Today, the Greek authorities at last started what they had long threatened: an eviction of the camp at Idomeni. Greece’s migration spokesman said that everyone knew that “conditions would be much better” in the camps they’re being moved to. He promised “no violence would be used”, but also that he expected the 8000 people, who’ve been there for months, to be gone in “no more than a week.” To ensure that nobody sees just how peacefully Idomeni will be evacuated, all journalists and activists have been removed from the area.
An explanation as to how this paradox of nonviolently moving thousands who don’t want to go might be resolved was given by an MSF representative, who said the police siege of the camp “complicates food handout efforts and sanitation maintenance”.
It is a move similar to the one reported by refugees in Vial, Chios, when they were being told they had to go to the hotspot in Kos: “We don’t have water for using bathrooms or taking showers,” a refugee said. “We just have water for drinking. The police cut the water because, he told us, you must go to another island.”
These tactics would usually be called siege warfare, intimidation, abuse or, at the very least, antihumanitarian. But in the last months a school of thought has established itself that claims this is not fundamentally wrong, but merely a matter of procedure. Humanitarian work consists in finding a “good place”, as identified by volunteers or the authorities, and then moving refugees there. The wishes of refugees are simply ignored. This approach grows naturally in the context of European border politics, and we would do well to resist it.
Stand in line
It is not just the customary European feeling of superiority that nourishes this attitude. When I worked in soup kitchens this winter, it struck me how quickly a paternal, or even authoritarian, mindset could develop among volunteers. We, mostly white twenty-somethings, were the givers and they the receivers. We had things, they mostly didn’t. We could travel, rent places and drive cars, they mostly couldn’t. It was us who made them stand in line, who decided on their portions, who could decide if someone got one, two, or no cups of soup, who told them to line up single file, who ordered people that jumped queue to go all the way back and so forth. This superior position can easily progress into straight out bossiness, and I repeatedly, and in various places, saw volunteers screaming at refugees who were waiting in line to get a pair of underpants or a registration paper. It is a sight I’d like not to see again.
This denigration was sometimes systematized when NGOs and food distributors marked the fingernails or tagged bracelets of refugees to be able to give each person their fair share. The motive is pure, the practice is repellent. But when conditions are as they have been in Greece this winter, the dignity of refugees has to be weighed against the practicalities of humanitarian work. The conditions they’ve been thrown in by war at home and closing borders in Europe leaves us little room to maneuver.
The unfortunate result of this structure is that “humanitarianism” has become a very flexible word. When refugees were moved from Vial to the hotspot in Kos, it could be portrayed as having had a “humanitarian” aim, because they got more space in Kos. The fact that they were locked up, while in Vial they had been free to go out, has been explained to me by a volunteer as a minor and temporary inconvenience – not a fundamental abuse of the inmates’ rights and a denial of their autonomy. The fact that refugees in hotspots say they’re treated as “animals” is to many a matter of giving them more soup, more space, more blankets, rather than more dignity.
It is this redefinition of the word “humanitarian” as merely “comfort-provider” that allows the Greek authorities to present the evacuation of Idomeni’s residents to “more humanitarian” camps as helping the poor scared ignorant refugees make the wiser choice. (This is called acting as a “white savior”.) But it’s simply irrelevant how great the military camps are. The point is that refugees are not allowed a choice. What is missing here is what should be a fundamental principle of humanitarianism: not to oppose the will and desires of those subjected to it. Dragging adults as if they were beasts from one place to another is never helping them, no matter how great the place where they’re to be put.
When refugees occupied the port in Chios, it engendered a similar discussion. They had found a place where they could not be ignored, where the media talked with them, where their protests were seen. But volunteers and NGOs pleaded with them to go to “better” camps because there they’d have showers and warmer beds. As if that mattered! They chose to sleep on concrete, not because they were stupid or senseless, but because they wanted to make a political statement. But that fell on deaf ears of those volunteers who worked “nonpolitically”; who wanted to create comfort, not change society.
The roots of nonpolitical volunteering merit a discussion of their own, which I won’t go into here, but it roughly seems to mean working within the system, registering when you’re told to and not going where you’re not allowed. Sometimes people honestly just follow this simple idea, to find people in need and provide them with whatever makes them feel better.
Keep calm and eat soup
The risk nonpolitical volunteers run is to become handy implements of inhumane state policy, to end up working working under terms and conditions which in the long run destroy the hopes of refugees – and which will eventually remove any vestige of humanitarianism in the treatment they get.
The most obvious case of this is when volunteers tell refugees to keep calm. It is a typically nonpolitical strategy: if you keep calm, we’ll be better able to bring you soup. It completely misses the bigger picture: that refugees are being violently screwed over by the EU, and want to make their case to the European public. They can’t do it without media attention, and the media doesn’t show up without there being “an incident”. Refugees have to be crying, starving, shouting or drowning for there to be a story. As soon as “humanitarianism” has enveloped them in its suffocating embrace, they’re off the front page – and can wait silently for deportation. (It’s also worth mentioning that refugees in Vial greatly improved their conditions by literally breaking out of prison, after volunteers told them they’d be better of by “keeping quiet”.)
And thus, nonpolitical humanitarianism ends up achieving its opposite. By removing refugees from the political and media scene at the Chios port, by evicting them from Idomeni, from the squares and from the parks, by giving them just enough food to stave off starvation, the authorities have managed to shut them up.