Stepping stones to fascism – A winter in Greece

As summer ended in 2015, Europe was rattled by a series of mass-movements across its borders. The moving masses weren’t European, they weren’t in cars or planes and hadn’t received authorization to move. Instead, they did it all by themselves, on their own initiative, on foot. This is how they were received.

The year-long agony that has overcome Europe since can easily be summarized: Give in to the inevitable, contain it, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The crisis of free movement for refugees seemed to have begun in 2015, and it seems to have finished now that the borders of Europe are closed again. These appearances are deceptive. The crisis of 2015 was only a minor protrusion into the European consciousness of a cataclysm that has lasted decades, if not centuries. The mass-movements in Europe in 2015 were in fact not a crisis but the relief of one. By closing the borders – ineffectively, but with determination – the pressure has been put on again.

This is the first of two lectures, aimed at putting the European crisis into its proper historical and political place. This first part follows the events of this winter, as witnessed from a pawn in the volunteer movement. It’ll be interspersed with notes on the political developments that determined the course of events. The driving forces behind those developments will be fleshed out in the second lecture, which deals with the historical and economic backdrop of recent human migration.

My aim is to present how Europe’s colonial history, its bureaucratic structure, and the strange relationship we’ve established with the rest of the world are weaved together – and how they explain our reception of refugees. When they’ve been fully laid out, it should become clear how the specter of fascism arises from this sordid tapestry.

But we begin in a scrubby soup kitchen on a bright and beautiful little island in the Aegean sea.

A winter of dislocation

Going South
For several years I’ve been interested and involved in the cause of refugees in Iceland. I’d also visited Greece after the great disaster of the OXI-referendum to investigate the mood in its aftermath. Seeing a great movement of refugees across this disastrously managed country was something I had to see – so I went to Greece at the end of November and in a couple of days found a soup-kitchen that needed assistance. It was in Samos, the third-largest entry-point for refugees into Greece after Lesvos and Chios.

Vathi, Samos. Photo harvested from Wikimedia Commons.

For a few weeks, I assisted in soup-cooking, handing out several hundred meals every evening to all refugees who wanted them. The distributions could be very straining, tense and difficult, but also immense fun.

Soon we started noticing disturbing developments. A Moroccan, who was assisting in our kitchen, was taken away by police on December 17. When we checked at the police station, an old policeman told us he’d been arrested. Peering into a corridor revealed a room full of refugees  -perhaps 50 in all. The policeman closed the door and hid them from sight. “We’re arresting all the North Africans now,” he said. “You know, really, it’s okay,” he explained. They would go to Athens into a closed detention camp. “It’s good for them, because they will have shelter and be processed there,” he went on. “They are going there because, you know, the North Africans are the ones responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris.”

The day after, the arrests stopped. The prison was full.

I was in Chios while this went on, meeting a group of activists that would later open up a solidarity occupation. It would become a cafe where your papers, if you had any, didn’t matter. Such occupations were an explicit protest against segregation based on nationality, which by this time wasn’t just between refugees and non-refugees, or Europeans and non-Europeans, but also between different nationalities among the arrivals. It won’t come as a surprise to any student of divide-and-conquer tactics, or the human condition generally, that this would later breed ugly fights.

In light of this, it seemed important to me to take the focus off soup-cooking and to start preparing for a struggle against further segregation, isolation, imprisonment and deterrence of refugees. The borders out of Greece were tightening week by week and it seemed only a matter of time before they’d close altogether. I went to Athens to try to build some sort of activist network.

The reasons for the closures have been subject to much angry discussion, most of it about European racism. While that’s certainly part of it, another aspect has been mostly overlooked: the requirements of bureaucracy.

I have a paper, therefore I am
For decades, until 2015, the Greek state had followed an implicit (but very active) policy of ignoring the boat people. They weren’t registered in the Eurodac database, but simply allowed to pass through the country. That route now took them to Macedonia and up the Balkan corridor. This wasn’t to Europe’s liking. The cornerstone of internal freedom of movement in Europe is that everyone in the Schengen area has already been registered according to Schengen standards. A million undocumented people bursting into this standardized zone was a bureaucratic problem, no less than a racist one.

An interview with the head of Frontex this winter is illustrative. You’d expect him, the embodiment of Fortress Europe, to be a rabid anti-refugee agent – but no. “Fundamentally, I am of the opinion that we have to establish legal means for refugees to reach the EU,” he told Die Zeit in March. His reasoning was simple. His agency would have an easier time if there were fewer people trying to get in illegally. This is the logic of bureaucracy: Make registration simple, so people don’t try to skip it. It’s only when you combine the bureaucratic mindset with racism that you get the horrific policies of this winter.

