Mediterranean journeys in hope

Concentric cages: the hotspots of Lesvos after the EU-Turkey agreement

Hotspots used to be mainly areas for registration, but now they are used to sort and detain people in preparation for their deportation.

Martina Tazzioli
30 May 2016
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Migrant detention centre on Lesvos. Photo by author, all rights reserved.

20 April 2016, 6 a.m., Lesvos: three police teams enter the NoBorder Kitchen camp located on a beach a few hundred meters away from the city centre of Mytilene, and arrest the 350 Pakistani migrants who were sleeping inside the tents. After about half an hour, the migrants are transferred to the hotspot of Moria, fingerprinted and detained there. Since the day after the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement (18 March 2016), the hotspot has officially become a “closed facility”, as defined by UNHCR officers on the island, that is to say a centre of first deportation. The NoBorder Kitchen camp was opened by British, German and Greek activists in November 2015 as a safe space for migrants who refused to be identified in the hotspot, thereby avoiding being fingerprinted.

In order to understand what the eviction of the NoBorder camp reveals about the transformations of the frontier-island we should retrace the events that took place in Lesvos. We must look both at events that have become visible through the media and events that are exclusively filed in the archives of the Greek authorities and the European agencies in charge of governing migration, such as Frontex and European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Such a reconstruction involves following the pace and temporality of arrivals and departures on the frontier-island of Lesvos during the last nine months, during which time migrant arrivals have substantially increased.

The frantic pace of migration accelerated in September, when the detention centre of Moria was officially transformed into a hotspot. From that time onwards, Lesvos started to undergo rapid spatial transformations regarding its detention, filtering, containment, and identification functions. From a transit point operating at differential speeds, depending on the nationality of the migrant, Lesvos has become a prison-island formed of many hotspots beyond the official one of Moria. The transformation in the forms and mechanisms of capture that directly affect migrants’ lives in Lesvos is one of the main and most visible outcomes of the EU-Turkey agreement, and of the EU effort to stop migrant movements across the Mediterranean sea.

From registration to detention

Until 18 March 2016, the hotspot worked as a centre of first identification more than as a space of detention. For migrants, the identification procedure – including fingerprinting – was the condition for obtaining a permit to stay legally in Greece for six months (Syrian nationals only) or one month (all other nationalities), and to obtain a ferry ticket to Athens in order to move on to the Greek-Macedonian border.

Yet, a form of differential treatment was put in place for Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan migrants as early as November 2015. Labelled by Greece as ‘North African migrants’, these migrants were declared subject to immediate detention. However, due to a lack of detention capacities in Lesvos, most of them were not identified by the Greek police. At the end of February, when negotiations between the EU and Turkey were relaunched after several months of stalemate (as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, menaced to push migrants to Europe as “human bombs”), Lesvos gradually became a prison-island for migrants of other nationalities as well.

The moment of rescue has become the first stage of a chain of migration containment

These ‘inassimilable remnants’ also included Pakistanis who, like Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians, became targets for arrest and were prevented from leaving the island, even after they obtained the one-month temporary permit. However, arrests have been limited in number as the illegalisation of Pakistani migrants was managed rather through a twofold trap: first, the trap of asylum and, secondly, the spatial trap. That is, those who decided to go to the hotspot to be identified, thus becoming eligible to claim asylum, were immediately detained inside the centre. In this respect, the centre already operated as a closed facility for Pakistanis only. All other migrants remained free prisoners in Lesvos. That is to say, they were de facto trapped there due to the geographical boundaries of the island coupled with the denial of the special permit needed to travel to Athens by ferry.

The NoBorder Kitchen camp was a refuge more than a transit space for migrants illegalised by the hotspot system and discarded by the European relocation scheme. More concretely, migrants from Pakistan and north Africa were trapped on the island and prevented from moving to northern Greece by the selective filter put in place at Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border, whereby only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis were allowed to cross.

But why did Greece and Europe stop Pakistanis more than others? I asked this question to the UNHCR head officer in Lesvos. What emerges from his answer reveals the politics of numbers that always sustains the government of migrations. “Pakistani migrants were one of the main targeted nationalities”, he said, “because after those considered more eligible to international protection – such as Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis – they represent the most numerous group, and so are quite difficult to manage”.

Securitisation and the EU-Turkey deal

Between 18-19 March, as reported by Doctors without Borders volunteers, the hotspot was partially emptied and converted into a centre of first deportation. In order to make room for new arrivals, those still detained inside the hotspot and those who arrived on the island before the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement were taken to the mainland by ferry in the morning of 19 March. From that moment, the gates of Moria have been closed and those who entered the hotspot since have been given a detention paper stating:

On March 20, 2016 the EU-Turkey agreement has been implemented, and it is highly probable that you will remained detained in the hotspot until when no (sic) decision will be taken concerning your case. You can make appeal (sic) against the expulsion procedure to Turkey that is established by the agreement, and claiming asylum (sic).

