The Camps of Lesbos

Europe’s biggest camp, in Moria, Lesbos, with refugees mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a microcosm of a global system of cruelty to refugees

From the Bronze Age to the Byzantine era the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean Sea consisted of several thriving city-states and was famous in antiquity for its wine and culture. Its history, through to the present day, has been shaped by its location at the edge of the Greek world, separated from Turkey by the narrow Mytilini Strait, with a maximum width of eight nautical miles. Its eminent early inhabitants included the poet Sappho, the philosopher Theophrastus, and the sage and statesman Pittacus of Mytilene. Lesbos appears in the Odyssey and the Iliad and is said to be where the head of Orpheus washed up, with his lyre, after he was torn to pieces by a pack of frenzied Maenads. In recent times, thanks to crystalline waters, picturesque villages, the famous petrified forest, and medieval fortress, its economy has depended on tourism but the visitors arriving right now haven’t come to take selfies against a backdrop of ancient walls besieged by Achilles. Numbering approximately 20,000, they are among some 42,000 refugees scattered around the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos, prisoners in a tourist paradise of the EU containment policy.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there are more than 25.9 million refugees in the world. They have survived all kinds of horrors, have had to flee, and face many perils only to face different dangers in places they hoped would offer succor and safety. As national governments are adopting emergency measures against coronavirus to protect public health, international protection for refugees is being undermined as the right to seek asylum is being suspended together with the legal norms that are supposed to protect them. Aren’t refugees “public” too? Don’t they have a right to health? They do, but in these times, they are the disease because using disease as a metaphor is an old nativist ploy which, with “scientific” presumption, is used to stigmatize people who are already doomed to exclusion and ill-treatment.

Europe’s biggest camp, in Moria, Lesbos, with refugees mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a microcosm of a global system of cruelty to refugees. It is filled to six times overcapacity. Malnourished people sleep in tents and meningitis, flu, tuberculosis, scabies, and lice flourish in horrendous conditions of hygiene and lack of healthcare. In one part of the camp, there is only one toilet for 167 people. They are depressed and under severe psychological stress. Some children are suicidal. Rape is common, as are fights, stabbings, and even murder. Now that Lesbos has announced its first coronavirus cases, authorities are trying to isolate the camp, even though doctors agree that it is the perfect breeding ground for the virus and calls are being made to evacuate the refugees.

Camps like Moria are lawless, inside and out. They represent flagrant violation of international law on refugee rights, including that to safe asylum, and others accorded to any other foreigner who is a legal resident. Anyone who seeks asylum at the border has a legal right to a hearing under international law, to access to medical care and schooling, as well as the right to work. The Greek islands, left to cope alone, have no resources to guarantee those rights. And there is no intention to guarantee them. This deprival of rights is a form of murder. As Karl Heinzen wrote in his pamphlet “Murder and Liberty” (1853), “There are a number of technical expressions for the important manipulation by which one man destroys the life of another. […] The means, the pretexts, and the causes differ; but the object is always the same, viz., the annihilation of a hostile or inconvenient human life.” The Trump supporter who yelled, “Shoot ’em!” understood this. Now politicians want to lock down the camps. How many see coronavirus as a silver bullet?

On 2 March this year, on the western bank of the Evros River (on Turkish soil) bullets, shot by Greek security forces, took the life of Mohammed Yaarub, a 22-year-old from Aleppo. The following day, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, praised Greece for the support given by its security forces, including a secret, extrajudicial black site on the mainland where refugees or “migrants” are held incommunicado, beaten, and stripped of their belongings before being returned to Turkey without due process. The lawlessness is becoming more blatant. Recently, the Greek coastguard, supposedly a lifesaving institution, was filmed charging a loaded dinghy, attacking it with poles, and firing shots.

Camps, set up as contingent measures to “help” refugees become militarized, permanent mechanisms of exclusion, using the legal limbo of their emergency status and physical isolation to install a system of “mass detention without trial” as Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, describes it. Not only detainees are affected but local inhabitants, too, are sacrificed to the system. Society in Lesbos is strained to breaking point. At the end of 2019 when local people resisted the construction of another large camp, fearing it would end up as a Greek Guantánamo, the government brought in three hundred special police forces. They were eventually withdrawn but, more recently, far-right thugs from Germany and Austria arrived to “defend the border” by attacking journalists and aid workers.

