the Finns arrived to seek protection
during the Winter War against the Soviet Union. Moreover, the same sports hall where the
cycling refugees were housed had already been used to house refugees from Kosovo in the
late 1990s. “We have a long history of protecting people,” Eirik and Merete explain.
Eirik, as all the other miners, lost his job when the mine went bankrupt in 2015. He
was part of the worker’s union, which had been a fundamental part of the community since
the mine was opened in 1906. Throughout the turmoil with the mine, the workers stood
together, as they had done for a century. In the 1980s and 1990s, the workers struggled
against the closing of the mine. As Eirik walked Carolina through the section concerning the
mine at the local Varanger museum, he explained the rough working conditions, the tragic
accidents that could occur in the mines, and the fear they stirred among the miners. He
paused, and Carolina asked, “Do you miss it?” Eirik’s face lit up in a mild smile, “Every
single day!” Eirik had been part of the workers’ solidarity movement for years, and now,
thinking back in time, he believes that that experience contributed to his response to the
refugees. “I couldn’t see other people’s rights being violated, I couldn’t, and I had to show
my solidarity,” Eirik says.
In addition to the struggles to keep the mining going, there are numerous other
historical examples of local defiance to state-planning (Scott, 1998) in Kirkenes, as historian
Marianne Neerland Soleim at Kirkenes’ Barentsinstitutet has written about. Many locals told
us of such examples of the ways in which official history making can take away the heroism
of some or rehabilitate others, as in the case of Sami people who guided refugees in the
wilderness over the border during World War II, and who have been treated both as heroes
and as traitors to the nation. Another example of struggles over hegemonic politics was the
management of Russian prisoners of war, and, later, their graves. While the POWs were
presented by state authorities as dangerous, local Norwegians who lived near the prisoner
camps had great sympathy for them. When the Norwegian state decided to move to centralize
POW graves during the Cold War, many locals refused to undertake the task, out of criticism
of the state’s rewriting of history (Soleim, 2015; 2016).
Such examples of state defiance that had taken place in their parents’ or grand-
parents’ life-time had been transmitted through family stories much more than in official
school programs. The notion that what the school and national television tells us is not
always in accordance with the history we know from our elders may also explain why the
people of Kirkenes hold a certain suspicion towards the mainstream narratives. Eirik Nilsen
told us how he’d always heard on national television that Muslims were bad people, but how
his skepticism towards Muslims disappeared very quickly when he met the first Muslim
asylum seekers personally.
Criticism and defiance of state regulations are commonplace in the region, and not
only in regards to the refugees, as when discussions turn to the amount of fishing of king crab
or tax-free goods that one can take from the Russian side to the Norwegian one. We heard
many stories of small-scale illegalities, of trafficked trunks and glove compartments that
made it possible to bring over an extra liter of alcohol or a cartridge of cigarettes for friends
and relatives, which border or police authorities often know about but do not enforce. The
notion that Oslo or Brussels has supported laws that the people thought were arbitrary and
absurd and that it is legitimate to circumvent them with micro-arrangements, may also
explain the reaction caused when the inhabitants of Kirkenes saw injustice and irresponsible
public expenditure towards asylum seekers.
A contemporary example of the people in the North criticizing the central government
includes responses to the building of the 200 meter (660 ft) and 4 million Norwegian kroner
“grensegjerde”- a border fence built by the Norwegian state on the border between Norway
and Russia in 2016 (Johnson, 2016). First of all, the Russians control the border on their side
and already have an old fence in place. Second, the new Norwegian fence was built 1 cm too
close to Russian territory, according to international law, and the Norwegian state had to
spend additional money to move it, which only added absurdity to an already-senseless and
costly project. The passing of refugees in the zone had already stopped. The fence was only
symbolic and could easily be circumvented, as most border fences can. The locals saw the
fence as a waste of tax money decided by a government that makes wrong decisions, either
out of a lack of knowledge or deliberately, to instrumentalize refugees as a dangerous group,
which politicians protect them from. In other words, xenophobia from “above” (Cette France-
là 2012) disregards the experiences of a local community. The “grensegjerde” became a topic
of ridicule in Kirkenes: people equaled it to the U.S. President Donald Trump’s dreams of a
wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Many inhabitants of the border region further believe that the 5,542 persons who
crossed the border had been too perfect an opportunity for the Russian regime to threaten
Norway and other European countries that had put sanctions in place due to Russia’s military
intervention in the Ukraine. As in the cases of Mediterranean diplomacy, such as readmission
agreements (Migreurop, 2009; 2017), exiles were once more pawns in geostrategical
considerations, which neither the exiles themselves nor the local population of the border
region had any take on.
