The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues
MAY 2020 Issue
Field Notes

A Disaster Foretold

This article would not have been possible without the tremendous help of a number of people with whom I met and discussed in Athens and Lesvos, shortly before the lockdowns were initiated. I cannot thank them enough. But I do wish to offer my deepest gratitude and respect to M.P., a legal counsellor on international protection status, and Artemis, who has spent the last four years working with unaccompanied minors in the Moria camp, not only for their help and comments but, above all, for the incredible work they have done all this time at the frontline. All mistakes remain, of course, mine.

When the Greek Government Council of National Security declared that it would be closing down its borders with Turkey on March 1, 2020, the language used fell nothing short of one announcing a military operation. A representative of the government claimed that “sudden, massive, organized, and coordinated pressure” on Greece’s borders necessitated such a response, adding that the country was facing an “asymmetrical threat.” This militarized escalation came two days after President Erdoğan announced that Turkey will “open its borders to Europe” to ease the burden of a new “wave of people fleeing war-torn Syria.”

Leaving aside the ease with which officials adopted the monstrosity of describing migrants/refugees as an “invasion” force, a form of discourse monopolized until recently by the extreme right, a parallel observation is warranted: there was nothing sudden about what happened in March 2020. What came into the open during those days was, instead, an entirely expected and consistently predicted consequence of a situation that has been building up for at least five years. The pretence that this was unexpected served only as a pathetic attempt to deny this simple reality, and as a diversion from the inevitable conclusion that the migration policies of the last five years make such events unavoidable. Contrary to the underlying principle that appears to guide decision-making in today’s capitalist world, delaying the inevitable is not a strategy for avoiding it altogether.

Fragments of a “migration policy”

In tandem with the logic of the wider organization of global capital, the situation of migrants/refugees corresponds to what Mike Davis recently described as an ongoing “triage1 whereby significant parts of the world population are effectively made invisible and written off. Especially since the Amsterdam Treaty of 1999, the EU institutionalization of this reality has taken the form of extra-territorializing the issue, a strategy that boils down to paying large amounts of money to so-called transit countries in exchange for erecting barriers to people’s movement. By hiding the cruel treatment of migrants/refugees behind inaccessible internment camps in countries with ambiguous relations to international protection agreements, the EU hoped to maintain the spectacle that it remains, internally, a union that respects legal procedures and its own regulations, while at the same time restricting irregular movements. Within this context, the idea of stopping immigration altogether was obviously never on the table. Instead, and consistent with the fluctuating needs of capital, the strategy was aimed at creating a selective process through which a constant source of precarious workers with semi-legal or temporary status could find their way to different parts of the labor market within Europe, a strategy that has been described as performing a neoliberal balancing act between racist/conservative hostility to migration and left/liberal demands for humane “management.”2

In this context, the very transit countries that were being paid to keep the “problem” outside Europe’s borders, legal restrictions, and citizens’ TV screens, would occasionally make use of the leverage provided to them to pursue their own interests. Erdogan’s recent threat to open the borders has been used repeatedly since 2016, the latest occasion being in November 2019 when, speaking alongside Viktor Orban in Hungary, he once again “warned” the EU that unless it provides more support to his geostrategic goals, he would “open the doors.” He was not, by any means, the first: his predecessor in this sordid business of subcontracting the imprisonment of humans, Colonel Gaddafi, had issued a similar threat back in 2010, in a statement bizarrely laced with a white supremacist tone that would become commonplace in extreme right circles in the years to come.3

Despite such disputes, this approach to “managing migration,” in parallel to most policies enacted during periods of prolonged crisis, was quickly transformed from a temporary solution into a permanent strategy. Nonetheless, and after receiving a first shock with the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, the whole design appeared to be heading for the dustbins of history in the summer of 2015, when more than one million people set out to escape extreme poverty, insecurity, violence, and war and make their way to Europe. There is no doubt that the magnitude of the movement took many by surprise, giving the chance to some EU countries to interpret the term “transit” in a literal way and to allow (or even assist) migrants to pass through, after realising that any effort to stop them would strand them in their territories. It also forced Germany to choose between either opening its borders or mounting machine guns on them, eventually opting for the first choice for a variety of reasons, among which one must surely add initial reports that long-term demographic issues and labor-market shortages (in specific sectors) could be solved this way—as long as an efficient selective apparatus was put in place once the dust had settled.

And settle it did. From the end of 2015, a gradual but unmistakable doubling down on the trusted strategy of externalization kicked in, with the small variation that circumstances now demanded that the geographical position of the “transit” countries paid to keep migrants/refugees away from the EU would be considerably closer. This very relocation made the Greece-Turkey border the “interface” between the “inner and outer rings”4 of the EU’s policy of externalization.

