Towering behind the refugee camp on the Greek island of Leros stands the ruin of an abandoned mental asylum. It has been dismantled after scandalous reports of the treatment of inmates in the late 1980s and early1990s. Historical revision of the facilities’ function and purpose reveals a striking symbolism of the recurrent pathologies of society’s impulse to contain and isolate what is conceived as a threat to its orderly function.
In 1994 the photographer Alex Majoli published his first major body of work entitled “Leros”. The monograph documents the final years of the mental asylum on the island. The Goyaesque images depict the gruesome conditions the outcasts were kept in, left largely to themselves with minimal supervision by adequately trained staff and guarded by island inhabitants with no formal training in psychiatric care at all. The cover of the book reads:
"All I know about Leros is in this book. I know that this is another story about crazy people, many crazy people, more than 4,000 at first. I know that 'Leros' means dirty and that they came to this island from all over Greece, chosen from among the worst cases, the ones they'd given up on in the psychiatric hospitals. I know that they were housed in an ex-military base on the island, which had previously been used as a jail for all political prisoners. I know that the islanders began working in the new psychiatric hospital. I know that soon Leros' story began to be associated with its psychiatric hospital and that the world knew nothing about it. I know that inside the asylum you didn't live, you survived.”
For the larger part of 2018, I went to work with a small NGO on Leros which tried to address aspects of the unfolding humanitarian crisis on the islands with growing numbers of asylum seekers landing on their shores. When I arrived on Leros, I did not really know anything about the island. I knew it was a small island in the Aegean sea, close to Turkey. I knew that the island served as one of five ‘EU hotspots’ or centres of first reception and identification for asylum seekers crossing the Turkish-European border by boat. I knew that the official objective of the hotspots was to speed up the registration and asylum claim procedures. I also knew that with Turkey being considered a safe third country, there was little chance of being granted asylum in the first instance.
I knew that consequently asylum seekers would have to go through a prolonged procedure of individual vulnerability assessment to make an asylum claim or subsidiary protection in the second instance. I knew that with these procedures in place, the camps and islands served as spaces of confinement, geographical restriction and deterrence as part of a fragmented European border strategy.
I did not know anything about the history of the island of Leros. Its significance as a strategic military port and its subsequent occupation in the twentieth century by the Italians, Germans and English, before being reinstated under Greek control. I did not know anything about the infamous mental asylum otherwise known as the ‘colony of psychopaths’. I did not know of Majoli’s work documenting the institution in the wake of reform of the psychiatric system in the 1990s.
Being shown around the island, the tall, sinister yet elegant building lurking behind the hotspot immediately catches one’s eye.“It is an old mental asylum which held crazy people from all around the country in confinement – the symbolism is quite striking, isn’t it?“, I was asked. Next to it, there is “Mussolini’s house and a former orphanage“, I was told. The three buildings were part of the military complex constructed during the Italian occupation around the port town of Lakki (Portolago) and ‘Mussolini’s house’ was an administrative office, not the fascist leader’s island residence. The two larger buildings on either side of the administration served as barracks and a military school under the fleeting aspirations of Italian colonial rule.
After a swift succession of German and British takeovers of the island, the Second World War ended and Greece descended into civil war, with the edifice swiftly being repurposed. During the years of one of the first ‘hot’ manifestations of the Cold War, political prisoners were exiled and held in captivity in the old military structure. In the aftermath of the civil war, the premises of the former military academy were utilised as an isolated education and reformation centre for war orphans, to decontaminate them from communist ideology. In the late 1950s the complex underwent transformation from its use as a site of confinement and rehabilitation of political opponents to one of detention and for the restraint of the mad.
Mesmerised by the history of the facilities, I visited the building repeatedly during my time on Leros to take pictures of them in their decaying state. Something prompted me to document the empty halls and the abandonment chronicled by Alex Majoli. Could the crumbling walls have something to say about the current situation on the Greek islands? Our collective experience of what has been labelled the ‘refugee crisis’ is flooded with images in media outlets. Asylum seekers as a threat to security, the social fabric, culture or economy. Asylum seekers as helpless victims deserving of our humanitarian benevolence. The two narratives condition each other, representing asylum seekers as a large anonymous mass dispossessed of memory, identity and agency.
These dual narratives exert a reductionist, stigmatising effect which Hannah Arendt attempted to resist in her 1943 essay entitled ‘We refugees’. Opening her text by denouncing the term ‘refugee’ itself she writes: “In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees’. We ourselves call each other ‘newcomers’ or ‘immigrants’. Our newspapers are papers for ‘Americans of the German language’; and as far as I know, there is not and there never was any club founded by Hitler-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members are refugees.”
