Can Europe Make It?

The will of Idomeni

The individuals stuck in Greece have begun a hunger strike, their determination challenging the arbitrary distinction between refugees and migrants. How long must they sit there?

Cameron Thibos
26 November 2015


By Tuesday (24 Nov) at least six Iranians stuck in Idomeni, Greece had sewn their lips together to protest the selective closure of the border. Photo by Cameron Thibos.

IDOMENI, GREECE - Fully registering that the six men sitting on the steel tracks have willingly sewn their mouths shut causes an unsettling sensation to wash down your spine and flood your stomach, inducing a subtle nausea. The jagged stitching that zig-zags across their lips, the dark punctures that are a shade too purple for comfort—these belong on Frankenstein's monster, not on men in their 20s with 'freedom' and 'Iran' written in red on their chests.

Yet there they sit, calm, eyes pointed straight down the train tracks. This is real. Prevented passage through the Balkans because they do not come from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq, their gaze brushes past the soldiers hindering them in a way their bodies currently cannot. They focus on their goal: the next border, and then the next, until they get to Germany, or the Netherlands, or Sweden, or wherever it is they're going. They say they are going to finish their journeys on their own terms. Europe must grant them entry, kill them, or let them die on the Greek border, but they will not go back.

"We wait until they open the border", says Amir, the unofficial spokesperson of the men on hunger strike. "We don't have any way back. If we come back to Iran, they will hang us. We prefer to die here." A couple people in the crowd mime nooses around their necks. Nobody laughs. "We don't have freedom [in Iran]", he says. "They don't allow us to do our work. If they catch you with your girlfriend, they put you in jail for two months. That is not freedom. We go to Europe because of that."

The strength of the perpetually vulnerable

The stories are similar across the camp. Be they Iranian, Moroccan, Pakistani, or any other nationality, they left because of violence, state repression, a lack of economic opportunity, and an inability to conduct their lives as they please. The combination of these factors has compelled the men, women and children at Idomeni to leave their countries of birth, blurring the distinctions made between refugees and migrants.

The policy of Balkan countries to limit new entries to people from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—which came into force last Wednesday (18 Nov) ostensibly to crack down on "economic migrants"—relies on different premises. It suggests that anyone not fleeing two specific conflicts can be safely assumed a mere 'job seeker' with no "well-founded fear of being persecuted [in their country of origin] for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion"—the basic definition of a refugee taken from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Even by this extremely narrow definition of what constitutes legitimate cause for flight, however, there are still individuals within the camp that could qualify for asylum in Europe.

Mojtaba, 36, is a proof of concept. I find him standing in the (very long) queue for lunch, which today consists of a small bag of dried fruit, some biscuits, and a bottle of water compliments of Caritas. Like Amir, he left Iran because "there is no life in Iran. There is no freedom. There is no freedom of speech ... You cannot have a drink. You cannot have a girlfriend or boyfriend. There is nothing there". His belief that alcohol and interpersonal relationships are worthwhile pursuits—a demonstrably political opinion in Iran that could lead to persecution if practiced openly—is compounded by his choice to exit the Islamic faith. "I was Muslim, but I prefer not to be", he says, but "if you change your religion in Iran you will be dead". Apostates from Islam are indeed executed in Iran, and both European and American courts have found this as acceptable grounds for asylum in the past. Yet, as long as the recent policy change keeps Mojtaba sitting in a field, his specific case will not be reviewed for its merits in accordance with EU law.


Photo by Cameron Thibos.

As much as it should, current asylum law does not extend protection to those escaping generalised climates of insecurity, fear, oppression, poverty, and economic exploitation. You must be especially targeted for persecution in accordance with the parameters laid out in the definition above. To be caught in a situation where your environment might easily kill you or marginalise you to the point of nullification doesn't make the cut. Quite the contrary. It is precisely the people fleeing contexts of everyday vulnerability and repression who are disparaged and locked out of protection frameworks by the greedy-sounding term 'economic migrant'. But these individuals are seeking security and dignity in Europe, which today necessarily includes employment, far more than streets of gold.

Abdullah, 19, identifies himself as stateless from Kuwait. He says his family was never able to attain Kuwaiti nationality even though he and his father were both born there. Without valid documents, "I cannot study. I can't work", he says. "I came here to find a life. I want a life! And I mean, by a life: bed, work, study. That's all I need. I don't know if I'm asking for a lot, but that's all I need".

While Abdullah's case might qualify him for asylum under existing law, he insists he left for more reasons than 'just' statelessness. It is the combination of his political exclusion, his fear of becoming collateral damage, and the economic and political realities of the Kuwaiti state that has forced him out. "We are not doing well in our countries. No money, no future, no nothing. And it's getting harder", he says. "You know they bombed a mosque. I have two [family members] who died there. ... They say 'Allahu akbar' and [they] bombed it, and you tell me that we are not refugees? Sorry we are. If we weren't, we wouldn't come here".

Zahid is a 21-year-old former college student in Lahore, Pakistan who dropped out of his programme for lack of funds. Like Abdullah, he refuses to accept that poverty and the threat of violence must forever be a part of his life. "Many people sell their lands and houses to come here due to bomb blasting," he says. "There are daily bomb blastings in parks, schools, mosques. Even mosques!" He tells the story of an attack last December, when the Pakistani Taliban massacred 132 students and nine staff in a school in Peshawar. The fear of living within such an environment once again has combined with a need for work to drive him to leave. "In Pakistan there are no rules, no regulations, no food, no work, no study, no job, no electricity. Every kind of problem is available here," he says.

While the Iranians at Idomeni fear hanging if they return and the Moroccans fear imprisonment, Zahid says the Pakistani state will not punish them if they go back. But their creditors will. He and his co-nationals estimate it costs €5000 to get to Greece. Without decently paid work at home, they were only able to raise such sums by taking out loans from family, neighbours, and private money lenders. To return to Pakistan without the money for repayment would be to invite punishment. "We can't go back! How can we go back?" he asks in a voice tinged with stress. "We spent money and take borrows (sic: loans), and the peoples that borrowed (sic) money, they beat us!"

Why not Greece?

The refugee population of Idomeni is intent on getting out of Greece and into western Europe. They have risked too much, endured too many difficulties, and are simply too fed up with their past lives and present circumstances to stop short of their goals now. When I ask why not apply for asylum in Greece, Zahid is adamant. "Any other country, maybe, but not here", he says. "We want to go again. Spain, Paris France, Italy, Germany, where our lives are safe". The experiences of those that have come before him, along with an awareness of Greece's current financial difficulties, have convinced Zahid that he will not find what he is looking for in Greece. The crowd of Pakistanis that surround us is full of stories of someone who had ended up in a Greek detention centre, or who was locked out of the medical system, or who was left waiting indefinitely for papers. Zahid praised the Greek people for their efforts and accommodation so far, but says, again and again, that he cannot remain in Greece.

Back at the tracks, Amir and his Iranian co-nationals continue their protest. "We are not criminals, we are just wanting freedom", he says. "We just want a free life. I'm a singer. They do not allow me to sing there". The drive to sing may not be covered by the UN Refugee Convention, but if Amir is willing to die for it in a Greek field then perhaps Europe should let him onto the stage.

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