As in 2015, the epicenter of the crisis of March 2020 was situated on the Greek islands closest to Turkey (with Lesvos and Chios in prominent positions), though this time around the northern mainland border line was added, a triangular pocket split between Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey, sliding all the way down to where the Evros river meets the Aegean Sea. Contrary to 2015, however, EU officials were “prepared.” Immediately situating the events within the official narrative that treats migration as a one-sided security issue, the response was an escalated militarization with the enthusiastic support of an EU that went as far as to send representatives of the European Commission to the Greek border. For those who had not gotten the memo, this select committee of bureaucrats and EU leaders made it explicit. The film propagating the EU’s response to the situation that was produced on the spot was a formidable exposition of the overall policy: a lot of talk and promises were present, but not a single migrant/refugee was anywhere to be seen.

Among the most repeated promises present was the mantra that “2015 will not be repeated.” Again, nothing new. European politicians have massaged the public for the last five years, trying to firmly embed the narrative that the summer of 2015 was nothing but a failure. Had they been speaking from the perspective of migrants/refugees, we would have no trouble agreeing: the death toll in the Mediterranean; the state-sanctioned inhuman treatment along the route and in the borders; the impromptu or permanent prison-camps with appalling conditions for children, women, and men who have committed no crime; the shocking disregard of any semblance of legal guarantees; the widespread illegal pushbacks: all of these are crimes that will remain unpunished and yet forever carved on people’s bodies and memories. But this, of course, is not what politicians want to avoid. Instead, we are being asked to internalize and accept as our own the pressure that they felt from the misanthropic corners of the extreme right, to which they felt obliged to respond by adopting its tropes.5

Don’t look back

How far we have come from the days when mainstream newspapers would publish heart-breaking letters from little Syrian girls urging the world to “open its eyes,” when Greek old ladies would share their minimal provisions with refugee kids, when Lionel Messi or even the Pope himself would make a small detour from their busy schedules to visit Lesvos and celebrate its inhabitants and solidarity. Even a Nobel Peace Prize for Lesvos was thrown around as an idea at the time. In lieu of such warm-hearted spectacles, what we have today is an inability to differentiate between the language of EU officials and that of excited neo-Nazis, whose proclamations “I stand with Greece” mean that they stand behind any state that militarizes its borders, sends out vigilante patrols alongside the cops, and promises to brutalize any “intruder.” What we have today is footage of local thugs obstructing the landing of a boat full of refugees on a small beach in Lesvos, showing a Greek man in his sixties reacting to the sight of a pregnant woman on the boat by shouting: “I didn’t get her pregnant, she should go back to where she came from.” Hardly Nobel Prize material there.

After the “failure” of 2015, the reignition of the recipe of externalization found its institutionalized form in the EU-Turkey deal signed in March 2016.6 Following the consistent aim of expelling migrants/refugees to invisible locations, the deal was enacted to make sure that “all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.”7 A report published by Amnesty International summarized the underlying aim in simple terms:

Before even considering asylum applications on their merits, applicants are individually examined to assess whether a previous country of transit—in the case of people arriving at islands in the Aegean Sea, this means Turkey—can be considered a safe third country (i.e. can provide protection to the readmitted person) or a first country of asylum (i.e. the person has already been recognised as a refugee in the country in question or would otherwise enjoy sufficient protection there). The aim of these changes was to enable Greek authorities to return even asylum-seekers who have, prima facie, a well-founded claim to international protection.8

The EU Dublin Regulations had functioned as a means through which asylum applications were automatically transferred to the first EU country in which the migrant/refugee had arrived, a rule practically abolished in the summer of 2015 when said countries refused to register new arrivals. The EU-Turkey deal was meant to replicate the policy by shifting the “burden” (i.e. the legal obligation) away from EU countries towards Turkey. In exchange for billions of euros in the form of aid for refugees, a “liberalization” of visa applications for Turkish citizens towards Europe and an (essentially unrealistic) renewal of EU accession negotiations, the EU-Turkey deal effectively banished migrants/refugees inside Turkey, disregarding the fact that the country hardly fulfilled any the official legal requirements of being a “safe third country.”

Among other legal problems, which the architects of the deal knew full well, Turkey’s signing of the 1951 Refugee Convention maintained a clause of geographical limitation, allowing Turkey to offer full protection only to refugees coming from Europe.9 Especially for Syrians, this meant that, when not illegally imprisoned and/or deported, they would be granted the status of “temporary protection.” Aside from being a known form of undermining their living conditions in the “safe third country,”10 the temporary protection status effectively strips them of the possibility of applying for further protection, “as international agencies do not register them for international protection because they are not believed to be in immediate danger and are considered to be safe under temporary protection.”11

This convenient loophole was not, of course, a Turkish invention. Gaining prominence as a concept during the 1990s, when thousands were fleeing towards Europe to avoid the war in Yugoslavia, the temporary protection status was created to circumvent integration obligations and was openly geared towards facilitating repatriations. Accelerated during the Kosovo War in the end of the 1990s, the approach was hugely responsible for establishing an “indefinite temporary residency” for millions, but in the context of “migration management,” it was declared a success and institutionalized by the EU in 2001. By 2014, the UNHCR itself would describe it as a “pragmatic tool.”

