Refugees without asylum, states without reason, societies without illusions

 Some thoughts on the deal of shame between EU-Turkey

Dimosthenis Papadatos-Anagnostopoulos
It only took four months for Wolfgang Schäuble's “sincere” statement regarding the refugees –namely that “They are not desired in Europe”– to become a guideline for the whole of the European Union, at the helm of which, and let us bear this in mind, are neither Marine Le Pen nor Nigel Farage, as yet. It took just four months to dismiss the supposed “war against the peoples' smugglers” doctrine and explicitly acknowledge through the EU-Turkey Agreement, that the aim of the EU is to “put an end to the refugee flows.” And just like that, along with the pretexts, the commitment of the member states to the Geneva Convention and to the New York Protocol,  came to an end: a commitment to a framework of international protection which obliged the Western World to remember what happened in the past to those populations that were regarded as redundant, so that history does not repeat itself.

By no means is the existing framework of international protection an anthem an ideal solution  to the open borders. On the contrary, it excludes the “irregular” immigrants, and by this exclusion, it forces them to confront the consequences of decoupling immigration policy from labour policy, from as far back as the beginning of 2000, leaving  immigrants exposed to the “parallel legality” of mass arrests, refoulements and refugee camps. However, even if it excluded, even if it restricted someone with familiar obstacles when applying for and receiving asylum, this framework covered at least the refugees. Today this protection, and all the historical burden of the World War II behind it, have been canceled. This cancellation was celebrated by the Greek government as a “step forward” and a “diplomatic success”; the same cancellation that the Head of the British department of Amnesty International has hailed as a “dark day for the Geneva Convention, Europe and the mankind,” while UNICEF added that from now on minor refugees and immigrants will be returned to Turkey, where they will face an uncertain future.
No reason: the Pre-announced End to the International Protection

The cancellation of the Geneva Convention is a historical change, a change to a continuity. What I mean to say is that it is not the current “objective” of the refugee “crisis” that annuls the protection of refugees in practice, but the effort of the European states to shake off its “burden” over the years. This effort goes back more than a decade, when the present flows, as well as the economic crisis with which they intersect, could not be possibly have been predicted. 

In March 2003, Tony Blair presented the European partners with a plan for  “improving the management of the refugee flows,” based on two axes: improvement of the protection that refugees receive in countries neighbouring to their country of origin (in any case away from prospering Europe...) and setting up asylum request centres outside the European Union. The project would be financed by the European Commission from July 2003 and its pilot implementation was planned to take place secretly in Croatia, which back then was not a member of the “European family.”

On the same wavelength, out of the 4 billion euros that the EU allocated during the period 2007-2013 to the immigration and refugee policy, about half of it (1,82 billion) was directed to border controls, whereas just 17% went to the support of the asylum procedures. In September 2014, at a time when the bloodshed in Syria had already uprooted millions of people, the British NGO Oxfam maintained that “the rich countries have committed themselves to offer safe haven to 37.432 people, which is 1% out of the 3 million refugees in the neighbouring countries”. In October 2014, when Italy terminated the Mare Nostrum operation, thanks to which more than 150.000 people had been rescued at sea within a year, the Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano stated that the aim of the government was to “entrust the examination of the asylum seekers to outposts of the EU in Africa, where they would assess who is entitled asylum status and who is not.” The Spanish Prime Minister shared the same objective, that is to “externalise” the responsibility for the refugees, seeking ways of rejecting the asylum requests, if possible, before they enter the country by crossing the Moroccan borders.

Last summer indications showed that something was about to change, with a provision that 160.000 refugees from Greece and Italy would be relocated to other EU countries. Out of 160.000 refugees, however, only 937 people were included in this programme.
The End of the Illusion: the Greek Government played a Key Role to putting an End to the Geneva Convention

Let us go back to the EU-Turkey Agreement. A key to the suspension of the right to receive asylum, Liberation points out, is the recognition of Turkey as a safe third country. This is the legal framework, the European Commission has come up with since Wednesday: if someone applies for asylum in Greece, their file will be examined at a certain hot-spot and if it turns out that they came in Greece through Turkey, a safe third country, their request will be rejected. According to, this was a request on the part of the Greek Prime Minister: “we call EASO and the European Commission,” it is stated in the relevant document, “to contribute by submitting reports that confirm that Turkey, as a first country of asylum and as a third country, is safe,” as if the government is clueless of the issues of security in our neighbouring country. As if anyone would be persuaded by the very same chorus we listen to repeatedly after every failure, as we have done already in this case: “if only you knew how much worse things would have been otherwise...”
The Refugee Crisis is Neither Exceptional nor Temporary
All those who scarcely followed the developments of the refugee issue should know that the refugee “crisis,” which was supposed to be solved by the Agreement, is nothing more than the predictable impasse of a European policy focused on managing/ preventing the “unwanted” strangers – an impasse against the equally foreseeable consequences of the lingering bloodshed in the Middle East.

