Neoliberalizing EU Southern Border Zones

An interview with Athanasios Marvakis

Borders are products of human activity. To see borders you have to see who the subjects are, what are their purposes and how they organize their lives, how society is organized, what are the institutions, who are the individuals, what do they want, what are they dreaming of…. borders are not one thing.

-Athanasios Marvakis

The European Unions policies about border control and movement and the more recent agreement with Turkey (March 20th, 2016) has produced many effects. Attempts to reduce migration to Europe has created increasing dangers for refugees trying to cross borders into European soil as well as producing ‘hotspots’ where thousands sit in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands and in Northern Greece. What is missing in much of the media and political rhetoric about the ‘refugee crisis’ is a grounded and historically based analysis that can help us understand that border zones are also produced by institutions and private neoliberal interests who are in the business of turning crisis into opportunity. In a recent trip I made to some of the refugee hotspots in Greece I had the opportunity to speak with Athanasios Marvakis, a professor of Clinical Social Psychology at the School of Primary Education at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. Marvakis asks the critical questions about how ‘border zones’ actually work and are created: who is invested in what practices and how these actors together create the complex and contradictory realities that are produced. Marvakis repeats several times during the interview, these are questions that he and other critical social researchers and activists have raised over the years and all too often, in terms of policy and practice; ‘nobody is listening’. This article is a summary of his argument that recent changes in EU policies and practices in EU borders zones are a deepening of the neoliberalization of these zones increasing the perils and ‘blood tax’ of moving towards safety.

Marvakis suggests that if we start our analysis from the reality of what drives and motivates the different organizations and groups involved in forming the conditions, interventions and contingencies that impact the flow of people into Europe we have a much better chance of making sense of the often hypocritical, tragic and contradictory results. For obvious reasons, the realities of how border zones are created by these often competitive interests is not as pleasant as popular media versions of the humanitarian crisis. Given the disastrous conditions that most refugees face in the journey towards and in Europe, it is less than flattering to see that the most important decisions and interventions that effect a refugees quality of life and ability to move forward are to a large degree dependent on the competing economic and political interests of those in power. Marvakis emphasizes that refugees are in essence a ‘material’ and potential market to many, an object of their interests as can be seen in examples such as the testing of new surveillance technologies, coordinated border regulation regimes, smugglers business interests, political agendas of governments as well as NGO’s who provide assistance and relief aid and rescue. Of course, in addition a part of our analysis must be about how and where ‘refugees’ exert their force in their efforts to move forward, navigate border contingencies and at times resist and contest the obstacles they encounter.

Neoliberalizing Turkish/Greek Border Zones

“Neoliberalism” is doing much more than transforming the “economies” of nations around the world. In fact, in Greece precarity and austerity have ensued soon after the draconian neo-liberal adjustments. Such impacts are not only articulations or outgrowths of particular policies but also tools in the imposition of a fundamental reconfiguration of our “social imagination” impacting all aspects of society’s organization: institutions, organization of labor, individuals, needs, rights etc. The entire scheme of what and how society ought to look like has been reconfigured from anew.

Those that begin the journey for survival by heading north towards Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and other areas of the region become a ‘material’ that particular organizations both public private attempt to manage and impact in relation to their own self interests. These interventions can be negative and exploitative or ‘helpful’ and appreciated by those ‘refugees’ that are impacted, as in the case of NGO’s that distribute food, or rescue missions that save lives. Yet to be accurate in any analysis of how border zones are produced, we must see what these self interests are in spite of the fact that everyone involved can legitimize their actions by claiming that what they do is essentially for the refugees benefit.

It is all to easy to imagine that only smugglers are acting in self interest, that only they take payments in each step of a refugees journey. Europeans and international organizations are quick to condemn these practices yet avoid the reality that increasing attempts to close EU borders to protect particular European interests lead to the suffering and deaths of thousands. This can be seen in the dramatic case of those that drown in faulty smugglers boats in the Mediterranean or the more pervasive suffering from the day to day haunting stress of trying to survive with no legal papers or rights in foreign countries, or the health impacts from trauma and inhumane living conditions in precarious holding zones camps.