One the other side of the EU-Turkey deal stood the transformation of reception centers along Greece’s islands into closed internment camps, the euphemistically called “hotspots”. By closing the borders along the Balkan route, and thus making it extremely difficult (though not impossible12) for migrants/refugees to continue towards northern Europe, the primary aim of the new arrangement was to expedite the process of returning Syrian migrants/refugees to Turkey without considering the merits of their individual cases. Unless recognized as belonging to a vulnerable group (unaccompanied minors, single parents with children, elderly, traumatized, or people with serious health care issues) or eligible for family reunification (with a member of their close family, residing under protection status in another European country), the deal was meant to speed up a process of declaring inadmissibility decisions while avoiding the dangerous legal territory of mass expulsions. Initially applying exclusively to Syrians, but expanded in June 2016 to include all nationalities through the use of a pre-existing bilateral readmission protocol, there is perhaps no better testimony for the deal’s legal fragility than the simple fact that it was almost entirely derailed when confronted with the legal requirements established by the Asylum Procedures Directive.

In the cracks of the law

The formal process was as follows: new arrivals at the islands would be taken to the “reception and identification” detention centres, where a first screening would be performed and their main data collected. In accordance with UNHCR practices, a further selective process would determine a “vulnerability status,” as well as those eligible for the family reunification provision. Those who received a “vulnerable” status would either remain in the camps or be transferred to the Greek mainland where, depending on a variety of other bureaucratic hurdles, they would either be sent to a different camp or would be housed under the UN Emergency Support for Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) program. The asylum applications, originally submitted in peripheral units of the Asylum Service, would eventually be handled by the Greek Asylum Service (GAS), whose directives to conform with the EU-Turkey deal was obstructed by the fact that from 2016 until the end of 2019 the majority of migrants/refugees were recognized as belonging to a vulnerable category. In response, and more forcefully from 2018 onwards, a consistent attempt is made by the Syriza government to exclude PTSD from the vulnerability criteria, a process culminating in the 2020 decision by New Democracy to entirely overturn the exemption from forced return that vulnerability status endured.

Until these changes were implemented, and for those who fell short of this exemption, the so-called “border procedure” would be initiated, again handled by GAS but with the assistance of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and tasked with determining admissibility status. Once again, in accordance with the spirit of the EU-Turkey deal, and by establishing procedures that received tremendous criticism from human rights organisations,13 first instance decisions were overwhelmingly negative.

Nonetheless, and considering that an unavoidable element of legal procedures that deserve the name necessitates a second instance ruling, the rejected cases from both GAS and EASO would be examined by the so-called “Backlog Committees.” Established to clear the backlog of cases that the previous asylum system (managed by the “Aliens Division” of the police) had left pending, the composition of these three-person committees included one member recommended by the UNHCR and another from the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). Not without irony, it was the EU itself that had forced the creation of these Appeals Committees back in 2010, in light of the fact that until that moment, the process of appeal carried an administrative cost that burdened the applicant, a profoundly illegal and shameful practice.

Not dominated by state officials who were expected to implement government/EU policy, and with the necessary legal knowledge and experience to follow the Asylum Procedures Directive, the Backlog Committees managed to throw a cog into the wheel of the EU-Turkey deal simply by following the letter of the law (case-by-case examination and careful examination of the legal issues) and not its spirit (mass returns). Of the 393 decisions that the Backlog Committees issued, 390 rejected the first instance inadmissibility decisions, directly challenging the notion that Turkey is a “safe third country.”14 The Syriza government responded by initially slandering the committees and eventually transferring jurisdiction to the Appeals Authority, naming the new organ “Independent Appeals Committees” to add insult to injury. Given that the composition of the new committees gave a majority vote to the two state-appointed judges, a complete reversal of the admissibility decisions followed suit. Shortly after, and confident that these obstacles were overcome, Greek authorities and the EU started applying pressure to remove the vulnerability groups from exemption.

A collapsing deal

Although coined “a temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order”15, it should be clear by now that the EU-Turkey deal was neither temporary nor concerned with ending suffering. But how successful was it in its underlying aims of reducing irregular crossings and redirecting migrants/refugees to Turkey?

One look at official statistics shows that, so far, the deal has more or less failed. The total number of migrants/refugees who have been “returned” to Turkey from March 2016 until December 2019 is barely over 2,000. The reasons are a combination of the unavoidable lengthy procedures of decision making, the chronic understaffing of the organizations responsible, together with the existence of established and inalienable rights that could not be circumvented despite political pressure.

At first sight, the only real success of the deal has been the reduction of irregular crossings, which did in fact decelerate in the months after the deal (having reached an overall high of 173,450 people in 2016), reaching the lowest point in 2017 (at 29,718 crossings). But these figures represent the Greek borders. In reality, the EU-Turkey deal forced migrants/refugees to seek alternative (and more dangerous) routes, increasing the number (and death toll) in the Mediterranean and the Italian route with approximately 120,000 recorded arrivals in 2016. As for Greece, the numbers picked up again in 2018 (with more than 50,000 officially recorded to have made it there), adding a further 50 percent increase in 2019 with 75,000 crossings.