As far as Greece is concerned, the duration and the dimension of the “crisis” could have been predicted from at least mid-2014: the humanitarian crisis in the islands of the North Eastern Aegean Sea and the urgent needs for accommodation and medical treatment, which were brought to light by the hunger strike of the Syrian people in December 2014, had signified the issue. Nevertheless, the EU as well as the Greek governments dealt with it as if it was a temporary phenomenon.

In view of the worsening crisis, which is any case difficult to handle by means of a ruined state apparatus, the present government took some initiative contrary to the misanthropic policy of New Democracy such as prohibiting the refoulements and by abolishing the detention centres. In its second term of office, however, at best it took responsibilities by receiving refugees aiming (in vain) at a certain debt relief, exploiting instrumentally and shortsightedly the humanitarian offer of millions of people all over the country. In the worst case, by denouncing the people who showed their solidarity as “ignorant,” “idealists” or even instigators of illegal actions, the Greek government adjusted to other versions of the European anti-refugee policy: it accepted the militarisation (fences, Frontex, NATO), vehemently argued for the position that “Turkey should receive all the refugees,” and finally opened up the refugee camps, foreshadowing mass refoulements of the “irregular” immigrants. To cut a long story short, not only did it not open the borders, as it was provocatively accused by the right-wing parties, but has already counted more than 300 drowned refugees in the Greek seas.

At the same time, it took no action in order to activate the European Directive 2001/55/EC, for which Syiriza pressed so hard when it was member of the opposition. The Greek Government refused to involve the army to aid with accommodation and feeding efforts, before it finally delegated the whole management of the refugee issue to it. It never occurred to the Greek government to plan ahead for refugee settlements, although the sealing of the Western Balkans’ Route was foreshadowed in several formal documents as far back as October 2015, alluding to the confinement of tens of thousands refugees in the country. Having started from the right position, that the refugee issue is not a national one, but rather a European issue, the government did not think that it should come up with a national plan, apart from fulfilling last minute needs, which were to be covered by the NGOs, as Y. Mouzalas admitted in an interview he gave to SKAI TV. In an effort to balance its role as a guardian and a policeman, the Greek government embraced the assessment that short and long term national planning would weaken the negotiating position of the country against the EU, if it would not be regarded as a signal to the people's smugglers.  Just like that, the deliberate inability of the state apparatus was promoted whereas the negotiating “tool” of the country was exhausted at protecting the national sovereignty of the Aegean Sea, before the well-known eccentricities of the ministers fighting for Macedonia take place.
And now what? (Without illusions)

At the moment the number of refugees in Greece amounts to 46.000. While the Agreement with Turkey is waiting be approved by the Greek parliament, according to the Greek government, Idomeni and the islands are going to be evacuated promptly and the people will be directed to the reception centres. Up to this moment, there is no guarantee about the conditions as well as the stay of the refugees in the country.

While the Greek government is committed only by an agreement that abolishes the right to asylum in a safe country and New Democracy pushes for a fiercer implementation of it, it is urgent that this agreement is put to question. First of all, it should not be ratified by the Greek Parliament. Secondly, the spatial segregation of the refugees should be questioned by the very Greek society; the refugees should come to the cities and to the neighborhoods. The accommodation centres do not constitute a solution for a population, which due to the closed borders has no other possibility than to stay in the country. The fulfillment of the needs of the refugees by NGOs is equally precarious; this condition, which has been encouraged by the European Committee by financing humanitarian organisations instead of the government, consolidates that the state withdraws from critical functions that are addressed to the whole of the Greek society, as well as the refugees. The policy of the intentional inability, as a means of pressure towards the EU, jeopardises people's lives and should be abandoned. In view of a historical regression, the solidarity movement should not be taken for granted; for the time being, however, it is our only counterweight to horror.

Translated by Anastasia Lambropoulou

First published in Greek on k-lab, 21.3.2016.


Reviving or Overcoming Borders: A Choice for Europe

Interview of  Anna Triandafyllidou  to Antonis Galanopoulos
(re-published from  "Green European  Journal")

Over the past year, Europe, besides the economic crisis, has had to face another big challenge: the largest refugee flow since the Second World War. As a result, the concept of borders has been revived across Europe. Displacement on this scale, bringing with it serious socioeconomic consequences, cannot simply be stopped at the borders. To find solutions, the EU must act on several different levels: for better management of the reception, relocation and integration of refugees; greater cooperation with Turkey; and stepping up efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Recently there has been great debate about the Schengen Treaty all over Europe. What does it represent? What does it tell us about borders and about Europe? 
Schengen is very important from a symbolic perspective. The right to freely move and establish oneself in other European countries is the main positive point associated with the European Union that remains in the minds of European citizens. Of course, we should not confuse Schengen with the right to freely circulate within the EU and live or work in another Member State. But the mere fact of not having to go through passport controls is important, both practically and symbolically. In continental Europe, you can travel as if you moved inside the borders of a single country. Restarting border controls in some countries, in some cases, is not terrible, but starting generalised controls will be very bad. And I do not believe that this will solve anything.

