I’m off the refugee trail! This blog will hibernate for now while I write on my other one. However, the newest blog over there might interest you. It’s about the deportation of two Iraqis in Iceland, including one teenager, who sought shelter in a church last night. Read it here.
The refugee trail doesn’t just lead from south to north – sometimes it goes the other way. Yesterday morning, a Nigerian refugee was deported from Iceland, in the far north of Europe. His name is Eze Okafor. He’s a friend of mine, and he’s had his asylum request in various stages of the Icelandic asylum system since 2012. He fled Nigeria after Boko Haram splintered his forehead with a machete and executed his brother. After applying for asylum in Sweden, and being refused, Eze fled Swedish justice and came to Iceland. The authorities there have for four years contended that they’re not obliged to evaluate his case, because Sweden already did. Even the ridiculously long time this non-evaluation has lasted hasn’t been taken into account by the so-called “Foreigners’ office”, the Icelandic asylum and deportation agency, even though an appeals committee said “everything pointed to” the case having breached legal time limits.
I’ve talked to Eze a few times while he was waiting and waiting and waiting. He’s always said he won’t accept deportation, because he can’t. Nigeria is not an option for him. He’d fight deportation, he said. And yesterday, in the airport at Keflavík, he did.
The awkward look of Life Going On As Usual around him didn’t stop once he was dragged onto the plane, where two women stood up to protest his deportation and called on other passengers to do the same.
Nobody joined the protest. Police was called and the women roughly dragged out, arrested and interrogated for hours. The pilot then asked police to make sure that no more protesters were on board, which they apparently did, though how they did it remains a mystery. (Flying an unwilling and violently arrested refugee towards death was apparently cool with the pilot, but not having anyone protesting it mid-flight.)
But that wasn’t it. In a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie, the stewardesses then walked through the plane and, according to a journalist who was inside, “asked passengers if they were happy with the plane departing.” This offered every single passenger the chance to save Eze from deportation. Not a single person did.
Eze was released in Stockholm, free to use his nonexistent funds to sustain himself. He thus ended up on the street, where he slept the first night. He’s hoping to get friends of friends, or simply strangers, to host him until he knows what he can do. But while the Swedish state didn’t want the responsibility of housing him, they still commanded that he leave the country before June 1 – within five days. After that, a deportation order will be hanging over him, and the Swedish authorities will wait until he walks into their net, and then deliver him to the murderers of his family.
Eze’s case is not unique, but it shows better than many how insidious European borders are. His deportation hinged on the harmony of the Swedish state and of police, the airliner, its crew and the passengers in Iceland, which have now put Eze’s life at risk. This deportation could have been stopped by any one of dozens of people merely not doing something, or by a few people just standing up and saying “no.”
Rights always get eroded where the resistance is the least, but the erosion doesn’t stop there. As the good old bishop might have said: “First they came for refugees, but I said nothing because I wasn’t a refugee.” Borders are everywhere, in the behaviour of all of us, and sometimes we’re given a rare and sudden chance to break them down. Let’s keep it in mind, so we don’t waste it.
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.
Nonpolitics 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.
A week ago, a mob of local people in Chios harassed refugees that were occupying the town’s port, threatened and employed violence against solidarity groups helping them and demanded the refugees go to camps in town. In the aftermath, multiple statements have appeared about what happened, some at variance with each other (and reality).
The mob didn’t appear out of the blue. Frustrations had mounted for weeks, and due to the absolute lack of democracy and dignity that suffocates Greece these years, they weren’t addressed – and still haven’t been resolved. This story has deep roots, but it seems to me the key event happened on Sunday, April 3, on the eve of the first mass-deportations to Turkey. But let’s set the scene.
No migrant no cry
For months, refugees in Greece had been kept in open camps on the islands. The EU-Turkey deal, signed on March 18, forced the Greek government to clear the islands and to detain all incoming refugees on arrival. Its capacity to do this in one day and then to provide for the prisoners, to process their asylum claims and deport those who didn’t satisfy the asylum criteria was always a fantasy. Following a year-long tradition, the Greek government still tried, because Europe ordered it to. The catastrophe that resulted has been documented in previous blogs. What I haven’t documented is the local reaction.
