Humanitarian space and border management in Lesbos. E. PAPADA

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Monday, May 23, 2016
Humanitarian space and border management in Lesbos. E. PAPADA

Cite as: Papada E. 2016, "Humanitarian space and border management in Lesbos". Open Democracy

The EU-Turkey deal and the creation of ‘hotspots’ has catalysed a shift from humanitarianism to securitisation on the Greek islands, shrinking the space for humanitarian action.

Moria Hotspot, Lesvos, 2016. Martin Leveneur/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nd)

The latest EU-Turkey deal is the culmination of months of attempts by the European Commission to take control of the eastern Mediterranean, a space that has recently seen the arrival of over one million people as well as unprecedented displays of solidarity by people across Europe.

Following the first wave of criminalisation of humanitarian activities in several of the Aegean border islands – during which many individuals feared prosecution for people smuggling due to their participation in life rescue operations – independent volunteers and grassroots solidarity organisation have now been cut off from any contact with arriving populations. According to the mayor of the island, the latest agreement and the decision to detain and return all newcomers in Turkey has now made aid structures largely redundant. One of the first casualties has been the exemplary, autonomously-run ‘PIKPA’ camp in Mytilene which has been hosting vulnerable individuals for quite sometime. It has been announced that this facility will soon close. Within the first few days of the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) announced the suspension of all its operations in the ‘hotspot’ in Moria out of fear of being associated with the mass expulsion operation currently going on there. This followed similar declarations from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the National Refugee Council in Chios.

The European border paradox

The Greek government has clashed with humanitarian workers both within the informal structures set up at critical arrival points and at sea, where fishermen and lifeguards are often confronted with boats and people in distress. These conflicts have become more pronounced since the start of 2016, when the Greek government started to increase its cooperation with FRONTEX, the European border agency. The arrest in January of five Spanish lifeguards working for the NGO Proem Aid and DYA on suspicion of people smuggling and trafficking was emblematic of this ongoing shift in direction of policy and practice at border locations.

Concerns over the eligibility and identity of those active on the island culminated in the implementation of a formal registration process by the Greek state. This unprecedented step included the submission of a clear statement of purpose and activities, as well as the personal profiles of affiliated individuals. This effort can be read as an attempt to solve the current European paradox of both wanting to save lives and secure external borders. This paradox sits at the core of the European Agenda for Migration and will be further reinforced by proposals to establish a European Border and Coast Guard. The latter may be seen as an indication of the level of suspicion and panic currently gripping officials at all levels of government, compelling them to undertake acts of an authoritarian, undemocratic flavour.

The unfolding drama on the Greek islands can be read in three acts: the rise of autonomous and solidaric organisation; the emergence of a securitised humanitarian border space; and, finally, the consolidation of a de facto securitised and punitive regime. Throughout all three of these acts, actors have negotiated and renegotiated the relationship between the solidarity, humanitarianism, and securitisation agendas.

The difference between solidarity and humanitarianism

The plurality of actors operating on the island since early 2015, from formal NGOs and humanitarian agencies to informal groups and individual volunteers, has been crucial for the provision of much needed relief to those arriving on the island. For instance, a loose network of international volunteers and solidarity groups have set up several autonomous spaces as refugee camps at critical points along the coast. These have provided a vital humanising element for those arriving disoriented and exhausted to the island, giving them a set of dry clothes and a warm cup of soup before putting them on a UNHCR bus to the accommodation or registration centre in Kara Tepe and Moria. Considering that at its peak the number of arrivals often reached 7,000 a day, the ability to quickly animate informal networks to fill supply gaps at points of arrivals has been critical to maintaining services.

This has been understood by many informal groups as an implicit act of solidarity, not mere principled humanitarianism. Take, for instance, the volunteer-run, autonomous PIKPA camp or the Platanos self-organised solidarity structure on the shore near Eftalou. For them, decisions and actions arise from public assemblies and responsibility is shared equally. At the same time, they consider solidarity to entail a recognition of the injustice that pushed people to search for protection – it’s not just about pity or philanthropy. On the other hand, humanitarian agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee, the UNHCR and Medicine sans Frontiers, follow a mandate that prioritises the preservation of life above historical exigencies and readings of injustice, and their operations are designed to support officials in managing transit flows.

Migrants gather at Victoria Square, Athens, in Sept. 2015. Thanassis Stavrakis/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The distinction between humanitarian action and solidaric support matters for several reasons. First, the differentiation between the activities of large, established humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR and those of smaller, solidaric structures helps illuminate the boundary between the political and the humanitarian. For one, UNHCR emergency operations in Lesbos have been and still are inextricably linked to the larger EU Migration Agenda. This manifests in a number of ways. From their role in controlling mobility within the island through to the provision of transport and tents, UNHCR’s larger role as a coordinating body of management and relief operations involves them in relocation politics and the highly securitised, hotspot approach to migration management. In contrast to this, individual and informal solidarity structures are highly critical of the hotspot logic of management. The provision of goods (food, blankets, clothes) and services (medical, paralegal, information) gathered at a grassroots level comes with an implicit political demand to provide refugees with safe passage to Europe and a safe onward journey. But as institutionalised humanitarianism moves into closer contact with the border security apparatus, solidarity and grassroots initiatives are being pushed to the margins.

Second, it provides a lens through which to view broader transformations within the Greek polity. This particularly refers to the weakening power of the Greek state in the face of external controls and demands from its lenders, as well as the implied inability of the state to manage such a large transiting population. The latter takes on physical dimensions in the emergence and consolidation of more or less formal ‘humanitarian spaces’ on Greek territory. Indeed, such spaces take on a governing role just where the image of a Greek sovereign state begins to appear faded and contested.

The creation of humanitarian spaces

The concept of a humanitarian space has been given multiple interpretations. It reflects the variety of contexts, types, and challenges of humanitarian action. Broadly, it relates to the nature of the ‘operating environment’ in which humanitarian agencies work. This particularly relates to security conditions, but also to the frequency and magnitude of humanitarian operations. Crucially, it is understood as a space of a higher degree of regulation and of principled humanitarian governance.

In the case of Greece, the physical and conceptual manifestations of humanitarian spaces coincide, to various degrees, with regulation and security frameworks. In the capital city of Athens, which is the temporary destination of most who depart from the islands, a network of loosely connected initiatives operate across official and unofficial spaces of accommodation and care. Yet many of these initiatives are now being crowded out by larger humanitarian actors. Victoria Square, a central urban outlet where migrants have been grouping in recent years, has been gradually acquiring the characteristics of a humanitarian space. In it, the newly opened Salvation Army shop and NGOs have now taken over many of the activities previously undertaken by informal and solidarity initiatives. Several areas within the island of Lesbos can also be characterised as such. While the latest EU-Turkey deal is undoubtedly shrinking the humanitarian space established on the island of Lesbos and elsewhere in the country, it remains strong outside the confines of the hotspot infrastructure. To a certain extent, it also legitimises the oppressive EU policies as it facilitates the ordered sequence of mobility within the island.

Undoubtedly, if anything can be said to have survived the ruins of the structural adjustment imposed on Greece it is the drive to maintain a basic level of life in dignity. One of its most poignant expressions has been the emergence of a robust grassroots solidarity movement and its physical structures – ranging from health clinics to soup kitchens – made possible through a fierce mobilisation of material and human resources in the spirit of survival and resistance against the oppressive economic reality. The informal response in Lesbos is – at least as far as the in-country mobilisation is concerned – an extension of that model of organisation and of already existing solidarity structures.

That response is not without its critics. As the mayor of Lesbos recently told the Guardian, the work of NGOs and volunteers on the island, although heartening, creates doubt and mistrust among the local population. In the same report, a UNHCR spokesperson reiterated the need for further coordination to avoid overlap in activities and urges volunteers to register and work with municipal authorities. While this position stems from UNHCR’s principle of cooperation within state rules and legislation, it nonetheless shows that the organisation openly condones local government attitudes towards solidaric structures.

To be sure, mistrust and suspicion is directed both ways. Many smaller NGOs and volunteers view the activities of large NGOs and the municipal authorities as inadequate and ill-advised, and see better results in operating within horizontal informal structures. Locals and particularly those residing in arrival points have seen their lives transformed and often been irritated by the volume and presence of individuals reclaiming previously commercialised space to put up relief structures. The decision, however, to coerce all actors to regroup under a united, coordinated front reveals yet another manifestation of a state of unease and the desperate attempts to govern it. It is also a symptom of the broader emergence and consolidation of a humanitarian space of heightened regulation across the island, explicitly linked to the militarised border apparatus and the securitised EU Migration Agenda.

Hotspots – as both a type of infrastructure and as a method of management – were always intended to serve as a mechanism for sorting the deserving from the undeserving in transit. One could deduce this just by looking at the sprawling, wire-fenced building in Moria, or at the growing presence of first the police, then FRONTEX, and now the military. The latest decision to register and swiftly remove all those ‘irregularly’ crossing the Aegean has resulted in absolute prison conditions within hotspots. This shift has been difficult to stomach for most humanitarian agencies, who see their operational space shrinking as it is taken over by a de facto securitising logic.

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