Blog: Migration, repression and solidarity on the Greek Aegean Islands

April 20, 2018

By Celine Cantat

© Celine Cantat, Lesvos 2017

One evening of February 2018, while walking to the port of Mytilene, the principal city of the Eastern Aegean island of Lesvos, my travel companion pointed to an abandoned jetty. This is where, he explained, a number of asylum seekers stranded in Lesvos dive into the sea in the hope of catching up with the ferry boats leaving for Athens, and making their way off the island and into mainland Greece. A young man had died the previous week while attempting to leave the island that way.

A few minutes later we arrived to the port and prepared to board our ferry back to Athens. Though our journey was inside the territory of Greece, our identity documents were thoroughly checked. My companion in particular, of Afghan origin, was submitted to a number of questions such as why he had come to the island, and where and how long he had stayed. By the time we made it to the boat, I had realised how this trip to Lesvos had given a thick material reality to an expression I had heard several times during my fieldwork in Athens: Greece as a double frontier.

The double frontier

The double frontier is an image that has become common among the Greek migrant solidarity movement to describe the consequences of the EU-Turkey agreement that came into effect on 20 March 2016. The idea behind the deal is that every person arriving irregularly on Greek islands – including asylum-seekers – should be returned to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would receive €6 billion, Turkish nationals would be gradually granted visa-free travel to Europe and, once the number of irregular arrivals dropped, a humanitarian scheme to transfer Syrians from Turkey to other European countries would be activated. The EU-Turkey deal is based on one particular premise – that Turkey is a safe place for refugees.

Under the deal, every person arriving onto the Greek Eastern Aegean islands is detained in so-called hotspots: hotspots are filtering devices in order to identify, register and fingerprint incoming asylum seekers, and subsequently either allow people to claim asylum because they constitute exception to the deal, or conduct returns. There are now five hotspots in Greece, on the Aegean islands of Lesvos (Oct 2015); Chios (Feb 2016), Samos (March 2016); Leros (March 2016) and Kos (June 2016). Hotspots are essentially used as detention facilities and detention has become systematized for all individuals who arrived on Greek islands after March 20, 2016.

In many cases, legal asylum committees have established that Turkey cannot provide effective protection for asylum seekers. Asylum claims should instead be examined in Greece. Deficiencies in the procedure and the determination process have meant increasing numbers of people find themselves stranded for lengthy periods of time on the Aegean islands. A number of people have been trapped since the signing of the EU-Turkey deal, two years ago, and are condemned to reside in the hotspots or in makeshifts camps that have spread due to the lack of capacity in the hotspots.

International organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have deemed the conditions on the islands appalling and critical, and particularly dangerous for women and girls. Several people, including children, have died in Lesvos Moria reception and identification center, due to the insalubrious and unsafe conditions in the camp. Some residents have also turned to self-harm and suicides, out of desperation linked to their situation. Several episodes of police violence against refugees who have tried to voice their denunciation of their squalid living conditions have also been reported. At the moment, there are around 15 000 people trapped on the islands despite an overall official capacity of about 7 000 places.

Vulnerability and categorisation

One of the only ways for people to leave the islands is to fall in the “vulnerable” category which allows people to be moved to the mainland for the asylum determination process. This focus on vulnerability is deeply problematic and speaks to long-term scholarly debates regarding the way in which migration and border regimes produce particular articulations of deservingness premised on the suppression of migrants’ individual and political agency.

In today’s hotspots, migrants have to demonstrate extreme forms of suffering, such as advanced illnesses or aggravated mental distress, in order to qualify for these exceptional acts of benevolence. In other words, what used to be rights inscribed in a series of national, European and international conventions regarding international protection is now framed as a concession granted by authorities in the light of the enactment of particular circumstances.

The EU-Turkey deal has divided asylum seekers in Greece in two overarching categories: those who arrived before March 20, 2016, and those who came after. Across this primary divide, a complex topology of categories is articulated, with heavily differentiated access to rights, mobility, and the asylum process. This divide also heavily influences whether asylum seekers can have access to the alternative solidarity structures which have played a key role in the reception of refugees in Greece since 2015 and before.

Migrant solidarity movement: the solidarians

Against this background of securitisation and criminalisation of refugee movement, Greece and the Aegean islands have also gained notoriety for the enormous wave of solidarity that emerged in response to the crisis. Solidarity practices in Greece have been inscribed in a complex and polarised nexus of actors including national and international humanitarian organisations, European agencies, local grassroots groups, local citizens, independent volunteers and “solidarians”.

This field is characterised by a strong division between state and non-state actors, but also by a number of sub-divisions and tensions. A key structuring divide within non-state actors opposes those calling themselves solidarians, focused on performing politicised forms of solidarity that denounce and challenge official migration regimes, versus NGO workers and those deemed volunteers – considered as having charitable / philanthropic rather than political motivations. While my research focused specifically on solidarians, these clear-cut binaries sometimes became blurred in the field.

