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On Lesvos, police violence crushes refugees' peaceful resistance: justice for the Moria 35

At the edge of Fortress Europe, violence, arbitrary raids and arrests, racist profiling, exaggerated criminal charges and punitive detention are scandalous – but by no means an aberration from the logic of borders and their enforcement.

Justice for the Moria 35. Photo: Zaid. All rights reserved.Since the EU-Turkey ‘deal’ came into force in March 2016, thousands of people fleeing all forms of violence have been trapped on the Greek islands, at the outskirts of fortress Europe, as a ‘containment’ measure. The deal means European states line the pockets of Erdogan’s repressive authoritarian regime and turn a blind eye to well-documented human rights violations committed systematically against activists, lawyers, journalists, LGBTQI+ folk, Kurdish people, and Syrians; to breaches of non-refoulement; to the fact Turkey is not even a signatory to the 1968 Protocol to the Geneva Convention extending international protection to non-EU nationals.

European powers cite dodgy diplomatic assurances in order to designate Turkey a ‘safe third country’ and externalise European borders there. Meanwhile, the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros have been transformed into sites of indefinite confinement – where individuals seeking freedom, safety and dignity have instead been held in limbo for up to 20 months; enduring abject inhumane and degrading conditions in dangerously overcrowded ‘hot-spot’ facilities, under the constant threat of deportation. 

Women sleep in adult diapers to avoid having to make a trip to the toilets in the night.

Lesvos is the largest of these ‘open-air prisons’ in the eastern Aegean. With its northernmost tip only eight kilometres from the Turkish coast, hundreds of people survive the perilous journey across the Mytilene strait to arrive at its shores on a daily basis. The 'hotspot’ camp in Lesvos – Moria – is a former army base built to accommodate a maximum of approximately 1,800 people. There are currently nearly four times that number – around 7,000 – crammed within the confines of its razor-wire topped fences in conditions unfit for human habitation.

This includes unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, disabled folk, the wounded, the elderly, people with serious mental illness, survivors of all forms of trauma. Around 4,000 people are currently sleeping in flimsy summer tents, or on the bare ground, as temperatures drop to single digits and below. At least five people perished in Moria last winter. Two people, including a five-year-old child, have died there in the past two months.

A toxic combination of inadequate shelter, lack of access to healthcare, information or legal advice, unhygienic facilities, queues for hours for appalling food, restricted access to water, fascist attacks, institutional racism, and interminable waiting in fear have created a desperate situation that Medecins Sans Frontieres is calling a mental health emergency. There are regular suicide attempts and self-harm is endemic.

Sexual exploitation of minors and adults is a reality. So is violence, particularly against women, girls and LGBTQI+ folk. Women sleep in adult diapers to avoid having to make a trip to the toilets in the night. Such conditions make the UNHCR’s insistent use of the word ‘beneficiary’ to refer to people accommodated in the camp a sick joke. Moria was recently called a concentration camp by a Human Rights Watch worker. It is a living hell. 

Article 7 of the Recast Reception Conditions Directive, part of the Common European Asylum System, authorises European member states to restrict the free movement of applicants for international protection within their territories only where ‘the assigned area shall not affect the unalienable sphere of private life and shall allow sufficient scope for guaranteeing access to all benefits under this Directive’. Given the abysmal conditions in Lesvos, it is clear that other 'benefits' under the directive, including ‘material reception conditions [which] provide an adequate standard of living for applicants... guarantee their subsistence and protect their physical and mental health’ are not ‘guarant[eed]’, to say the least. Even without examining the legality of the EU-Turkey agreement, or the ‘safe third country’ concept more broadly, geographical restriction to Lesvos should be regarded unlawful. It compounds every systematic human rights violation already taking place.

Such conditions make the UNHCR’s insistent use of the word ‘beneficiary’ to refer to people accommodated in the camp a sick joke.

In this context, the hundreds of peaceful protesters who gathered outside the European Asylum Support Office in Moria for the second day in a row on the morning of July 18th 2017, demanding free movement to the mainland, were simply asking that Greece and the European Union comply with their own laws. The protests were organised to take place while a week-long Amnesty conference examining the consequences of the EU-Turkey deal had brought some international attention to Lesvos, which has long since fallen out of the mainstream media spotlight. Community leaders spoke on local radio, participated in talks and workshops and reached out to authorities in the hope of negotiating a modest demand that those held on the island for over six months be permitted to leave. Protesters in the camp held hand-made banners denouncing conditions, and chanted “Liberté!” in the face of a growing police presence.

Greek state authorities responded to this peaceful exercise of the right to protest with repressive violence. Humanitarian actors were evicted from the camp, which was put on lockdown: trapping the majority of protesters outside and imprisoning a small group within, along with other residents resting in their isoboxes who had not participated in the demonstration. Police used quantities of teargas that made it painful to breathe even at the distance of the hill overlooking the camp. Officers were filmed gathering rocks from the ground and throwing them at protesters, who attempted to resist: taking shelter between the rows of isoboxes and trying to extinguish tear gas canisters with UNHCR buckets filled with water.

By around 3pm everything appeared to be calm, and people were observed walking calmly around the camp again. Then, an hour later, armed riot police entered Moria. They targeted and violently raided the ‘African section’ of the camp: forcibly entering isoboxes, dragging people out, shooting teargas at close range, and brutally assaulting seemingly every individual they came into contact with, including a pregnant woman. From the hilltop overlooking the camp you could hear disturbing screams and shouts. You could see terrified people fleeing the ‘African section’ in every direction, only to be intercepted in the open space to the left of the isoboxes, or on the main pathway through the camp, and beaten to the ground by an officer soon joined by three or four more. For approximately 10 minutes, everywhere you looked groups of police officers in full riot gear were gathered around individuals already lying on the floor – some barefoot or in their underclothes – kicking and beating them with their boots and truncheons.

35 people were arrested in this violent, arbitrary raid. One of the arrestees was beaten so brutally he was hospitalised for a week. In the days following the arrests, Amnesty International carried out interviews with arrestees and witnesses, and published a report demanding Greek authorities launch an investigation into the police’s excessive use of force amounting to possible torture. The report indicates arrestees were subject to racist abuse and beaten again in police custody. When arrestees were brought to Mytilene court on Friday 21st and Saturday 22nd of July, many were still barefoot. Some were bleeding from injuries that had been left untreated in the days spent in prison, and doctors from Medicins Sans Frontieres came to court at the urgent request of the Legal Centre Lesvos team to dress injuries including head wounds and provide pain relief. The defendants brought to court on Friday morning had not been given food.

35 people were arrested in this violent, arbitrary raid.

Many of the 35 arrested in Moria were not even present at the morning’s peaceful protest, let alone the clashes between a small number of protesters and riot police that ensued. 34 of the 35 men arrested are black. This led observers to conclude arrests were racially profiled and arbitrary: people were targeted solely because of their race and their location within the camp at the time of the police raid. Such a conclusion is only compounded by the apparent absence of individualised evidence against any of the 35, who were all charged with a catalogue of identical offences during preliminary hearings: arson, attempted assault, resisting arrest, rioting, damage to private property and disturbing the public peace.

In light of the dawn police raids that took place in Moria camp the following Monday, 24th July, it seems clear that these arrests were part of a policy of collective punishment and intimidation: calculated to instil fear in the camp and prevent organising to expose the realities of structural violence and inhumanity European policies have spawned in Lesvos.

However, it is also clear that while the violence perpetrated by law enforcement officials, arbitrary raids and arrests, racist profiling, exaggerated criminal charges, punitive detention and lack of access to due process in this case are scandalous, these forms of state violence are by no means an aberration from the logic of borders and their enforcement. There has been a disturbingly successful effort to cast people who cross borders irregularly as inherently criminal, inherently imprisonable, subjects.

This ideological work – which precludes engagement with imperialist Europe’s past and present exploits as causes of the many forms of violent dispossession that force human movement – renders migrants inherently imprisonable, legitimising incarceration without charge in detention centres for periods longer than some criminal sentences, inherently deportable to contexts of danger and death without any semblance of due process or effective remedy. Were you surprised when you read that the fences of Moria camp – supposedly built to accommodate people seeking safety – are topped with razor wire? 

The racially profiled Moria 35 arrests also took place in a context where discrimination on the basis of nationality is official policy. In Lesvos and other Greek ‘hotspot’ islands, applicants for international protection arriving from countries with asylum recognition rates of below 25% are categorised as ‘economic profile’, ‘undesirable aliens’ as opposed to ‘refugee profile’ applicants. Those are the explicit words of a police circular describing the pilot project.

On this basis, people are held in closed detention for the duration of a ‘fast-track’ border procedure. Individuals subject to this fast-track process reportedly undergo their asylum interviews in handcuffs. The policy clearly constitutes arbitrary deprivation of liberty, precludes due process and effective remedy, and is in flagrant violation of the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race or nationality under Article 3 of the Refugee Convention. Yet, in many ways, it is the logical conclusion of the ‘victim or criminal’ binary produced by toxic narratives on migration. 28 countries of origin are considered ‘economic profile’ under the policy, including many of the West African nations defendants in the Moria 35 case originate from. 

While the violence perpetrated in this case is scandalous, these forms of state violence are by no means an aberration from the logic of borders and their enforcement.

In his concurring opinion in the ECtHR case Hirsi Jamaa v Italy – which found that Italy’s pushback of migrant boats to Libya violated international human rights law – Judge Pinto de Albuquerque observed that the "ultimate question...is how Europe should recognise that refugees have 'the right to have rights', to quote Hannah Arendt".

The mechanisms by which brutal European ‘deterrence’ policies systematically strip thousands of human beings of such a ‘right to have rights’ is acutely apparent in the Moria 35 case. Long before the 35 defendants were brutally assaulted and arbitrarily arrested by police, they had already been denied the substantive right to seek asylum, to freedom from discrimination on the basis of nationality, the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The right to have rights was precisely what the women and men from many different countries who gathered outside the European Asylum Support Office on Tuesday 18th July 2017 were calling for: collectively insisting on human dignity in the face of a brutal divide-and-rule system.

But the systemic injustices that are being perpetrated against thousands of people imprisoned out of sight on the geographical margins of Europe, in restricted access camps beyond the scrutiny of local populations or media, are easily invisibilised. Racist violence against refugees at the hands of law enforcement officials is frequently met with impunity. Pretrial detention is overused in Greece, for excessively long periods and disproportionately for foreign nationals: despite many having serious mental and physical health conditions which should preclude pretrial incarceration, 30 of the defendants in this case have now been in prisons in Athens and Chios for six months.

And the stakes could not be higher for each of the 35 defendants. Not only do the criminal charges against them carry disproportionately heavy sentences if convicted – up to 10 years in prison – but conviction is also likely to mean exclusion from the right to international protection. This would mean deportation back to places these individuals risked everything to flee.

Without sustained political pressure and international oversight, what hope of any semblance of equality of arms – let alone justice – can there be in the Moria 35 case, which essentially sets the claims of Greek state police forces against those of foreign migrants already cast as inherently criminal? They will face the case against them in an unknown language, under an unknown legal framework. Understandable fears about their own safety may prevent witnesses from coming forward. For these reasons, the Legal Centre Lesvos is building a solidarity campaign alongside coordinating the criminal defence team of Greek lawyers who will represent the Moria 35 at trial. Please support the campaign however you can. Raise awareness, donate, act as an international trial observer: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/justice-for-the-moria-35

A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of the Socialist Lawyer

About the author

Maya Thomas-Davis is a member of the Haldane executive committee. She is part of the Legal Centre Lesbos team and is in the process of training as a barrister.

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