When the Mayor of Kastellorizo Threw Women and Children on the Street

Kastellorizo is a dreamy little Greek island off the shore of Turkey. It’s the most distant inhabited outpost of Greece, and is therefore pretty much a military base with tourism on top. A military ship constantly hums in the port, a brand-spanking new coast guard vessel is there as well, plenty of speedboats patrol the seas and the sailors, coast guards, police and soldiers sit in the restaurants on the boardwalk playing cards, chatting and fiddling with their worry beads.

The town of Kastellorizo
The town of Kastellorizo

Recently refugees started coming here in large numbers, maybe because of stricter warship patrols further north. In two days nearly one thousand refugees came onto this island of about 200 people. For a while they were allowed to stay in a community center, but after the mayor ordered the island “cleared up” of refugees he closed the center and issued an eviction order to volunteers distributing clothes downtown. But not all refugees had left. Five women, one of them pregnant and one elderly, and ten children under five years of age, were waiting for their husbands and fathers to come from Turkey. They were told go to out with no place to stay.

Refugees being cleared off Kastellorizo onto a MOAS boat
Refugees being cleared off Kastellorizo onto a MOAS boat

The UNHCR has tried for a while to get permission to build a camp here, but the mayor refuses. The women and children got put up by the UNHCR representative here, but there’s no plan for the next arrival. Today, 87 people came on a boat, and the mayor is probably counting his blessings that a ferry is coming in the afternoon so they can be taken away. These ferries come twice a week, so maybe he’ll get MOAS to bring away refugees to Rhodes again, as they did in the “clearup” action last Thursday.

Life jackets on Kastellorizo's rocky shore
Life jackets on Kastellorizo’s rocky shore

Yesterday, the Greek government forbade refugees from coming to the mainland from the islands. The camps in Athens, gas stations on the way north and the camps at the border are all stuffed and the border is closing to more and more people – most recently Afghans. New camps are being built and opened. Greece is turning into the refugee detention center of Europe.

Advertisements
When the Mayor of Kastellorizo Threw Women and Children on the Street

Your life ends here

Another day, another report of deaths at the borders. On Saturday, two women froze to death in the Bulgarian mountains. One of them was a teenage girl. This mountain pass is the way of desperation, for people who can not afford the death boats to Greece.

People subject themselves to this misery and this fatal risk because it offers them the one thing that matters: getting closer to safety, stability and a new chance at life.

This possibility is now rapidly being eroded. Only three nationalities still have it, and even they will only be allowed to stay in Europe while their “home” is suffering war. Then they have to go back. Their possibility of family reunification, which has allowed relatives of healthy young adults to join them later via safe routes, is being restricted. Fences are being built, pushback agreements signed and camps, which no person should ever have to live in, are being proposed as an endpoint for the refugee trail.

Thus everything is brought back to normality. Arabs stay in Arabia, Africans in Africa, and Europeans can again pretend they’re not racist by throwing money at refugees over the five-meter razor-wire fences. People fleeing war will again be portrayed as impotent beggars, not as autonomous subjects that are free to move on their own terms. Freedom of movement will again be reserved for the people who only move if they want to, but never have to. It will again become our luxury product.

Resistance to this apartheid has mostly been offered by the migrants themselves. Ever since thousands of refugees, fed up with delays and blockages, ran across the Macedonian border last August, they have been the dominant force in the course of events.

Since then, hundreds of thousands have made it through borders that kept them from realizing their dreams, and they’re still coming. It is an achievement that decades of European open-border activism could only dream of. But now that such a force has entered the stage, our activism has taken an unexpected turn. Instead of fierce battles for freedom of movement, we have directed our attention at providing food, clothes, shelter. Things to make it more bearable to be stuck somewhere. For the first time in decades, the European public has its eyes on the consequences of border politics, but the drama has been focused on the beaches rather than the fences. Where are the lock-ons, sit-ins, roadblocks, black blocs, banner drops and paint bombs? Where are the protests, political appeals and actions? The European public’s attention is waning, the state’s actions are growing more determined, and still we’re mostly providing the refugees and the public with feel-good activism.

Obviously, food and clothes are important. But they are not what we are being asked for. We are being asked: how can we get to Germany? This, the ongoing possibility of movement, is the all-important point that no amount of soup will resolve. It is also the point that the state is now clearing up all on its own, month by month, by chopping up and regaining control of the Balkan route.

The political activism has largely been left to migrants – and it’s been impressive: They’ve marched to the border against police orders, attacked fences, protested against detention while in prison and blocked roads when they’ve been kept stuck. In the prison at Corinth, two Moroccans even tried jumping out of a window to make a run for it. They broke their legs and got apprehended. When brought before a judge, they named bad food as one of their grievances. The food handler got changed as a result. They now face deportation.

Their case reminds us of two things. Firstly, change comes in small steps. We won’t open all borders with One Big Action – but we do need to start somewhere. There are fences, prisons, camps and government offices all around, offering opportunities for protest and direct action. There are companies, essential to the functioning of refugee segregation, that specialize in separating nationalities by listening to their accents. These methods and practices have to be protested, one by one, to resist their ever harsher use.

Secondly, the Moroccans’ fate reminds us how easy and risk-free it is for us to protest. We are not at risk of being deported into the cold, hard hands of a repressive regime. We have experienced protesters and activists in our ranks and passports that give us significant political freedoms. It is essential that we use them, not just for migrants, but for our own society’s sake. A society that kills people at its borders, segregates them, makes them drown and freeze to death, a society that resolves a mass movement of people fleeing war by storing them in containers for years, is a society that breeds evil. It is imperative that we resist it.

Your life ends here