One of them was manifested in a threat from the European Commission – under pressure from the North of Europe – against the southern border countries: Use force to fingerprint the refugees, or we’ll throw you out of Schengen. Greece complied, increasing the registration rate from 8% in September 2015 to 78% in January 2016.

Shoving aside volunteers
As the state strengthened its grip on the migration flow, harassment of volunteers became more frequent. In January, a member of the solidarity cafe in Chios was arrested and charged with espionage for taking a photo of a Frontex boat. The day after, five life-guards who had been dragging drowning people out of the ocean were arrested and charged with human trafficking. (Ironically, rescue workers are often suspected of human trafficking, while the only time most refugees are moved against their will is when they get deported by the state.) Seven volunteers had also been arrested for theft in Lesvos for collecting life-jackets from a trash heap. They had wanted to make softer beds for refugees.

BRF workers climb one of the life-jacket mountains. Photo from Kathimerini.

I had by the end of January tried to facilitate volunteers’ organizations in Athens, with little success. To find more people, to learn and report, I went on a tour to visit the various crises caused by closing borders. Before leaving I wrote a plea to volunteers to look up from the blankets and soup and prepare for the worst.

An appeal, excerpted
We have been cooking soup, distributing blankets, giving information, warmth, food and hope. We’ve tried to bring a human face to the Balkan route. The support has been staggering, seeing the solidarity has been beautiful. But we are on the wrong track. While we are providing aid and saving lives on the ground, politicians up high in the glass towers of Brussels have been hard at work getting over their differences in order to contain, regulate, close up and slow down the arrival of foreigners in Europe. Migrants are step by step being put away in camps and prisons, contained like a disease, to protect Europe from exposure. This is the brutal face of bureaucracy and order, regulation and isolation, which tolerates no independent assistance, no independent information, no independent contact.

The micromanaging states of Europe want this disaster of irregularity, chaos and non-registration to end. Better a drowned refugee than an unregistered one. Better an imprisoned child than a smuggled one. Keep THEM in those white boxes and keep those white boxes in barbed-wire fences and have registered and ordered volunteers keep refugees in line. Sort them by nationality, gender, age, vulnerability, take their fingerprints and check just HOW MUCH they suffered, because we don’t accept just anyone here, you know. Write their number on their hand, tag their fingernails, count the cups of soup they get, stamp their papers, give them thirty days to get to Level 2 or it’s Game Over. Then their journey begins again, and when they get here next time, the open camp will be a detention center, the food-distributor a prison guard, the registration will be for a flight back home. And where will we, the soup-cookers and clothes-distributors, be then?

We have to be prepared for Europe to try, haphazardly and fumbling, but with the determination of a mad drunkard, to lock up refugees and stop their coming here. Europe’s two ventricles of racist society and control-freak bureaucracy reinforce each other, pumping their insidious ideology across the continent.

Europe has built itself assuming it was safe from foreigners. Now it’s in existential crisis. And as a rat stuck in a corner, it will rip apart anything and everything to save itself. It won’t spare any right, it will break any refugee, that stands in its way.

We have to be prepared for this. The state has benefited from our providing wet arrivals with dry clothes, giving hungry camp-dwellers food, distributing blankets to freezing people sleeping under the starry sky. But now we are in the way. We are giving people a reason to care. We are building relations with those who are not supposed to be here. Now we are the targets.

Europe is giving itself two months to save itself. What will we do?

Drown them
Around the same time, the Greek minister for migration made a remarkable appearance on BBC Newsnight.

There are several noteworthy comments there. First there is the enthusiastic (and endlessly repeated) idea of “temporary camps”. While this sounds great, you have to remember that all refugee camps are called “temporary”. Virtually none of them are. They are always built under the pretense that they’re just about to go, even while people are born, live and die there. Whenever someone says “temporary refugee camp”, think twice.

Secondly, he makes a point about unilateralism. It had a special resonance in Greece at this time. Austria had invited other Balkan nations, but not Greece, to a crisis meeting about migration a few days earlier. Just before, also without consulting Greece, Austria set an upper limit to refugee intake at its borders. Greece was becoming a pariah in Europe.

Thirdly, notice that Mouzalas says the refugees would be prisoners. This was an ominous point which many volunteers were by now well aware of: The risk that the refugee flow would be stopped not with peace, but prisons.

