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No Borders camp at Lesvos

September 17th, 2009 · post by anon · 3 Comments

After a long cross-country journey home, passing through innumerable European border controls with a wave of the magical papers accessible to us by geographical accident of birth, and having had plenty of time for analysis and reflection, we still feel the Lesvos No Borders camp 09 (25th-31st August) to have been a failure. Despite the energy and determination of the participants, our short presence on the island didn’t seem to, on the whole, leave the migrants trapped in Lesvos any better off than before, and resembled essentially the worst form of anarcho-tourism.

A map of the Aegian sea, showing Lesvos in relation to Greece and Turkey
Lesvos1 is a Greek island 10km off the coast of Turkey. Greece is a frontier of Europe, and Lesvos is a frontier of Greece. Migrants coming from Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, and other countries often find themselves on the island of Lesvos mistakenly thinking they have reached Athens. They come packed on small boats and are frequently shot at, rammed, or have their boats sunk by private paramilitary border police Frontex2.

We arrived to an intense and fraught situation, ready to take some serious and focused action.

Those that make it to the island get picked up by the police and taken to a makeshift prison (in the words of the authorities a “welcome centre”) called Pagani. This prison was where the camp largely focused its efforts. Built as a warehouse to store goods, over 1000 migrants including women, children and babies are crammed into a space that even the authorities estimate is only able to house at most 3-400. Days before the start of the camp, a camera was smuggled into the prison, and a video made by migrants subsequently released showed the appalling conditions in which they are detained without crime or trial: 160 people sharing a 200 square metre room with one toilet, virtually no medical care; requests for help from the police (who run the prison) are met with beatings; husbands, wives and children are separated from one another with no possibility of communication. Soon after the video was released, 160 unaccompanied minors – some as young as eight or nine – went on hunger strike to demand their immediate freedom. We arrived to an intense and fraught situation, ready to take some serious and focused action.

noborder.lesvos.09-pagani.detention.centre-20-08-2009-08
The No Borders campaign on Lesvos is a small but pivotal one and, with hundreds of migrants arriving on Lesvos every week, they have their work cut out for them. We are not entirely sure why the camp was called, but it was organised largely by Greek activist groups outside of the No Borders network, in conjunction with German groups. Here the first problem with the camp arose. On arrival we noticed the overwhelming German majority (even the kitchen – for us the best organised aspect of the camp – had travelled from Germany!), and the total lack of information regarding targets and what we could do on the island. It soon transpired that most Greek anarchists had boycotted the camp due to bad blood with the main Greek organising group (the socialist ‘alpha-kappa’), and with the small number of Lesvos activists that were around being entirely overworked and preoccupied, it seemed that nobody knew anything that was going on.

The situation for people arriving onto Lesvos on their way to mainland Europe – the situation for everyone in Pagani – is different to that at other detention centres and other borders, because Lesvos is an island with only one practical way out, the 12-hour ferry ride to Athens. The whole island has become a fortress, with its gate at the ferryport, which is guarded by cops, who get to decide whether you look like an immigrant or a tourist.

Most of us came expecting December-style Greek action.

Whilst tourists can generally board the boat with just a ticket, immigrants must be in possession of additional documentation – a special ‘white paper’ which gives you 30 days to leave the island from the date of its issue and means that you are permanently registered throughout Europe in Greece and thus can be deported back there from other countries. White papers are issued only by the prefecture of the island, generally only after a lengthy stay in Pagani: some of the people we spoke to had been waiting over 50 days for the white paper; some just get deported.

Because of this fortress island situation, a break-out would have been useless. The escapees would be just as stuck on the island as they were in the prison. When we finally found some Lesvos activists, we learned that the campaign mainly consisted of two helpful things: legal pressure on the prefecture to get more people through Pagani quicker and hopefully shut it down altogether to be replaced by a better non-state-run camp, and various forms of direct support to migrants. Neither of these require 500 international activists for a direct action camp.