Do you believe that we can have a truly ‘European’ system of borders or borders or are they inherently national features? How can we achieve a European border system if this Union is not really a Union at this stage?
We are clearly heading towards a European border system. As far as the international geopolitical crisis is concerned, it is clearly in the interest of all countries to have common European borders. We already have common borders in the EU: our external borders. But of course, these are guarded and managed by national forces. Again, they are important both politically and symbolically. But since these borders are not fully Europeanised, there is a political game there as to ‘whose border is it anyway’. There is currently a dangerous temptation for countries in the north and east who are furthest from the conflict regions to seek to isolate Greece geographically and use it as a buffer zone, since Turkey does not seem to fulfil this function.

During the current refugee crisis, many countries have decided to close their borders, reintroduce border controls and even construct fences. Can such measures be effective for the management of migration and refugee flows?
The fences and closing of borders are not effective practices to address such phenomena. Currently a very big reshuffle is taking place in the Middle East and North Africa and it does not depend on us, or Greece, Bulgaria, FYROM… not even Germany or the EU. It is not possible to stop such large socioeconomic changes at the borders. We try, of course, to influence and manage the flows but to say that we can stop them is simply demagogic. We cannot see ourselves and our borders isolated from the international environment. This will lead nowhere. We will spend all our money and all our energy trying to guard the borders, more people will get killed, the amounts that the smugglers are asking will increase. Several years later, we will realise that too many people have come to Europe in order to find protection, but without having the papers necessary, and that pockets of misery and terrible exploitation have been created.

Why are we seeing a return to borders nowadays?
For many politicians, it is easier to say that we will close our borders and we will protect ourselves. In addition, when you announce ‘the end of the world’, you hit the headlines of newspapers. If you say that this crisis is difficult, but we are trying and it takes efforts on behalf of everyone, you would be at page 10. We usually see that there may be a significant gap between the rhetoric that is for domestic consumption in each country, and the actual policy and practice.

If countries were exiting the EU, would that stop refugees from coming? No. That is not the case. In other words, if the EU were to isolate Greece geographically, seeking to contain the refugee flows going further north, this would not work as the asylum seekers and the smugglers would just find different routes. There is no easy solution. It is necessary to work on many parallel solutions; better management of reception, distribution and integration of refugees, cooperation with Turkey, an effort for peace in Middle East, which of course is not easy.

Right-wing populist politicians, like Viktor Orbán, insist on the idea that the closing of borders will preserve the national identity of a population. Why is this symbolic aspect of borders so important?
Borders are related to sovereignty, which is the essence of national self-determination. So it seems that if we manage to control the borders we can re-establish social order, public order, security… indeed, our high level of technological development and our affluence makes us think that we could isolate ourselves and thereby ensure our security, but this is a fallacy. It is precisely our technological progress and our affluence that make us so open and interdependent.
In my opinion, we are already moving towards a decline of the importance of borders because of regional groupings such as the EU. I think borders are very permeable today – by economy and trade, by cultural flows. They are open for those who are highly skilled or affluent. Borders are closed mostly for the poor and the less skilled, those with the ‘wrong’ passports. But overall we witness multi-polarity in international relations and growing interdependence. This is why borders are increasingly less important.
Another expression of how borders are permeable today is international terrorism. We can install as many controls as we want on our borders, but it is unlikely that this will be a good strategy to stop (prospective) terrorists.

Across Europe, approaches to integration vary as they are informed by different approaches of States towards their borders.  Could asylum and integration ever be managed at a European level?
The border issue has evolved separately from the issue of integration. The different inclusion and integration systems are mainly related to the definition of national identity and the historical experiences that every country has had in terms of both emigration and migration. We need a common asylum status that would be valid throughout the EU. But we do not need a European integration system. Integration is a local process and we have enough top-down coordination and policy exchange so far.

As Europeans, can we be satisfied with the EU’s management of the refugee crisis?
On the EU’s response, I see the glass as half-full. The European Commission’s officials (Jean-Claude Juncker, Federica Mogherini and Dimitris Avramopoulos) have shown great political will for the enforcement and promotion of European solutions. It is the EU member states that have not done their share, and have been disappointing. The EU has played its part. The member states are blocking the decisions and developments. But I repeat that this crisis is big and cannot be solved so easily.

Could you tell us more specifically what the Commission has done so far?  Why is the relation between the EU and its Member States so problematic in this area?
The Commission has put a lot of leadership in seeking the cooperation of source countries of migration and countries in the region1. It has put a lot of pressure on our fellow member states in the East to show solidarity and it has counteracted the easy demagogic pressures seeking to unload the burden and the blame to the peripheral countries. Naturally, the European Commission is not a national government in the way we understand it within a country, so it has limitations as to what it can and cannot do. The same is true for the European Parliament, which is consistently progressive and pro-European in its approach and tries to promote solidarity among Member States. It is perhaps the European Council (i.e. ultimately the Member States) that fail Europe and probably fail their citizens by repeating this claim that they could solve all problems effectively, if only they closed their borders.