Actually, at the beginning of May some migrants were been given authorisation to go out of the hotspot during the day. Yet, in the hotspot of Lesvos temporary freedom is, similar to the exclusionary selective asylum system, based on nationality: only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis are allowed to go out during the day.

On 4 April 2016, the first deportation to Turkey took place, coordinated by Frontex officers, using Turkish ferries. Together with the restructuring of the functions of the island-frontier of Lesvos as part of the European border regime, in the last few months significant spatial transformations have occurred in the forms and procedures of identification, classification and detention. Until the beginning of 2016 the majority of migrant vessels arrived on the northern part of the island, where the sea that divides Greece from Turkey is much narrower than on the southern side. Most of the time, migrants disembarked either autonomously, or they were rescued at sea by independent search-and-rescue organisations (such as Pro-Activa) or NGOs (such as Doctors without Borders) that started their activities on the island the last autumn. Until the end of January, the Greek coast guard intervened only sporadically to save migrants in distress at sea. The independent organisations coordinated with Frontex rather than the Greek coast guard with respect to rescue operations.

The naval blockade deployed by Turkey and the conversion of the hotspot into a closed facility has transformed Lesvos into a prison-island

In February, when the Turkish authorities began patrolling the sea and intercepting vessels, the main migrant route diverted to the south, thereby becoming longer. Concurrently, the Greek coast guard, in cooperation with Frontex, began rescue-and-interception activities in Greek waters, taking migrants to the port of Mytilene. Upon disembarkation migrants are now immediately transferred to the hotspot of Moria. Therefore, the moment of rescue has become the first stage of a chain of migration containment that got up to speed one month prior to the official signing of the agreement. From the sea to the hotspot, the government of migrations has become more and more centralised by Greek authorities under the supervision of European agencies such as Frontex and EASO.

In distinction to the situation in Lampedusa and the Italian hotspot system, the government of migrant arrivals by sea in Lesvos has been characterised by the active presence of human rights organisations – about one hundred are currently operating on the island – and individual volunteers. In the span of a few months, non-governmental humanitarianism put into place the logistics for hosting and reception, while the Greek authorities sought to get involved as little as possible both at sea and on land.

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Photo by author. All rights reserved.

The multiplication of non-governmental organisations has transformed the island economy from a tourist place to a space of ‘humanitarian tourism’ – that is, a place where volunteers go during their holiday to help migrants. Nevertheless, since the signing of the agreement many of these humanitarian organisations have little scope of manoeuvre, especially concerning rescue operations, while others have been co-opted by the hotspot system.

Watching the watchdogs

Coming back to the scene of rescue, this has also recently been reshaped by the presence of new actors at sea. The biggest of these is NATO, which has patrolled Greek and Turkish waters since 11 February on request of Germany, Greece and Turkey. The official goal of the operation is to support Greece and Turkey in managing the refugee crisis, communicating to the Greek coast guard the location of migrant vessels and gathering intelligence at sea in order to share relevant data with Frontex. At the moment, according to the information provided by NATO headquarters in Brussels, there are eight NATO vessels operating daily patrols near the Greek islands of Chios and Lesvos, and these vessels are clearly visible from the beaches of Lesvos.

Yet, as the Greek coast guard in Lesvos explained, the presence of NATO assures that Turkey does its job, intercepting and pushing back migrant vessels heading to Greece. Watching the watchdogs of Europe is thus the strategy currently adopted for putting pressure on Turkey to comply with the terms of the agreement. Indeed, although there is evidence of an exponential increase of push-backs by the Turkish coast guard and the average number of migrant arrivals on Lesvos has decreased from 1200 (February) to 76 (mid April), this trend could reverse if NATO would halt the operation in the Aegean Sea.

The EU’s fear that Turkey could raise the stakes by demanding more money for blocking migrants at sea has become more than a mere speculation in the last few weeks, considering the reluctance of the Turkish government to give the green light for further deportations. For the moment however, the naval blockade deployed by Turkey and the conversion of the hotspot into a closed facility has transformed Lesvos into a prison-island. Consequently, the core of the government of migrations has spatially shifted from the space of arrival to the centre of the island, where the hotspot is located.

They many layers of containment

The fact that Lesvos works today as a prison-island and as a centre of first deportation means neither that a homogenous ‘hold’ over migrant lives is at play, nor that practices of detention are by now fully centralised. By observing attentively from the barriers of the hotspot, and by trying to reconstruct in a coherent narrative the fragmentary information collected by humanitarian organisations working inside the centre, the multi-fenced detentive spaces of Moria highlights the mechanisms of differential segregation that are at play there. The system of concentric cages that characterises the hotspot and the limits placed on the mobility of the migrants detained there – those who are in the inner barrier cannot access the broader circles – correspond to the migrants’ level of ‘dangerousness’ ascribed to nationalities by the state.

The criteria according to which migrants are detained inside the inner barriers of the hotspot are still quite unclear, and from the outside is difficult to know who is actually detained in the smallest area, the so called ‘sector B’. The organisations that work in the centre have deduced that the Greek authorities usually detain migrants in these areas that EASO has defined ‘not eligible for protection’ – i.e. deportable migrants. In addition, there are migrants who the Greek police have labelled as potentially ‘dangerous subjects’, because they tried to escape the hotspot or because they provoked and participated in riots in the camp.