Most of us came expecting December-style Greek action, but every target we found was out of bounds for one (legitimate) reason or another. The week consisted all in all of long placard-waving protests in the sun, and a lot of time on the beach. We felt kind of useless and kind of frustrated. Whenever confrontation did arise (it doesn’t take much with the Greek cops) there was no shortage of self-appointed socialist parental figures to shout “everybody sit down!” or demand a meeting. At one memorable point, just as we got charged by baton-wielding cops outside the prison gates and all started to run, we were commanded to “start running now”! There were a dozen meetings a day, some of the worst we’ve ever endured, sometimes adjourning with the only decision reached being to have another one in an hour.

pagani
The camp did claim some successes: One demo, which happened in support of a courtyard occupation by Palestinians inside Pagani, saw three busloads of migrants released, and several hundred more were released over the course of the week. A public water-front demo saw a coastguard boat seized, and the visible presence of the camp and frequent demos at Pagani and in the town – including a small roof-top occupation – served to raise awareness and to boost the morale of imprisoned migrants. But these barely constituted concrete positive gains: the releases would probably have happened sooner or later anyway, the operations of Frontex and the running of Pagani continued more or less undisturbed, and it is debatable whether several hundred angry activists rampaging through a small island town, shouting slogans in a variety of foreign languages, would have done more harm or good for the campaign in its relations with the local population and the authorities with which it is forced to negotiate.

The same could be said of the camp as a whole for the wider No Borders network, which should ideally carry weight in its name as an international network of direct activists and cannot afford to make empty threats. Most of us left the camp feeling disheartened at having failed to really provide any effective support for the campaign or the hundreds of migrants that we spoke or waved to inside Pagani and who gave a loud tragic resonance to our helpless chants of “freedom! freedom!” from within its walls. At the camp and at the infopoint in town where many released migrants slept in a tent, activists and migrants seemed tellingly segregated, attesting to our lack of anything useful to offer them; both for our ignorance of their particular bureaucratically-determined situation on the island, and also for the pitiful absence of speakers of farsi and other languages spoken by migrants.

lesvos poster
The guards at Pagani wear latex gloves and surgical masks, they treat the people inside like animals. Borders are where racism becomes most stark, and the horror of what they mean for people’s lives is more than we could comprehend. To see so close the disgraceful abuse, mistreatment and casual disregard for their lives which is suffered by those seeking a better life in Europe at the hands of its authorities, and to be so infuriatingly impotent in our doing anything about it, was deeply dispiriting. The frustration made us think hard about the effectiveness of large international action camps as the best means of solidarity with those we wish to help.

Although we were inspired by the continuing behind-the-scenes unglamorous efforts of Lesvos No Borders activists, and the constant defiance and hope of the people imprisoned, we felt our time wasted and our intentions abused in this trip by those who needed bodies to add numbers to their demos and voices to their sloganeering. In response, we will seek to find ways to support migrants and target Frontex and the racist immigration policies of our own continent closer to home, and we hope that the organisers of the next No Borders camp will take these considerations into account and work hard to ensure that the next international gathering of activists in its name can contribute to the dismantling of murderous Fortress Europe in a serious and productive way.

  1. Historical home to the lesbian poet Sappho, and soon to change its name to Mytilini due to homophobia on the part of its current inhabitants. []
  2. Only a couple of weeks before our arrival, the attempted murder of a boat-full of migrants by Frontex coastguards had been reported, who had only been saved by a passing passenger ship. Literature distributed at the camp reported 1,100 verified deaths in the Aegean sea over the past 20 years. []

→ 3 CommentsThis entry belongs to the following categories: Articles · resistance

3 responses so far

  • Old Git posted:
    Sep 18, 2009 at 12:00 pm. Comment #1

    Hey, a very useful, interesting but sobering report. Hadn’t heard much about what happened on the ground at this Camp. Grim indeed.

  • maria posted:
    Sep 18, 2009 at 2:26 pm. Comment #2

    I also went to the no border camp in Lesvos. On the whole I agree with what was said about in this article; especially the comment on anarcho-tourism….however, I just wanted to add a few things.
    Alot of people who came from outside Greece (the majority of the participants) found the camp frustrating and, like the article writer had expectations of a december style revolt. As is often the problem with these type of ‘gatherings’ people don’t bother to find out about the local situation beforehand. If they had, they would have realised that as Lesvos is an island with only two port of entries, the opportunity for rioting is limited. Added to this, there are various sensitivities regarding local opinion/support etc.. and not that many things to smash. Also, despite the rumours the camp was not organised by Alpha Kappa (who regard themselves as anarchists), but by the Left network. Probably the former would have been just as controlling and as good as killing the moment as the later, but its worth pointing out.