What these numbers indicate, then, especially when compared with the last decade (and not simply the exceptional 2015 summer), is that the movement of people towards Europe has remained constant, with peaks reported mostly in response to changes in the very countries from which migrants/refugees flee. Thus, for example, the escalation of war and violence in Syria and Afghanistan in 2019 definitely played a key role, while the “deterioration of the Turkish economy in the same period (with the GDP of Turkey growing only at a rate of 0.3% according to the estimation of the European Council), … led to a significant increase of arrivals.”16 And one should not ignore the effects of the introduction of visa restrictions for Syrian nationals by Turkey in 2016, as well as the completion of the 764 kilometre-long wall along the Syria-Turkey border that was completed in 2018.

La isla bonita

When Syriza lost the election of the summer of 2019 to New Democracy, the incoming government had a lot of difficult issues to wrestle with. It knew, for example, that its promises on the economic field (cutting taxes, increasing spending, and other such fairy tales) would immediately stumble against the automatic fiscal stabilizer that the austerity wave had put in place and the commitment to balanced budgets and fiscal surpluses that the eurozone continues to directly monitor despite the absence of a Memorandum of Agreement. Considering that the Syriza government had proven that it could implement austerity measures even beyond those included in the agreements, the new administration knew better than to risk its relationship with the eurozone, especially as it was presenting itself as more pro-European than Syriza. Little by little, the only option left for a government of the Right was to demonstrate its historical commitment to law and order. In this context, and after a ridiculous but nonetheless resilient promise to “clean up” the anarchist area of Exarhia in the center of Athens, the most obvious topic to focus on was migration. And here, they did deliver.

One of the first laws to be passed by New Democracy in July 2019 was a circular that cut access to the Greek health system for asylum applicants. Alongside, the government announced a series of new measures geared towards the acceleration of the procedures of returning migrants/refugees to Turkey, that included a promise towards the decongestion of the border islands. As noted, numerous obstacles had prevented the proper implementation of mass returns to Turkey. Combined with the rapid increase in the number of new arrivals, the limited amount of housing provided by the UNHCR and other NGOs in mainland Greece,17 and the overall bureaucratic obstacles related to mainland relocations, the situation in the islands was becoming critical. In the camp of Moria alone, situated in Lesvos and designed to “house” 2,600 people, the population had reached 20,000 by the end of 2019, overflowing the camp and forcing its inhabitants to set up impromptu tents in the vicinity. To a certain extent, of course, the authorities had no problem with tolerating such appalling living conditions. If anything, governments around the world make use of such conditions as deterrents for other migrants/refugees, confident that the news travels through the migrants’s/refugees’s own communication networks. At the same time, however, such a high concentration of people in such conditions with malfunctioning safety valves is a ticking bomb.

Contrary to common belief, the promoted spectacle of the Willkommenskultur, visible from Munich all the way to Lesvos during the summer of 2015, mystified the fact that what we saw in those days, however remarkable it was, was not solidarity. At least not in its substantive sense. It was not, as a commentator noted recently, “solidarity towards people who wanted to remain and integrate in the local community, it was ‘solidarity’ towards a transit population, hastily making their way through the islands and the national territory on their way to northern Europe.”18 Having said that, the most difficult question cannot be avoided: could it have been different? In some ways, after all, the impromptu and temporary character of the real help provided at the time corresponded to the desires of the migrants themselves. There is little doubt that when most of them embarked in that dangerous journey to avoid war, violence, and police brutality, hardly anyone considered Lesvos or Chios to be their final destination. Considering the poor state of the economy in Greece and the clear lack of infrastructural support, it is only logical that migrants/refugees would prefer to continue towards places where more (or the hope of more) opportunities existed.

Before such questions could be asked and answered, however, the EU-Turkey deal destroyed both the wishes of the migrants/refugees and the material basis for the “solidarity” that was offered, making it clear to all that there was nothing temporary about the new situation. This creeping realisation was significant in shifting the dynamic in the islands, eventually settling the question of whether real solidarity could have any potential. But before the answer arrived in its full negative form, some time passed. Among other reasons for this delay was the simple fact that if the stranding of migrants/refugees was seen as a problem for some, it was also an opportunity for others.

The explosion point of contradictions

If tourism is a key source of revenue for Greek islands, the ones located in the northern part of the Aegean have never had a significant share of that industry. Longer travel hours and less frequent services, as well as less stable weather conditions, already made it difficult to attract foreign visitors or to extend the tourist season. In fact, most of the islands in the north Aegean remain tourist destinations for Greeks, many of whom maintain family relations in the islands. The far less developed hotel services, few and far apart, offer further testimony to this reality. Considering that the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent economic crisis in Greece after 2010 had already caused a massive shock in the tourist industry overall, islands like Lesvos or Samos were harder hit. The biggest slowdown occurred between 2010 and 2012, but even the subsequent increase in tourist numbers did little to restore revenue, as most new arrivals took advantage of packaged holidays and tour operators, which reduce profits and are rarely directed to islands with less developed tourist industries and smaller hotels.

