Counter-archive: Reflections on the (Non)possibility of Migrant Heritage

Counter-archive: Reflections on the (Non)possibility of Migrant Heritage

The following text is an attempt to reflect on counter-archive as a tool to resist, or depart from structures of power and authority – in this case, the EU militarized border regimes and their epistemological implications for migrant heritage. Although our reflections build on the specific ethnographic work related to the Balkan migrant route, the notion of counter-archive could be applied broadly, bringing to the fore questions related to the (non)possibility of uncharted, forgotten, invisible, subversive, or im-possible heritage. Our discussion acknowledges the research on counter-mapping, which was used in different situations (one of the early examples where the term was coined relates to discussing counter-hegemonic maps that strengthen forest users’ resource claims, see Peluso 1995) and appeared under different names, where these ideas existed before the coinage of the term (e.g. mental mapping in behavioral geography, parish maps aiming to put locals in an expert role, etc.). However, the idea of counter-mapping has been lately used also concerning methodological reflections[1] regarding migration and migrant infrastructure (Tazzioli, Garelli 2019; Ceola 2023). Furthermore, the notion of heritage as used in the text, acknowledges the critical heritage perspective but strives to go beyond the critical view, embracing criticality[2] (Rogoff 2006) as a guiding principle for the discussion.

Thinking about counter-archive, first, we have to reflect on its counterpart, the archive. An archive is a place as well as an idea. It is an idea of the accumulation of historical records and materials for present and future use, selected by recognized experts and stored in specific places called archives. As such, they connect the past with the future in the present (usually in certain places). Suppose archives shelter in themselves the notion of commencement and the commandment, as suggested by Derrida (1995), the counter-archive seems to lack these two qualities – the possibility of commencement – be it physical, historical, or ontological (having no place to stand on and to evolve to), and tending to disappear when taken into a commandment (lacking those who command). Counter-archive thus finds its home in a place full of absences, that are revealing themselves through ephemeral traces and in ever-changing situations. It is made up of things, contents, memories that have been – intently or accidently – blocked, erased, and forgotten, “evicted” from the collective consciousness, or which only made it into the archives as pathology or unintelligible and excessive “noise”. As we will propose in the conclusion, sideways glances and stepping aside (as methodological practices) and metaphors (as representations) might be of special importance considering the fleeting and vulnerable position of counter-archives. Namely, if we embrace criticality as a guiding principle, we need to “move away from notions of immanent meanings that can be investigated, exposed, and made obvious« (Rogoff 2006). This seems to be especially relevant considering ethical questions related to counter-archives.

When thinking about a (non)possibility of migrant heritage related to the Balkan migrant route, one has to consider two interconnected yet different modes of being – a turbulent stillness (Martin 2010) and a turbulent mobility. Both are important for our discussion on the heritage of the Balkan migrant route as traces of both modes are being erased, demolished, purposely hidden, or removed, leaving behind empty places full of stories. If the possibility of exposure does emerge (e.g. art exhibitions, scientific conferences…) the vulnerability of traces, the notion of commandement (who curates?) and commencements (what kind of ontology stands behind?) as well as the consequences of the exposure has to be considered.


Walking through the area where the northern sections of the Balkan migrant route(s) pass (appear, disappear, and re-appear), we reflected on the counter-archives’ place(es) and the (non)possibility of migrant heritage by observing traces scattered across the weaponized landscape. Weaponized landscapes are those landscapes that have been transformed into active factors for the creation and maintenance of border regimes as well as for deterring and expelling (deporting) irregular migrants (Hameršak, Pleše 2021). As observed by Hameršak and Pleše, such landscapes are “[t]urned into places where people get tired, are injured, captured, humiliated, tortured, hurt and subjected to suffering” (ibid). Could such weaponised landscapes represent a home of a counter-archive? Could settings and objects scattered along the Balkan migrant route be considered counter-archive’s artefacts? If so, who are the experts who would recognize, use, select, categorize, filter, and study the items? Could such items be assigned the “untouchability” status, with limited access assigned only to counter-archive experts? Walking across the area between Buzet (Croatia) and Trieste (Italy) with a group of artists, researchers, and an asylum-seeker currently living in Ljubljana[3], the latter somehow spontaneously took the role of an expert. He was able to contextualise object and settings along the route and help us understand them. It was his stories and our curiosity that transformed objects into artefacts. But his stories also turned away or took a sideway glance moving above, below, and away from objects, into the (better) future.