Shutting the doors

The leper colony
Some fifty years ago, two thousand humans were brought to Leros in chains. They were people with mental, physical or social problems. The island, which had in older times been a leper colony, and had housed political prisoners under the fascist junta, was to become a storage for them.

With virtually no qualified care, the mentally ill were kept there – some chained down, some naked, some just rolling back and forth in their beds year after year.

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One of the workers speaks his mind in the film Island of Outcasts.

Over the decades, thousands of inmates died there. A British mental health advocate commented, in the excellent 1990 film Island of Outcasts, that “it is called a hospital, and this leads one to feel that there might be doctors and nurses, and some form of care.” This, however, wasn’t the case. “It resembles far more a concentration camp.”

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The film records the extraordinary degradation that people’s behavior suffers when subjected to violent oppression, our absolute breakdown when we are robbed of our dignity. It also shows how easy it is to distort benevolent institutions and turn them into butcheries of the human spirit.

For instance, the chief psychiatrist tried once to take several inmates from the worst part of the institution – the “Pavilion of the Naked” – and give them clothes, kind support and a beautiful, well-painted house to live in. Some of them regained speech and the capacity to feed themselves within days. The experiment was cut short due to lack of funding.


As late as 2009, the BBC noted that after twenty years there was “evidence that in some parts of the system little has changed.” A resident psychiatrist at an Athens clinic told the BBC that women were sometimes strapped down overnight with leather belts to prevent them walking about. “Just like a dog you tie up to stop it wandering off,” he said, adding that one could call this a “veterinary approach to psychiatry.” Some inmates, the BBC was told, might well end up tied to their bed for years due to staff shortages.

This history explains why it caught some attention in Greece when migration minister Mouzalas, in December 2015, made a deal with the local authorities of Leros. The grounds of the notorious former “hospital” were to house a detention facility for newly arrived refugees – a hotspot. On the field where the imprisoned ill had been made to walk aimlessly year after year with no recreation white boxes and barbed wire were set up to house and contain non-Europeans.

The hotspot in Leros.

Your finger, please
The hotspots are Europe’s main tool to make migration regular. You put sans-papieres in on one end, and on the other you get a differentiated flow of the Vulnerable, the Vetted and the Vile. It’s an identification factory with outputs that bureaucracy recognizes: relocation, rescue or return. It’s an excel-form come to life, a registration flowchart carved in concrete and steel. The bodies of migrants are digitized – their fingers incorporated into the EU’s databases. To free themselves from the invisible borders of bureaucracy, refugees later tried to burn their fingerprints or pour solvent on them or cut them off. By forcing people to be not just verbally but physically registered, their own bodies are used against them.

The hotspot in Leros opened in late February. I arrived there a few days after it opened, and managed to sneak in past the uniformed guards. The place was stark and lifeless, with people walking about, waiting for their papers. The process took a few days, after which you could travel to Athens and, hopefully, out of Greece. The nationalities that were by now being contained in Greece – North Africans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi and so on – were, I think, not allowed out. What happened with them I don’t know. Possibly they were moved to prisons on the mainland. Maybe they were kept contained until they could be deported.

Inside the hotspot.

When the first refugees came there, they were kept outside for a day, sitting on concrete, while each and every one got registered. The army handed out a bit of water, but when some people threw their cups on the ground, instead of in the garbage can, the distribution was stopped. One volunteer told me later: “I was just talking with one of the refugees about where they came from, a two minute conversation, when a guard told me that if I was there to chat, I should leave. We were only supposed to find out what they needed and then go.” Several volunteers said they didn’t dare protest or criticize the hotspot publicly for fear of being banned from working there.

The deal with Turkey
As spring came, EU politicians grew desperate. No solution had been found that could close the borders. It was time for a bold move. On March 17, a deal was proposed by Germany. All refugees were to be detained on arrival, and no “leave-papers” would be handed out. The asylum claims would be processed fully in Greece – in the hotspots. Germany demanded that Greece would legally declare Turkey a “safe third country” (never mind the reality). This would make it legally possible to reject more or less all the asylum applications, and to subsequently deport more or less everyone from the hotspots. For every Syrian deported to Turkey, Europe would take one scanned, registered and vetted soul from a Turkish refugee camp and relocate them to Europe. Since this scheme was calculated to stop the refugee flow, that number would, in any case, be low.