Two things were bound to antagonize Greek locals, especially on the islands. Firstly, the fact that police and coast guard boats, cars and staff now swarmed the streets and ports as never before. Greece has been symbolically, financially and politically cleansed of democracy. Now the islands’ key enforcement and protective institutions were being declared insufficient and then taken over by a pan-European coalition. I haven’t asked the nationalists here how this makes them feel, but it doesn’t take much imagination to predict their frustration.
The second antagonizing factor to locals was that, now that refugees were being imprisoned and their hopes and dreams ground to dust, they were much more prone to fighting. Overcrowded prisons, lack of food, facilities and hygiene products, very weak guarding and prisoners with nothing to lose could only end badly. People living close to the prison didn’t want this in their backyard. It didn’t help that the prison was “leaky,” there were holes in the fences. Prisoners sometimes got out and walked through farmers’ fields to get SIM cards and other necessities from town. Police tolerated it, because by and large the refugees returned. But for a farmer, having a “prisoner” pop up in your olive grove wasn’t welcome.
It was the talk of town that this was Bad News, all of it, and that it wasn’t being worked on. The local government wasn’t the one calling the shots, the Greek government was only running these camps under pressure from Brussels. The relevant decisions were being made half a continent away. What chance did the locals have? None, it seemed, except direct action.
Inside Vial, refugees were developing the same idea. On March 31, Chios locals, solidarity groups and volunteers protested the detention of refugees. Refugees inside joined in chanting, and then broke out.
After the protest, most of them went inside again. But the police’s hand was tipped. They seemed incapable of keeping the refugees locked up against their will. The next day, hundreds of refugees broke out for good. They went to the port of Chios town and occupied it. They wanted to go to Athens. When I asked them what they’d do when the ferry came, in case they were forbidden to go on it, some said they would try by force. The prison break had heightened their spirits. Most refugees, though, seemed hopeful that they would simply be allowed on. But the ferry was redirected to another port, dashing any such plans, and greatly disturbing the Liliputian economy of Chios.
Yet the refugees remained at the port, for many reasons. Although the local authorities immediately offered them an open camp to stay in (three cheers for direct action!), most didn’t go. They were suspicious of camps. They wanted to go, not stay. They didn’t want to be hidden out of sight, no matter how much more comfortable it might be than sleeping on the concrete floor of the port. It was simply and clearly a political choice. Media was following the action, the refugees could talk openly with anyone they chose. They had freedom and the ear of the public.
Not In My Back Yard
In the afternoon of Sunday, April 3, dozens of refugees were separated from those remaining in Vial. They were to be driven to Tabakika, a migrant processing factory in Chios town. They were to be deported to Turkey the next day, the first installment of the mass-deportations agreed on with Turkey. But neighbors of the huge and ghostly warehouse, apprehensive after the previous weeks’ stories, tried to stop people being transported there.
The tranquil Greek islands have no native riot police. Their officers do have some shin pads and helmets, but no units of the dreaded green-clad MAT. With the mass-imprisonment scheme, however, MAT-buses had been shipped to the islands. And now they were made to clear the way for the refugee transport. The result was ugly.
You can see the shock and dismay of the protesters. One of them (2’10”) shouts at the MAT: “You came here to beat them, the criminals, and you beat us [instead]!” Also: “Are you Greeks?! Dogs! Get out of here!”
Deportations, port reopens
The next morning, Monday, April 4, the refugees from Tabakika were deported without a hitch. On Tuesday evening, the port was split up into two parts: occupation and shipping. Refugees were allowed to stay on a third of the area, business could then go on as usual on the remainder. A fence was drilled into the concrete.
This meant that the port could now be used – maybe not as comfortably as before, but still without incident. An Athens-ferry came and went, the ferry that the refugees wanted more than anything to leave with, and they simply watched it peacefully.
Municipal meeting and protests
The next day, Wednesday, April 6, when the Chios municipal council was to be in session, a protest was called outside the municipal building – on the town square. The call proclaimed in red letters, printed on top of photos of the port occupation and the MAT-incident: “Men and women of Chios – That’s enough!!”
It referred to the refugees with the xenophobic term λαφρομετανάστες, “smuggled migrants”. While the call was anonymous, it seems to have been made with some effort, since a printed banner was used at the protest. In a move bordering on the embarrassing, it read that Chios residents would soon become refugees themselves. Another one said: “WE ARE NOT RACISTS!” (The banner doth protest to much, methinks.)