On each of the Aegean islands, a solidarity movement, often made up of different groups and organisations, has complemented efforts of the local population in terms of both search and rescue operations (saving people arriving at sea) and reception (providing people with first necessity products and helping onward transit). The islands have also received large numbers of international volunteers and activists, and significant amounts of material and financial donations. Throughout 2015, solidarians played a crucial role in assisting asylum seekers arriving on the island. New solidarity structures emerged while long-lasting pro-migrant groups were encouraged to engage in activities that they had traditionally been reluctant to perform, such as the provision of material support. It is important to observe this shift in focus in political pro-migrants’ group activities insofar as the field concerned with migrant support in Greece is highly polarised: the distinction between registered civil society groups and politicised solidarians is strong, and opposition to NGOs has been key to the identity of the activist movement.

Solidarians, giving, and material aid

According to Katerina Rozakou from the University of Amsterdam, a key point of contention was related to the act of “giving”, considered by solidarians as inevitably hierarchical, and productive of relations of power. This echoes a Marxist reading of donating, which sees “philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organizers of charity” as working towards the stabilisation rather than the subversion of the dominant social order and bourgeois society.

Yet with the high number of arrivals in 2015, the solidarity movement was placed at a particular conjuncture leading to its engagement with the potential materiality of solidarity work. However, solidarians insist on the fact that key distinctions remain between their activities and those of NGOs. Even when engaging in the provision of material aid, a different set of categories (solidarians refuse to check people’s legal status before extending aid); practices (based on the maintenance of a form of horizontality even in situations of “giving”); and terminologies (solidarians would never speak of “beneficiaries” or “clients”) are activated. This embracing of material provision by the solidarity movement is also connected to the previous cycle of mobilisation in the context of Greece’s so-called debt crisis. The re-alignment of giving / material aid as central aspects of new forms of solidarity socialities in Greece is a process that was initiated before the so-called refugee crisis, and that is not restricted to migration-related activities.

Between 2011 and 2015, giving and receiving, according to means and needs, spread to all aspects of social life and included food, clothes, and services such as healthcare. This meant that the migrant solidarity movement benefited from both the organisation experience and know-how of segments of the Greek radical left and anarchist circles involved with migrants and refugees for a longer time, as well as from the shorter-term activist and political expertise acquired during the movement of resistance under the debt crisis. The key question of the solidarity movement becomes whether situated material practices can transcend their localities, and contribute to the reformulation of a broader political project in Greece.

For some of the solidarians, the issue does not revolve around the possibility (or lack thereof) of providing for all – a responsibility that they impute to the state – but is rather a matter of how performative political practices can give birth to alternative paradigms. In this view, the existence of counter-models providing care and support to migrants on the basis of equality and solidarity is in itself a powerful challenge to the treatment of migrants by the state and the EU, which has broad implications regarding how we think about refugee protection.

The effect of the EU-Turkey deal on solidarians

In the period of 2015-16, the unpreparedness or unwillingness of the Greek state was a key reason for the high level of involvement of solidarians in the field. With the EU-Turkey deal and the stranding of increasing numbers of people onto the hotspots, the situation dramatically changed. On the one hand, there was no more obvious way to transit for refugees and solidarians had to rethink their activities to respond to the new circumstances of people stranded on the islands. On the other hand, after signing the deal, the government also significantly changed its stance towards the solidarity movement.

The government made the work of solidarians increasingly difficult through limiting their access to sites. For example, the hotspots can only be accessed by official NGOs and authorities. Some solidarity initiatives were closed down or threatened with criminalisation. Rather, having received large sums of money for implementing the hotspot approach, the state started subcontracting registered organisations and NGOs to provide services. EU agencies also took over a number of fields, with for instance FRONTEX asserting its monopoly over search and rescue operations, marginalising and illegalising local and volunteer rescue practices. While now responsible for rescue operations, FRONTEX’s primary mission remains to deter sea travel and the agency has been accused of non-assisting people in danger at sea.

Fatigued socialities in the Aegean borderzone

In spite of these restrictions, the solidarity movement on the island remains mobilised and attempts to deal with the dramatic effects that the detention conditions have on refugees and the local population. Many of them report fatigue and depression. When I first met solidarity activists from the Aegean islands at an event in Athens, the first speaker opened by saying: “I can spot who among us is coming from the islands, because we all look equally exhausted”. All were concerned with the quick degradation of the social and political climate on the islands that is incurred by the establishment of prison-like detention facilities that are working overcapacity and are stranding refugees in further misery.

While each has its own context, since the signing of the EU-Turkey deal, the islands are increasingly cohering into a separate and extreme borderzone, isolated from the mainland, and subjected to conditions which delimit socialities and shape new bordered social spaces, with consequences not only for refugees stranded in camps, but also for solidarians and local people – all experiencing fatigue and increased desperation.

Celine Cantat is Research Fellow at the Center for Policy Studies of Central European University. The blog post is related to her current research project “Migration Solidarity and Acts of Citizenship Along the Balkan Route” (MIGSOL), which receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowksa-Curie grant agreement number 751866.