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Refugees: The New Greek Odyssey

Camille Coletta
Jeff Bate Boerop

Though the migrant crisis is no longer in the news, thousands remain stranded on the Greek islands in a state of total uncertainty.

A Syrian refugee cries shortly after arriving on an inflatable boat with other refugees from Turkey to Lesbos in March 2016. Conditions on the island remain abysmal for refugees today. Alexander Koerner / Getty Images

The forced exile of Ulysses, King of Ithaca, from his island and his family is perhaps one of the most emblematic narratives of Western literature. It is one of the deepest expressions of the feelings of exile and homesickness, and of the pain caused by the impossibility of return.

If this epic has reverberated so strongly in the minds of European peoples, it is perhaps because Europe has been the scene of immense wars and conflicts that have made this exile a collective experience that is difficult to erase from memory. However, if Homer’s story still speaks to us today, it is probably less for those people living in Europe than for those washing up on its shores.

The images of exile that come to our minds today are not the thousands of dissidents, Jews and resistance fighters fleeing on the roads from the expansion of German Lebensraum, but rather the ceaseless arrival of thousands of refugees to the Greek islands on inflatable rafts. We may also quite clearly imagine the piles of life jackets — which we could until recently “visit” near the village of Molyvos — paradoxically more evocative of a contemporary art exhibit than of a human drama still in progress.

Yet these images, playing in a loop on television screens, have now given way to a silence, an expectation of something that never arrives. If before these islands were merely a transit point for massive arrivals of asylum seekers, since the agreement was signed between the European Union and Turkey, they have become places where these people remain “stuck” in a procedural morass.

The declaration was signed on March 18, 2016. Its objective was clear: to stop the arrival of migrants from Turkey to Greece. Turkey, which already receives more than three million refugees, is considered a safe country and the EU has spent three billion euros in order to manage the humanitarian aid. In return, Turkey can renegotiate its admission to the EU and benefit from an easing of the obligations on Turkish citizens wishing to live in Europe.

The heart of the act is that any asylum seeker whose request is found inadmissible in Greece will be sent back to Turkey. Thus if asylum seekers are stuck on the islands, it is because if they are moved to the mainland, they can no longer be sent back to Turkey. Their registration as well as their admission (and the eventual return to Turkey of those who are not let in) must be done on the island where they arrived by boat.

The “Detention” of Asylum

The extremely difficult living conditions are made all the worse by the situation of almost total uncertainty: asylum seekers have no control over their future.

The most difficult thing for some of them is not knowing how long they will spend in Moria, the main camp on the island of Lesbos. It is a “lost time,” a time of uncertainty and waiting. In effect, the legal spaces in which the migrants are stranded are spaces of uncertainty, where information is always surrounded by indeterminacy about the future, comparable to the experience of time in carceral spaces.

Though asylum seekers are not “detainees” in the proper sense, the regime of their immobilization has practically all the same characteristics. At a legal level, it is common to meet refugees who do not know that they have a right to free legal assistance, or that after their second refusal they have ten days to file an appeal. The legal organizations giving aid to asylum seekers are completely overwhelmed and since most of them depend on volunteers, they are unable to do any long-term follow-up on their files.

Some asylum-seekers have had their lawyer change after a few weeks or no longer know who is in charge of their file. Every week, the leaders of the different communities point out these many problems, which the authorities are aware of, but without any change in sight.

If Moria is regularly depicted in carceral terms, it is a prison of a particular kind. A former military base on the island of Lesbos, it was transformed into a hotspot for provisionally receiving asylum seekers in 2015. The camp has a capacity of 2,300 places, but by December 2017 there were more than 7,000 people (two thirds being women and children mainly coming from Iraq and Syria) living inside the barbed wire and the enormous metal gates such as one sees at the entrances to prisons.

In this case, however, it is not so much those on the inside that are prevented from leaving, but rather outside eyes from seeing in.

While the refugees have the right to walk freely around the island, it is almost impossible for a citizen to observe the camp from the inside. In essence, the system seems to be in large part directed against this outside gaze. Police are at every entrance and identity checks take place systematically. Entry is consequently impossible for a mere volunteer.