As for the attitudes and motives behind the call, it’s slightly murky. Possibly a far-right group had finally found a topic to play on. The attitudes it stirred up were certainly along those lines, if Facebook discussions are anything to go by. On the square, the national anthem was sung. Activists showed up with a pro-refugee banner that was ripped to pieces. Media was shoved away. The municipal meeting was stormed and disrupted. Volunteers were harassed.
Here’s them singing the anthem:
After some very agitated hours, the meeting adjourned, having skirted the main topics of the protesters. (The council decided to demand of the Greek government that Vial be opened.) The protesters had themselves vanished and promised to take things into their own hands two days later, Thursday, April 7. Later in the night, however, a bomb was thrown at Soli Cafe, an occupied house where refugees can eat, get clothes and get support. The mood of the town was souring quickly.
The port gets mobbed
On Thursday afternoon, refugees in the port were having one of their lively protests. As they did, one of the refugees climbed up to the Greek and EU flags flying above the port. This had happened many times before, and was almost routine: he kissed them, honored them, waved and posed for photos.
Later it would be claimed that he was about to rip the Greek flag down, but this was contradicted by the accounts of numerous refugees and journalists. It also goes against the whole mood and attitude of the refugees, who had made a banner saying “Thank you Greece” and who had not been at all confrontational, except in the initial move to occupy the port. An attack on the flag, however, was said to have been the provocation. The refugee was attacked, but ran away. “Concerned citizens” heaped around and shouted at solidarity groups to leave the port. The mood was electric. Suddenly a plainly clothed trio marched towards us (I was standing inside the port at the time) and ordered us to go out. I asked for identification, and though they didn’t give it, they said they were from the port police. They seemed very hurried. I walked out and saw the mob approach the gate where we were walking out. I walked away, but when I looked back, I saw one member of solidarity get swarmed, shoved onto the ground and then beaten up.
The latter part of the video shows the more disturbing part of the evening. It took place some hours later. Refugees had been herded into an easily defended (but also pretty much fenced-off) part of the port when solidarity was cloeared out. Media was allowed in, but the MAT arrayed itself between refugees and the mob.
The shields were turned towards the mob, so it was obvious where the physical threat lay. Nonetheless, uniformed officers – locals – stood in the mob, chatting merrily with the “concerned citizens”. When a firecracker was thrown into the refugee throng, nobody got arrested. The mob wasn’t made to move away. On the contrary, as can be seen in the video, the man in the suit – the mayor – used the occasion to threaten the refugees that if they didn’t come with him, they’d fare the worse for it. “You come with me or you go with them!” he shouts. Numerous refugees were arrested that night, charged on five counts and, two days later, convicted.
Much has been made of the fact that the mob didn’t attack most refugees it came into contact with. (The union of Coast Guard officials especially touted this fact in a rather hysterical press release.) That would also have been outrageously brutal, since most of them were families. The fact that this didn’t become a modern day pogrom is not a humanitarian victory. Some refugees were actually attacked, but the lack of physical violence against the rest conceals the tremendous psychological damage the mob inflicted on the port occupants. It is hard to watch the video above and think that this was anything but an attack on them.
As for the solidarity people, who actually were attacked and chased away from the refugees: they were clearly the enemy of the mob. When they tried helping refugee families move away, they were screamed at, told to shut up, threatened with violence. Police confirmed to at least one volunteer in a neutral tone that he would get beaten up if he didn’t go. Police, while not violent against volunteers, condoned the violence inflicted on them. The man whom I saw swarmed and beaten up was arrested immediately and charged with disobeying police orders. He was kept in a police station in handcuffs overnight. In a nearby room, the arrested refugees were being beaten up – for fifteen minutes, one of them says.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Chios authorities used the mob to cow the refugees into submission. Evacuating the port by force was always out of the question, because of the heavy media presence. But the reaction of the authorities to the mob’s arrival, and the line they took as the night went on, shows how they used the opportunity. Even given the stated will of the authorities, that they didn’t want to protect the occupation, allowing one-sided violence against the occupation and then taking part in it is an effective statement of allegiance: with a xenophobe mob, against refugees making a political statement.
European police have gone to ludicrous lenghts to prove that refugees never do anything of their own accord; that it’s always white activists pulling strings behind the scenes. This smells of racism, and it has ridiculous consequences. Distributing info-leaflets to refugees is now seen as subversive. Having sheets of paper in Arabic stamps you as a possible fomenter of insurrection. Volunteers and activists are constantly being accused of taking money for their humanitarian work. (This isn’t specific to the refugee crisis. Environmental activists have heard this many times before, normally from people who don’t understand why you would lift a finger for anyone except if you got money for it.) The suspicion sometimes becomes laughable, for instance when an activist in Chios was charged with espionage for taking a photo of a Frontex-boat.
