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Post-humanitarianism in situ: Moria in flames

Did ultra-nationalist locals burn down the hotspot, was it the migrants themselves who did it, or was it the result of agent provocateur actions?

Riot police stand guard as a large fire burns inside the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, September 19, 2016.Michael Schwarz/Press Association. All rights reserved.Nothing but burnt rubble remains in a large part of Moria on the island of Lesbos. The infamous EU hotspot – aka detention centre – that so many had hoped to see vanish from the discourse of migration, has now ended up physically going up in flames instead.

Our own experience from our research on the island echoes the warnings of several human rights NGOs and activists on the ground, about the inevitable escalation of episodes of violence and smaller scale rioting. The more migrants were kept over ever-longer periods, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with scarce food and no hope, the more often Moria would become a breeding ground for riots and violent police repression, while inter-ethnic conflict and the rampant discrimination inherent in the EU’s migration management approach would spark animosity and violent outbursts among detainees.

It is still unclear what exactly happened in and around Moria last Tuesday, on September 20, 2016: did ultra-nationalist locals burn down the hotspot, was it the migrants themselves who did it or was it the result of agent provocateur actions?

Although it is unlikely that the truth about it will ever surface, the fire has already left its mark on the country’s public discourse on migration. Up until this moment it seems most likely that it was migrants themselves, in an act of rage, who burnt the camp – as opposed to as a result of an arson attack by right wing extremists. According to most accounts, a rumour started circulating on Monday evening that the Greek authorities were preparing blanket removals. This was the straw that broke the camel's back for those inside the hotspot (staying there, remember, either as detainees or because they have nowhere else to go): they put up with the appalling living conditions in there, the meager and barely edible food, complying because they hope for something to change for the better. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when hope is obliterated, docility goes out of the window.

So the important question here is: why is it so difficult to recognise this event as an act of resistance and agency? In other words, how can we ever lift the dark, poisonous blanket that EU deterrence policies have spread over us if we do not ever acknowledge the existence of lives that are not only despairing and hating but also fighting against this imposition? Otherwise, the emphasis is removed from the original repugnant condition of imprisonment and is instead directed towards the subject, who is axiomatically placed in a position of victimhood. The task then for us is to remove such representations and replace them in our own imaginaries with ones that reflect a more realistic image.

When the counting of unaccompanied minors, who finally found somewhere to sleep that night, puts us at ease, we forget that these same minors have been sleeping in much more dire and dangerous conditions than one can ever encounter under an olive tree in Lesbos. Their crossing of borders is itself an act of defiance; their very presence here is a political – subversive even – act, as they challenge the global border regime daily (Jones, 2016).

We can therefore treat this event as an actual uprising of calculated agency, set in a background of highly politicized discourses and events on the island, following the recent escalation of tension both between locals (ultra-nationalists attacked an anarchist demo just days after attacking two activist women, sending one to hospital) but also between (reactionary) locals and migrants.

It is said, for example, that a mob of ultra-nationalists made their way to Moria while the fire was raging, armed with knives and sticks, attacking migrants running away from the flames. This polarisation within the local society can be understood as a result of the growing frustration of part of the local population with political pressures to sustain incoming migrants within the island while not allowing them to travel to mainland Greece.

It is also a result of the slow death of last years’ humanitarian emergency spectacle. This brought income to a great many, but came to a halt as migrants are now locked up and can no longer consume goods or services. On the other hand, it has caused  the island’s tourist industry to nosedive: once the island of migrant-saving heroes, now the island of a hotspot prison, a prison spilling over beyond the smoky and fenced grounds of Moria.

We suggest that the burning down of Moria reveals our own limitations not only in imagining resistance and agency but even in recognising it when we see it. Migrants trapped in Greece for all this time became visible once again last Tuesday, through their agency and resistance. However, in the public eye, migrants keep on being relegating to victims, turning the burning of a prison into a humanitarian disaster: “where will people sleep now?” is the most frequently uttered question following these events.

As if we knew (or even cared) where they had been sleeping up to today; under what conditions; what they had been eating; where they had been showering. Answers to these questions could make us toss and turn with uneasiness - or at least, it should.

Less than a year ago the island was declared to be in humanitarian emergency, as over 600,000 new arrivals settled in temporarily, bringing existing infrastructure and services to a halt. The perpetual fear of lack of control due to a seemingly unmanageable flow of incoming populations, cultivated so carefully by the state and the humanitarian industry that flourished in Lesbos this past year, is slowly winning over larger parts of the island’s local population.

[1] For a full account on what happened see “A rough night: Protests for freedom, Moria on fire and fascist attacks” by No border kitchen Lesvos

About the authors

Evie Papada is a researcher at Transcapes, an ESRC-funded project on the Mediterranean migration crisis. She has worked extensively within the human rights and humanitarian sector in Europe and abroad.

Anna Papoutsi is a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham and a member of the research collective Transcapes looking at the Mediterranean migration crisis.


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