As for the press or the well-known humanitarian organizations, they will eventually get access only after requesting in advance special authorization from the camp authorities. This difficulty has no reasonable justification aside from the less admirable one of keeping the appalling living conditions inside the camps from being brought to light. The very existence of these camps, and the extent of them inside the European Union, is an obvious embarrassment.

Appalling Living Conditions

In the Geneva Convention, the dignity of all asylum-seekers is supposed to be respected. Given the overcrowding in the camp (7,000 people in a camp meant to hold only 2,300), many people, having no space in the containers, sleep in small summer tents. With the rain, these tents are quickly soaked through. Likewise, the three thousand people living in these conditions find no protection from the winter.

Every night in Moria, there are confrontations between different groups. Families fear for their children, they cannot sleep and do not dare go outside for fear of finding themselves in the middle of an altercation. The toilets are in a barely describable state, there is no running water, they are not cleaned regularly and there are certainly not enough of them (after all, they were only intended for 2,300 people). The women are afraid to go to them after dark.

“I’m afraid of getting raped,” confided a woman of Afghan origin.

There is no light around the toilets and it is often near the sanitary facilities that sexual assaults occur. Since then, one organization decided to give out diapers so that women would not have to leave their tents at night. This hardly dignifying or even adequate measure reflects the makeshift economy that rules the camp and the totally useless suffering that it generates. Why not increase the number of toilets and showers, and station guards or the police around the sanitary facilities instead of at the camp entrances? If uncertainty, arbitrary procedures and the fear of deportation constitute the core characteristics of this particular regime of detention, it is the little unseen humiliations that create its everyday experience.

Walking through the camp, you regularly hear mumblings of “Moria no good.” The inhabitants must fight for everything: drinking water, food, warm clothing, finding a lawyer, sleeping somewhere other than in the tents, and afterwards, leaving Moria to go to the surrounding towns. A visit to the doctor is a real struggle for adults, as lines form at 5 A.M., and only certain serious cases are seen. There is not enough food for the asylum-seekers, who must on average line up for an hour for their meals.

Water is scarce: there is only running water for two to three hours a day. When they go to the toilets, people have to take bottles of water with them in order to flush the toilets manually. Beside the toilets there are huge piles of empty water bottles, remnants of the deplorable conditions into which they have been thrown. Garbage collection is spotty, and stench and filth overwhelm you as you approach the camp. In the last few months, over 40 percent of arrivals were families with children who do not even have access to schooling (contrary to the Declaration of the Rights of the Child).

“Moria is making me sick,” related one asylum-seeker. “I came to request international protection and I was in good health. But after just a few days you start to feel ill here. This camp is hell. This camp drives you mad.”

Mental health problems here are not only the product of often difficult and traumatic experiences, but also of the camp itself. The precariousness into which these people have been thrown necessarily has consequences for their mental health (stress, fatigue, etc.) and physical health (sleeping on the ground in the cold without adequate winter clothing). The fact that they do not feel safe, that they have no activity available to them, and that they see no future for themselves, makes them even more vulnerable.

Vulnerabilities — the only means of access to the rest of Greece
All asylum seekers arriving in Greece must, after registering with the police, undergo a medical interview in which the person may be found to be “vulnerable.” There are seven criteria of vulnerability, but this screening is unsound and many people are not found to be vulnerable when in reality there are.

“This interview was very fast and I did not dare speak about the torture I suffered in my country,” confided one Congolese person. “I thought it was better to hide the fact that I was sick as I was scared of being sent back home,” related a man from Iraq. “I had been the victim of several rapes in Cameroon, and also in Turkey where I spent several months, but how could I confide that at the medical appointment in front of a male doctor?” explained one young woman.

Doctors Without Borders announced in its latest report on the mental health of asylum seekers in Lesbos that only a third of survivors of sexual violence had been identified as vulnerable persons. The uncertainty of people’s conditions, the criteria and the approaches contribute to a willingness to limit positive responses.

Furthermore, we might question the use of the criterion of “vulnerability.” Institutions, in arbitrarily identifying these vulnerabilities as a “means of reaching the Greek mainland”, have given them an existence in the public realm. Here again, “humanitarian reasons” are brought to the fore, and the right of asylum is pushed into the background. Those who “suffer” one of the seven vulnerabilities are thus “more important” than those whose lives are threatened in their country of origin. In order to reach the European mainland it is indispensable to show that they are really suffering, and the pain must stand out in their story.