Yet activists don’t really benefit from any of this. They are just working for a better world. And this puts the authorities of Chios in a strange light. They got rid of a political problem, benefiting politically, by explicitly threatening refugees with a mob. The port was operational, so the practical reasons for evacuating it were slim. It was cynical opportunism, one that gives a loud and clear message to residents of Chios: if you have problems with a minority, forming a mob and threatening physical violence may be your best bet.
Since Sunday, refugees who arrive on the Greek islands are by and large brought into prisons with the aim of deporting them. The places are officially called “hotspots”, but both police, visitors and inmates call them prisons. The prisoners have a legal right to apply for asylum, but have so far had great difficulty in lodging their requests. They have to pay to go to prison and they are fed through a fence.
Today, five days after imprisonment of refugees started, these instructions were finally put up. They aim to lessen the monumental confusion inside the Vial hotspot. Notice that the sign instructs inmates to “ask the authorities”, the institution that is imprisoning them, for information about their rights. We have talked to several refugees inside who want to apply for asylum but can’t. Procedures, staff or facilities seem to be lacking.
This is the inevitable and foreseeable result of the EU-Turkey agreement, which only gave the Greek authorities a few dozen hours to completely revamp their reception process, an impossible task. And the Greek state has acquiesced to the EU’s plans by imprisoning refugees, even though facilities are incapable of providing for them properly.
This official statement blatantly contradicts the claims of a police officer who visited activists at Soli Cafe, Chios town, in the afternoon of March 23. He identified himself as Costas and said that everyone in Vial could apply for asylum but that nobody wanted to.
While refugees stay in Vial, volunteers provide them with food – but are forbidden from entering the camp. (Independent volunteers have been harrassed when visiting the hotspot to bring food, and have been forbidden from talking with inmates.)
As a result of this awkward distribution method and the degrading conditions where they take place, conflicts inside the camp can result. After a food distribution on March 23, fights broke out. “There’s no police here to clear the fight,” a refugee told us as it happened. People fought with stones and five refugees – one woman – got hurt. Police left them to it for half an hour. It seems that everybody ran for it; the NGOs and the camp management. But the refugees, men, women and children, remained locked inside.
And it doesn’t end there. The refugees were brought into the prison by bus, which they had to pay for.
These buses have been in operation for a while, and offer not just a joyride to jail, but also wildly inconsistent prices, depending on currency. We have talked with a refugee brought into the prison after the agreement with Turkey went into effect, who had to pay for his bus ride, so the practice wasn’t stopped after the policy of imprisonment began.
All the foreseeable confusion and harshness of the EU-Turkey deal have come to pass. We are now witnessing the ugly result of prioritizing border control over humanity, xenophobia over compassion. These prison camps brutalize everyone, the inmates and our own society. They are explicitly built to grind to dust the hope and aspirations of foreigners, some of whom are running for their lives, or desparate to be reunited with their families. Europe’s hotspots are a disgusting blot on its conscience, they are a culmination of its vilest fears and hatred. They have to be destroyed.
Last night, two groups of independent activists got apprehended and interrogated for hours by police for standing on a public street outside the Vial hotspot in Chios. They have been visiting the hotspot to keep an independent eye on what is happening there. Inmates told us the food and water there were insufficient, so we have tried bringing them some.
While the activists enjoyed their five-hour police station hangout, the cops pleaded with them to just register, go by protocol, and work under the camp command. They refused.
Refusing to work in a refugee prison under the command of the prison guards is a principled and practical decision. It’s the official line of Doctors without borders, it’s the line the UN refugee agency is taking in the Greek hotspots. “We refuse to facilitate this cruelty,” MSF said. It’s a way to prevent your work being perverted. It’s also a way to put pressure on the authorities to stop mass incarceration.
What follows is a description of what independent and unregistered people must go through these days in Chios in order to talk with refugees. In this case we also tried to bring them some bare necessities, but not on the terms of the hotspot managers, to avoid becoming their volunteer suppliers.
The first group, Tuesday afternoon
We went up with 200kg of apples in our van to hand out, because we were told the refugees didn’t have enough food. When we came we saw there was a demonstration at the front gate, with quite a lot of people outside.