There is a widespread belief that the key to the refugee crisis lies with Turkey. An initial agreement was reached recently but efforts are continuing…
It is essential to have better cooperation with Turkey. There are more than two million Syrian refugees, though, already in Turkey, 85% of whom live in cities and only 15% of whom are in accommodation centres. Until two years ago, Turkey was not even in the top 20 countries receiving refugees and now is in the top 3. What has happened in Turkey is huge. Currently, the EU is putting pressure on Turkey to act as a buffer zone in exchange for visa liberalisation. In addition, Turkey rightly also seeks more financial and operational assistance to deal with the 2.1 million Syrians that it hosts. This is a long term negotiation. I think Turks should be given visa liberalisation but should also be encouraged to manage better the migration and asylum flows through their country. Their practices only fuel the smuggling networks activities and profits.

What can we expect from the EU and its institutions such as Frontex in 2016 in order to improve the situation? What must be done?
So far, priority has been given to Frontex and border management, not asylum. Both in terms of financial resources and in terms of operational mandate. This could and should change in the current circumstances. We need a common European asylum system. There must be a fivefold increase of the power and budget of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). During 2013-2014, Frontex’s budget was 115 million euro per year and EASO’s was 15 million. It is also very important to create a European refugee status. We should give EASO such power and jurisdiction. That would allow us to strengthen the common European borders. We should focus mainly on EASO and not on Frontex. We also need an international plan for the resettlement of refugees in other countries, not only in Europe. Refugees should not only be distributed across Europe but in other countries as well, following Indochina’s example2.

What does the border crisis tell us about ourselves? Are migrants the new mirror in front of the European face, confronting it with its past, its incoherence?
I think the refugee crisis brings to the fore pre-existing tensions and dilemmas that have always been there. There is nothing qualitatively or politically new. The problem is that the crisis is of such large dimensions and that it comes after seven years of financial crisis and Eurozone crisis. So it is a difficult and delicate moment in Europe and for the EU. And then there is what we call in Greek “oi Kassandres” – that those that predict disasters are more easily heard than those who speak positively.

First published in English on "Green European Journal", vol. 12, "Border Games: Εurope's Shifting Lines", 11.3.2015.

Anna Triandafyllidou is Professor at the Global Governance Programme (GGP) of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS), European University Institute. She also teaches as Visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Bruges since 2002 and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies.

Antonis Galanopoulos holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Political Theory and Philosophy (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki). He is blogger and contributor to various Greek digital and print media.
  • Published in EUROPE

Life in Lesbos: the feet of the refugees' children are rotting

Lliana Bird

"There are thousands of children here and their feet are literally rotting, they can't keep dry, they have high fevers and they're standing in the pouring rain for days on end. You have one month guys, and then all these people will be dead".

Those were the final words of Dr Linda on the phone, a doctor that our volunteer organisations (Help Refugees and CalAid) had asked to fly out to Lesbos in response to an emergency cry for help from an overwhelmed volunteer on the ground.

The weight of those words and the responsibility that comes with them felt crippling. But why are we, a film maker, a radio presenter, and a music assistant being tasked with this responsibility? Shouldn't, as we had presumed, the large charities and governments be taking the charge of care for the precious lives arriving on Europe shores?

Another call came in - this time from volunteers in Serbia - the refugees are burning plastic bags to keep warm, they have nothing else, they are freezing to death, and the fumes from the bags are slowly poisoning them, please send help.

Then another - this time from volunteers on Lesbos trying to find out how to order body bags en masse... will they have to resort this? Time will tell, but certainly people there have already started to die.

We wished we could pick up the phone and call someone... who? A charity? An emergency team? The government? The army? How could we sit by and watch whilst these people die, and the handfuls of volunteers struggle and suffer too. But who is there to call? The charities are acting slowly, they have protocols to follow, political considerations, red tape, hierarchy and procedures. Our government's policy is not to help in Europe, and only to send aid to places like Syria, Lebanon in Jordan. So... it's left to everyday people, untrained, unprepared, and overwhelmed, to deal with this crisis.

Everyday people like us... a small group of friends who nine weeks ago decided to raise a little bit of cash, get a car load of goods and drive it to Calais. We'd heard from friends who'd been there some of the terrible stories of war and persecution, we knew that numbers were growing, that more children were coming everyday, and that conditions were dire. Our plan was to do our bit, pat ourselves on the back, and then go back to our lives feeling that we'd done something good for our fellow mankind.

Here we are, nine weeks later, registered as a small charity (Help Refugees), more deeply involved than ever in this refugee crisis, and with no signs of returning any time soon.

The reason is simple, because trust me, none of us set out to do this (our group are a bunch of TV producers, music managers, radio broadcasters and documentary film makers)... but we couldn't walk away, because in so many instances there simply aren't enough people helping. We expected to meet the large charities in huge numbers on the ground taking charge of things, or for government presence to be strong, or for the UN to be there in force. It's just not happening. So our team, and ordinary volunteers like us, have been forced to step in. Unconstrained by red tape, political considerations and bureaucracy and the slow decision making processes of large corporations, we can act fast. And we have had to. So far our teams have visited and delivered aid and other assistance to Kos, Lesbos, Calais, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia. But it isn't even close to enough. We are just a few, we are untrained, and whilst there are handfuls of incredible volunteers and small groups doing what they can (and struggling and becoming traumatised in the process), people (children, women and men) are literally dying.