In this predicament, the opportunities that the “migration management” policy brought were not negligible. Only the arrival of NGOs and the needs of their numerous employees and volunteers in terms of housing, food, and transport gave a significant boost to the local economy. When one adds the thousands of migrants/refugees who would also spend a significant part of the benefits provided by the UNHCR (90 euros per person, up to 290 per family each month) locally, a different angle from the usual depictions is illuminated. This is not to imply, of course, that the situation was a long-term alternative. Those involved in sectors and services that did not intersect with the presence of the NGO/migrant/refugee complex were left outside of the loop and grievances started to emerge. Even so, and especially in Lesvos, racist incidents and protests were kept at a low level during the first years, a fact also related to the vocal antifascist scene and the existence of a university in the main town of Mytilene, whose numerous students proved less prone to reactionary positions.

This was not, however, the case in the island of Chios. There, already in November 2016, and after a visit to the island by two members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, who called for immediate deportations, a mob of misanthropic scum attacked the Souda camp from the vantage point of a residential area right above it. Large rocks and petrol bombs were thrown at people living in tents, leading a woman to have a miscarriage and injuring many others, while the fire that started destroyed people’s possessions. The police response, as would become a pattern in the next years, was to arrest three migrants.

If the economic consequences of the forced presence of migrants/refugees in the hotspots remained an conflicting topic for locals, mostly depending on one’s relation to the generated incomes, tensions in the islands were further raised whenever migrants/refugees would engage in their own protests against the inhuman conditions of their captivity and the delayed process of their cases, events that took place with admirable persistence. Primarily focused on their demand to be transferred to better facilities in the mainland—a painstakingly slow process made worse by the short supply of UNHCR-provided residencies, bureaucratic obstacles, and the whims of the Asylum Service19—migrants/refugees would descend to the island’s ports and attempt to occupy them. From 2017 onwards, as it was becoming clear that the authorities were incapable (or unwilling) to speed up the process of either transferring them to the mainland or sending them back to Turkey, local reactions to these protests became increasingly more organized and more racist.

In April of 2018, for example, a similar occupation protest by migrants/refugees in the port of Lesvos met a counter-demonstration, orchestrated by local fascists and a developing web of relations these thugs were building with local police and right-wing politicians, who saw in these expressions a chance to criticize the Syriza government and win votes. The result was a veritable pogrom, where the local fascists threw rocks and fireworks at the migrants/refugees and those who stood in solidarity with them, resulting in dozens of injuries and beatings. The police, once again, responded by arresting migrants.

In the aftermath of such events, a new pattern started to develop. If grievances until that point had mostly been presented as being “against policies, not people,” the spewing of hate that these fascists generated, in collaboration with local authorities, changed the atmosphere. Gradually, the fact that there was no inherent contradiction between what locals, migrants/refugees, and those in solidarity demanded (the decongestion of the camps and the increased transfers to the mainland), and even though those responsible for not meeting such demands were neither locals nor migrants/refugees, the discourse and actions of a small but effective group of fascists dominated. By 2019, the voices of a minority of the population became rallying points, eventually producing a complete reversal of perspective under the widespread and seemingly benign slogan “save our islands,” a discourse that did a lot to erase the fact that it was migrants and refugees who faced the biggest problems.

When, for example, farmers who lived close to the Moria camp complained that their olive trees were being cut down or their animals stolen and eaten, one can accept that there is something reasonable about the frustration. From a different perspective, however, and one that takes into consideration the underlying reasons for such actions, a separate reality emerges. The harsh reality was that migrants/refugees were (deliberately, one might add) left with no other options: When one is forced to spend the cold winter nights in a makeshift tent without any heating whatsoever, it is only logical to chop down trees and use the wood to build a fire. And when feeding yourself and your family means standing in line for three hours to get a bowl of lentils and rice, protecting the neighbours’ chickens or pigs loses its moral imperative. And rightly so. But when a local stockbreeder decided to shoot at two Afghani men last year, the atmosphere was already different: In the ensuing trial, he was defended by two lawyers known for their racist positions and Golden Dawn sympathies, who would later rise to key positions within the municipal and local governments, while a crowd of “sympathizers” accompanied him to court.

Closed prisons, open conflicts

A pivotal moment that brings us back to the March 2020 events was directly related to another part of New Democracy’s new “migration policy,” i.e. the decongestion of existing camps by creating new closed ones. Taking their cue from the way a Syriza minister had justified the suggestion some years before, the proclaimed “benefit” of such facilities was that it allowed for closer surveillance and disciplining of the migrants before, during, and after their asylum cases have been examined. But if Syriza had refrained from implementing such plans, New Democracy now felt forced to proceed. Among other considerations, they were guided by the assumption that their “law and order” approach and their supposed swift “solutions” to the question of migration enjoyed wide support from the local population, which had just voted in New Democracy members to the local governments. What actually ensued, however, put an end to all such wishful thinking.