On Leros I met Basel who spent almost two years on the island, waiting for his asylum claim to be processed. He was engaged as a translator and cultural interpreter on the hotspot as well as in the education and community centre run by the small NGO Echo100Plus. An architect and artist, Basel conducted an art workshop at the school, and spent endless hours in the backyard painting his experiences. In a poem entitled ‘The Castle’ inspired by the Kafka novel of the same name Basel wrote:
Any edifice is made up of walls, constituting its structure and maintaining its order both physically and metaphorically. In the context of the European edifice, the decaying walls of the old asylum constitute a material and symbolic testimony of society’s recurrent reflex to impose order through the operation of concentrated space to expel and confine what is perceived as a threat to the functioning of societal order. The imperative of enforcing order lays the groundwork for an exercise of power through a complex array of practices, infrastructural, technological and legal arrangements.
What the facilities show is that these assemblages are constricted to the normative demands of their historical conditions, which rarely make a good claim to absolute necessity. They allow for a genealogical perspective on the transforming nature of concentrated space and its use to exercise power in accordance with the shifting demands of periodical order.
The establishment of the facilities followed the logics of expansionary colonial rule and imperial warfare. The prescriptive function of military discipline and potency in the service of imposing order on the colonised world, is here transposed inward to uphold the orderliness of the nation state emerging in the aftermath of two world wars. Imperial aspirations were substituted by projects of displacement and containment to safeguard the fledgling national order.
From exiling political opposition and confining madness in the post-colonial state, what is crucial to observe, and what the dilapidated walls of the old asylum bear remarkable witness to, is that isolation and containment of what is perceived as a danger to society’s sense of order is neither fixed nor absolute. The social and legal apparatus, its infrastructural and technological arrangements employed did not evolve spontaneously or by accident. They are subject to relational developments produced and recycled through the underlying conceptions of what is undesirable or a threat. The operation of concentrated and isolated spaces takes place in a field of possibilities and testifies to a society’s failure to maintain a pluralistic order that can embrace difference and uphold tolerance.
Reflecting on the facilities’ historical metamorphosis allows for a more distanced perspective on these recurring follies. It may help to contribute to a more nuanced language, which often deteriorates when a situation of crisis is invoked and emergency measures are put into practice and normalised.
In the 1950s and 1960s European governments actively incentivised immigration from neighbouring countries in the Southern Mediterranean to help rebuild their countries in the postwar period. At the same time efforts were undertaken to sort the mentally unfit so as to contain and isolate the danger posed by what was defined as ‘madness’ to the functioning of an orderly society. The institutional practice of locking up hopeless cases of mental illness in insulated facilities was by no means a phenomenon limited to Leros and Greece, and neither was the process of its systemic change and reform.
Notably Raymond Depardon, another photographer of the Magnum agency produced an evocative series on secluded madness in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. Depardon collaborated with the Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, a central figure in the reform process of the treatment and therapy of mental illness across Europe. In his notes of conversations between the two, Depardon quotes Basaglia that “you will photograph patients here who you won’t see anywhere else, but it’s exactly the same in France and America”.
The course of psychiatric de-institutionalisation was transnational in character and the transformation from a centralised framework based on security and seclusion towards a decentralised psycho-social support structure which restored a degree of dignity and freedom in the patients required a reassessment of the legal, social and infrastructural apparatus to safeguard societal orderliness.
This needed a fundamental reconsideration of how madness and mental abnormality was defined and the danger the phenomenon posed to the orderly functioning of modern society under said definition. The two are intricately linked, they condition each other and co-evolve. There are no answers to be found by looking at the walls of the old Leros asylum and with it at the recent history of the European psychiatric system and practice. It is not possible to find solutions to the challenges posed by growing levels of immigration today by looking at the reform movement of the psychiatric system in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, for the social phenomena under consideration are of an entirely different nature.
With the abolition of internal borders, migration has increasingly become a European issue and with it an integral part of the process of establishing a European order. We are reminded by the images of the old asylum that the building of an order carries with it the strong impulse to designate insiders and outsiders – the accepted and the undesired and with it centralised security mechanisms that aim to enforce it. What the walls express, is the necessity to interrogate our imagination of threat and insecurity to our current order, and with it the assemblage of infrastructural arrangements, social and legal frameworks, as well as technologies and practices imposed to uphold it.
A few months after I left Leros, I heard from former colleagues that the camp on Leros had become hopelessly overcrowded and understaffed. I know that the empty halls of the old Asylum have resumed its purpose of providing shelter for men, women and children deemed a threat by the European imaginary. Among the inhabitants, the building is referred to as ‘the castle’.