H. Cabot: Immigrants and refugess in Greece. Beyond stereotypes

Heath Cabot. Photo by Isabella frangouli Heath Cabot. Photo by Isabella frangouli
"I believe in the power of the everyday in shaping a lived experience of citizenship and belonging"

Interview of Heath Cabot  to Despina Biri

Heath Cabot  is professor of anthropology at the College of the Atlantic, and a visiting researcher at Panteion University for Social and Political Sciences. She is currently a fellow with the Fulbright Foundation in Greece. Her first book, On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece, was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2014. The book will be presented on Monday, 29 of June, at Floral (Exarcheia Square, Athens),  8 p.m. Speakers:  Heath Cabot, Athena Athanassiou, Giorgos Tsimouris, Adromachi Papaioannou, Yonous Muhammadi.

First of all, who are the asylum seekers in Greece? It seems to me they are often described through stereotypes, but I suspect the reality may be different. Can you tell us a bit about the kinds of people you met?
Indeed, asylum seekers in Greece – as everywhere – are framed frequently in terms of stereotypes. I simply would say that in my fieldwork, I found that asylum seekers are (of course!) people, with all of the complexity, diversity, and ambiguity this implies: that is, funny, aggravated, depressed, joyful, annoying, annoyed, all of the above. In Greece I often hear that migrants and asylum seekers «είναι άνθρωποι σαν εμάς» (are people like us). Usually this implies that “they too” need help, care, sympathy – although this statement STILL underscores the distinction between “us” and “them.” I think that if we really take such a statement seriously, however, this means that we must recognize the enormous diversity of persons and experiences that lie behind that stereotyped image of the asylum seeker.

One stereotype is true, however: asylum seekers in Greece face enormous challenges in terms of policing, lack of access to rights and services that are necessary for mere survival (let alone a good life), and extraordinary precarity. This does not mean, however, that they should be romanticized or idealized; this does not meant that they are simply “victims;” and asylum seekers, like all people, have they own interests, politics, needs, and agency. And if you spend a little time with people who have made applications for asylum the stereotypes very quickly start to fall apart.
In my book, I look very closely at the production of stereotypes, and how decision makers and services providers, as well as asylum seekers themselves, draw on them and use them strategically in the asylum process. Part of what I examine is how the asylum process in Greece (as everywhere, I would say) creates prototypes of who is “deserving” or “in need,” and who is “just an immigrant.” I argue that this distinction, while providing protection for some, results in numerous forms of violence and exclusion.
The new government has overall changed its stance (compared to the previous government) towards refugees and economic migrants. For example, they refuse to use the term "illegal", it has been announced that migrant detention centres will be shut down, migrants can no longer be held for longer than six months, and new structures are being created for unaccompanied minors. What changes do you think may come about as a result of these changes?
This is an important question – though I don’t know if I can reply adequately since we don't yet know how the actions of the current government will play out. Certainly the change in language matters. Language is so close to our everyday experience, and it shapes deeply how people see the world and each other. I have spoken with friends here who are refugees and they have underlined the importance of the change in language regarding asylum/ immigration. They have described it as initiating a wider shift in attitudes toward “foreigners” across diverse sectors of the populace. Language and attitudes seem to have become less violent, at least on the surface of everyday life.
Another major shift has been the ceasing of push-backs in the Aegean, particularly at a moment where so many arrivals are taking place. People have been drowning in the Aegean for years (see the German organization ProAsyl’s work on this, which they began in 2007) as part of systematic, though illegal, practices of the Greek coastguard. Now people may, at the very least, be able to arrive safely on land. The detention of those who arrive must also change or cease altogether, though merely closing detention centers will not take care of things. Access to healthcare, housing, food, and other things necessary for survival must become part of a Greek reception PROCESS (which does not currently exist – though communities and individuals have done extraordinary things).
I also want to recognize the work of lawyers and activists, both here and in Europe more broadly, which was accomplished even under former governments that were less open to concerns around immigration and asylum. There is a new asylum process which, while certainly flawed, is less closed and violent than the former. Asylum has been a terribly difficult issue in Greece for over ten years now, and people have been here, working behind the scenes, across a variety of sectors and political interests, and it is important to recognize this work. Finally, however, whatever any government does in Greece will not work without some kind of true European collaboration regarding migration and asylum, in a way that does not simply marginalize certain member state and outsource the problem to the borders (as the current system does). But I truly do not know if this will be found to be in the interests of the powers that be in the EU – and unfortunately we all know what happens when marginalized border states go against those powers that be....
I think that racist attacks against migrants or, more generally, others, may only be the tip of the iceberg. Here I am referring to what Louis CK calls "mild racism", that is instances of racism that may not be overtly hostile towards "others" but which nonetheless influence our perceptions of people and our interactions with them. How much evidence of that did you come across in your research? 
I am a huge fan of Louis – so glad you brought him into the discussion! Mild racism is everywhere of course (not just in Greece) and it happens across ALL sides of the political spectrum. Where it concerns me most, however, is when antiracism movements themselves participate in “mild racism.” I too find myself participating in such “mild racist” practices as well, even as I try very hard to address them, since racial configurations are bigger than the individual, and are expressed in everyday practices and attitudes that are learned and reinforced by broader social contexts. That is why I believe the only real form of dealing with racism is ongoing self-critique, through which we can unlearn those attitudes and approaches.
Maybe an example will help. What about the active, smart Greek antiracists I met who openly laughed at how “sweet” it was that a group of South Asian migrants “got a little confused” about how to pronounce “papers” in Greek at a protest? And these were migrants who did not have papers, making their coming to speak out and call for papers even more powerful; who cares if they said “hartia” with an accent? Migrants are often described as “poor guys;” why not describe them as complex, active, human beings with diverse voices? I think these kinds of patronizing attitudes are probably the most dangerous forms of mild racism I see now in Greece, particularly among those who work against racism, and I very much hope there will be ongoing efforts toward self critique. I deeply admire the work that people are doing on this front! But we all have to be careful not to fall into the trap of reinforcing the very things we want to fight. I say this to my students (and to myself) all the time.
What is, in your view, the meaning of citizenship in today's Europe? 