That wouldn’t have been a good time to give out apples.
We were standing in a public street, keeping the apples in our van, thinking about how to hand them out and what was going on. We split up, three went up to the upper part of the camp to see what was going on there. Then police officers came and asked us for identification.
We asked why they wanted them. They didn’t give a reason. Later I showed the ID but they had already said they’d take us to the police station. There was a small shed in front of the gates where they did a full body check on us.
They also searched our car. After that they brought us to the police station in Chios town where they asked us one at a time for name, date of birth, names of parents and so on. We stayed in total about five hours but they leveled no charges against us.
They took me into another room for three hours and started to ask questions about how I came to the island. I came from Izmir via Cesme. They asked me many times about this, about the date, they repeated my answer wrong so I had to correct them. They asked me again and again and again while they were filming me with a mobile phone. At least it seems they did, one policeman pointed his phone at me while I was talking, stopped when we took a break and began again when they started again with the questions. They were smoking inside all the time.
After four hours we met the second group.
The second group, Tuesday night
We bought water for about 100 euro and went to the camp. We saw the first group had been caught, saw Philipp in the car, and saw the protest. One refugee had climbed onto the fence and trying to get the attention of people inside, to cheer them on.
F We decided to go back to town and I went with a different group to Vial. The police was putting on riot gear and we wanted to observe.
We walked to the camp, decided to go to a place with a good view. We couldn’t see much going on inside the camp, except we heard a woman screaming and crying. As things got more calm, and only five to six refugees were left at the gate, we went back to the car.
We recognized when we arrived that someone saw and followed us. When we came back and sat in the car, before we’d managed to start it, the police came and screamed in Greek. We just sat there and they kept screaming. Then we thought maybe they were saying we should leave the car, so we did.
One of them went to the other side of our van, where F. was sitting, and I saw he had a gun in his hand.
It was crazy, one policeman even had a gun in his hand. Then they asked us for IDs, we gave them. We had specifically taken them so we’d not have this kind of problem. The police searched our car without permission, searched all of us, which I’m sure is not allowed either. One of the young dudes pulled out handcuffs but the other cops calmed him down.
They separated us and forbade us from talking together. I did not want to show my ID. Then the policemen started searching my pockets and I didn’t know if it was legal. They found honeyflower seeds and all of them sniffed at it. The most shocking thing is that they just went through my things, found my ID and took it. They also searched everywhere in the car, even inside a juice bottle. They asked what we were doing here and said: “You are not supposed to be here, this is a prison now.”
We met the first group in the station. The last one was still being questioned. The others left after about maybe 40 minutes. Then they asked us how long we’d been in Greece, where we’d come from, what we were doing here, what we were doing at home, where we lived, where we stayed in Greece, who paid for the place and so on. Then I had a few questions. I asked them why I had to be there. I had just been sitting in a car on a public road. I asked them if there were other public roads which I could not stay on, did they maybe have a list for me? They said it was just because there were refugees there, they had to protect them from strangers.
The third group, Wednesday afternoon
We arrived at Vial to talk to the people there again about the conditions inside. We were talking with them for 15-20 minutes while the police passed by several times. Then they stopped and asked us for ID. We asked them why, and they said we weren’t allowed to be there, that it was a restricted area. We showed them our passports. They asked us where our car was and why we were there. We said it was because we were passing by and because we didn’t understand why kids were in prison. They called someone and wrote all our info down, also the licence plate and our IDs, and told us we’d have to leave now, that we were allowed to pass by, but not talk to the people. They said that several times. Then we went into the car and drove to the main gates. There we talked to an NRC worker. He said they were not inside the prison anymore. He also said there is nobody inside Vial, apart from the refugees. Police had also left. The refugees are fighting inside and there are protests and the police is afraid of the violence. He also said that now it’s just a matter of time until people inside start to kill each other.
As the EU-Turkey agreement is to come into effect on Sunday, we’d be well advised to keep our eyes on the islands. All arrivals will get detained, I’m pretty sure, and then have to wait for two weeks (until April fourth) for deportations to start.
1. We need to make sure that everyone knows they have a right to apply for asylum and appeal if they get denied.
2. We need to make sure that detention conditions get documented, because they are sure to become very bad very quickly.
3. We have to find out what the legal process on the islands will be, because at the moment it is completely incapable of dealing with this number of requests.
4. It might be worth setting up contacts with refugees on arrival or in detention to hear what happens to them after deportation.
