Sitting in a café at the port of Lakki, on the island of Leros, waiting for my next interview, I notice a young woman at a nearby table. She is wearing fashionable clothes and a pink headscarf, and is video chatting on her smart phone with what seems to be her relatives. After she finishes, we start up a conversation. The woman, I’ll call her Rasha, speaks little English but with the help of an application on her phone, she translates from and to Arabic and is able to tell me about her situation. She is from Syria and entered Greece through Turkey. Her mother and sister, with whom she was talking, are still living among the bombs and the ruins in Aleppo, and her husband, she says, pointing out at her wedding ring, is waiting for her in a northern European country but she can’t join him. Rasha risked her life crossing the Aegean in a precarious boat ride and now fears that she will be sent back to Turkey after spending eight months of anguish on this island. She extends eight fingers to emphasize the number and breaks into tears. She is desperate. Eight months stuck at an EU hotspot.
Although Rasha’s individual story is uniquely moving, it is far from an isolated case. Thousands of people arrived in Greece seeking international protection have been held on five Aegean Islands since the introduction of the “hotspots” policy, especially since the agreement between the European Union and Turkey last March came into force. Accounts and observations collected in a recent field trip to the Greek islands of Kos and Leros and the Turkish coastal area of Bodrum offer insight into some of the consequences of these newly introduced hotspots and related measures in the Aegean.
What are the hotspots?
The so-called “hotspot approach” was presented as part of the European Migration Agenda in May 2015 and was implemented in the aftermath of the massive arrivals of 2015. It started operating four “registration and identification centers” in Italy and five in Greece, on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos.
The closure of the Balkan route and, especially, the entry in force of the so-called “Turkey Deal” last March, which included the “readmission” of refugees to Turkey from Greece, radically changed the function and operation of these registration and identification centers, now known as hotspots. What used to be a temporary shelter for a stay of a few days or weeks has now become an archipelago of waiting facilities for an undetermined amount of time. The focus has shifted from registration and screening of the individuals in transit before they continued their route to the mainland, to an opaque filtering structure, which, in theory aims to better assess and relocate individuals. Yet in practice it implements returns to Turkey and aims at deterring potential border crossers from making the attempt to cross.
Following the first wave of protests of the detention conditions, people in transit were allowed to leave the razor wire fenced perimeter of the center after the first period of registration. However, a “geographical restriction” was introduced that forbid them to leave the island where their data had been collected. Even if they enjoyed “free circulation” on the island, they were given no clarity about their situation and had to live under unintelligible procedural rules. After months of being ‘on hold’, their stay has become an ordeal. By October 2016, many people, like Rasha, had spent eight or nine months in limbo or just waiting and were close to mental collapse.
Since March 20, 2016, activists groups and humanitarian organizations have criticized the extreme slowness of the procedures and the harsh living conditions at the hotspots. They have also warned that the registration centers are becoming pre-removal structures unable to sufficiently guarantee basic rights. Shortly after the EU-Turkey agreement, Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended its activities linked to the hotspot, arguing that the agreement would lead to the forced return of migrants and asylum seekers. The organization criticized increasingly restrictive practices and refused to be “instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation”. UNHCR alerted that under the new provisions, these centers had become detention facilities, and also suspended some of their activities at the center of Moria, in Lesbos.
Organizations such as Pro Asyl and Human Rights Watch have reported insufficient medical care, severe overcrowding, catastrophic hygienic conditions, and poor access to information regarding the asylum procedure at the Greek facilities. There have been also reports of inmates being beaten, insulted and attacked with tear gas. Reports also mention clashes between groups of refugees of different nationalities, while the police providing security for the site did nothing to break up the fights. All this, added to the uncertainty and long waiting times contributed to an atmosphere of chaos and insecurity and created the conditions for the revolts that have been taking place at several hotspots through the last months, including setting fire to containers as a protest against the deportations and the slowness of the procedures. Far from easing their situation, the riots gave place to further delays in the processing of their cases.
Legal limbos and liminalities
In this context, it is no wonder that individuals in transit, like Rasha, are on the verge of mental breakdown. Transformed into a sort of laboratory for new forms of border and migration control, the hotspot approach is generating geopolitical paradoxes, legal voids, and especially, devastating living conditions for travelers who are caught in this structure.
Most of the Greek hotspot facilities are heavily securitized zones located in the hills, removed from urban or populated areas, without a public transport connection to the rest of the island. Visitors must ask for written permission to the Greek Ministry of Interior to receive access. As the space is overcrowded, hundreds are living outside the actual, razor wired facilities thus giving way to a sort of subsidiary system of humanitarian assistance and control.
The location of the hotspots reflects the liminal and abject condition of their inhabitants’ situation created by their uncertain and diffuse legal statuses. In Chios, the hotspot Vial is located in a former factory that now functions as a waste processing plant that is still partially in operation (see Kasparek et al. 2016, referred below). In Leros, the center is part of the larger territory of what used to be an infamous psychiatric hospital, an institution that had caused public outrage across Europe in the late 1980s due to the serious maltreatment and death of thousands of mental patients, and was later used as a concentration camp for thousands of political prisoners during Greece’s dictatorship (1967-1974). I was told that a few houses are still in use for people with mental health problems. Even if they are physically separated and at a distance from the hotspots miniature city of containers, the historical legacy and the symbolic connotations of such places cast their shadow on their present day inmates.
