Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Stuck in a Greek hotspot: when getting out is more important than where to go next

Refugee ‘hotspots’ are holding pens, not processing centres, and some people will do anything to escape them.

Ilse van Liempt
6 July 2020
Moria Hotspot on the island of Lesvos in 2016.
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Martin Leveneur/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nd)

Greece’s island ‘hotspots’ initially functioned as places of first reception and registration for irregular arrivals by sea to Europe. But since the EU-Turkey deal was sealed in March 2016 they have become places of containment, as the islands have been shut down to prevent onward movement to the mainland. Many NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Médecins Sans Frontières, have documented the inhumane conditions prevailing in the Greek hotspots. And while individuals were only supposed to inhabit the hotspots temporarily, just long enough to be selected for return to Turkey and/or processed to be able to move on to the mainland, the dominant feeling for the people there now is being stuck. There is no guarantee at all that they will leave the hotspots any time soon. Waiting is a recurring concept when asylum seekers talk about their lives in the camps. They wait for food, for the toilet, for a doctor's visit, for their medication, for a call from their lawyer, to be heard by officials, or to be transferred to the mainland. Waiting, coupled with feeling stuck, leads to frustration, anger and anxiety.

In these liminal spaces, i.e. places of transition where the normal rules on either side do not apply, asylum seekers are expected to wait through containment with limited or no information on the asylum process, its length, or the likelihood of eventually receiving protection. No state is obliged to take responsibility for the people inside them. As such, inhabitants’ aspirations to migrate to where they can find protection are forcefully contained as well. This situation of prolonged waiting and insecurity exacts a psychological and physical toll on the people experiencing it, increasing their overall level of vulnerability.

That said, migrants stuck on the Greek islands all have strong aspirations to get out of there. And even when this isn’t currently possible, passively waiting is not their only option. They constantly resist the liminality imposed upon them by continuing with their daily lives, interacting with other actors in the hotspot, and developing all sorts of coping strategies. Three particularly important strategies are: moving onwards via irregular means; increasing vulnerability in order to be transferred to the mainland; starting a new journey after voluntary return/deportation.

Irregular crossing offers a faster way out than hiring a lawyer and waiting for a procedure.

All these strategies focus on circumventing or adapting to regulations. The first and most obvious is the emergence of a new irregular crossing route between the Greek islands and Athens. These can be either individual attempts or crossings enabled by a network of refugees acting as facilitators. Interviews and observations during the summer of 2017 showed that access to facilitators was fairly easy. Everyone knew how and where to find them, their different modi operandi, and the prices charged. Not everybody, however, could afford the service. For those who had exhausted their savings, who were unwilling to risk the money they had left, or who lacked family members who could send them money, paying a facilitator was not an option. In some cases, asylum seekers had to choose between paying a lawyer or a facilitator – a difficult decision. While neither guarantees protection, irregular crossing offers a faster way out than hiring a lawyer and waiting for a procedure. The risk of another sea crossing, renewed dependency on smugglers, and the high costs involved make it a decision that isn’t taken lightly, and the choice is usually only made once leaving becomes more important than thinking about where to go next.

Others try to escape by turning the regulations to their advantage and leaving the island by regular channels. Vulnerability and deservingness is directly connected within the context of the EU-Turkey deal, and only those officially recognised as vulnerable are allowed to go to the mainland to complete their asylum procedure. In order to meet these requirements and move on, some refugees try to increase their vulnerability through self-mutilation, overdosing and deliberate pregnancy. In a system that prioritises protection of the vulnerable over protection for all, they calculate this as their best chance for a transfer to the mainland.

Signing up for voluntary return is another way out of a hotspot. Some people accept this not because they have given up, but because it gives them their freedom of movement back and allows them to begin their journey again.

Apart from constraints on mobility and aspirations for mobility, the situation of containment also changes how those who wait and those who don’t are perceived. European officials consider the island hotspots to be the ideal place for asylum seekers to wait until their legal status is secured. They are expected to wait in an orderly fashion and not to have any aspirations to move on. If an individual stays put and waits through their containment, it is often reasoned that their application for protection is more likely to be genuine. Those who appear innocent, helpless and devoid of aspiration are perceived to be the most deserving refugees. Those migrants who try to escape the extreme conditions on the islands challenge the hotspot approach because they do not comply with the expectation to wait. As a result they are more often considered ‘undeserving refugees’. There is a perversity in counting aspirations against asylum seekers, in punishing them for having the motivation to achieve their goals. The EU claims to want asylum seekers to integrate, start work, learn local languages, and contribute to society. None of these are easy demands, and the EU might have more success in this part of its policy if it starts working with refugees’ aspirations rather than against them.

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