Norwegian-ness in Kirkenes is thus, in many ways, a distinct kind of identity, a
position from which the center and the capital can and must be challenged. As we exchanged
in Norwegian and Danish with people in Kirkenes, the fact that neither of us belong to the
capitals of our countries of citizenship, not Copenhagen nor Helsinki, was a distinct asset.
This awareness of a local, regional identity that opposes the “capital” and the governing
elites, may, then, partly explain the defiance of the law and the center, and that local
allegiances extended to the refugees. These identifications among the locals in Kirkenes
reflect the historical continuities at the Norwegian-Russian border: self-understanding of the
region as a “dynamic frontier” or “wild North” and the desire for open borders. These desires
and imaginaries have been in constant conflict with the concerns of nation state logic and the
international power blocks (Niemi, 2009; Schimanski, 2015).
The stories of Eirik and Merete show how attentiveness to the suffering of strangers
can be prompted by past experiences of one’s own or that of others by stories that have
become collectively shared memories. In Kirkenes, the response to the cycling asylum
seekers extended from humanitarianism towards human rights, a solidarity that became
increasingly politically challenging. For Eirik and Merete, these were not two different
moralities but entangled into one. Also, they refused any sort of categorization that opposed
foreigners to Norwegians in their merit. Eirik explains: “We got so much shit from people
who disagreed with us for helping refugees and not Norwegians. For instance, we collected
reflectors so that the refugees would be visible when walking in the dark, and people said that
we ought to give them to Norwegian children instead. We got so much of that “Norwegians
As both national and international media started reporting on the strange case of
bicycling refugees in the Arctic, the humanitarian work taking place in the border region
became more and more known. Merete was interviewed by Norwegian and foreign-national
media, a visibility that quickly made her vulnerable to hatemongers. She received calls, texts,
and emails from strangers, both anonymous and ones who did not even care to hide their
identities. Merete stresses that no locals in Kirkenes ever attacked her directly. The hate mail
was anonymous or came from outside of Kirkenes. Some Norwegians called Merete a
“traitor” to the national community, “a disgrace to your country.” The messages entangled
misogyny and nationalism in a way that shocked Merete deeply, and it was the first time that
she experienced such bullying and hate. Eirik even received a letter with a death threat at his
personal address, which had been posted from Southern Norway.
Merete’s and Eirik’s experience of being unjustly treated by hate mongers and police
officers positioned them at the margins of mainstream Norwegian society. Nevertheless, in
that position, they felt privileged. From the people that mattered to them, they received prizes
and praise, encouragement and support. Furthermore, as Eirik explains, the tradition of
worker’s solidarity extended to solidarity with asylum seekers and to an anti-racist stance.
These Northern identities and histories of solidarities transformed into an ability to bear
witness to injustice being done to others, whom they saw as guests, or possibly as fellow
citizens in an international community of citizens who, sometimes, are separated by populist
politics and who suffer from the arbitrary decisions of central governments. As a Syrian
refugee who crossed the Arctic border told Carolina, “It is always the same who suffer,
civilians, and never the governments who decide. It is the same everywhere.”
As Merete and Eirik look back on the experiences they had a little over a year earlier,
they realize that the events changed them. As Merete says, she has two lives, the one before
refugees and the one with them. They are both very invested in the friendships they have
created with asylum seekers who are now refugees, while staying involved in refugee
activism. Eirik has volunteered in the infamous Idomeni refugee camp in Greece several
times. Because staying abroad means that he loses the monthly benefits that his status as a
former miner provides, he must live on his savings when he is in Greece, but he would be
there most of the year if he could.
News from the world’s war zones have suddenly become personal, while phone calls
from unknown people who accuse them of betraying their country no longer hurt as much as
they did in the beginning. Their emotional landscape has changed. “Every time I pass by the
Airport and the place where the police stopped me and forced a Syrian family out of my car, I
remember and I get the chills,” Merete recalls.
Refugees Welcome networks across Europe have responded to the arrival of refugees
mainly by humanitarian actions. Though humanitarianism is often depicted as and criticized
for being an entirely de-politicized action towards populations that are given clothing, food,
shelter, medical care and other strictly basic help, this is often more true in theory than in
practice. Though many ordinary citizens with no previous history of policized civil society
engagements joined the Refugees Welcome movement and did strictly humanitarian work,
such as cheering in train stations, bringing home baked pastries or children’s toys, as in the
case of the Venligboerne in Denmark, many quickly got a sense of some of the injustices of
the asylum system and went from more humanitarian action to more politicized action.
Humanitarian and politicized pro-migrant activism, we argue, are less opposites or strictly
two poles on a specter, and more entangled forms of engagement.
