In the early hours of 25 February 2020 hundreds of seaborne riot police arrived at the sleepy port of Mesta on the west side of the Greek island of Chios, on the EU-Turkey border. Their disembarkation was like an invading army, the police columns emerging in full riot gear out of specially chartered boats. There was a grotesque hint of a Star Wars scene in this otherwise forgotten corner of Europe’s war against refugees.
In the early hours of the same morning similar scenes unfolded in the neighbouring island of Lesbos. The police mission was to protect the big public works contractors that are due to start building the new refugee detention camps in Chios, Lesvos and Samos, just across from the Turkish coast.
Yet, the islanders say no to new camps and demand that the current camps be gradually evacuated towards the mainland and other European countries. So in both Chios and in Lesbos the riot police met a massive wave of civil disobedience and counter-violence, leading to night-long fighting. Next morning the government brought more riot police as reinforcements to Lesbos, this time by air. But the islanders were not deterred by the government’s ‘shock and awe’ approach. A general strike was declared, all schools were closed down, local unions and associations called on people to protest and to fight back. In Lesbos riot police units were forced to seek refuge at the local army barracks. In Chios policemen were attacked in their hotel bedrooms and their clothes and luggage thrown out of the windows. A few hours later their union demanded the riot police’s return to the mainland. Less than 48 hours after sending the units to the islands the government announced it was recalling them.
The islands and the camps
The choice of the location for the new camp in Chios is extraordinary for its inhumanity. It is a lunar landscape, at the very top of mountain Aipos that is known for its near total lack of vegetation. As locals say, not even goats live there in winter.
Refugees in the planned new camp will suffer in extreme weather conditions. The other feature of the location is that it is far away from any human community. It is truly in the middle of nowhere. There are few worse places one can build a camp in. A similar logic has been followed on all the other islands, in picking the locations of the new camps.
But the islanders will have none of it. Opposition has come from many different streams. Some oppose the turning of their islands into a large camp, the destruction of the landscape and the damage that all these conditions inflict on tourism. Some are fighting in solidarity with the refugees. Many are just opposed to the irrationality of the whole project and to state authoritarianism. What unites them is their fury with the undemocratic and unjust way they have been treated by the central government and European authorities for 5 years now.
Despite this moment of unity, there is a widespread fear that the far right will take advantage of the situation.
Fear of the far right
Still, despite this moment of unity, there is a widespread fear that the far right will take advantage of the situation. When the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 started, Greece was dilapidated after 5 years of extreme austerity and was not even capable to run proper search and rescue operations. It fell to the island communities to stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands who arrived on their shores.
For months a critical mass of the local population stood by the refugees, a moment of true, human-to-human solidarity that now may feel to those many like a long-distant, almost unreal memory. The situation changed after the closing down of Europe’s internal borders and the EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016. Islanders and refugees alike gradually got more and more tired and fearful for the future – foreseeing what is happening right now. These conditions were taken advantage of by different far right groups, some more politically-minded and ‘respectable’ and some more thuggish and brutal. At times the whole narrative in the islands was led by the far right. Still, there were situations when the public reacted, as when people stood up for the right of refugee kids to school education. Only two weeks ago, when islanders came to Athens to protest against the planned new camps the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn tried to fraternise with the crowd but they were fast kicked out.
Racists are evidently attempting to hi-jack a struggle that is in fact against the policy of refugee camps altogether.
For now the far right is keeping a relatively low profile in the islands, in the fight against the riot-police. Yet racists are evidently attempting to hi-jack a struggle that is in fact against the policy of refugee camps altogether. Such a potential hi-jack by the far-Right will be the end of the islanders movement against the camps policy and their demands for humane treatment of refugees and the local communities alike.
Some officials who do identify with the governing party propose camps on deserted islands, whilst others imply that refugees are a health risk in the age of Coronavirus, as if it is the refugees’ fault who live in camps under these horrible conditions. In any case crypto-racist voices and openly far-Right discourses are heard again on the islands against the refugees and the local communities of solidarity who had managed very effectively to help the refugees before.
The usual suspects
Faced with steadfast local opposition, the new conservative government was always frugal with any exact details about the new camps. There are still no definite answers as to how many thousand refugees they will house. Even the exact locations of the new camps were announced only a week ago, when it was also announced that the government would confiscate the public land that the camps will be built on to avoid lengthy legal procedures. The winning bidders for the construction contracts (TERNA in Chios, AKTOR in Lesvos, and MYTILINAIOS in Samos) were announced a few hours after the landing of the riot police – all three are the usual suspects, responsible for most large public construction projects since the 1990s.
Surprise has been the government method of choice when handling big projects that face local resistance. It was applied in the case of the Keratea landfill works, outside Athens in late 2010, leading to months-long fights around the local village. It was at that same time that local villagers opposing the construction of a gold mine in Chalkidiki, in northern Greece, were confronted by similar ‘shock therapy’ methods. Their struggle against the multinational mining company and its Greek backers in government lasted for years. More recently attempts to erect wind parks in Tinos island and in Evoia have been met with similar resistance. These are difficult times for infrastructural projects in Greece.
Now the state is taking its infrastructural dystopias to the edges of Europe.
Now the state is taking its infrastructural dystopias to the edges of Europe, using the ‘refugee crisis’ as the pretext for extravagant and inhumane projects that only a James Bond villain would envy. A month ago the Greek government announced that it would buy a floating plastic fence to use between the islands and mainland Turkey. The length of the first piece of fence it will buy is 2.700 meters and its estimated cost an eye-watering €500.000!
Fortress Europe is happy to keep on footing the bill, as long as Greece keeps the refugees out of sight and out of mind of northern European voters. The three new camps on the islands is precisely part of this model.
But the state has a big fight in its hands. Opposition to such projects has been rising in Greece in the last decades. Local histories and traditions of resistance are starting to build up. In Chios, for example, locals confronted the riot police in 1993 against the construction of fuel depots in Tholos, and ten years ago they set up a wide lobbying network against the construction of a windfarm on the west coast of the island. Both campaigns were successful. Rising local opposition has led the state to up its violence. Neither coercion or persuasion work any more: there is minimum consent to central government among the North Aegean islanders.
The border of the Fortress
With the withdrawal of the riot police back to the mainland, the islands seem to have won a battle. But they are losing the war. The government long since stopped transferring refugees to the mainland and EU inner borders remain tightly closed. The existing refugee camps are well above capacity and refugees live in them in conditions that have been roundly condemned as a ‘living hell’. There is a widespread feeling of abandonment in the islands among both refugees and islanders. It feels as if the EU border has quietly moved from their east coast to the west. It
It feels as if the EU border has quietly moved from their east coast to the west.
The eastern Aegean islands are Europe’s own Ellis Islands, but without offering any hope for anyone. The refugees will stay stuck there, their photographs from the miserable camps acting as a horrible deterrent against any new arrivals. And the abandoned islanders will be trapped in a mode of perpetual crises.
Unless, of course, we acknowledge the facts. What happens in Chios, Lesbos and Samos is a pan-European disgrace and mainly happens in order to keep European voters happy with their governments for ‘imprisoning’ the refugees of western geopolitical strategies and confining them to the margins of Europe.