We can't ignore their cries for help. The volunteer I mentioned earlier in Lesbos called Merel Greaves, (now ill herself with a high fever) shared some incredibly disturbing reports on the situation in Moria (a refugee camp in Lesbos), with thousands arriving every day, and very little visible support or help from large charities or governments.

"The situation in Moria is utterly catastrophic. We need organisations to come. There is just a handful of us volunteers in Moria, there are no organisations except for a once a day food distribution which is nowhere near enough. I've had people holding half dead babies up to me the whole day and we have nowhere to send them. All the NGOs are inside and doctors only rarely come out. Tomorrow will be a disaster, there are no dry clothes for anyone, no shelter, there are children sleeping in bin bags, no food, no blankets, no diapers for babies. No access to drinking water for the people at the back of the line, people will sleep in the wet and cold tonight in the open air, half the people will wake up sick, some will die, I'm sure of it. We urgently need medics on the ground, some sort of sheltering and dry clothes. Please please please help. We are just a few volunteers by ourselves without resources but people are looking at us to help and we can do nothing... we are a handful of volunteers who do not even belong to an organisation with no resources to give the thousands of ill and dying and drenched people waiting out there. The rain has not stopped, it has been relentless and never ending, draining every single and last person to the bone. There are no shelters for people to hide, there is not enough food for everybody: No water. No clean clothes for the babies. No doctors. The rain, the rain.

We, the volunteers in Moria, are completely desperate. I am completely desperate. The situation is inhuman, it is not possible that this is happening to people in Europe. Yet it is happening, my god it's happening and people are dying out there, people are collapsing in my arms and dozens of babies will die of hypothermia over the next few days.

Staff from UNHCR come to ask us for help (I've only ever seen two staff on the ground from UNHCR - those two are amazing and do what they can as individuals) but where the hell is the money? They ask us to help them clean the trash of a few shelters down the road... we went in by the gate but we get side tracked, sucked in by the horrors around and the people asking for help... For hours we plead with police to let through sick babies, the passed out woman, the leg injuries. Sometimes they let us go in, sometimes not. So many people want my help... a girl no older than eight falls on her knees in front of me and folds her hands together and in hysterics says 'please help, please help'. A passed out woman in dragged in, babies drenched in their blankets. These are the scenes I can see before my eyes like a horror film I can't switch off.

Every single person is drenched to the bone, all their clothes, their shoes stuck in the knee-high river of mud. Inside the gates we help the families who are about to register, every single person is shivering and pretty much every single person is in need of medical attention. The woman from UNHCR grabs me, 'they are about to open the gates for the next group' I take one look at the gate and see the squashed people pushed up against it, sounds of crying and screaming: I know already exactly what will happen when we open the gate. The riot police remove the bolts and open it. Hordes of people run in, we make gestures to walk slowly but it's no use, she pulls me aside to step away from the crowd. But what unfolds in the next few seconds we knew already: people are getting trampled on, piled on top of each other when they all try to push in. She grabs my arm, 'we have to pull out the babies!', we run in and with all my might I tug at the people stuck at the bottom, it's no use, I see a child and pull her arms. Then, a strange smell and a quick sensation: teargas. It burns my eyes, my throat, my face, people scream and run away from the gas. I have to let go of the child and run also, it is unbearable. We run behind the bus, a little boy with a red coat is waiting for me. 'Sister!' He shouts, he takes my hand and we run together, away from the gas. We stop, i bend over and spit. A little girl comes over to me and cries, I pick her up and we sit on a roll of fencing wire in the corner. Her family gathers around us, I hug the girl tight, stroke her face and all together we weep for the deep misery that is so unnecessary. After 15 minutes I know I have to go back in to help. I leave them behind.

For the rest of the night we try to dress the drenched babies that are coming in with the clothes from the van. I've never seen such feet and hands, completely white and shrivelled up. Again nothing fits and there are no jackets or shoes. But we try our best. I've come to realise you cannot do anything but make the situation for one individual a little better for a very short period. God knows what more they'll have to endure. I feel such anger also, how out of control is the situation when you have volunteers who have no experience or training working with the UNHCR to try and fight the shitstorm?"

Merel is angry, she is also very sick herself now, but she can't walk away. How can we? How can anyone of us sit by and allow all this to happen? On European shores? To human beings escaping war? No matter what your political views, no matter the eventual fate of these people, surely our duty now is to keep them alive? To use the huge resources and experience we have here in Europe to care for these people, these children. Volunteers like Merel can't do this alone, it needs much larger presence from the huge, experienced organisations. It needs immediate government action. Lesbos is just one of so many examples, and the longer we leave things the worse things will be.

