On the Events of 22 April 2018 in Sappho Square, Mytilene

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Friday, April 27, 2018
On the Events of 22 April 2018 in Sappho Square, Mytilene

The violent rally against asylum seekers that took place on the night of 22 April 2018 in Mytilene, Lesvos, was joined by significant numbers of far-right protesters and bore the characteristics of a planned attack. The rally not only manifested extreme xenophobic violence, but also exhibited the toleration of such violence among various strata of local society. In this capacity, its implications extend beyond the confines of local society, to acquire broader ramifications.

Indeed, the recent events in Lesvos reflect a shift in the attitudes of ‘solidarity’ that had flourished between 2015 and 2016, and which appear to be absent at the current juncture. Previous states of tolerance and rhetorical support for asylum seeking refugees and immigrants are presently giving way to an increasing tolerance of aggressive and xenophobic violence.

This text complements the folder of the Observatory of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in the Aegean and offers an explanatory frame for the events that unravelled in the centre of Mytilene on the night of Sunday 22 April.

The geographical restriction that confines asylum seekers to the Greek Islands, put in place by the common statement of the EU and Turkey in 2016, has kept thousands of people in Lesvos’ facilities for protracted periods of time. This model has already been applied in Lampedusa and has failed to address the challenges faced by immigrants and refugees in humane manners. Moreover, the continual deterioration of reception and accommodation facilities has had significant effects on small island communities and the everyday lives of local populations. The relocation of asylum seekers to mainland Greece, administered by state authorities and granted to those who belong to ‘vulnerable groups’, is ridden with delays and usually proves ineffective, as it does not avert the entrenchment of appalling living conditions.

The general strike called by the Municipality of Lesvos on 20 November 2017, which demanded the island’s ‘decongestion’ and was joined by large numbers of citizens, constituted a critical juncture. Local authorities’ legitimate appeal for the lifting of geographical restriction policies, a request shared both by asylum seekers themselves and several organisations in support (see the campaign #opentheislands + 01), has triggered xenophobic reactions that find expression in everyday life and gain prevalence through various occurrences.

One such occurrence has been the mobilisation of communities residing in proximity to Moria’s hotspot. Initiated in the summer of 2017 and operating throughout 2018, local communities’ backlash has manifested variously, including the firing of a gun by a stockbreeder who sought to scare off aspirant rustlers. Related incidents include residents’ ongoing opposition to the rental and opening of NGO facilities in their neighbouring village, and local authorities’ adverse reactions to governmental efforts to improve living conditions in Moria’s hotspot and to install new containers that would shelter people during the winter months. The Rental Accommodation Scheme, put in action by the Ministry for Migration Policy and the UNCHR (program ESTIA), has also received negative reactions among social media users, who often condemn owners willing to rent their property to asylum seeking refugees. Finally, symptomatic of the prevailing tension is the defilement of the monument erected in 2013 in Thermi, a village close to Mytilene facing the Turkish coastline. The monument commemorated those who lost their lives in the fatal shipwreck of December 2012.

The planned attack against asylum seekers, who had been demonstrating in Sappho Square since Tuesday 17 April 2018, occurred within the social and political context that had developed in previous days. The asylum seekers, of mainly Afghan origin, had marched from Moria’s hotspot to Sappho Square, where they remained until Sunday. They protested against the compromised medical treatment that had been offered to a compatriot of theirs at the Vostanion Hospital of Lesvos. They disclosed that the patient had been reporting heart problems to Moria’s hotspot medical facilities three days prior to the heart crisis that eventually led to his hospital admission. The medical facilities of Moria (known as Moria Medical Support and affiliated to the Evangelical organisation Eurorelief, the operation of which has received strong criticism - see also here), however, ‘offered him paracetamol and told him that he will be fine’ (from an interview with the Observatory). While refugees’ demonstration was initially sparked by these events, the subsequent occupation of the square acquired broader dimensions and acted as a protest against the geographical containment of asylum seekers and the living conditions in Moria’s hotspot. The central chant of the protest was ‘Moria No Good!’.

The demonstration in Sappho Square, which constitutes the second similar event to take place between 2017 and 2018, appears to have triggered an unprecedented mobilisation of the far-right. While the demonstration and hunger strike that had taken place in the winter, and which had later culminated in the occupation of SYRIZA’s local headquarters, had sparked negative reactions, these had not been violent in nature.

The protest staged by immigrants and refugees in April 2018, however, was met by escalating violence. The appearance of publications, which commented on the ‘provocative public prayers of “Allahu Akbar” chanting immigrants in Sappho Square’, served to create a tense atmosphere. The tension was further enhanced when the municipal cleaning service attempted to clean the Square in the presence of both police forces and the mayor, who asked protesters to evacuate the space. The mayor’s subsequent statement to the Athens-Macedonian News agency, which was later reproduced by several media outlets, sought to communicate the exasperation that he claimed was experienced by large parts of local society. According to the mayor, ‘local society ought to return to normality, and such provocative actions (…) incite local cohesion, thus posing the risk of dangerous social reflexes’.

In all cases, the ultimate factor that appears to have contributed to the outbreak of violent episodes concerns the mobilisation of far-right groups. The closed Facebook group ‘Patriotic Action for Mytilene’, members of which had also participated in previous xenophobic mobilisations, issued a call for far-right group members’ participation in the flag lowering ceremony and summoned individuals from different parts of the island. In conversations we had during the events of 22 April and in the days that followed, several residents reported disconcerting rumours regarding the arrival of Golden Dawn members and riot police from Athens. The fact that the court order for the evacuation of the square was issued on Sunday, that is, on the very day that the far-right mobilisation had been planned to take place, also stirred concern among residents. Moreover, the presence and operation of the police repeatedly failed to prevent the throwing of objects and petards on behalf of approximately 200 demonstrators against the 150 immigrants and refugees, as well as the 100 individuals who had joined the square in solidarity (see the Testimonials section of the folder). Finally, the removal of immigrants and refugees by police forces in the morning hours of Monday exhibited signs of violence and received criticism.

The Island of Lesvos, and certain areas and residents in particular, have been enduring both the high concentration of refugee populations, as well as the inefficient facilities dedicated to their reception and accommodation. At this critical juncture, events like the ones above generate tensions that set the ground for extreme forms of violence and establish a broader climate of toleration for xenophobic aggression.

The folder and introductory text dedicated to the events in Sappho Square serves the purpose of the Observatory of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in the Aegean to act as a body of knowledge and intervention in Aegean islands’ local communities. That is, it serves the systematic recording and accurate reporting on topics pertaining to the refugee crisis, with a commitment to the problematisation of processes of information production.