The refugee crisis on the Greek Aegean islands has seen thousands of refugees from across the middle east and Northern Africa attempting to cross the border with Turkey into Europe. Many are fleeing from Syria but there are also people fleeing from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The EU-Turkey deal in 2016 attempted to reduce the numbers of refugees entering Europe by incentivising Turkey to prevent crossings. Numbers crossing the Aegean initially reduced; however, since 2016, boat crossings to the islands have been steadily rising again despite the slowed processing of asylum claims in Greece. The result of this is that the hotspot transit camps on the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Kos, Chios and others have overcrowded. Camps which were initially built to house people temporarily whilst their claims were processed are no longer big enough to give shelter in containers to the refugee population, causing thousands to sleep in tents and informal settlements in what is termed ‘jungle’ around the official camps. Lesvos now houses 18,000 refugees in a camp meant for 11,000 and Samos 8,000 for a camp meant for 600 and there are over 42,000 refugees across the Aegean islands. Life on these islands is extremely tough, with insufficient food, sanitation and shelter. Fights occur often, as do fires throughout the camps, and mental health for all inhabitants is dire. People can live in these temporary camps for a few months or a few years until they can move to the mainland. Life is insecure and dangerous, the spread of Covid-19 through the camps is just one stark examples of the horrors facing those who live in these conditions. Self-isolation and sanitation is impossible in these camps and an outbreak is inevitable and will be devastating.
This piece comes from ethnographic fieldwork I conducted on the island of Lesvos with the NGO Refugee4Refugees. My fieldwork focussed on the methods of humanitarian aid by this organisation, focussed on how the methods reduce or reinforce harmful stereotypes in discourse concerning refugees. The voices used are those of real refugees who volunteer with the organisation, I worked with them in the camps and interviewed them for my research and all names are aliases.
I met Asadi on Lesvos in December. He comes from Iraq and has been living in Moria Camp on the island for two and a half years with his wife and two daughters. Whilst I was working with him he received his passport, giving him official status as a Greek citizen. He was visibly elated.
That same day, another man we worked with from Syria had his application for asylum rejected. This process has no rhyme or reason. Suddenly, feeling happy was harder for Asadi. His joy was still infectious, yet tainted with sadness.
He said: ‘I hate it here. It’s cold, I can’t sleep. I’m tired all the time.’
The process of movement connotes ideas of agency, threat, and freedom. Those who are condemned to stasis are in contrast passive, vulnerable and entrapped. Refugee camps are places of stagnant mobility with the average time of displacement for refugees worldwide now over 20 years. People come and go but movement is slow; held in transit between places. Passivity, immobility, and stasis become normal.
Waiting becomes an eternity, an endless present.
When he is ready he will leave. He will move. Onward, to the next place.
Now he has the privilege of movement, he is a threat.
An unidentifiable, illegitimate face in the mass.
Mobility is threatening.
The way a man walks down a street.
The unknown rhythms, itching at the fear ever-present in the back of our minds.
Men have been shot for this. Just walking.
Men have been cast away from a border. Refused entry. Border barred shut. Beaten up. Sent back.
It’s illegal to be sent back to a place so inhumane.
But migrants who move of their own accord are called illegal.
They are dangerous, illegitimate.
Compared to those who sit tight, waiting, waiting to be saved.
They are victims, passive and vulnerable.
But to stay still is to stagnate.
Esin lives in a tent with her two teenage daughters and husband. Their tent is too small. One daughter doesn’t speak. All day they sit and wait. Esin says ‘I used to go to sleep so late. Now there is nothing to do. I sleep when it gets dark. It’s too dangerous to be outside.’
‘The food line is so long. We are hungry all the time.’
To wait, to queue. To wait, to queue.
No one comes.
Asadi will move. He will move from the island which has caused him so much grief. The island of cold showers. Every day. Sleeping in freezing temperatures with no blankets. Suffering.
He says to me: ‘I look so much older now’.
These liminal spaces, non-places. Days disappear, years disappear, lives disappear into quiet nothingness.
Spaces outside of place. Imprisonment outside. States of exception.
Spaces outside of the law, outside of society. Spaces where anything can happen. No one cares. These are the victims, the immobile, faceless mass.
Keep them trapped there and they won’t be something to be feared.
As long as they don’t move.
On December 23rd I take my passport from my bag and board my flight out of Lesvos, out of Greece, back home. I am moving. I am mobile. I am a citizen. I am not passive or sedentary. I am free to fly, walk, run.
Am I a threat?
In such times we feel it is of great importance to support the charities, groups and volunteers who give their time to provide for and support refugees. There are many wonderful organisations working on these islands such as Refugee4Refugees, Movement on the Ground, Samos Volunteers, Med’EqualiTeam, Lighthouse relief, A Drop In The Ocean and Watershed to name only a few. For information on volunteering, donating and other ways to help, Indigo Volunteers is a great way to start.
The organisations mentioned receive a lot of their funding from organisations such as Donate4Refugees, Help Refugees and Choose Love. All the money from these charities goes directly to the projects on the ground such as shelter construction, diaper distributions, blanket distributions, food and more. Funding is vital to ensure these necessary projects can continue and every little goes a long way.
Below are several ways to support such projects during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond: