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Ripping down fences

Emma Hughes spoke to Caoimhe Butterly about organising with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos and dismantling borders

October 1, 2015
7 min read

Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.

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Who are the people arriving at Lesbos?

It’s a whole variety. A mixture of Syrians and Afghans, also Iraqis, some Palestinians, some Eritrean folks, some Somalians. Really a whole mix. But the majority are Syrians and Afghans. In terms of the numbers, it depended on the day. On some days up to a thousand people are coming in by boat.

There are 20,000 refugees and migrants on Lesbos and there’s a whole backlog because of the totally inept response. There’s typically about three employees at the port who are trying to process the papers of literally thousands of people. Three employees plus a few observers from the International Maritime Organisation and UN, and really heavy-handed police. Recently they called in the riot police.

It’s a recipe for disaster because you have people being treated in a humiliating way. Some of the verbal abuse that I witnessed at the port included police calling people animals and cowards for leaving Syria and spitting at them.

What are conditions like for people staying in Lesbos?

The conditions are getting worse. There is no infrastructure, so although the UNHRC and UNICEF are coordinating buses, there are not enough. Hundreds of people on a daily basis are walking almost 75 kilometres from Mytilene, which is the capital, and that’s often in 35C heat. You have folks with very young children, people who are recovering from wounds, people with heart conditions, heavily pregnant women. There are no toilets so a lot of women are getting urinary tract infections. There are no places for people to bath. In both of the camps in Mytilene, the numbers are getting overwhelmingly large. The municipality is not really responding in any cohesive way. The agencies and international NGOs on the ground, in terms of capacity, are not meeting the needs. There is a third camp called Pipka, which is doing amazing work. It’s run on solidarity principles, so it provides a space, particularly for folks who are wounded or who have serious illness, that has a lot more dignity, respect and mutual solidarity. And that’s really clear in the way the camp is run in that they participate in its upkeep and some of the decision making. It’s a lot better.

What has the community response been like?

There are some communities that have had amazingly warm and empathetic responses, particularly on the smaller islands, where people are cooking food in their homes and bringing it out, where sometimes families are hosting people. So there is a lot of really positive stuff going on.

But there is also a mix of apathy, fear and xenophobia. And because Lesbos is an island that very much revolves around the tourist industry, there’s a lot of criticism that the number of refugees coming in is hurting tourism.

I think the attitude of the authorities on the island has been to keep conditions at a really humiliating, intolerable level in the hope that people won’t stay. But it’s creating these huge bottlenecks of thousands of people who are basically waiting for these very slow, bureaucratic, very discriminatory processes to take place.

How long are people are having to wait?

It varies massively. I’ve been speaking to people who’ve been waiting for up to two weeks, just between landing and walking to the capital, then going through the whole port procedure to get a piece of paper that gives you right of passage for 30 days to exit Greece. Because there is no system in place it means that people line up for five or six days. There isn’t shelter, there isn’t water distributed, so people are fainting in the lines, they are sometimes getting baton charged or pushed back aggressively by police.

Was there any self-organising among migrant communities in Lesbos?

From informal refugee camps onwards, whenever people were brutalised you’d see people self-organising. On my first day in Lesbos I was at the port when there was a symbolic demonstration of young guys from Syria who made their own placards and went out and blocked the street. Their placards said ‘we are not animals, we deserve to be treated with respect’, ‘we are human’, ‘we want to leave here’.

Because communities are moving together they get to know each other. They are living through the same situation so they rely on each other and this immense trust builds up. I think that results in collective non-compliance. When the police tried to force people off trains in Hungary they refused to get off. They were holding up signs and literally breaking down fences and breaching borders collectively. In Lesbos, people are conducting, daily sometimes, sit-ins, small symbolic demonstrations. There is a lot of solidarity in terms of distribution of food, making sure that the most vulnerable groups are prioritised.

There is this amazing group called ‘Welcome to Europe’, which is a group of German volunteers, a lot of them second-generation migrants and refugees, who have come to Lesbos and to other areas, some of whose parents had taken a similar route, particularly Kurdish Iranians and Afghans. They come back to volunteer, and to use their language skills but also their very nuanced understanding of the pain and the dislocation of this experience for people, and the humiliation of it.

There is a lot of amazing empowerment going on, which, despite the severity of the conditions people are living through, is something they will carry as a lived collective memory. It will inform whatever they get involved in later in the countries that they end up building a life in. Many young folks are coming to me and other activists and saying ‘As soon as we have papers, as soon as we have status, we’re coming back here.’ I’ve no doubt, and I say this as an anarchist in a non-hierarchical way, that they will be leading this movement.

How can the left stand in solidarity with those literally ripping down the fences of fortress Europe?

There are a few practical things: One is a recognition that despite the initial receptivity that certain countries in Europe are showing to large groups of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers coming through, that will not be sustained long-term. So as the borders begin to re-solidify, people should be thinking about No Borders camps, placed on the borders. We should be accompanying people across borders, replicating actions such as the Austrian convoy to Hungary.

We should also value shows of humanitarianism, which are beautiful and which often our movements dismiss too easily as liberal humanitarianism.

People are going to be living in very isolated circumstances without their networks of social solidarity from home, on the fringes of precarity for a very long time. Despite the fact there are a lot of solidarity initiatives, there is also a consolidation of the right, whether that’s the formal right in terms of the Hungarian and other governments, or increasing neo-Nazi and fascist organising and attacks. It’s going to become worse. So make those connections and build up that consciousness and solidarity, and challenge the racism and xenophobia – that is a constant.

In terms of a wider political analysis, do you have any ideas on what that could look like?

We need demands that go beyond past quotas. A lot of attention has been placed on upping these symbolic quotas, and not looking at the causes of these forced displacements. What are the causes? Imperialism and regime changes, climate change and resource grabbing, and everything else that contributes to these huge bodies of people needing to leave and seek refuge elsewhere.

There is a hyper-securitisation of borders. One of the demands has to be for a safe and legal crossing for people.

As activists we should be upping our game, not just having knee-jerk reactions every time that overt state brutality is upped. We should be saying this is interrelated and it’s all part of fortress Europe.

Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.