5. Many things are supposed to happen before Sunday, to make the deal at least look legal. What will happen with the refugees that are there now, or arrive before Sunday? Those who are on the islands might want to check that out, and also how things change and what personnel gets brought in.
If you are on the islands and want to join a communications group, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, the Greek islands were nominated for the Nobel peace prize for their reception of refugees. Hundreds of thousands have gone across them to pastures greener, in the vain hope that Europe would respect their rights. As we now know, Europe would rather sacrifice those rights than share its soil with illegal immigrants, be they toddlers or trauma-victims, wheelchair-inhabitants or the hated Young Single Males. European states have started feeding them into detention centers on arrival to contain The Flood.
In recent months, our society has shown its narcissistic side with ever cruder force, losing patience for humanitarianism and solidarity at every step. We only seem to talk about a “refugee crisis” when the refugees, who have for decades numbered millions, come to our continent. Until then they were in the Third World, were misery belongs. This “crisis”, it is worth recalling, consists of the liberation of refugees from war and poverty. While terrorism has almost exclusively been directed at them by fascist militias and drunk xenophobes, we nonetheless worry incessantly about the security risk that they pose to us.
Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World, refugees travel around without the monumental fuss about the breakdown of civilization that we now constantly hear from the richest, most hardened states on Earth.
I’m staying in the south of Turkey these days, not all too far from the Syrian border, and here Syrians abound. Large numbers of them came here fleeing bombardment, for example when Russians joined the war, and many are considering going home again now that Putin has announced withdrawal.
The reception Syrians get from the Turkish authorities seems to depend on the political climate, and currently winds are blowing against them. Borders are more closely sealed than before, so many stay in tent camps along the border fence on the Syrian side. These camps are only the first on the road from war – precisely the same reservoirs of misery as you can see against the borders of European nations.
Meeting with Syrians here puts the European hysteria into perspective. I’ve met with a refugee that has worked in an orphanage here since 2014 after fleeing Aleppo, another Syrian with years of experience in running camps, and the staff of a community center that has helped children off the streets and into schools since 2007. It was first directed at Turkish kids, but now the homeless here are mostly Syrians. It’s located in the city of Gaziantep, where Syrians live in their hundreds of thousands or millions – figures vary, since not all get registered.
Gaziantep, which not only lets refugees pass through, but also houses them in enormous numbers, has like the Greek islands been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.
I’m told attitudes here toward Syrians are much nicer than on the western coast of Turkey, where they depart for Europe. Maybe it’s because of the smaller distance — cultural and geographical — to Syria, or because of the belief of the western cities in the Religion Of Tourism, which brings money-angels from the sky and teaches its subjects to avoid refugees, who are not angels and can’t fly. They are on the contrary goblins of trouble, trauma and war, and disturb the whitewashed idyll of the fantastically neat Mediterranean resorts.
Thus the refugees are dammed into damnation, kept down south in the fires of war when it suits the Turkish government, or at the very least outside Europe, whatever the cost.
Everybody wishes to go home, but for many refugees, that’s not an option. Maybe we’ll soon manage to lock them all into some satisfyingly confined limbo, where we’ll be able to pluck out those very few scanned, registered and vetted souls that have been proven non-terrorist enough for our fragile, timid society. Then they can enter our angelic heaven of security, white beaches and easy travels. Having thus subjugated their freedom of movement to our hysteria, our crisis will finally be over.
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.
We have been cooking soup, distributing blankets, giving information, warmth, food and hope. It has been fun, it has been tragic. We’ve tried to bring a human face to the Balkan route. It has been intense, rewarding, invaluable. The support has been staggering, seeing the solidarity has been beautiful. But I am afraid we are on the wrong track. While we are providing aid and saving lives on the ground, politicians up high in the glass towers of Brussels have been hard at work getting over their differences in order to contain, regulate, close up and slow down the arrival of foreigners in Europe. They are doing it by means of savage bureaucracy, with the tidal waves of history propelling them forward, coming down on support movements as well as visitors to our continent, breaking up solidarity, isolating refugees from us and society. Migrants are step by step being put away in camps and prisons, contained like a disease, to protect Europe from exposure. This is the brutal face of bureaucracy and order, regulation and isolation, which tolerates no independent assistance, no independent information, no independent contact.