This deal was signed the day after, Friday, March 18, and was to take effect on Sunday morning at midnight. That gave the Greek authorities Friday afternoon and Saturday to clear the islands of refugees, completely reorganize the hotspots and to revolutionize its asylum system and legislation.

It is hard to overstate just how ridiculously impossible this plan was. The EU has for years tried, and failed, to reform the Greek state. In desperation, it has partly taken over the Greek taxation system and its privatization program and it reserves a veto power over legislation there. Now, overnight, Europe expected to wake up to a new, super-efficient Greek bureaucracy.

If this sounds implausible to you, I don’t blame you. Presumably, this wasn’t quite the whole story. More likely is that the Northern European nations just didn’t care what happened in Greece after the borders closed. So long as the refugees stayed off the mainland, all was well. The obviously foreseeable catastrophes implicit in the agreement would be Greece’s to deal with and defend publicly.

March 20
As the deal went into effect, I was racing across Turkey on a rickety old borrowed car, drinking caffeinated sodas and eating salted nuts. A ferry would leave for Chios in the morning, and I intended to be on it. What would the deal look like in practice? There was only one way to find out.

As the ferry arrived in Chios, I saw refugees sitting in the port. They were put on a bus and driven to prison, about 7 kilometers from the island’s capital city. I found out in the following days that the refugees were being charged three euros for the ride.

The day after, I went with Soli Cafe to distribute biscuits, apples and sanitary products at the prison – Vial – in order to speak with the inmates. We didn’t ask for permission to go in (and wouldn’t have received it) but went straight to the fence instead.

Distributing toothbrushes to children in Vial, March 21, 2016.

We talked with people there as dusk set in, and explained to them the new agreement with Turkey. Most of them clearly hadn’t heard of it and were shocked and distraught.

The asylum process
The authorities in the camp had no idea what they were doing. A social worker from the First Reception Service even said so herself. When I talked to her, shortly after making the video above, her day had been a haze of stress and confusion. The army, who previously ran the camp, had left. Most NGOs had been thrown out. All procedures and even basic knowledge about where things like keys were kept disappeared with them.

When we went there, we always emphasized to the prisoners the necessity of applying for asylum. It’s difficult to do, when you have people that desperately want to go on, but if they didn’t apply, they could simply be deported. As it turned out, pretty much everyone wanted to apply for asylum, even in Greece, rather than go back.

But the police in the hotspots didn’t know what to do with the asylum requests. They put up a poster telling people the procedure wasn’t available, but even that took half a week.

Photo taken in Vial on March 25, 2016.

During the next few days, people who came to Vial – the refugee prison – without going through the police first were sometimes shown away,  sometimes detained, and sometimes they had all their documents registered. It was a difficult dilemma for most volunteers, whether to suffer this or, instead, cooperate with the imprisonment of refugees. MSF and NRC didn’t, and UNHCR only kept staff in the hotspots for oversight – not for camp work. On the other hand, keeping an eye on what went on inside day to day was important, and some volunteers who continued working in hotspots did so with that in mind.

The risk some of us had seen in Leros was that we’d become facilitators of cruel practices, which certainly did happen in various places and various ways this winter. And apart from that, the main issue for refugees wasn’t how they could stay in hotspots with more comfort. They wanted to move on. Volunteers who called themselves “non-political” would say that that wasn’t possible, but as a matter of fact it was. Refugees just had to break the law – as they had done when they came illegally to Greece.

It quickly became clear that “non-political” volunteering tended to mean volunteering without questioning authority, taking its orders and laws as a given. That obviously didn’t help refugees, except when their wishes aligned with the police’s – a police that was being employed to stop refugees getting to Europe.

Dying slowly

A long chapter now started that at the time of writing, in early September 2016, still isn’t closed: The interminable, miserable waiting in the “temporary” camps, the regimentation and moving about of refugees against their wishes. By now you’d regularly hear them saying that they felt like beasts under the eyes of police, that instead of dying quickly in war, they were now dying slowly in camps. (This calls to mind the “veterinary approach” of unreformed psychiatry and the joyless waiting for death in the “hospital” in Leros.)

After the deal with Turkey, the borders out of Greece had been completely shut by the Northern European nations. (Macedonia, under pressure and with assistance from Austria and Hungary was the main agent.) Tens of thousands of refugees were now stuck on the mainland, and several thousand had arrived after the deal on the islands. They were now being held in the hotspots.