Lliana Bird is a London born broadcaster who's worked across a variety radio and TV. A former Sky News contributor, she can currently be heard on Xfm Weekends 4-7pm. She also creates a weekly podcast 'Geek Chic's Weird Science' discussing the week's strangest and quirkiest science news.

First published in English on "The Huffigton Post", 26.10.2015 


Flows and Barriers

 Despina Biri

Cruel nature has won again
Song lyric from the song "On battleship hill" by PJ Harvey,
from the record «Let England Shake», inspired, among other things,
by the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War.

It has been said many times that the issue of refugees reveals much about today’s Europe. The politics to address the issue leaves a lot to be desired, as it is not being conducted in the spirit of cooperation and solidarity, instead widening the rift between EU member states. In shaping public opinion, a particularly important role is played by the language used to describe the movement of refugees from warzones into Europe, as well as by the depiction of the outcomes of this transition.

The so-called «systemic» media talk about «the migration phenomenon», about «refugee flows», about «a wave of migrants/refugees». In so doing they strip agency from people; Using the language of geology, they wash over the cause and effect relationship between endless wars and fleeing. At the same time, with such descriptions they remove a share of the blame from the leadership of rich EU countries, as natural phenomena by definition limit themselves within a particular geographical area (even tsunamis). Nothing more natural, then, than the creation of barriers to limit «inflows».

On the other hand, to what degree does the reproduction if images of the unspeakably violent reality faced by refygees lead to the awakening of consciences? Much debate followed the reproduction of the photograph of dead Aylan Kurdi in social media. In a society feeding on scenes of indescribable (and often undescribed) violence (let us remind ourselves of the first Gulf War, the bombing of Sarajevo, «shock and awe» in Iraq, the bombing of a hospital in Gaza just last summer), how is it still possible that violent pictures reproduced outside of a context describing in detail how they came to be can awaken consciences? Under these circumstances, and if we take account of the language of water metaphors, we can expect reactions similar to those to a natural disaster. A disaster for which no one is to blame and which no one can stop.

All of this has of course a clear goal; the entrenchment of borders between European countries and the avoidance of creating a framework for cooperation. This is a tendency which is continually aggravated following the dramatic developments of this year’s «Greek summer». As Larry Eliott, the Guardian economics commentator, wrote, 13th July may be the «Sarajevo moment»for today’s europe, drawing parallels between the current hiding behind the fortification of national interests and the beginning of the First World War. If, therefore, the Greek crisis is point zero for the new European breakup, the issue of refugees may be our very own closing of the Dardanelles strait. Cruel nature seems to be winning again...

First publishe in Greek on the newspaper
"Avgi", 22.9.2015.

Despina Biri is a researcher and writer on health care issues. 

Outrage for the deaths of thousands of people on their journey to Europe

 160 researchers, faculty, staff & alumni of the European University Institute

The undersigned researchers, faculty, staff and alumni of the European University Institute wish to express our outrage at the deaths of thousands of people on their journey to Europe. We call on the European Union and member states to act immediately on this humanitarian disaster, while also recognising the need for a change in longstanding Western policies in the Middle East and Africa, which are at the root of the current crisis. In doing so, we join the wave of popular solidarity that is sweeping Europe and call upon the EU states to take urgent and decisive measures to tackle this crisis.

The sheer scale of displacement is in itself shocking – some 4 million Syrians alone, of whom the majority have fled to neighbouring countries. Those attempting to reach Europe overland via Turkey, and from the North African coast are often fleeing violent conflict and its long-term consequences: poverty, civil war, deprivation, despotic governments. The foreign and immigration policies of the European Union have driven thousands to seek alternative and dangerous ways of gaining entry to Europe. The spectre of overcrowded, sinking vessels and drowned people washing up on European shores is inseparable from inhumane political and legal frameworks, which prevent their rescue and integration in EU countries.

Europe cannot be conceived of in isolation from its relationship with the rest of the world. It is clear that free movement within the Schengen zone is predicated on the tightening of external borders. As beneficiaries of a liberal, democratic, borderless Europe, it is crucial that we recognise that this cannot exist without a second enclosed, militarised and violent Fortress Europe. While the global South is forced to accept the removal of borders for Western capital, they are faced with borders for human beings. We stand against the foreign policies of Western governments which, in the short-term, have caused the displacement of millions across the Middle East and Africa, and which in the long-term have created political instability and economic underdevelopment. Moreover, the immediate response to the recent plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees has been inadequate at best, and disastrous at worst. At the same time, European governments have increased scaremongering and xenophobic tactics which preclude any reimagining of migration based on human dignity rather than economic exploitation.

To begin with, refugees should be allocated more fairly and evenly across member states. This means an EU-wide migration policy with binding obligations on states to host refugees according to their wealth and size. Under the current voluntary scheme, agreed to by the European Commission in May, governments have been able to shamefully evade their moral responsibilities. This has meant that some countries are leading the way in offering sanctuary, while others, such as the UK, have offered only repression or paltry mean-spirited gestures of support. According to some surveys, over two thirds of Europeans would support a shared EU migration policy making this a realistic and achievable short-term response to the unfolding crisis.

