By Max Roche
Greece has become a state of containment. Refugees and displaced people that have entered Greece have been faced with an asylum system struggling prior to 2015 and a system of increasingly securitised borders which drastically limits the possibility of onward movement. For those stuck in Greece the reality of life is harsh. The Aegean hotspots have essentially become spaces of detention and deportation in which individuals are exposed to dehumanising and vastly inadequate living conditions with camps running at two the three times recommended capacity.[i] The Moria camp on the island of Lesvos was described in 2018 by Médecins Sans Frontières as resembling ‘an old-fashioned mental asylum, not seen in parts of Europe since the mid-20th century’[ii], whilst the BBC has stated it was ‘the worst refugee camp in the world’[iii]. The mainland camps are certainly no haven of hospitality either as many are geographically isolated, lacking sufficient amenities, and disconnected from much social infrastructure such as school, hospitals and asylum offices. It is within this context of general inadequacy, or outright hostility, that scholars and European policy makers have spoken of refugees and displaced people in Greece as experiencing a ‘crisis of reception’.[iv]
This narrative of containment and exclusion has however been challenged within the politically subversive neighbourhood of Exarchia in Athens. Exarchia has historically been a hotbed of experimentation, ingenuity and opposition to dominant modes of living, with a strong history of squatting abandoned buildings and turning them into ‘spaces for subcultural activity, collective living, and dissident action’.[v] In the face of growing numbers sleeping rough on Athenian streets and a climate of government inaction the Migrant Solidarity Movement was born in 2015 with activists squatting a series of unused buildings and opening them as collective living spaces for refugees and displaced people. Communities were made up of single men and women, as well as families from many different nationalities, living peacefully and cooperatively, forging a diverse community of activists and refugees in solidarity. With self-organisation and autonomy central to the organisation of the squats, the buildings came to offer not just shelter and solidarity, but the opportunity to exercise autonomy amidst a broader political climate which immobilises and dehumanises.
Since April of this year however the Migrant Solidarity Squats have been challenged by successive Greek governments. With a summer general election looming the shadow centre-right party, New Democracy, launched their campaign promising the bring ‘law and order’ to what they saw as the chaotic elements of Greek society. Bound up in this was a promise to ‘end’ Exarchia and push these movements out of the neighbourhood. Within a backdrop of moves to speed up migrant deportations back to Turkey the Migrant Solidarity Squats existing within Exarchia, became an obvious and primary target of the party. Arguably, the incumbent Syriza party utilised the evictions of Exarchia as a means to curry votes and began the first wave of evictions themselves in April, three months before the national elections.
New Democracy came to power in July winning 39.85% of the vote and quickly introduced new legislation to make good on their pledge to bring ‘law and order’ with substantial increases in police powers. ‘Operation Net’ will see 130-armed police officers patrolling metro stations in Athens as well as the abolition of the academic sanctuary law which prohibited police from entering university sites – a policy originally brought in to provide freedom of thought and protest.[vi] The precedent was set in this early legislation for the position of the police within New Democracy’s plans for Greece and as the summer tourist season came to a close in Athens the second set of evictions followed the first. The 26th of August saw Spirou Trikoupi 17, one of the larger family-based squats, offering shelter and community to around 100 individuals evicted by the Greek police. September has seen numerous other squats evicted in a wave of state attacks on the movement. Refugees and displaced people have been taken to holding sites on the outskirts of Athens before being transferred to camps around Greece. Most from Spirou Trikoupi 17 were transferred to places around Thessaloniki, over 400km from Athens. For members of the squat, and others who were part of similar squats, the eviction of the movement has meant an uprooting from an established community structure of friends and families, an end the children’s participation within local free schools in Exarchia, and a disconnection from all familiar social infrastructure such as asylum offices, hospitals, and religious buildings built up over the last few years (the oldest residents have been part of the building for over two years). It spells dislocation for all and possible deportation for those without papers. And it means going into winter in camps around Greece which are routinely criticised by human rights NGOs for being inadequate hostile environments.
Exarchia is certainly no haven as the lack of police presence since they were removed by anti-authoritarian uprisings in 2008 has left a vacuum of official authority. This in turn has been exploited by the mafia who have capitalised on the ease with which they have been able to sell drugs within the neighbourhood, despite much resistance from anti-authoritarian elements. The association of such criminality however with anarchic or anti-authoritarian currents and the migrant solidarity movement speaks to the conflation of all these groups as ‘undesirable elements’ within the eyes of the state. Drastic transformations of the neighbourhood is being implemented with on-going plans to gentrify Exarchia and arguably turn it into a ‘trendy’ tourist hot-spot, and alongside that comes the evictions of refugee and migrant solidarity movements, insofar as they contradict the government plans for Greece. The Migrant Solidarity Movement, as an experimentation with self-organisation, cohabitation and cooperative living that transcends nation-state identities, has become another element of resistance to a dominant mode of living the state is arguably seeking to bring to an end. The criminalisation of pro-migrant and solidarity initiatives fits into a broader wave of European solidarity criminalisation as displaced people in Greece are made increasingly invisible – herded into overcrowded and underfunded camps and left to languish under a stretched asylum system. Out of sight, out of mind seems to characterise recent attempts to evict refugees and displaced people from Exarchia.
[i] Pallister-Wilkins, P. (2018b). Hotspots and the geographies of humanitarianism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, pp.1-18.
[ii] Barberio, Dr. A. (2018). Moria is in a state of emergency. [online] Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. Available at: https://www.msf.org/moria-state-emergency [Accessed 16 Feb. 2019].
[iv] Sakellis, Y., Spyropoulou, N., and Ziomas, D., (2016). The refugee crisis in Greece in the aftermath of the 20 March 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement. European Commission. [Online] pp.1-2. [Accessed 29 May 2019].
[v] Tsavdaroglou, C. (2018). The Newcomers’ Right to the Common Space: The case of Athens during the refugee crisis. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 17(2), pp.376-401.
[vi] Cosse, E., (2019). Greece: Athens Police Plan Raises Fears of Abuse. Human Rights Watch. [Online]. [Accessed 5 October 2019].
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.