Mobility, class and country of origin in the Western Balkans

Published 19 January 2016 / By Diana Ihring

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Currently, migrants travelling through the Western Balkans are categorised and organised by country of origin. Country of origin is presented as a tool to facilitate quick access to protection for those people deemed most in need, but as a policy category it has come to obscure the many other factors which shape movement and associated needs. Here I suggest that looking at the current mobility patterns through the analytical lens of class, as defined by Bourdieu and applied by Nick Van Hear, allows for a much richer understanding of the protection challenges of people on the move and necessary policy responses.

2015 has proven challenging for the EU in terms of migration. According to the International Organisation for Migration, one million people entered the EU through the Western Balkan route this year. To manage the processing of such a high volume of people (sometimes several thousand daily for weeks at a time), the EU decided that quick measures needed to be taken to differentiate between those likely to receive protection in accordance with international refugee law and those less so. These measures were also considered necessary to facilitate access to protection for those deemed most likely to be the most vulnerable – people fleeing from conflict and war. Thus, country of origin has become the first and often dominant ordering principle in current policymaking. Until refugee status is formally determined at destination (and in some instances in so-called “hotspots” in Greece and Italy), the policies designed to order migratory flows in terms of freedom of movement in transit, entry, access to support systems and integration at destination are based on origin. Deservingness of protection – at least until otherwise determined by law – depends on one’s country of origin and the (assumed) associated reasons of flight.

This, however, is completely at odds with the experiences of migrants during their journey. As I travelled along the Western Balkans documenting the journeys of Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, but also Lebanese, Nigerian, Iranian and Moroccan migrants, I realised that whilst these people were indeed extremely different and experienced the shared journey differently, this was only very rarely and, if so, in counter-intuitive ways associated to the country of origin. To truly understand the protection needs of people on the move, I found, one had to adopt a much wider lens of analysis than the country of origin. One must look at the entire journey, at how people move, and at their experiences once arrived at destination.

A useful lens to understand how people on the same route experience the journey differently – in particular with respect to their protection needs – is the notion of class as used by Nick Van Hear (2004, 2014). Drawing on Bourdieu, Nick defines class as the combination of four different forms of capital any individual has, albeit to very different extents: so-called economic, social, cultural (i.e. education and skills), and symbolic capital, described as “the form the different types of capital take once they are perceived and recognized as legitimate” (Bourdieu 1987). Van Hear suggests that class shapes the very ability to move, the patterns of mobility (the hows and whens and to wheres of movement), and one’s life at destination.

For virtually all people I met along the Western Balkan route, class significantly shaped their experience of the journey, its length, how much they needed to endure and their experiences once they arrived.

The aim of anyone doing this journey is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Naturally so, because it is incredibly draining to be on the road for days and weeks, traveling day and night, in what for most are completely unknown surroundings, with only a vague idea of what is happening and what is going to happen. Also, ever-stricter EU entry policies always loom on the horizon, so the shared common sense is that the quicker you have it over and are “in”, the better.

Class shapes your ability to be quick, as well as your ability to choose when and how to move. When I was on the Greek island of Lesvos I met Ahmed, a young, well-educated and well-dressed Syrian man, from a middle class family who spoke fluent English. He was navigating confidently through the numerous obstacles which form the journey. Four days later he called me from Germany, telling me he made it. Around the same time I met Abbas, an Afghan man of the same age, but only with poor English language skills. As I asked him about his trip so far, I reached the impression that he lacked a clear understanding of the journey. Rather, he followed the stream of people finding ways to overcome obstacles as they arose. I met him again later in Germany when he had just arrived, over three weeks after I had left Greece.