It is for these reasons that European states, and the European Union as a whole, must take responsibility for its contributions, present and historical, to the continuing devastation of human life in Africa and the Middle East. What we are calling for is both an immediate response to the present crisis and a long-term political project, which is not predicated on international warmongering and financial exploitation, but rather on the prioritisation of the basic needs of all human life.

On the basis of this assessment, we propose a set of concrete measures to address both the humanitarian and political crisis:

1. Provide food, shelter and medical assistance to the thousands of women, men and children currently arriving in Europe.

2. A common European hosting policy based on wealth and country size. National egotism cannot dictate EU policies.

3. Repeal immediately the “Dublin III Regulation” under which asylum seekers are forcefully deported to their point of entry. A principled policy should rest on shared responsibilities among all European parties.

4. Vigorously condemn all individual, group and state level acts of xenophobia, racism and violence. In particular, we address the Hungarian authorities directly by saying: “Mr. Orban tear down that wall of shame!”. Our Europe is not a walled fortress!

5. Call for an international conference, under the auspices of the U.N., to launch an integrated humanitarian and economic assistance programme in the countries of origin of the refugees and neighbouring areas, discriminating positively on the basis of their respective human rights records.
1.  Diego Acosta
2.  Siobhan Airey
3.  Guy Aitchison
4.  Daniela Alaattinoglu
5.  Matteo Albanese
6.  Xavi Alcalde
7.  Hannah al-Hassan Ali
8.  Francisco Alonso
9.  Chiara Altafin
10.  Argyrios Altiparmakis
11.  Brais Alvarez-Pereira
12.  Aurelie Andry
13.  Albert Arcarons
14.  Nicholas Barrett
15.  Laura Bartolini
16.  Emily Baughan
17.  Margot Béal
18.  María Inés Berniell
19.  Federiga Bindi
20.  Thibaud Boncourt
21.  Oscar Lema Bouza
22.  Dorit Brixius
23.  Jelle Bruinsma
24.  Luc Brunet
25.  Anita Buhin
26.  Kateryna Burkush
27.  Reto Bürgisser
28.  Pietro Castelli
29.  Semih Çelik
30.  Matteo Cernison
31.  Anna Elizabeth Chadwick
32.  Leiry Cornejo Chavez
33.  Daniela Chironi
34.  Lorenzo Cini
35.  Miguel Serra Coelho
36.  Iftah Cohen
37.  Chiara Ludovica Comolli
38.  Federica Copola
39.  Guillemette Crouzet
40.  Donagh Davis
41.  François Delerue
42.  Donatella Della Porta
43.  Chares Demetriou
44.  Koen Docter
45.  David Do Paço
46.  Alexis Drach
47.  Eliska Drapalova
48.  Vedran Duančić
49.  Konstantinos Eleftheriadis
50.  Miguel Palou Espinosa
51.  Irene Otero Fernandez
52.  Roel Frakking
53.  Caterina Froio
54.  Martín Portos García
55.  Grigol Gegelia
56.  Johanna Gereke
57.  Theresa Gessler
58.  Rosa Gilbert
59.  Tommaso Giordani
60.  Itzea Goicolea-Amiano
61.  Alexander Golovlev
62.  Christelle Gomis
63.  Pablo Gracia
64.  Ieva Grumbinaitė
65.  Lola Guyot
66.  Lucrecia Rubio Grundell
67.  Caterina Francesca Guidi
68.  Sandra Hagman
69.  Bogumila Hall
70.  Emily Hancox
71.  Mari Torsdotter Hauge
72.  John-Erik Hansson
73.  Dónal Hassett
74.  Florian Hertel
75.  Masaaki Higashijima
76.  Christine Hobden
77.  Bram Hoonhout
78.  Dr. Neil Howard
79.  Pavlina Hubkova
80.  Swen Hutter
81.  Haakon Andreas Ikonomou
82.  Ola Morris Innset
83.  Johannes Jüde
84.  Jennie Sejr Junghans
85.  Kirsten Kamphuis
86.  Anna Kandyla
87.  Marianna Karttunen
88.  Kateryna Kolesnyk
89.  Hara Kouki
90.  Johanne Kuebler
91.  Katharina Kuffner
92.  Matthijs Kuipers
93.  Joldon Kutmanaliev
94.  Joseph Lacey
95.  Hugo Leal
96.  Katharina Lenner
97.  Ludvig Lundstedt
98.  Sabrina Marchetti
99.  Kimon Markatos
100. Bruno Andre Casal Nunes Martinho
101. Tiago (Manuel) Matos
102. Alfredo Mazzamauro
103. Patrick McDonagh
104. Liam McHugh-Russell
105. Mariana Mendes
106. Elie Michel
107. Chiara Milan
108. Ismay Milford
109. Debora Milito
110. Pierre Monforte
111. Mayo Fuster Morell
112. Jotte Mulder
113. Thuc Linh Nguyen Vu
114. Emma Ní Niatháin
115. Frank O’Connor
116. Didem Oral
117. Stefano Osella
118. Virginia Passalacqua 
119. Marie Petersmann
120. Bilyana Petkova
121. Zane Rasnaca
122. Dieter Reinisch
123. Anna Subirats Ribas
124. Noelle Richardson
125. Marco Rizzi
126. Arturo Rodríguez
127. Jerome Roos
128. Julia Rone
129. Suzan Meryem Rosita
130. Jan Rybak
131. Julija Sardelić
132. Pablo Hernández Sau
133. Grazia Sciacchitano
134. Francesca Scrinzi
135. Frederico Ferreira da Silva
136. Nagwan Soliman
137. George Souvlis
138. Maja Spanu
139. Maria Luisa Stasi
140. Ivan Stefanovski 
141. Elias Steinhilper
142. Olivia Arigho Stiles
143. Trond Ove Tøllefsen 
144. Anna Triandafyllidou
145. Milla Vaha
146. Dimitri Van Der Meersche
147. Guido van Meersbergen
148. Sasa Vejzagic
149. Ilaria Vianello
150. Markos Vogiatzoglou
151. Esther Wahlen
152. Solongo Wandan
153. Patrice Wangen
154. Manès Weisskircher
155. Karin Westerbeek
156. Raphaële Xenidis
157. Olga Yakushenko
158. Musab Younis 
159. Lorenzo Zamponi 
160. Uros Zver