Although it appears to be the case that the mobilizations against the closed prisons were called by groups and organizations that framed their rejection in terms of a certain solidarity to migrants (the main slogans were “no prisons here on the island or elsewhere”) through the rejection of imprisonment itself, the actual composition of those who participated transformed this somewhat abstract call into something scarily more concrete, that landed squarely under the “save our islands” banner that local politicians had been sewing for some time. In this context, the violent clashes between a huge part of the local population of both Chios and Lesvos and the riot police sent from Athens (who appeared as an occupation force by disembarking from their boats in a military parade in full gear) did nothing to strengthen any sense of solidarity towards migrants. Instead, it reinforced the notion that there is a collective “we” in the islands that has been suffering for years from a situation that nobody, and especially the central government, does not understand or care about. Creating this false opposition between the “local community” (and its self-portrayal as almost having more serious problems than migrants/refugees) and the central authorities even allowed for the smoothing over of what would have been an expected consequence, i.e. a dramatic rift between the local governments (affiliated with New Democracy and, therefore, with the new prison plans) and the islands’ population. Instead, sensing that the situation was explosive, local and municipal leaders decided at a critical moment to side with their voters and to openly defy the Athens-based government . This timely shift further embedded the nurtured extreme right rhetoric, leading to an eventual translation of the “uprising” as an act of local defiance and a symbol of autonomous existence which included the local fascists and their friends in high places. Weaponizing this mythical “autonomy,” the local population imagined itself united against all outside interference. Their ability to defeat the riot cops and force a humiliated government to withdraw its forces back to Athens, directly empowered a significant amount of people who “celebrated” this victory by turning their attention towards the remaining elements that were situated outside this newly-invigorated sense of community: migrants/refugees and those who help them.

The worst month ever

Erdogan’s announcement of opening the borders, and the militarized response of Greece/EU, came a few days after this “victory.” The overall climate could not have been worse: feeling as protagonists (instead of ignored, as was the expressed sentiment), a significant part of the local population hungrily inhaled and repurposed the combination of a nationalist revival against Turkey that enjoyed the full backing of the EU and a new sense of purpose which fused the “save our islands” rhetoric with the “defence of Europe’s borders.” Any potential of joining forces with migrants/refugees who did, after all, also request their evacuation from the horrid camps, disappeared. Instead, large swaths of the local population in Lesvos and Chios resorted to the exact opposite: setting up roadblocks across the islands, stopping and terrorizing any migrants who dared leave their camps, assaulting and beating NGO members. And they did so with the open participation and support of the local authorities, who often provided municipal vehicles to form barricades and policemen to man them. Around Evros, the situation escalated even more. There, local vigilantes from “hunters’ associations” and other fascist elements created patrols who took it upon themselves to supplement (or, quite often, take the place of) official military deployments to “guard the borders from the invasion.” Golden Dawn members recognized the potential and hurried to show their support, a form of “solidarity” quickly picked up by European Nazis who organized (mainly) propaganda excursions on “Europe’s borders.” Catching many by surprise and with accelerated speed, March 2020 saw the appearance of a misanthropic choir with extreme-right ideology as its conductor uniting the voices of Orbán, neo-Nazis, Greece, and the EU’s official policies.

If the EU has no problem allowing the illegal and racist treatment of migrants/refugees in Turkey and Libya, or even inside EU countries but away from the spotlight, their inability to keep such developments below the radar forced them to react. Among other considerations, this collaboration between official authorities and organized vigilantes started to create issues of legitimacy and discipline. There is no doubt that Germany’s purported image of strength during the March crisis was undermined by stories of German neo-Nazis roaming the Greek borders, while the actions of vigilantes in Evros risked causing even more serious episodes that could potentially sabotage diplomatic paths. The problem was never, to be sure, the activities of vigilantes towards migrants. The reported cases of abuse, torture, theft, beatings, or even murder could be absorbed within the overall narrative of “illegal crossings” and “border defence.” But the mounting incidents of uncontrollable behaviors started to weaken the image of an efficient and bureaucratic European force. Local vigilante patrols beating up BBC journalists, or shooting at policemen that were mistaken for migrants was surely not the kind of news that Merkel would like to see reported from the frontline. Even more, those nationalist vigilantes appeared so empowered by the situation that they did not refrain from occasionally attacking Turkish army posts along the border. The potential of such stupidity to develop into a complete breakdown of relations with Turkey surely raised some eyebrows in Brussels and Berlin.

New Democracy reluctantly conceded. After a few days of uncertainty and of claiming that vigilante activity in the borders was “fake news,” the necessary refashioning of the organized state as the only acceptable mediation started to take shape. Foreign fascists from the Identitarian movement found in Evros were arrested and deported, while the Greek military command ordered the local militias to hand over their weapons and stop patrolling. Local counter-reactions in the islands also played a role. In Lesvos, for example, a group of German/Austrian neo-Nazis made frontpage news after getting a well-deserved beating by local antifa, followed by further news of such attacks against an Irish fascist YouTuber. In any case, and notwithstanding the well documented stupidity of fascists, the image of German neo-Nazis “defending” a Greek island proved rather counter-productive. Even their local fascist contacts who had invited them in the first place were forced to feign hostility.