My two friends entered Europe together at the same time and place – Lesvos, Greece – and travelled along the same route, but the stories they told me could hardly be more different. Ahmed had money saved from his family, which allowed him to take the quickest means of transport, and he had the language skills to both fully understand what was going on around him and to communicate successfully with locals, volunteers and aid workers. He had made many international friends on the way. At the same time, his mobile phone was his most important travel companion, with friends informing him daily on “the situation in ...” and daily WhatsApp messages to the family back home. Ahmed had the economic capital to pay for a quick journey, but he also had the cultural capital to engage with people around him, to be well-informed about the trip and receive the little extras (blanket/food/clothing) that shared language and empathy often provide. Also, he was a “Syrian refugee”, someone who, in the eyes of many, is more deserving of help than others en route and at destination since he had fled because he had no choice. Deserving because of the war in Syria, but also – as many Greeks, Serbs and Slovenians along the route told me – because “they [the Syrians] look like us”. With plenty of social capital, Ahmed could also draw on the symbolic capital of being a “Syrian refugee”, someone perceived by locals to be “similar” and “deserving”.

My Afghan friend Abbas experienced the trip differently. Before even arriving in Greece he had been on the road for months, repeatedly detained and robbed by the Iranian police, forced to travel back to attempt the same journey again and again. By the time Abbas arrived in Greece he had completely run out of money. To earn enough money to move on he stayed on the island, sleeping rough and buying ferry tickets for the notoriously overbooked ferries to mainland Greece. reselling them for a little extra profit to people freshly arrived from Turkey and eager to move on straight away. By the time Abbas had reached the Greek-Macedonian border town of Idomeni, border restrictions had been put in place, which triggered demonstrations and hunger strikes by those now unable to move on. When Abbas was finally able to move on he was lucky enough to join a group of Afghans. They travelled together, allowing my friend to rely on them for information on the trip and on how best to move. Thus his lack of cultural capital in terms of language skills was partially “made up” by the social capital he was able to develop on the way. But once in Austria the others took taxis for four hundred euros from the Slovenian-Austrian border to Vienna to board direct trains to Germany. Without money, Abbas was forced to rely on Austrian support services to get him to his destination. This was good and necessary, as they provided him with shelter, food and transport that he could not afford, but it also meant that from that moment on his freedom of movement in the Schengen area was curtailed. Escorted on trains under the auspices of Austrian and later German police and assigned to a pre-determined region in Germany, he is now not allowed to leave his municipality until his asylum request has been processed.

Now in Germany, Abbas feels systematically discriminated against compared to the Syrians with whom he shares the gym in his housing quarter. Security guards and social workers are more likely to speak Arabic (if any foreign language) and bond with Syrians. Anecdotally, state supported language courses are only open to Syrians, and my friend cites several instances when some of his Afghan friends were turned away by language teachers stating that “it will not be long until you will be sent back, so why bother”. His experience of displacement is clearly different to his Syrian counterparts in ways his country of origin cannot sufficiently explain. Also, it is likely that his chances of integration will differ from my Syrians friend’s, as he will have a harder time catching up with the language, finding work and feeling at ease in a place where, from the very beginning, he does not feel all that welcome. All this is tied to class because it is – at least partially – due to his lack of money, his lack of education and his worn out clothes that he is treated differently.

What I found throughout my trip was that those labelled as the most deserving because of their country of origin often happened to be privileged in ways many others were not.

Whilst it is undeniably practical as a sorting principle to regulate migratory flows, the present preoccupation with the “country of origin” fails to advance our understanding of migrants’ protection needs. Indeed, a reading of current mobility patterns along the Western Balkans through the lens of class stresses the importance of thinking outside pre-determined policy categories, which the “country of origin” has, unfortunately, perhaps become.

This guest post is part of series featuring writing by current and former students of the MSc in Migration Studies programme

Diana Ihring is a recent graduate of the MSc Migration Studies at Oxford where she focussed on mobility patterns and class in the Syrian conflict. Since graduating in 2015 Diana has been traveling with migrants along the Western Balkans documenting their journey and reporting from the field. You can follow her on twitter @diana_ihring


Bourdieu, P. (1987) 'What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups', Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 22, 1-17.

Van Hear, N. (2004) "I went as far as my money would take me": conflict, forced migration and class, International Migration Institute’s Working Paper Series No. 6, available here (accessed 11 June 2015)

Van Hear, N. (2014) 'Reconsidering Migration and Class', Int. Migr. Rev., 48, pp. S100-S121.