The Guantánamo camp comparison is apt because temporary camps easily become permanent, mainly because of their extrajudicial status. In the 1990s, it was used for refugees from Haiti and Cuba. Then, within a gray area of US law, it was easy to turn it into a site for indefinite detention, perfect for locking away the Bush administration’s terror suspects. If camps exist, they’ll be used, especially when they’re cloaked in legal obscurity. Understanding the Guantánamo comparison, residents and refugees in Moria know that the prospects of that camp being closed any time soon are bleak.

Refugees are processed in a way that presents every possible obstacle to adjudicating asylum claims so paperwork morphs into endless detention, as Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, not a man noted for finesse, boasted: “If you choose not to go home, then you will spend a very, very long time here.” This “here” is a camp in Manus island in Papua New Guinea. Out of sight and out of mind, the interminable confinement of refugees is “justified” by the language of crisis. The “crisis” refers not to the suffering of millions of people caught up in wars and famine caused by the crisis-criers, but to the inconvenience for states that have to deal with “illegal” “hordes”, “floods”, “waves”, “the rising tide” and “tsunamis” that are “submerging” host countries and being a “drain” on the economy. Refugees are menacing water, animals coming in “herds” or “swarms”, are “hunted” by vigilantes, and live in “jungles” like the infamous Calais camp. Animals, insects, or water, they aren’t threatened people but are themselves the threat. And primitive mantras, endlessly repeated in the media, make citizens believe that something must be done to protect them from that danger.

The camps fulfil the prophecy. The longer people are locked up, the more bestial they tend to become. In his book No Friend but the Mountains, Iranian-Kurdish refugee, Behrouz Boochani writes, referring to the Manus island camp, that the aim “[…] is to turn the prisoners against each other and to ingrain even greater hatred between people”. The hatred spills over outside the camp, as has happened in Moria, where aid workers are being attacked by once sympathetic islanders who now accuse them of attracting refugees. Some residents want more riot police. They are organizing vigilante patrols while leftwing groups are encouraging refugees to take to the streets and protest. Clashes between left and right groups, between refugee and refugee, between refugees and residents, and between local and national government reveal the huge political reach of the camp.

As of 1 March, the right to asylum has been de facto suspended by Greece, with support from the EU, which is therefore violating the Geneva Convention and the European Declaration of Human Rights. The refugees, who are given no information about their fate, are a European responsibility, and will be even more so if there is a coronavirus outbreak in the camp. When Turkey began transporting people to the border and encouraging them to cross in March, EU leaders, in a parody of support for Athens, praised Greece as Europe’s “shield” in deterring “migrants” (avoiding where possible the word “refugees” who have bothersome rights enshrined in international law) and guaranteeing European “stability”, and never mind that the whole island of Lesbos is falling apart under the pressure of EU refugee policy. Help was immediately offered but not for human beings because a refugee, an inhabitant of no-man’s land, is the no-man, the non-human beyond the protection of human laws.

Since neoliberal economic dynamics create large redundant populations, dealing with them requires major infrastructure which is far more extensive and militarized than refugee camps. Hence, Greece will receive EU funds to the tune of €700 million to upgrade border “security”, which includes boats, helicopters, an aircraft, thermal vision vehicles, more border guards, and even a floating plastic fence to separate the islands from mainland Turkey. Meanwhile, inside the camp, soap is lacking.

Andrea Pitzer describes camps as “a deliberate choice to inject the framework of war into society itself” and this is what Europe is doing. It has created a huge industry stretching through North Africa, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa, doing deals with Omar al-Bashar’s Janjaweed militia, known for their genocidal violence in Darfur but now called Rapid Support Forces which are employed by the EU to hunt down migrants. Libyan coastguards, too, are trained and paid by the EU. As a leaked EU document recognized last year, capturing refugees or migrants is a “profitable business model” in Libya where militia and human traffickers, combined in a proxy force, are on the EU payroll for work that includes torture, starvation, rape, disease, forced labor, and other abuse of the 20,000 migrants they hold captive. They are doing what the EU cannot do openly since it is (still to some extent) bound by international law and conscious of its image. But, as one senior EU official says, “We have put our fate in the hands of crooks”.

Whatever euphemism is used, arbitrary mass detention, torture and killing, are Fortress Europe policy. Voters who support their governments’ strategies of “border security” should be honest with themselves and recognize that, by turning a blind eye, they’re condoning torture and murder. Lesbos is just one case answering Karl Heinzen’s description of the “important manipulation by which one man destroys the life of another”. And Sappho was right when she wrote, “If you are squeamish, / Don’t prod the beach rubble.”

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

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