I don’t believe that the way in which the European Union and European nation states are configured right now allows for a broader, more complex and inclusive view of citizenship. We have seen not only the increase of extreme racism in all European nation states, but the ongoing marginalization and racialization of the South within Europe. We need radically more inclusive legal mechanisms and political approaches, because those we have are not working. That said, I believe in the power of the everyday in shaping a lived experience of citizenship and belonging.
As people come in contact with those they deem “other” they may change their view of themelves and that “other” just a little bit. We also have also seen how migrant communities in Greece claim rights and demand forms of social recognition and thus participate as active citizens in their communities despite lack of legal recognition. I think these forms of active lived everyday citizenship DO have the power to trickle up so to speak. These are what I focus on in my book: how people create connections and meaningful lives that have powerful, if small, political implications in and through systems that are broken.
You are currently engaged in research on community pharmacies in Greece. There are some who argue that, in health care at least, there is a crucial distinction between citizen and "customer" or "client". Can any lessons be learned from your study of citizenship and exclusion of asylum seekers in relation to solidary structures? 
“Solidarity” has been a crucial response to austerity, and those who participate in  solidarity initiatives explicity frame this as a kind of civic participation that is lateral and inclusive, and thus not based on the traditional notions of hierarchy and insider/outsider explicit in the aid relationship. As an anthropologist I do not seek to “judge” whether solidarity is practiced “as it should be.” But I do see that there are limits to solidarity, even as it does make new forms of community possible. In one solidarity clinic where I am doing fieldwork the volunteers are frequently also beneficiaries; meanwhile, many Greek citizens find themselves without access to basic social rights, navigating not just poverty but extreme marginalization.
 What happens to the meaning of “citizenship” in such a context? In these solidarity initiatives, however, people come in contact with other people who they may never have encountered before, and they work alongside each other to accomplish an urgent task. This generates new forms of sociability and responsibility. That said, migrants have a very small representation in these clinics, though they are seen to be a crucial target group. And many of my field interlocutors have explained to me that no matter what people say, the gap between the one who “offers” and the one who “receives” persists. I can attest through my field data that these roles do persist in the context of solidarity, even as solidarity does create new forms of everyday citizenship. I guess this attests, again, to how citizenship emerges always alongside forms of exclusion – and we must work actively and critically, and self-critically, to address these exclusions as they arise.

First published at "Enthemata" of the newspaper "I Avgi", 28.6.2015