Having said that, the official disciplining of parastate activities functions primarily as a means of appeasing those liberal voices who, though perfectly at ease with the institutionalized repression of Frontex, will frown with disapproval when such actions are carried out outside the official realm of the state. For if one took away the inappropriate spectacle of the fascists who hurried to “defend” the borders, what was left was no less despicable. One should not forget, for example, that among the official actions taken during the March 2020 events was a decision issued by the Greek Army to suspend the right to apply for asylum for one month for all new arrivals, a decision in outright violation of European and international law.20 Given the momentum that was building, one can well imagine that the situation would have escalated even more, had it not been for a development that no one saw coming: the coronavirus.

Migration in the age of COVID-19

The acceleration of events and of historical time forbids any speculation about how the situation will develop from now on, but existing signs are far from reassuring. On the one hand, accustomed to propagating the racist trope that they represent a “hygienic bomb,” local fascists tried to turn the creeping panic of the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic against migrants/refugees. The potential exploitation of such a narrative in the likely event of the detection of coronavirus cases inside the camps (which consistently lack water, soap, and adequate food and hygiene provisions) brought shivers down the spines of those detained there and those who stood in solidarity outside.21 On top of that, the attacks that had occurred against NGO employees in previous weeks had activated the security protocols of their organizations, who had suspended their work in the camps, a crucial part of which relates to health services.

The fact that there has only been one recorded case of COVID-19 on the island (so far), involving a Greek woman who had returned from a religious visit to Palestine, has somewhat undermined the racist approach to the coronavirus crisis, while the imposed lockdown has also cancelled any potential anti-migrant protests that could occur. But the repressive mechanism of the Greek state continues its work. Instead of organising the immediate transfer of migrants/refugees to safer and healthier locations in the mainland, a self-evident and mandatory action (supported even by one of the architects of the EU-Turkey deal, Gerald Knaus22), or following the example of the Portuguese state which granted full citizenship rights (alas, temporarily) to all asylum applicants in order to gain access to the country’s health system,23 the Greek state demonstrated once again its racist contempt. Migrants/refugees have been forbidden from leaving their camps, while those caught outside in search of food have been penalized with hefty fines by the police. Fines which, as the Minister of Migration unashamedly declared, will be directly taken from the minimal benefits migrants/refugees receive from the UNHCR.