From this vantage point Marvakis clarifies that the dominant interests reforming the interventions around the regulation and control of refugee movement are a part of the larger neoliberalization of the Greek society and Europe. Neoliberalism demands a strong State according to Marvakis, but in a new function, to organize and open opportunities for individual profit. He states that those in power are ‘using the refugee situation for reshaping the function of the state within the bigger neoliberal transformation of Greek and European society’.

The desire of massive numbers of people fleeing war and poverty to move into the European economic zone creates new opportunities for the privatization of a multitude of services and sectors. Marvakis points to the dramatic example of the increase in the surveillance industry in EU border zones where millions of euros are being funneled to buy, maintain and use the most up to date and sophisticated surveillance equipment along the border zones [1]. He says in this example we can see how the popular media and political discourse that highlights tensions between Turkey and the EU are often propaganda, used by Europe to try to distance itself from the authoritarian regime of the current Turkish government. ‘Turkey, Greece and the European Union have been working together quiet well’, Marvakis states. He sees the latest EU-Turkey agreement as only a next step in the coordination of both sides in testing new types of border surveillance regimes. Turkey now allows NATO boats to use new surveillance technologies including infrared and CO2 monitoring along the Turkish coast as they have along the northern land boarder (along the Evros river) [2]. This cooperative arrangement creates not only new profits for private companies which supply the technology but also extends a new type of border zone in which both countries are able to extend their monitoring and regulation zones, as a cooperative venture. This also produces as Marvakis says, new “surveillance knowledge”[3]. As the dynamics of border zones shift and change, as with any market, the interested agents adapt and find new ways to take advantage of these changes. In this way the movement of bodies in border zones present ample and new opportunities for military, political and private interests.

Illegal Economies and ‘Blutzoll’: the Blood Tax

The politics (of Border zones) are just raising this ‘Blutzoll’ [4], raising the price that has to be paid in order to move, to pass over the borders and to try to find security and safety. The interest rate is going up. It’s a customs tax, it’s a tax for trans-border passing.

Marvakis does not hesitate to say that the manner in which the EU and its various States manage refugee movement is illegal; his outrage is controlled but clear. In the case of ‘refugees’, economic policies and agreements to tighten movement in border zones can become harsh realities for those attempting to move on the ground or by sea. When asked about a news report of a family of five that had recently drown trying to cross the sea to Lesvos, Marvakis comments that these deaths are a ‘blood’ tax or customs tax that refugees have to pay for some to find safety in Europe [5].

Marvakis says the fact is that as the journey to Europe is made more difficult by new regimes of control and regulation the risks get higher for those who have little choice but to continue onward. The daily news of deaths on the sea continue as it become more difficult to cross the Aegean Sea to reach Greek waters. Just as deadly barbed wire and manned fences were built on the northern Greek borders meant ‘refugees’ had to brave much longer and dangerous crossings from elsewhere. The tax for movement was again raised.

No Borders

‘No Borders’ is a slogan and a demand for the future and where we want to arrive. We have the idea that capital can move freely but people not.

Activists and academics for over twenty years have been challenging and putting into question how EU border zones are being produced, regulated and contested as Neoliberal practices have continued to expand and develop. The No Borders movement [6] is comprised of a diverse and broad spectrum of activists who oppose the practice of border restrictions. One group active in the No Borders movement is the Moving Europe coalition composed of critical activists who have been outlining, supporting and mapping the movement of migrants towards and through Europe [7]. The common ideology shared in the No Borders movement is the demand for the freedom for everyone to move across borders and the critical questioning and analysis of border regimes, their compositions and functions. Their position is far more radical than humanitarian calls to ‘save the poor refugees’ or even an anti-establishment calls for a more socialist or egalitarian social structure. The one consistent fact is that as ‘refugees’ they are increasingly made ‘illegal’ and have to rely on the increasingly narrow ‘legal’ process of asylum (often undefined and potentially unsuccessful) or increasingly act as criminals and move across Europe in any manner they can. The later fuels a thriving smuggling economy as well as fulfills the need for cheap and unprotected labor for select industries in Europe (as well as border countries such as Turkey, Iraq, etc.). He goes on to clarify that the EU-Turkey deal and other such efforts to ‘close’ borders merely create the conditions for new industries of intervention, thus the market prospects appear endless.