Passage (photo by Nataša Rogelja Caf)

We observed razor wire, panel fences with razor wire on the top, cameras, auxiliary roads built by the Slovenian army for easier access with vehicles, mowed grass and bushes near the fence, lockets on water sources (on cemeteries, churches…) binoculars, walkie-talkies and more. We saw remains related to different “games”[4] – taxi game (one doesn’t need walking shoes), walking game (good shoes!), ticket game (torn tickets), solidarity game (things left behind for those who will come next). All these different tactics of crossing Slovenia and reaching Italy left traces behind. Without stories, they were objects, with stories they became artefacts.

Our interlocutor spent three years “in games” before finally getting a chance to seek asylum in Slovenia. He developed an “involuntary expertise” in different tactics for games. He pronounces the importance of understanding the natural environment which was high on the agenda in his stories. What we learned walking through Istria is that the most northern Mediterranean peninsula is quite specific for bipedal activities. Walking is often exposed (no dense forests), water is difficult to find, Karst phenomena and steep slopes make walking difficult, and one is tripping over rewilded layers of forgotten human labor (former agricultural terraces for example that make running difficult). Here you have to walk fast and during the night[5], he explained.

We also observed traces revealing practices linked with the autonomy of migration. As stressed by various researchers, migratory movements temporarily precede the attempts to control, regulate and valorise them (Scheel 2021). People on the move build razor wire crossings, and “road” signs, they dry sleeping bags on bushes and leave them behind for others to use. An expert made us understand traces as maps for other migrants to read, as signs aimed at misleading police, and also as acts of solidarity. That made us think about how a victimizing discourse erases migrants’ capacity to subvert border controls, which in turn enables observers to ignore the fact that »migrants have a will of their own, one that lies outside of the hands of those who wish to help or control them” (Scheel 2021). Stewart, Gokee, De León also stressed that “people develop and/or repurpose counter-infrastructures to avoid resist or subvert structures of power and authority” (2021: 469) – in this case the EU militarized brutal border regime. As they further stressed, they are vital to migrants navigating the fields of in/visibility imposed by infrastructures of border security (ibid). These tactics also include tools, techniques, and practical knowledge needed to survive the desert, forests, Karst regions, and evade border surveillance (De León, Gokee, Schubert 2015).

Walking nowadays in Istria one also encounters different settings encompassing objects and stories. Based on location, site features, artefact inventories, and migrants’ knowledge we were able to distinguish between border resting areas, camps where people gather and rest for a few hours, rest areas where people stop for a very short time, and assembly points. Border resting areas were simple places (containing only a few empty cans and bottles of food) or more elaborate, with fireplaces, sheltered places to sleep, and large amounts of clothes, cans, and plastic bottles. Once I traveled with two women and a child, We were slow because of them, but we didn’t want to leave them behind. One woman was still breastfeeding, but as we didn’t have enough water, blood was coming from her breasts. […] Just before crossing the border, the child started to cry. We tied a scarf around his mouth, I felt sorry for him[5]. Migrants may spend an hour to several days in these locations, depending on the group, waiting for the right moment to cross (reconnaissance De León 2015). Camps where people gather and rest from a few hours to all night were marked with small fireplaces, discarded equipment, T-shirts, socks, raincoats, and sleeping bags. Furthermore, rest areas are places where people stop for a short time to eat and drink, where one can encounter bottles, cans, and energy drinks. Assembly points are places where migrants leave their Game equipment. They are taken onward by smugglers in vehicles (De León 2015) or they continue on foot or by public transport. There was a small pool close by the assembly place, used for people on the move to clean up and remove signs of the Game from themselves and establish rather a look of an inconspicuous passer-byer (traces like toothbrushes, deodorants, clothes, and all kinds of shaving tools could be found there). By leaving behind worn clothes, backpacks, and documents, they are trying to get rid of any incriminating evidence that would point to someone being a migrant on their way to Trieste. One can also encounter torn and stitched backpacks and demolished and repaired bags, knotted straps, and sneakers tied with shoelaces – witnesses of human suffering being discussed by De León (2015) through an idea of use wear referring to modifications of objects that occur when people use them in various ways. Such objects were scattered across different sites we encountered.