A Good Samaritan in Greece

William Spindler

The Guardian Angel of refugees lives no more...

Father Efstratios Dimou – “Papa Stratis”, a Good Samaritan of our time,  the founder of NGO Agkalia in the Greek island of Lesbos, who had helped thousands of refugees and migrants since 2007, lives  no more. We re-published (from an articel by William Spindler abourt the great work done by Agkalia and Papa Stratis.

Father Efstratios Dimou – “Papa Stratis” to all and sundry –  sits in the front yard of his house, surrounded by flowers in earthenware pots, a small apricot tree and his big bear-like dog, Siba. Overhead on the Greek island of Lesvos, swallows fly in and out of a nest on the wall.

He wears a dark blue cassock, a pony tail and leather sandals which complement his big grey-blue mischievous eyes and long bushy grey beard. He suffers from a chronic respiratory condition and has to be permanently connected by a tube to a tank that supplies oxygen directly to his lungs. This does not stop him from smoking the occasional cigarette.

Papa Stratis, along with other local volunteers in the village of Kalloni, has been helping refugees since 2007 through the NGO ‘Agkalia‘. In all these years he reckons that he has helped some ten thousand people, including a few locals fallen on hard times. But never before has he seen so many refugees looking for help.

“Every day between one and two hundred people come to Kalloni,” the 57-year old Orthodox priest says. “The local people tell them to come to us for help. We give them food, water, milk for the babies, shoes, clothes. They can stay here too: we have blankets, mattresses on the floor.”

Chased by the war in Syria and by conflict and persecution in other places, more than 26,000 refugees have arrived in Lesvos since January. They cross the short stretch of water that separates the island from Turkey in rubber dinghies and wooden boats. Many of them land on the remote northern coast and walk for up to 15 hours to Papa Stratis’ temporary shelter in Kalloni.

“I have seen small children with blisters on their feet and pregnant women holding their bellies and crying in pain,” he says sadly. “These people are not migrants, they do not choose to come here. They are children of war, fleeing bullets. They are life-seekers, they search for life, hope and the chance to live another day.”

With local authorities overwhelmed by the 64,000 refugee arrivals to Greece since the beginning of the year, local activists like Papa Stratis and the network of volunteers “Village All Together”, are often taking on the sole responsibility of caring for the refugees on the Greek islands.

“We have no external funding,” he explains with a smile. “We depend completely on the generosity of the local people.”

His battered wine-red Citroën Xantia – he calls it “Tarzan” for its ability to scramble onto the island’s most inaccessible corners – is always packed with food, water and spare clothes.

“One day we found a baby asleep in his mother’s arms at the beach. We wanted to give him milk but didn’t have a bottle and he couldn’t drink from a glass. It was in the middle of the night, so we woke up all the pharmacies in town until we found a bottle,” Papa Stratis chuckles cheekily.

Hard-hit by a pervasive debt crisis and circumscribed by economics, politics and geography, small communities in the Greek islands are having to deal with the fallout of conflicts far away of which they know and understand little. Many islanders are wary of the destitute refugees who arrive in their midst. Others worry about the impact their presence will have on tourism. But many, like Papa Stratis, are rolling up their sleeves and stepping forward to help.
William Spindler was born  in Guatemala and now is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He worked as a journalist in London and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, before joining UNHCR in Mozambique. He has since worked amid humanitarian emergencies in Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Colombia and Mali, as well as in Paris and Geneva. He has a PhD in art history and theory and has published articles on cultural, political and humanitarian issues in “The Financial Times”, “The Spectator”, “Le Monde diplomatique”, “Libération” and “Cambio 16”.

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