In Kirkenes, the local activists not only offered humanitarian assistance but also voiced
their solidarity with the refugees and their criticism of the asylum industry as well as the
unjust treatment of asylum seekers. These speech acts took the movement towards a more
politicized position, which started in the form of a protest with torches and signs. However,
when the forced returns began, the locals in the Refugees Welcome to the Arctic movement
raised their voice and put themselves on the line. To be heard in public and in the spheres of
politics, Eirik Nielsen went even further and chose to confront the state in court, through
Second, through humanitarian actions, activists are often made aware of the differences
between the law, legal action, and their own sense of what a just asylum system should be.
Before encountering asylum seekers Merete and Eirik, for instance, had not been so aware of
international human rights law, asylum law and the rights of non-citizens. Through
humanitarian action many become conscious that their state and legal system does not respect
the country’s own laws nor the international treaties signed by the government. Some get
involved in actions that are in the grey-zone of the law and experience being persecuted for
having broken the law that criminalizes the actions of human smugglers.
Such experiences can profoundly alter the traditional trust in the authorities that has
characterized majority populations of the Nordic region, who are otherwise known to show
high levels of belief in the goodness and of the fairness of the state. For example, in the
Eurobarometer opinion survey, citizens of Finland and Sweden rank among the highest in
trust to national parliament and government in Europe. The confrontation and suspicion of
the central government in the Northern part of the Nordic countries that we discussed earlier
needs to be understood in this context. Distrust in state institutions and politicians has of
course been prominent in extreme right-wing and left-wing discourse for quite some time, but
experiences of an unjust asylum system and illegal actions from state authorities themselves
spur anti-political and anti-system rhetoric at the center, on the liberal left and the moral pro-
migrant right. This is an aspect that has been much less explored and the case of Kirkenes
and the axes of Northern identity and engagement with asylum seekers point to the need to
further examine the complexities of the relations between the state, non-citizens and citizens
from the margins.
The solidarity shown by a community of 3,500 who welcomed 5,542 asylum seekers
questions certain assumptions and stereotypes concerning the values and ideologies of white
working-class (males) from economically and culturally disenfranchised regions of the North.
Further, as enchanted as we were by the actions taken by the people and municipality of
Kirkenes, their example is not unique. All over Europe, locals, who are often living
precariously, have helped migrants and asylum seekers, whether upon arrival in Southern
Spain, Italy, Greece, or at border crossings in la Vallée du Roya on the Italian-French border
or in Calais at the French-British border. These regions, just as the neighborhoods in which
exiles gather in Paris (Boe & Mainsah, 2017), are also those where locals are among the most
marginalized and precarious; and it may be the awareness that history favors powerful elites
that drive them, not to vote for populist parties, but to welcome other precarious populations.
The experience of the locals in Kirkenes resonated with the stories which we have both heard
from locals in other border zones, such as Lampedusa and Calais.
These regions where European borders are policed and enforced are often considered as
the periphery when seen from the urban and political centers. From an economic perspective,
they are, indeed, often places that are characterized by low income or high levels of
unemployment whether they have a subsistence economy from fishing, agriculture, mining,
sometimes tourism or (post-)industrialization. Places such as the Greek islands, Lampedusa,
and Calais are considered borderlands like Kirkenes in the public imaginaries, though they
have often traditionally been places of passage, the sea being more of a waterway than a
border. In these places, locals have responded in similar ways as in Kirkenes (Puggioni,
2015; Gerbier-Aublanc, 2017). In some instances, humanitarian response by locals has
attracted media attention, and both Lampedusani and the people of Lesbos have been
nominated for the Nobel peace prize. Recently also, scholars have paid attention to the
networks of solidarity and confrontation that emerge in response to arriving refugees and the
security and humanitarian industry that follows. Raffaela Puggioni (2015), for instance,
examines how the locals in Lampedusa refused to be complicit in the detention industry that
has grown on the island. Through such acts of dissent, people who are expected to respond
negatively to the arrival of others, more often than not develop politics of equality. Puggioni
argues that by aligning with the migrants, the Lampedusani positioned themselves in
disagreement with the central government in Rome and the European Union. While the elite
response to the arrival of asylum seekers across the Mediterranean was militarization,
security measures, and cooperation agreements with third countries, the Lampedusani
advocated for an alternative that treated migrants more humanely. Many locals protest and
speak against securitization and militarization of the island (Tucci, in print) and in doing so
have cultivated a discourse and practices of attentiveness to the migrants as human beings
who have social lives. As in Kirkenes, humanitarian assistance entangles with solidarity and
politicized action against the European border regime and against xenophobia, which is
perceived to be generated by politicians from the political centers who care little about the
experiences of locals in the margins.
As in other groups in society who experience cuts in welfare and unemployment benefits,
or the financial and cultural marginalization of their regions, the notion that the law is no
longer just is becoming more and more mainstream. This notion often goes hand in hand with
skepticism towards economic globalization, and the idea of an “elite” of politicians and
citizens who vote for them, who are privileged and care little about those who are not,
whether they are nationals or foreigners.
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