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Sector B. Photo by author, all rights reserved.

Finally, up until 26 April unaccompanied minors were also detained here. Yet, they resisted their condition of captivity by breaking out of the cage, setting fire to it and demanding to be released. The police responded by tear-gassing the minors. The outcome of the riot has been the promise by Greek authorities to transfer underage migrants to hosting centres on the island managed by the UNHCR. However, these facilities have not yet been opened.

Vulnerability and nationality are the conditions determining how the hotspot system acts over migrants’ lives

The spatial differentiation and forms of control over the movement of refugees and migrants on Lesvos goes far beyond the fences of the hotspot. The ‘hotspot machine’ operates in Lesvos by spatially segregating migrants, inside the centre, according to different degrees of deportability; however it works differently for those UNHCR deems temporarily non-deportable because they are declared ‘vulnerable subjects’. The free-access tent camp of Kara Tapé managed by the UNHCR, located a few kilometres from Moria, hosts about 765 vulnerable subjects. The migrants who live there could in principle circulate freely on the island, yet in practice they are constantly at risk of arrest by the Greek police, because they are not given any official document that certifies their temporary and conditional freedom. Looking at the statistics of the population of the camp, it is immediately clear that individuals and families who have been declared ‘vulnerable’ by the UNHCR are predominantly Syrian (605), with the remaining numbers made up of migrants from Palestine and Afghanistan.

It follows that vulnerability and nationality are the conditions determining how the hotspot system acts over migrants’ lives. The second criterion (nationality) ultimately determines which subjects qualify for the first one (vulnerability). In addition to Moria and Kara Tapé, there are three transit-points set up by Doctors without Borders, the International Red Cross, and the UNHCR in the northern part of the island. These were operational as long as migrants arrived in the area, with migrants staying in these camps for only a few hours before being transferred to the hotspot. In addition, near the city of Mitylene, a centre managed by the Greek association ‘PIKPA’ hosts vulnerable subjects and migrants with disabilities.

Overloading the sorting mechanisms

The multiplication of hotspots on the island, if we conceive of ‘hotspots’ as centres of identification and selection, has been particularly evident since the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement. This is because the limited capacity of the hotspot of Moria would have hampered the possibility of detaining all potentially deportable migrants. This proliferation has happened alongside the multiplication of legal statuses and categories dividing migrants in order to prevent the formation of a collective political subject. This process of differentiation combines with the narrow channels of the asylum system to turn most asylum seekers into irregular migrants who are denied international protection.

The reorganisation of the camps has happened alongside the recrafting of partitioning mechanisms: since 18 March, all migrants have become potentially deportable, and some nationalities and ‘dangerous subjects’ even more so than others. Hence, migrants hope to be considered ‘vulnerable’ by the UNHCR in order to not be deported. Rather, what has happened as a result of many of these migrants claiming asylum is that the mechanism of deportation has started to ‘jam’. When a migrant claims asylum, deportation is temporarily suspended, pending the outcome of the asylum claim.

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Photo by author. All rights reserved.

Reversing the asylum system from a mechanism of capture and exclusion to a legal weapon against deportation has been, by far, the main strategy adopted by migrants, as confirmed by the 40% increase in asylum claims per week recorded in the last month. In response to the migrants’ anti-deportation move, EASO has declared that it will speed up the asylum procedure, bringing it down to a maximum of 15 days for processing both the asylum claim and a possible appeal in case of a negative outcome.

Currently, few migrants arrive on Lesvos and few leave, whilst more than 400 people are held (up) on the prison-island. Migrants have temporarily slowed down and jammed the fast channels of deportation, and Turkish authorities are pushing for more money in order to continue their work as the pre-frontier of Europe. After the first two huge deportations on 4 and 8 April, 49 migrants were deported on 26 April, after which forced returns to Turkey have been temporarily suspended until 20 May, when 80 Frontex and police officers ‘escorted’ 22 migrants from Lesvos back to Turkey.

21 April 2016, 7 p.m.: the organisations that work in the hotspot of Moria start to leave the centre, while Greek police remain there to control the area. On the premises of the camp there are a number of stands owned by Greek citizens that during the day sell drinks and sandwiches to workers, journalists, and researchers who, like me, look into the hotspot from outside.

In the evening the same stands become shops serving migrants: from behind the fence they pass money into the hands of the Greeks, who throw over the fence goods like cigarettes, Coca-Cola bottles and camping tents. The latter, which cost 30 euros, are sold to those who have no place to sleep in the hotspot. In the meantime, a friend receives a Whatsapp message from one of the 350 Pakistani migrants arrested the day before at the NoBorder Kitchen camp, who is now inside the concentric cages of Moria: “tonight we have been transferred to zone B, the inner area of the hotspot. We are not allowed to claim asylum. An EASO officer came to speak with us, saying, don’t worry, we have a solution for you, you will be relocated to Turkey”.

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