Epilogue: State assaults on collective ‘refugee’ support centers

The state is now finally fully active in the refugee “issue” – after decades of nearly total absence. It now is actively enforcing and imposing only one policy – theirs: to make the refugees unable to access social space. It is a very brutal “population management”… making them vulnerable to individual or collective exploitation and attack (like the fascist attacks – which wouldn’t be possible if the immigrants weren’t so alone and isolated, without real access to protection).

As this article was being written in Thessaloniki, Greece, a No Borders Camp took place on the Aristotle campus where thousands of activists and ‘refugees’ all over Europe gathered together to discuss strategies for breaking the regulation regimes of EU Borders. No sooner did the camp end on July 24th, 2016, then the Syriza government and municipality of Thessaloniki began a concentrated assault on three collectively run centers for ‘refugees’ in the city. In an unprecedented manner the Greek police evicted and relocated hundreds of refugees to local ‘camps’ in the area [8]. Those ‘refugees’ evicted had enjoyed access to some of the few community based collective spaces in the city where they had dignified living conditions and shared community with local Greek residents and activists who supported and helped organize the residences. In the case of one center, the Orfanotrofeio [9], residents were thrown out and then immediately bulldozers came and destroyed the building. This was a clear assault by the government on any ‘solution’ but their own ‘camps’ for the ‘refugees’, the same regime of regulation and control that has trapped refugees in squalor conditions for months and even years. Marvakis sees this as another step in an escalation and deepening of the neoliberalization that has been driving policy and practice in transformations of the EU border regimes for decades. It is essentially an expansion of the States role in enforcing the ‘one solution’ to the crisis, the neoliberal option.

Marvakis is clear that the alternative to the expansion of the neoliberal ‘refugee’ regime requires a disruption and breakdown of the competitive profit forces that increasingly dominate social relations and economics. Alternative social relations based on collective interests are obvious solutions and directions, yet to be actualized there is an essential struggle that must take place around freedom of movement. No Borders is the radical realization of collectivity and an alternative to increased regulation and ‘shutting’ of borders in Europe.

Athanasios Marvakis is a professor of Clinical Social Psychology at the School of Primary Education at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. His interests revolve around psychology and its relations with various forms of social inequalities and social exclusion (e.g., racism, nationalism, ethnicism, multiculturalism), including youth as a social group and migrants in Greece. He currently has been focused on the critical psychology of learning, the ‘schooling-complex’ and the neoliberalisation of the psychological regime.


1 Frontex, the main EU budgeted surveillance and border control unit increased its budget by 51% in 2015 to a total of approximately 150 million euros.



3 http://theconversation.com/who-are-natos-ships-in-the-aegean-really-keeping-an-eye-on-54665

4 Blood tax. http://www.dict.cc/german-english/Blutzoll.html

5 http://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2016/07/13/two-children-two-adults-drowned-trying-to-reach-lesvos/

6 https://www.facebook.com/No-Border-Camp-Thessaloniki-2016-981068598674265/

7 http://moving-europe.org/

8 https://openborder.noblogs.org/post/2016/07/29/report-from-thessaloniki-on-recent-squat-evictions-and-court-cases-against-activist/

9 https://www.facebook.com/katalipsistegismetanastonorfanotrofeio/

Matthew Jacobson is a writer, photojournalist and videographer currently traveling and working in the Southern European border zones. His work can be found at www.jacobmatthews.org