  • reposter posted:
    Sep 19, 2009 at 10:18 pm. Comment #3

    How we see the No Border Camp – A reporting from autonomous participants
    from different cities in Germany (Thylla – 5/9/09)

    This text was published in German first (indymedia and also on this
    list).. here is the translation:

    There is a lot of talking about success in the reports bout the No
    Border in Lesbos 2009. We don’t agree completely with that.

    First, the story about the development, the idea and the following
    preparation was somehow puzzling for us. We at least see now – after the
    Camp – some things more clear. That’s how we see it now: In Germany
    parts of the antiracist movement invited for the No Border and the
    activists from different political scenes started to prepare for
    travelling. In Greece the dictio (network for global social rights) was
    part of the preparation but only mobilised their people. Greek
    anarchists didn’t know about the preparation till December, though the
    greek anarchists are an important part of the political movement about
    migration and the work with immigrants. Only a few anarchists knew about
    the upcoming camp, mostly because german autonomous friends told them
    about the idea.

    In December the locals from Mitilini (Lesbos) were invited. There a only
    a few anarchists in Mitilini and they weren’t sure about taking part in
    the preparation of the No Border. Some saw a chance in taking part to
    support the political actions about migration on the island, others
    objected totally because they (like other anarchists in Greece) don’t
    wanted to work together with dictio. Also the anarchists groups in
    Thessaloniki and Athens refused to take part because of their political
    differences with dictio. They didn’t want to work together with them.
    That was not surprising at all, because normally the don’t work
    together. There a just a few exceptions from this decision, only when
    the starting point is the same, then sometimes it worked out, but never,
    if one of the groups is just informing the others after preparing
    something. So there weren’t any political anarchists groups from Greece
    taking part, only a few individuals.

    But only a few internationals knew about that political decision of the
    anarchists not being part of the No Border. The preparation teams from
    Germany and Greece didn’t communicate this openly. For that reason the
    internationals expected that they will meet – like in other No Border
    Camps in Germany – a lot of activists from different political scenes.
    Their expectation were only partly delivered. There were a lot of
    anarchists and autonomous activists and groups from different countries
    but not from Greece. That was a confusing situation. In our opinion a
    presentation about the history of protest at the beginning of the Camp
    should have made the situation more clear but unfortunately this didn’t
    happen. At the same time and for the some reason we missed a
    presentation about the preparation team. That would have made the
    situation more clear for the internationals.

    Some activists from Germany were aware of the point that the anarchists
    groups wouldn’t take part in the No Border, but nevertheless decided to
    go to Mitilini. This was a political decision, because on camps like
    this there is always a „camp-own“ dynamic, so that it’s possible to
    develop and to permute radical left topics and actions.

    Unfortunately it wasn’t like that. During the week the participants had
    more and more the feeling to be exploited and controlled by the
    preparation team. Direct actions and own ideas were blocked and
    dismissed with always the same reasons:

    a) the former political work of the locals is is danger, if there are
    any confrontations on the island, because till then there were some
    first successes trough NGO-delegations and negotiations with the local
    authorities

    b) direct action will harm the migrants, because they only want to get
    the paper to come to Athens

    c) direct actions in Lesbos can’t be mediated to the local people

    and above all this reasons there seemed to be a more or less open fear
    or „hazard analysis“ that the „black bloc“ is going to destroy Mitilini
    completely…

    The possibility that human rights policy and direct actions can be
    combined and complement one another wasn’t seen in this discussions.

    Before the No Border started officially it was clear that a lot of
    anarchists and autonomous activists are going to take part. According to
    this, there were – beside of the important direct support of the
    migrants in the camp and at the infopoint in Mitilini – a lot off
    activists, who wanted to develop responsible political actions. But
    already in the first action-plenaries there was shown this immense fear
    for direct actions that somehow also attack. So it was more and more
    clear that the political views about what should happen on this camp
    diverge completely. To sharpen it: At the end there was mostly a
    humanitarian human rights policy with all its facets like dealing with
    the authorities and play their games. Against this background we see the
    „fear“ of some local activists. They were afraid to loose their „power“
    if there were some direct actions from anarchists and autonomous
    activists without them controlling it.

    In this situation day for day more and more internationals were
    dissatisfied. Most of them came with positive experiences from other
    international camps and were really disappointed about the strict denial
    of every civil disobedience or just a tiny paint-ball.