The most serious criticism is of the larger islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios, but on the smaller islands with fewer numbers of arrivals, like Kos and Leros, the situation is no less critical. Several hundred people, especially cases deemed vulnerable like unaccompanied minors, families with children, pregnant women, and sick or elderly persons, are living in hotels and apartments rented and managed by UNHCR and various NGOs. Still, the staff of organizations assisting refugees feels that, although the numbers of arrivals from Turkey have decreased in the last months, the situation has qualitatively worsened. People, they say, are becoming hopeless and desperate.
In Kos an undefined number of people, possibly several hundred – mostly men from Pakistan – opted not to register and went underground. Although clandestine in legal terms, their presence is visible and known to the authorities and the population. Most of them live in the open, squat abandoned sites, or sleep at archaeological sites. Several voices expressed concern about what will happen to them during the winter. I have seen them in small groups strolling along the port, or sitting and silently watching the horizon. Some are said to be working informally in the agricultural or tourist industry for two or three Euro per hour. At some point, they may try to leave the island unnoticed. Because they are not registered, they have no access to the benefits and care provided by humanitarian organizations. The Kos Solidarity group, formed by civil volunteers, played a key role during the large waves of arrivals in 2015. These volunteers provided food and first assistance since the local municipality had withdrawn all help. Now, since initial assistance is not the priority, they organize social and cultural activities with the inhabitants of the hotspots, like theatre games for children and Bollywood film screenings, as well as sharing meals and rides to the beach. In organizing these activities, the volunteers want to interact with people in transit as equals not like the NGOs, who they perceive as reproducing asymmetrical power relations. Members of the group have been repeatedly harassed and are increasingly isolated in the context of the mainly refugee-hostile population of the island, where the number of supporters of the far right party Golden Dawn is said to have doubled in the last year.
Excision: geopolitical experimentation at the borders
The term and the policy of excision were used as a device for border and migration control in the context of Australia’s so-called 2001 “Pacific solution”. In order to deter potential asylum seekers from Asia from reaching its coasts, the Australian government made an unprecedented geopolitical move. Under the Migration Amendment Act (Excision from Migration Zone), a series of islands were defined as “excised offshore places”. This meant that for asylum and migration, refugees first arriving to these islands were declared “offshore entry persons” and were outside the rule of normal domestic law. Disrupting the unity of territory, sovereignty, and rule of law for the sake of excluding a priori potential asylum seekers, Australia enacted what Giorgio Agamben considers the prerogative of the sovereign power to exclude itself from its own rule and produce forms of (bare) life deprived of full juridical-political status.
The geopolitical novum created by the legal excision of part of the territory is now being replicated for certain purposes in the current phase of the EU’s border experimentation. In particular, since the developments from last March, five Greek islands are detached not only from continental Greece but also from other, neighboring islands unaffected by the hotspots regulations. This gives way to new alternative migratory routes, yet paradoxically inside Greek territorial waters. Besides the new risks attached to longer navigation routes, in comparison to the relatively short ride from the Turkish coast, this tendency is creating paradoxical cases of law infringement inside which the legal framework is not completely clear.
In another paradox, the “geographical restriction” also means that border enforcement is displaced onto the interior of Greek jurisdictional space. Thus border control becomes outsourced and privatized and includes the personnel of travel agencies selling ferry tickets to other Greek ports. The latter must now check whether their clients are individuals seeking international protection and if the “geographical restriction” applies to them. I heard reports of fishermen and truck owners who were arrested and sentenced severely condemned for taking people to islands unaffected by the hotspots system. The short trip from Leros to near Kalymnos is said to have cost 900 Euro for the travelers, and a 36-year sentence to the sailor who helped them across. Owners of trailers embarking on ferries to the mainland who had transported hidden asylum seekers also face harsh legal repercussions.
By November 8, 2016, authorities reported around 16, 250 people living under these conditions on the five Greek islands. Since many there are unregistered, and others have left the islands unauthorized, this number can only be an estimate. One thing, however, is certain: If their situation is as desperate as Rasha’s, it is no wonder that they will try to leave.
(*) Published originally in La Frontera, Newsletter of the Association for Borderlands studies, Volume 37, Issue 1, Fall 2016, 30-32. This text is a personal account based mostly on field diary notes of my recent research stay in Leros and Kos and on reports available on line. For more detailed information and analysis of the hotspots, including other islands, see Kasparek, B., M. Antonakaki and G. Maniatis, Counting heads and channelling bodies. The hotspot centre Vial in Chios, 2016, http://transitmigration-2.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ma+bk+gm–vial.hotspot.pdf, Kuster, B. and V. Tsianos, Aus den Augen, aus dem Sinn”. Flüchtlinge und Migranten an den Rändern Europas. Hotspot Lesbos, www.boell.de/publikationen, Tazzioli, M., Concentric cages: the hotspots of Lesvos after the EU-Turkey agreement, https://www.opendemocracy.net/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/martina-tazzioli/concentric-cages-hotspots-of-lesvos-after-eu-turkey, and the contributions by Didier Fassin and Heath Cabot at the series “Refugees and the crisis of Europe” of Cultural Anthropology: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/911-refugees-and-the-crisis-of-europe