The most famous mainland camp was Idomeni, an unofficial and messy place literally on the Macedonian border, where refugees had good access to media and volunteers, and could stage frequent protests – which was a nuisance for the authorities. The humanitarian situation was not too good, but politically and psychologically it was better than the regimentation of the hotspots. Freedom matters, after all. The location, at the border post, was also significant. There was another camp just a few kilometers away, but nobody wanted to be there. You wanted to be at the border, a stone’s throw from your next destination.

Fights and a breakout
In Chios, the sudden removal of this freedom caused foreseeable frustrations and tensions. Refugees have been flowing through Chios for decades, feeling mostly okay about their journey. Even the short-term detention on arrival this spring didn’t cause much stress. People knew they’d go on soon enough, and all would be well. Now things were different. Their travels had been forcefully stopped, their dreams ground to dust. It seemed the only way out of prison was deportation. The relentless division among nationalities that had been intensifying all winter now bore fruit. Syrians started blaming Afghans for the border closures, saying that they were using the Syrians’ plight to free-ride into Europe. Afghans, on the other hand, said that Syrians had only suffered a little bit of bombing – Afghanistan had been at war for decades.

It didn’t help that the two  nationalities have different languages, and that Afghans are generally much poorer than Syrians. Syrian condescension toward Afghans mounted. People took to drinking away their misery. Fights broke out repeatedly. You see, it’s not just the disabled whose spirit is broken when you rob them of their life and dreams. In the Leros institution, the so-called “hospital”, people would lose their capacity for speech, for eating, they’d get depressed and introverted. Now, the same methods were being applied, all over the Greek islands – all over Europe – to foreigners. And the effect was to degrade the prisoners.

Ten days after the mass-imprisonment started, people in Vial had had enough. About 800 inmates -mostly Syrian – broke out and walked to the city. They went straight to the port, occupied it, and declared that they wanted to leave.

The authorities immediately offered them an open camp to stay in. Though some accepted the offer, most wanted to remain in the port. The possibility of movement, however remote, was more important than comfort. And they didn’t feel like staying in any sort of camp, anyway.

The local mood turns sour
This action demonstrated the flaws in the advice that NGOs, UNHCR staff and detention center volunteers gave refugees: That they should stay calm. The simple truth is, you don’t beat injustice by accepting it. On the contrary, you gain concessions and protect your rights by defying it, by disobeying, by doing what is right even though you’re told you can’t.

Loud and regular protests, lots of media interviews and a great exuberance of communication now started with the people in the port. “The port is very important for Greeks, we know that,” a Syrian schoolteacher, Wassim Omar, told me. “But we chose it because, here, maybe our voice gets heard more clearly than in the camps.”



It certainly did. Refugees were now visible, but also in the way. The Athens ferry was redirected to the other side of the island for several days and food distributions by volunteers began at the port.

In the preceding weeks, people in the capital of Chios had heard stories from around Vial, from farmers near the prison. Refugees were sneaking out and eating their produce. “Yesterday I ate a potato from a farm near here. We made a fire and threw it in,” one refugee told me. “And I ate a tomato. It was tiny and green.”

“But a farmer told me he already lost 15,000€ because of us,” he added. While this is implausibly high, there’s no doubt that considerable losses were suffered by the farmers on Chios, on top of a very dry spring and a complete collapse in tourism. “From today, I won’t eat their vegetables anymore,” the refugee told me. “I was a farmer in Afghanistan, I understand.”

Suffering losses on farms was bad enough – but the port was supposed to be the lifeline of the island and an entry point for tourists. Instead, it was occupied by Muslims in tents. And that wasn’t even the worst part.

Something snaps
A few days after the port occupation started, the first deportations to Turkey were due. Several dozen refugees were moved from Vial to Tabakika, a warehouse close to the port. People who lived nearby did not want their neighborhood to become part of the migrant processing in  Chios, and they tried to stop the transport. Riot police, which had just been brought in from Athens, arrived on the scene. And then his happened.

You can see the shock and dismay of the protesters. One of them (2’10”) shouts at the riot police: “You came here to beat them [the refugees], the criminals, and you beat us [instead]!” Also: “Are you Greeks?! Dogs! Get out of here!”

The morning after, the refugees were loaded onto a boat in the international port. On the occupied domestic port, refugees watched the scene with apprehension.

Dawn in Chios as deportations begin on April 4, 2016.