    For to make clear and transparent for the people that weren’t in
    Militini how ideas were objected and decisions were made, we would like
    to go more in detail about an idea for an action at Pagani
    detention-centre:

    After people have seen the detention-centre, there were just shocked and
    angry. A former store-house, where 1000 migrants are caged in a few
    rooms each with about 180 migrants. (Originally there were plans to put
    280 people at all in Pagani.) The unacceptable circumstances in Pagani
    are documented on a video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP2yT6EjBXo).

    The first impulse was: “we have to shut this hole thing down”. But
    that’s unfortunately not that easy. After talking to the people inside,
    it was clear that most of them didn’t want to break out. Some of them
    for sure would have chosen the way to live illegally in Greece, but that
    was not common sense between them. Most of the people inside are waiting
    for a paper to leave the island. With this paper they are allowed to
    travel to athens, at the same moment the paper is an order to leave
    Greece within 30 days. This paper is the only legal way to leave the
    island. Because of the „Third Country Regulation“ of the EU the migrants
    are not allowed to seek for asylum in other european countries than
    Greece. With this paper they only can go to seek for asylum in Athens
    (0,1 percent allowance of claims) or to live illegally in Europe. In
    Pagani regularly migrants are released with this paper, sometimes more
    than a dozen a day, mostly because the cops arrest daily new people and
    take them to Pagani.

    Besides there was for good reason the fear, that in case of a riot in
    front of the jail they cops could use tear-gas (the greek cops love it)
    and that could cause a uncontrollable and dangerous panic inside Pagani.
    Because of this reason we decided to look for a clever action to
    minimise the danger.

    With some people we developed an action and presented it. Our idea was
    to rededicate the detention-centre into an open transit without cells
    and fences. While the people are waiting for their paper there is no
    need to have a jail, they can wait everywhere in Lesbos for that. To
    make this action in a responsible way it must have been sure that there
    are as less cops as possible at Pagani (only the six securities working
    there). Another action in the city of Mitilini, at the same time – the
    occupation of the prefecture – should cause enough work for the cops.
    Meanwhile a „technic-team“ could open everything at Pagani. Leaflets
    should inform the local society and the tourists about the „new
    transit-centre“ and about our general political demands. This action
    should have taken place a day before the official Pagani action day.

    This proposal was presented at a delegation-meeting, where also sat some
    people of the preparation-team. There was a long discussion about it and
    finally it was blocked (specially from people in the preparation-team)
    for the same reason we wrote about in the beginning of this text.
    Instead of that it was decided that the official demonstration should
    take place at the day it was already planned and the prefecture should
    be occupied by „surprise“. With this decision it was accepted that the
    local police and the riot cops from athens will be at Pagani, who didn’t
    have something against an escalating situation in front of the
    detention-centre.
    During the discussion about our proposal we more and more got the
    feeling, that there was no confidence that we as international
    anarchist/ autonomous activists could handle the situation responsible.
    Rather it went out that some people just wanted to control whatever is
    going to happen. For some of the organisation-team their human rights
    policy was at the foreground, the ideas and the dynamic of the
    participants in the camp was completely negated and direct actions were
    objected and finally blocked, instead of having different actions at the
    same time side by side respecting each other. For us neither the release
    nor a riot was in the focus of our action, the only idea was to
    rededicate the detention-centre because the only reasons for this
    inhuman way treating migrants are harassment and determent. Also it was
    not the idea to „release“ people if they want to wait for their paper,
    if somebody would chose to get out of the situation, ok, everyone can
    chose for him or herself.

    From our proposal only the occupation of the prefecture remained. This
    action was not openly announced but failed because of our bad
    preparation. On the spontaneous delegation-meeting afterwards it wasn’t
    even possible to decide for a spontaneous demonstration, because this
    „couldn’t be communicated and mediated“ to the local society and the
    fear that the autonomous / anarchist activists are going to destroy
    everything stood in the foreground.

    This is only one example that just should make it more transparent how
    ideas of direct actions were blocked on this camp. Again and again ideas
    were discussed so long that nothing came out of it and it needed a lot
    of time to figure out what kind of power games were played and by whom.
    For sure this kind of discussion were also part in other action-camps,
    but most of us had the impression that this time it was worse and that
    some really had a special interest in controlling everything.