The shock of a million foreigners has set European racists reeling. It has made bureaucratic machines crack and sputter. The micromanaging states of Europe want this disaster of irregularity, chaos and non-registration to end. Better a drowned refugee than a non-registered one. Better an imprisoned child than a smuggled one. Keep THEM in those white boxes and keep those white boxes in barbed-wire fences and have volunteers – registered, of course – keep refugees in line. Sort them by nationality, gender, age, vulnerability, take their fingerprints and check just HOW MUCH they suffered, because we don’t accept just anyone here, you know. Write their number on their hand, tag their fingernails, count the cups of soup they get, stamp their papers, give them thirty days to get to Level 2 or it’s Game Over. Then their journey begins again, and when they get here next time, the open camp will be a detention center, the food-distributor a prison guard, the registration will be for a flight back home. And where will we, the soup-cookers and clothes-distributors, be then?
The incompetence of Greece and Europe has made people believe this can’t happen. But this is an illusory hope. Sure, Greece is incapable of managing registration, let alone keeping a million people detained. But Big Brother Europe has plenty of force to spare. Frontex-officials are coming to the islands like a plague of black locusts, gnawing apart nonconforming support structures, ridding the Balkan route of the insufficient Greek Coast Guard and insubordinate volunteers. In due time, tent camps will have disappeared and there’ll be a clean, white wall with a roll of barbed wire on top for us to graffiti edgy slogans on. Wet and fearful people will be brought in, and they will be “processed”, and when they will come out a magical transformation will have happened. They will either have the luck of having become a Second Class Temporary European, ready for deportation as soon as Their Disaster is over, or be an Economic Migrant, a worthless rightless leech on our goodwill, a disgusting rapist opportunist Muslim that can’t be deported too early. And where will we, the blanket-distributors and soup-givers, be then?
The weather is cold and windy, and still the boats bring thousands of people every day. What will it be like this summer? We are not the only ones wondering. The showrunners of Europe say they have two months to “save Schengen”, to hold together a thirty year old project, which is now crumbling under the weight of a million undocumented people – 0.2% of Europe’s population. More refugees are residing in Lebanon, a country of four million! If this is what refugees have brought us so far, what next? The infinitely rigid structure of European law, order and bureaucracy, carefully and painstakingly built on top of fivehundred years of colonialism, slavery and oppression, is completely and utterly freaking out over this miniscule disturbance in the continent’s demographics. Europeans have built their collection of states like a kid builds a house out of toothpicks – on the assumption that nobody comes in and disturbs it. Now the smallest gust of air is making it collapse. “We cannot cope with the numbers any longer”, the Dutch prime minister says. Just imagine what he’ll be saying in June, when the Aegean sea will be warm and still.
We have to prepare for this. Europe is freaking out already, and it has given itself two months to save itself from the refugees. Only its boundless incompetence and disunity have allowed migrants to travel for this long. But with a near-fascist government in Poland, a straight-out racist ruling Hungary (with an even worse opposition), and the whole of Central Europe just waiting for an excuse to shut their borders, we can’t rely on hope or prayer anymore. Even the Empress of Europe, Angela Merkel, tried and failed to open the doors to refugees. She was sailing against the storms of five centuries, against the waves of populism, xenophobia and terror that rule the states around her, and even her own party.
We have to be prepared for Europe to try, haphazardly and fumbling, but with the determination of a mad drunkard, to lock up refugees and stop their coming here. Europe’s two ventricles of racist society and control-freak bureaucracy reinforce each other, pumping their insidious ideology across the continent. It spews forth in the utterances of everyday people: “There’s no space for them here”, “they don’t fit in”, “they’re all rapists”, “open borders just wouldn’t work”, “there has to be some order to this”, “they’re after our jobs”, “if we save them, more will come”. Europe has built itself assuming it was safe from foreigners. Now it’s in existential crisis. And as a rat stuck in a corner, it will rip apart anything and everything to save itself. It won’t spare any right, it will break any refugee, that stands in its way.
We have to be prepared for this. The state has benefitted from our providing wet arrivals with dry clothes, giving hungry camp-dwellers food, distributing blankets to freezing people sleeping under the starry sky. But now we are in the way. We are giving people a reason to care. We are building relations with those who are not supposed to be here. We are fighting for them, sometimes one person at a time, to make it through the next border. Now we are the targets.
We have to unite, communicate, know our strenghts, and attack the racism, exclusion and separation that the state is imposing on us. Europe is giving itself two months to save itself. What will we do?