Those who got deported that sunny Monday morning were supposedly the very few souls who hadn’t applied for asylum. As a matter of fact the proceedings were “riddled with abuse.” Thirteen people were “accidentally” deported even though they had applied for asylum. The whole thing was “rushed, chaotic, and violated the rights of those deported,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Even though the asylum process had finally gotten to a rickety start, there seemed to be great pressure on Greece to make them a mere charade. At that time the Greek asylum boards, who decide on asylum applications, consisted of one judge, one human rights lawyer and a UNHCR representative. They later ruled, sensibly enough, that Turkey was not a “safe third country”, as the EU had hoped. In response, the Northern European states forced Greece to remove the human rights representative.

The EU has since tried to establish a harmonized asylum process over the whole of Europe with the aim of overruling such aberrations in the future.

And that wasn’t all. The head of the Greek Asylum Service stated, in an interview with IRIN, that “insufferable pressure is being put on us to reduce our standards and minimize the guarantees of the asylum process.” Greece was being asked “to change our laws, to change our standards to the lowest possible under the EU directive [on asylum procedures].” The pressure, she indicated, was coming from Germany.

A mob takes charge
After the riot police incident, fury in Chios over the island’s predicament boiled over. Athens was taking orders from Brussels, Chios was taking orders from Athens, and now uppity refugees had a stranglehold on the capital. Where was the democracy? Where was the pride? A protest was called for the next meeting of the municipal council, and the crowd disrupted the meeting several times. The next day a mob gathered at the port occupation and terrorized the refugees for hours.

The slim man in the suit, clapping and shouting at the refugees, is the mayor. At one point he called out: “You come with me or you go with them,” pointing his finger at the mob. Presumably he did it out of frenzied anxiety, but  you’d be forgiven for thinking it was tactical brilliance at work. He got rid of the port occupation, and didn’t need to request an ugly clearance by the riot police. A few hours after midnight, the occupation was gone. Five refugee leaders were taken to prison and beaten up, charged with trespassing and other crimes, and sentenced the day after without having a lawyer present.

The complicity of the police and Coast Guard in that evening’s events was more than passive. Policemen could be seen chummily chatting with the crowd, and the Union of Coast Guard officials discharged a hysterical press release defending the acts of the mob. Mob leaders beat their chests on Facebook the day after with exclamations such as “Good morning Chios! The port again belongs to the Chian people! Congratulations to Chian fighters and those who’ve helped!” Both they and the Coast Guard presented the mob’s actions as direct democracy – a long dialogue, ending with a peaceful resolution – where the views of local people prevailed.

The dreary protracted end
For Chios, this is where the current situation firmly set in. Refugees were bused to camps, where they’ve lived since in squalor and mud, waiting for their cases to be whitewashed by the reformed Asylum Board – waiting to be deported. One of them told me, shortly after the eviction: “Nobody talks with us now. The media? Gone.” Another added in a resigned tone; “Here we just eat and sleep, eat and sleep. And wait.”

There was one final event, which had long been looming, that underlined the absurdity of “non-political” volunteering. On May 24, the eviction of Idomeni started.

It didn’t happen because refugees wanted it. They weren’t asked, as their opinion was irrelevant. The state wanted this eyesore on civilization cleaned, the inhabitants boxed up somewhere out of sight. Military camps had been built, but for weeks, refugees had refused to go there voluntarily.

All journalists, activists and volunteers were to leave the area. Police picked them out and removed them. A friend of mine is Iranian-born and stayed inside the camp during the two-day eviction, witnessing how it happened. People were herded out like cattle, not told where their bus was going, their tents bulldozed as soon as they had left. The camps that they were brought to were military installations, very similar to the hotspots on the islands. In case people didn’t want to leave, food and water was cut off. And yet, volunteers were saying this was for the best.

refugee autonomy - Copy
From one of the main refugee support chatrooms. The administrators agreed with the tactic of “persuasion”.

It would seem that for some people, volunteering consists of finding a good way for a refugee to live and behave, and then make them. The fact that they were being moved violently wasn’t more than an inconvenience. Refugees are being treated like animals, and they know it. When they talk of freedom and political statements, non-political volunteers turn a deaf ear. They want to provide comfort, not challenge our society.

Refugees have to be crying, starving, shouting or drowning for there to be a story. As soon as “humanitarianism” has enveloped them in its suffocating embrace, they’re off the front page – and can wait silently for deportation. And thus, it ends up achieving its opposite. By removing refugees from the political and media scene at the Chios port, by evicting them from Idomeni, from the squares and from the parks, by giving them just enough food to stave off starvation, the authorities have managed to shut them up.

Stepping stones to fascism – A winter in Greece

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