The “good” refugee is the one who has “really” suffered. They must therefore act the part and sell their story, which must be as terrible as possible. These procedures thus distort all interaction between asylum seekers, who must confess their suffering, and the institutions, which must evaluate the sincerity of the confession.

Therefore, as Didier Fassin remarks, this “recognition of the other through suffering, misfortune, body, and survival, supplants citizen rights.” Rather than human rights, we have now only the rights of those who suffer.

This assigns refugees to a position of “victims,” of “petitioners” who must show their wounds in order to get access to the mainland. If humans have an immense capacity for survival and to recover from traumatic events, should we not then inquire about the consequences of the constant injunction on asylum seekers to present themselves as victims? What self-image can men and women have who must beg and display every part of their suffering as testimony to their sincerity? We are very far from the Geneva Convention and from justice for asylum seekers.

The Privatization of Public Action

Ultimately, one of the most obvious questions we are entitled to ask is about the causes of such a failure of public action. How it possible not to be able to manage 8,500 asylum seekers? It is no longer five thousand people arriving every day, but rather a hundred arrivals per week on average for a few months. Is it really impossible to receive these asylum seekers in conditions worthy of the name?

In Moria, many organizations are struggling to meet the needs of the asylum seekers. If before they were receiving funds from the European Union (ECHO), these funds have been spent and a number of NGO’s have had to leave the island or reduce their workforces. Inside the camp, the inhabitants do not know who does what. The organizations themselves are overrun and are trying to send their aid recipients from one organization to another in the hopes they will find what they want somewhere, always with greater fatigue and resignation.

In late December 2017, the Greek state, through the funds granted to it by Europe, was supposed to assume all responsibilities and begin operations on the islands. Unfortunately, many organizations today still have a presence on the islands and continue to do as best they can in the absence of the state. But is it not up to Greece and the European Union to manage the reception of the asylum seekers?

On the ground, we see that the national health system (KEELPNO), which is funded and should be fully able to manage caring for the refugees, is overwhelmed and incapable of meeting their needs. This confusion and this difficulty in pointing out who is responsible (who is responsible for what?) not only make protest and action by the refugees more complex, but also make the organizations’ work on the ground more difficult. Each organization shifts the blame to the other in a bureaucratic symphony. We are told by the Greek officials that “UNHCR is in charge of such-and-such a problem,” and UNHCR says the opposite.

For a Politics of Rights

It will soon be more than three years since this crisis began. In order to allow for decent living conditions, the most obvious solution would be to send all asylum seekers to the mainland so that they might have access to healthcare, legal aid, and housing.
Their situation is not the result of chance; the hidden intent of our institutions is to make refugees understand in a roundabout way that they are not welcome. That crossing the sea, at the peril of their lives and their children’s lives, will not be enough to grant them a decent welcome. Here again, the politicians think that by trampling the right to asylum, refugees will transmit the message to their families and friends not to come to Europe.

This does not take into account the fact that their countries were destroyed (for some by interventions initiated by EU countries), and that fleeing is the only solution for their survival. Thus, as hard and as inhuman as the policies may be, they will never prevent these families from reaching European lands.

A real relocation policy ought to be applied in every European country. The influx of asylum seekers should not have to be managed by Greece (and Italy) alone; significant quotas should be implemented in every country. As for the question of how to raise awareness of the problem, it is fundamental not to expect anything more from people’s compassion. Since the photo of little Aylan, the three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish descent whose lifeless body washed up on the shore of Turkey, nothing any longer shocks European citizens.

As Didier Fassin emphasizes, “compassion fatigue” has led to an indifference towards the situation of asylum seekers. This, and the more general tendency over the past few decades to translate social politics in terms of compassion, are in reality part of the problem. As historian and sociologist Gérard Noiriel specified, “it is not because people cry at night because they have seen a refugee child killed that they will open their doors the next day to refugees. The right of asylum is an eminently political notion that engages the sovereignty of the state.”

If refugees are to be assigned the status of victims, it is because states restrict the public debate to its humanitarian dimension, rather than making it an issue of citizenship. It is then the depoliticization of this issue that must now be challenged.