On Friday, a hotspot was opened in Leros for incoming migrants. What is a hotspot, you might well ask, and there are many possible answers: An identification factory for migrants. A prison. A refugee camp run by the police and military, enclosed in barbed wire. An Empire of Identification. Everyone gets registered here: migrants, workers, NGOs and volunteers. Everything in it is square; the paper forms, the people-containers, the walkways and the wire mesh.
There are three camps already on Leros, with humane staff, proper facilities, varied activities and open doors. This does not suit the border regime of Europe. For months it has demanded of the Greek government, and twisted its arm relentlessly, so that it finally builds hotspots. And now they’re here, in all their horrifying glory. Shining metal, immaculate concrete, white gravel and rows of square boxes for The Anonymous Unidentified to stay in until they get their papers and can finally have an actual verified existence in the merciless eyes of the European Union. Unless they’re of the wrong nationality, in which case they’ll get no papers, except for a ticket back to Wherever. Getting papers takes three days, but nobody knows how long one has to wait for deportation.
On the day the hotspot opened, no volunteer or NGO was alerted. They just got a random call a good while after the first arrivals, saying that baby milk was needed. Volunteers immediately came over, and there the refugees sat, huddled in blankets on the concrete floor of the camp entrance. That is where newcomers are made to wait while, one after the other, the human beings are digitized and fingerprinted, their bodies are transformed into verifiable, printable, transferable identities.
The refugees asked if anyone had brought water. It turned out the army had given them a little to drink in plastic cups, but when a few people threw them on the ground, instead of in the garbage can, the army gave them no more.
Talking with refugees was forbidden. “Find out what they need and go,” the men in uniform said. That is how an camp under the police and military operates. The rules are made on the fly by a man in uniform, habitually on a soaring power-trip, maybe even wearing blue-mirror sunglasses in addition to the uniform to underline his privileged anonymity in this dictatorship of identification. Volunteers that try to help here without having registered risk being interrogated about their purpose and threatened with imprisonment. (This is no idle fantasy, it actually happened.) Western volunteers often feel ashamed about their privileges over refugees. Here, the migrant-hating machine of Europe has finally and accidentally created some twisted sort of equality.
What it has not created is a functioning processing facility. The shivering new arrivals on Friday were not received with food or clothes, medicine, information, doctors or legal aid. The reception they got was as cold and stark as the concrete they sat on. The military seems to just expect volunteers to do their bidding, to feed and clothe their prisoners.
And so we did.
This is what volunteering has come to. Shipping meals into prisons so that the Greek military doesn’t have to cook them. And it gets worse. The uniformed masters of the camp have told us that we have to collect the garbage as well.
We can’t be codependent like this. Today we clean up the prison and feed the prisoners, because the military can’t be bothered. What will humanitarian work look like tomorrow?
We should have been prepared for this. These hotspots have been planned openly and publicly for months. They’re already being used to horrible effect in Italy, where MSF has withdrawn its cooperation due to “unacceptable conditions”. We should take the same stand here. There is a risk that the state will then starve people for a while, but if we fold and allow these hotspots to just carry on with our assistance, things won’t get any better. These places may look like an excel document come to life, a registration form built of concrete, but they are in reality chaotically and incompetently run arbitrary dictatorships of the least compassionate institutions in society. We can’t do humanitarian work there any more than a kitten can play in a rottweiler cage. Compassionate people will be bullied out or coaxed into complicity. We’re already the crutches of a spiteful, savage institution that has no humanitarian purpose. Let’s draw a line and stop our cooperation.