From the perspective of the national states engaged in border regimes along the Balkan migrant route, the ”migrant’s disposal sites” correspond to areas where the police set up operational tactical measures to protect the national border, so information about them is usually kept as a secret. However, after the site is revealed, the route changes and sites re-appear elsewhere. As researchers noted, migrant routes are deliberately being pushed towards difficult terrains, so nature can play the role of a gatekeeper, performing “natural accidents” (Hameršak, Pleše 2021, Hameršak 2022, De León 2015). The abandoned and revealed sites undergo further procedures. Police inspect the “garbage”, identifying it as “migrant garbage”, and inform a municipal policeman and the municipality. Municipal waste disposal company then recycles and disposes of the “garbage”[6]. The sneakers tied with shoelaces are being mixed with sneakers that are out of fashion, sneakers worn from soccer, and other usual local garbage. What stays behind and before are past stories, painful and heavy, and the future ones, stories yet to happen even though nobody wants to imagine or have them. That makes a counter-archive truly sustainable, a self-reviving present thing, robbed of past and future, an empty place, full of hidden stories, waiting to be narrated and heard. Where can we place the good stories? Stories of hope. Slovenia is a good place to raise a child. That is why I am still here. I want to bring my child here[5].

Epilogue to ethnography. An expert who walked with us often chose a scenic route even though he narrated stories from “dark forests”. He chose to take photos of a horse, a flower, and a valley lying before us but was eager to explain about the sleeping bags that the migrants hung on the trees to dry and wait for those in need of them, about the shoe repair techniques. During the walk, some of us mentioned stories of our grandparents, partisans, as their stories somehow resembled migrants’ stories. What can we learn about the idea of counter-archive from this experience? How can we curb the desire to catalog, collect, and classify leaving the doors open for new possibilities to emerge? What with the counter-archive?


Embracing the notion of criticality, we could think of a counter-archive as a gesture departing (not opposing) from structures of power and authority, leaving behind not only militarized border regimes and their epistemological implications but parting also with authoritative writing, categorizations, classification, and cataloguing, embedded in “expert discourse”. The latter, even though it may strive to oppose the authority, too often supports colonial and other hierarchical power relations. We could, together with Adrie Kusserow (2017) also pause and ask ourselves, the writers – what realities and insights into human life do we leave out when we are loyal to the intellectual tone of writing?

Such a departing gesture would change the meaning of the commencement and commandment (assigned to archives by Derrida) in the following way. The commencement related to counter-archive would not be vertical, linear, and essentialized but would be horizontal and rhizomatic, perpetually sprouting new beginnings, telling the story from outside (counter-archive) in. Such a story would deliberately maintain astonishment, naiveté, embracing new endings, fresh middles, and unexpected beginnings. Commandment on the other hand would be dispersed and relational, instead of focused and closed, bringing together two interrelated urgencies – the urgency of being heard, and the urgency to listen. A counter-archive would thus not be possible on previous terms or in opposition with them but only as a departing gesture.