  1. Mike Davis, “Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics”, interviewed by Daniel Denvir. The Dig, Jacobin, March 20, 2020, audio, 1:58:25,
  2. For further analysis on the strategy, see Sonja Buckel, “Welcome Management: Making Sense of the “Summer of Migration”, interviewed by William Callison, Near Futures Online, January 5, 2016,
  3. “We don't know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans.” from “Gaddafi wants EU cash to stop African migrnats,” BBC, August 31, 2010,
  4. Sonja Buckel, ibid.
  5. One of these tropes concerned the oft-repeated claim that, during the March 2020 crisis, migrants/refugees were “used as pawns for geopolitical interests,” a seemingly descriptive comment that was even meant as a critique of the powers that be, and therefore was adopted by many on the left too. Deprived of their agency, the horrific reality of the experiences of migrants/refugees in Turkey gets side-lined, while their constant attempts to escape this hell (in increasing numbers since last year) are also disregarded. What remains is an image of passive subjects whose fates depend entirely on the decisions of the various gangsters who gamble with their lives, unable to think, decide or move on their own.
  6. It is possible to trace the intellectual inspiration for the EU-Turkey deal in a forgotten suggestion by the Slovenian government in early 2016 to make “an amendment to the new International Protection Act [that] would declare all asylum applications automatically inadmissible if the applicant had entered Slovenia through another EU country.” Given that Slovenia only borders with EU members, the amendment would automatically make all applications inadmissible. (Bodo Webber, The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal and the Not Quite Closed Balkan Route,” Friedrich Ebert Stifftung, June 2017,
  7. “EU-Turkey Statement 18 March 2016,” European Council, March 18, 2016,
  8. “Greece: a blueprint for despair: Human Rights Impact of the EU-Turkey Deal,” Amnesty International, 2017,
  9. “To bypass this challenge, the European Commission (2016a) released an official Communication that allows a so-called safe third country a certain leeway to develop standards of protection that reflect the Geneva stipulations ‘in principle’.” Lisa Haferlach and Dilek Kurban, “Lessons Learnt from the EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement in Guiding EU Migration Partnerships with Origin and Transit Countries,” Global Policy 8, no. 4, June 29, 2017,
  10. “Lack of a permanent residence permit impacts all aspects of everyday life: access to legal housing, the education system, jobs or opening a business. In January 2016, the Turkish government started to issue work permits to Syrian refugees who have been in Turkey for more than six months. Its impact has been rather limited, however, as employers have to apply on behalf of employees once residency, registration and health requirements are met. An employment quota also applies: Syrians cannot exceed 10 percent of the Turkish citizens employed in the same workplace. Only 13,298 refugees had been granted a work permit by the end of 2016, which amounts to 0.5 percent of the Syrian refugee population. Although employers are supposed to pay the legal minimum wage (1,300 Turkish lira, around €400) and social security contributions, salaries to refugees are generally lower and the work hours usually over the legal daily limit.” Laura Batalla Adam, “The Eu-Turkey Deal One Year On: A Delicate Balancing Act,” The International Spectator 52, no. 4, 44-58.
  11. Kim Rygiel, Feyzi Baban, and Suzan Ilcan, “The Syrian Refugee Crisis: The EU-Turkey ‘deal’ and temporary protection,” Global Social Policy 16, no. 3, 2016,
  12. An interesting aspect of the summer of 2015 was that the magnitude of the movement was such that it effectively rendered obsolete (if not destroyed) existing smuggling and trafficking networks, perhaps for the first time ever. After the official closure of the Aegean and Balkan route, these networks reappeared. “While irregular migration has clearly diminished since April 6, 2016, it is still substantial. What has changed is the way refugees and migrants transit along the Balkan route, shifting back to more traditional ways of irregular movement based on the use of smuggling networks – as had been the case prior to the European refugee crisis.” Bodo Weber, ibid.
  13. “The interview process is particularly worrisome. Several stakeholders expressed concern about the level of training and expertise of EASO caseworkers conducting interviews, as well as their understanding of procedures. The IRC, the NRC, and Oxfam received reports and saw transcripts from interviews illustrating that caseworkers lacked the necessary understanding of asylum procedures, the basics of the armed conflict in Syria, and the political dynamics in Turkey to assess a claim for international protection or recognize a well-founded fear of being returned. Due to this lack of understanding, as one lawyer put it: ‘the minute an applicant undergoing an admissibility interview utters a word about Syria, they are stopped by the caseworker and told that the interview has nothing to do with Syria, even if in fact it does.’ We also received reports of translations that were evidently wrong.” International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, and Oxfam, “The Reality of the EU-Turkey Statement,” Joint Agency Briefing Note, March 17, 2017,
  14. “According to an EU source, the first decision by the backlog committees that said Turkey is not a safe country created a major upset in Brussels and in other EU capitals, prompting fears that the EU-Turkey deal could unravel. ‘They are seen as the enemy of the deal,’ the source added.” Eszter Zalan, “EU pushes Greece to set up new asylum committees,” EU Observer, June 15, 2016,
  15. European Council 2016, ibid.
  16. Cavalcanti, Tentative notes on the reactionary developments around immigration, refugees and the border regime of the European Union,” Antithesi, March 9, 2020,
  17. The UNHCR runs a program of relocation for moving migrants/refugees (especially vulnerable categories) from the detention centres of the islands to the mainland. The number of apartments/houses on offer is, however, more or less constant for the last years, oscillating at around 20,000. Once asylum applications have reached their final stage, the migrants/refugees occupying the houses are forced to evacuate them.
  18. Psimitis Michalis, “The development of the ‘migration question’ in Lesvos: from the ‘popular uprising’ to the dominance of extreme right ideology,” Αυγή newspaper, March 9, 2020 (only in Greek).
  19. As an indication: whenever the Asylum Service of Athens felt that the number of cases to be processed was increasing beyond their capacity or will, they would delay the transfer of migrants/refugees to the island.
  20. Once again, however, legal precedents for such actions already existed. In 2017 Slovenia had passed an amendment to its “Alien Act’ giving the government “the power to declare a threat to “public order and security” and suspend the right to asylum for six months by denying asylum-seekers entry and automatically expelling those who entered irregularly”. Weber ibid.
  21. Similar events in the past demonstrate the danger. “In November 2016, a protest escalated [in Bulgaria] into what was the most serious riot so far, resulting in a massive, violent police intervention and the detention of 400 asylum-seekers. The protest was prompted by a decision by the State Agency for Refugees to impose a quarantine on the camp because of the alleged spread of an epidemic, even though Bulgaria’s Chief Health Inspector categorically denied the rumor as unfounded. Domestic human rights groups accused far-right groups of spreading the rumor. Nevertheless, the government decided to turn several camps into closed ones, thus risking violation of international and EU law that sets very strict conditions for detaining asylum seekers.” Weber ibid.
  22. John Dalhuisen and Gerald Knaus, “The fight against Corona: evacuate the Greek Islands – Now!”, ESI, March 26, 2020,
  23. “Portugal Grants Migrants and Asylum Seekers Full Citizenship Rights During COVID-19 Outbreak,” Schengen Visa Info, April 2, 2020,


Pavlos Roufos

Pavlos Roufos lives and writes in Berlin. His book, A Happy Future is a Thing of the Past, was published by Reaktion Books last year in the Field Notes series.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues