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'Exiles in the Aegean': a year after the EU–Turkey deal

The EU-Turkey deal turns one year old on 18 March. Has it achieved its intended purpose? 

Piles of used life jackets on the Greek island of Lesvos in February 2017. Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/PA Images

Bert Birtles, an Australian journalist and poet, arrived in Athens in the fall of 1935 to meet Dora “at sunset under the Parthenon”. Very soon, the interest of the young devoted admirers of classical Greece shifted from the archaeological ruins to contemporary politics. In 1936, following a fascist coup, Bert and Dora started visiting islands of the Aegean that were used as destinations for exiles.

In 1938, Birtles published Exiles in the Aegean, his “personal narrative of Greek politics and travel”. The book offers an exciting first-hand chronicle of the experiences and lives of the exiled leftists on the islands of Anafi and Gavdos, but also Leros, Karpathos and Lesvos. These islands continued to operate as spaces of  “administrative displacement” throughout the twentieth century, and it was only in 1974, after the end of the colonels’ dictatorship, that this practice came to an end.

Islands are regarded as the ideal quarantine zone.

Even for my generation, born in the late 1960s, the phrase “to the dry islands” was the synonym of isolation, just as the phrase “to the mountains” was the synonym of resistance against the Axis forces in the 1940s. And then, in the 1980s, the “dry islands” became the ideal tourist resort, one of the must-see destinations of the world: a synonym of pleasure and relaxation.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the islands of the eastern Aegean, close to the Turkish coast, became the first entry point to the EU for the thousands fleeing their countries, either for fear of being persecuted, or just in search of a decent life in Europe. Islands became the stepping stone to Athens, and, in turn, Athens a stepping stone to northern Europe.

Islands offer a prototype for an exercise in control and biopolitics, as Foucault would put it. The pre-1974 Greek state, which was not exactly famous for its democratic culture, knew this well. The European Union, on the other hand, only really realised this a year ago, with the infamous EU-Turkey statement addressing what the Europeans labelled a “migration crisis”, i.e. the arrival of a million refugees in a continent of half a billion inhabitants…

Three people died in their tents a month ago on the island of Lesvos.

Islands, both now and then, are regarded as the ideal quarantine zone: first it was for communists so they wouldn’t intoxicate their environment with their ideas, now for migrants and refugees, with a twofold objective. First, to send the message that this is what lies ahead for those who intend to make their way across the Aegean. Second, to send a message to European citizens and to address their primary fear: the buffer zone at the periphery of the EU ensures that no more refugees and immigrants can enter the ‘promised land’.

This winter was hard, and as a result three people died in their tents a month ago on the island of Lesvos. The European humanitarian consciousness seemed to be shocked. It was only then, i.e. very recently, that conditions in the hot spots started to improve. Yet, even these deaths seemed to send the appropriate message across the Aegean sea: “Do not come!” Following a cynical line of thought, the less decent the conditions of reception are, the fewer will be those who dare to come.  

This is why, at the end of the day, despite the enormous sums spent in Greece on the ‘refugee question’, the result is poor. On the one hand, the Greek administrative chaos has become a nightmare for all those working in the field. On the other, this chaos is in convenient complicity with the political objective of the EU, to prevent the flows.

So let’s stop debating about the financial aspect and let’s focus on the message. A year after the signature of the EU-Turkey Statement, the General Court of the European Union declared that it lacked jurisdiction on it. And so as the statement functions in a legal limbo, everything becomes much easier.

But yet, even on the operational level, the success of the deal is highly debatable. The flows had already drastically diminished, from a daily rate of 2000 to 800, right after the western Balkan corridor was sealed a month before the deal was implemented. So, let’s stop fetishising this statement and dare to face its intoxicating effects: Europe buys time preventing flows which will soon re-appear more impetuously; Turkey buys European silence over its totalitarian shift; and, somewhere in the middle, Greece deters arrivals in a dangerous game while facing its own huge social and financial problems.

After all, the major challenge for Greece should not be the rejection but the integration of the newcomers. Many of them will, at the end of the day, stay on its territory. This is why the first country that has an obvious reason to express its discontent with this statement is Greece. No prudent state would risk its fragile social cohesion for such improvisations and experiments...

The “deal”, and any similar “deals” of the future, feed the far right radicalisation in the EU, consolidating an image of an EU in harmony with xenophobia.

I already hear the other side echoing a well-known argument: ‘you are right but there is no alternative to the statement’. Yet, if there is political will, then alternatives become visible and are explored. This is how it goes: we have to make choices, and always think of the balance between costs and benefits in the long term.

If we were perceptive enough, we’d be able to detect the long-term disastrous cost of this statement. The “deal”, and any similar “deals” of the future, feed the far right radicalisation in the EU, consolidating an image of an EU in harmony with xenophobia. That is why the EU-Turkey statement is a threat to a democratic and law-abiding Europe.


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