But could we – through this departing, relational, and horizontal gesture of counter-archive, rethink also migrant heritage more generally? A relational understanding of migrant heritage would not be structured around the notions of us vs. them or here vs. there but would have the quality of circulation, stringing, and adding (and, and…), prioritizing relations over essentialized particles. Parataxis over hypotaxis. We lived and loved and left. As such it would follow the famous metaphor proposed by Gregory Bateson about the relationships between fingers being more important than the fingers themselves (Bateson 2019). What counter-archive could embrace are relational stories of those who need or are willing to speak and those who are willing or in need to listen. In this circulating, relational, and departing space of a counter-archive, both listeners and narrators are experts while their roles perpetually change, sprouting new counter-solutions. Following Rogoff’s thoughts on criticality, the counter-archive would also be a place where we could ask what comes after, “beyond the celebration of emergent minority group identities, or the emphatic acknowledgment of someone else’s suffering, as an achievement in and of itself?” (Rogoff 2006). It seems like certainty would not be a quality in this place, and a sideway glance would have the potential to reach further. Metaphors would be added to concepts while roles would constantly circulate because – who can tell with certainty what kind of experiences will be needed for the future world and future archives? Last but not least – with no commandment over commencement, the counter-archives would open space for the visions of a better future, for stories to be told and narrated differently, and most importantly – for stories worth living.

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  1. As stressed by Ceola researching migrant camps, counter-mapping as methodology and analytical lens serves to reveal, convey, and decodify the proliferating meaning-makings of social, political, and economic relations that uphold the everyday life of the “camp,” determine the shapes of its spaces, and signify its materiality (2023: 137). Also, a current 5-years ERC funded project “The Game: Counter-mapping Informal Refugee Mobilities along the Balkan Route” is currently hosted at the University of Bologna and lead by prof. Claudio Minca. Project strives to understand how informal migration corridors such as the Balkan Route work ( [
  2. As discussed by Irit Rogoff (2006) the point of criticality is not to find an answer but rather to access a different mode of inhabitation. In her discussion on criticality, she asked what comes after the critical analysis of culture? What goes beyond the endless cataloguing of the hidden structures, the invisible powers and the numerous offences we have been preoccupied with for so long? Beyond the processes of marking and making visible those who have been included and those who have been excluded? Beyond being able to point our finger at the master narratives and at the dominant cartographies of the inherited cultural order? Beyond the celebration of emergent minority group identities, or the emphatic acknowledgement of someone else’s suffering, as an achievement in and of itself? In posing all these questions Rogoff disuses alternative views and possibilities that acknowledge the importance of critical judgement but strive to go beyond. As she writes: “While being able to exercise critical judgement is clearly important, it operates by providing a series of sign posts and warnings but does not actualise people’s inherent and often intuitive notions of how to produce criticality through inhabiting a problem rather than by analysing it” (ibid: 1). [
  3. The research walk was part of a walking-writing seminar organised within a project Route Biographies. Walking and writing as methods of researching border regions (J6-4611), financed by ARIS. Seminar was organized by Lucija Klun and Jure Gombač in September 2023. []
  4. Minca and Collins present the GAME as “perilous journeys and a geography of makeshift and institutional refugee camps, border controls and pushbacks, smuggling networks and international support, dangerous crossing of mountains, forests, rivers and fields along the route.” (Minca, Collins 2021).[
  5. Fieldwork notes by Nataša Rogelja Caf (September 2023). [][][]
  6. In 2020, 233 dumping sites were detected in Slovenia, 41 more than in the previous year. Municipality of Koper destroyed 1,660 kg of “migrant garbage” in 2022 and 1,260 kg in 2021 while Municipality Ilirska Bistrica destroyed 7860 kg in 2022, and 12,630 kg in 2021. (Data was provided by Government Office for the Support and Integration of Migrants, which is responsible for financing the removal of “migrant garbage”. They provided the data on reserachers personal request).[]