    The structure of power inside the camp was in-transparent, we all stayed
    to long in this kind of discussions instead of organising ourselves. For
    this situation there is also a critique on the local anarchists who
    partly also prepared the camp. There wasn’t a clear position and some of
    them were also part of the blocking people. Later we understood that
    most of them didn’t expect so many autonomous/anarchists activists with
    other ideas than the human rights fraction. But for them as well it was
    complicated to find out who is who and who wants what..

    Only at the end of the camp we had a common sense that we would have
    needed a autonomous/anarchists plenary beside. For that there was also a
    proposal at the beginning, but at that time most of us thought that
    there will be an own camp dynamic depending on the participants and we
    didn’t expect this blocking behaviour.

    Some german antira-activists also had their hands in some of the „bottom
    situations“ of the week. After a demonstration in Mitilini some
    activists had prepared paint-balls for one office of the border police
    and Frontex. The demonstration ended about 100 metres before, but one
    group tried to mobilise people to go further in the direction of the
    office. One from the preparation-team for the No Border stopped them in
    a confrontative way and threatened them even with beating if they
    continue. He argued with a so called „consensus against confrontation“
    of the camp that never had existed. Fascinating was also the estimation
    of the greek anarchists that even with some paint-balls the situation
    with the riot cops from Athens would escalate and we as internationals
    couldn’t stand such a situation. Therefore they also objected this action.

    To top this the greek anarchists who for political reasons didn’t take
    part in the No Border appeared fully covered and armed out of nowhere in
    the demonstration with banners and greek slogans at the same time. They
    planned their own action without communicating their aim. About 300
    activists followed them without knowing where they were going and for
    what. After a long while passing the dark tiny streets of Mitilini it
    turned out that we are on the way to a traditional greek concert where
    some people wanted to put some banners with political demands and held a
    speech on the stage about the greek migration policy. Not a bad action
    at all but this also shows that there was no communication at all.

    What else happened?

    Important and eminent was the Info-point in Mitilini. It was not planned
    before but spontaneous build up and it has shown the fatal migration
    policy in the middle of the city. First sceptical eyed by the locals day
    for day more locals showed up, bringing food and other needed things.
    There were leaflets and the migrants could get support and juridical
    information. A positive example was the support for a family from
    Afghanistan. They were not send to Pagani but to an open camp-side near
    the airport where they could wait for their papers. With tips and tricks
    some migrants were supported and with this political pressure the
    writings of the papers sometime went quicker. But for a lot of people
    their activism ended at the infopoint – of course also because they were
    exhausted and overstrained. Their energy and dynamic all went into the
    direct support and there was neither energy nor time for something else.

    Also at the camp there was a dynamic that in our opinion was fatal.
    Trough the cooperation with local social workers at Pagani, the NGOs and
    Human Rights Organisations (Lawyers) the part of the human right issues
    were more and more the main parts. At the same time political demands or
    contexts between different issues were more and more unattended. Because
    of that the „paper“ and the released people were pointed out as the only
    political and most important issues. There where news about “success”
    daily without saying that there are also released people normally and
    without scandalising that the paper for the 140 released migrants were
    written on the 21. august – one week before their release from Pagani.
    Which consequences this kind of political work has, that only wants to
    deal and only looks for juridical solutions, was shown on Saturday in
    front of and inside of Pagani. Here the proposals of the people inside
    itself were blocked.

    In the morning the people inside rebelled and the gates were opened
    because of their demands. Some people from the camp got there to have a
    look what’s going on there. Because of the action against Frontex in the
    harbour only the usual securities and a few cops were there. So the
    situation was good to support the migrants but more people were needed.
    This was prevented by some people from the camp who communicated trough
    the infopoint at the camp that „everything is ok and there are enough
    people to support“. Probably there was the same fear that the situation
    could get out of control. So most of the people decided to join the
    great action in the harbour.
    At Pagani the situation meanwhile went somehow bizzare. One woman who
    works at Pagani (we don’t know if she is a lawyer or NGO or whatever)
    called the people to go inside in their cells, because she wanted to
    read the rest of the 140 names of the people who should be released.
    (The papers that already were one week old) When people of us asked why
    they couldn’t do that while the people stayed outside, she argued that
    the situation is to confused to read the names and inside the situation
    is more under control. The protests of the few activists outside
    couldn’t do anything against it and the people went under this pressure
    „voluntarily“ inside the overcrowded cells. Meanwhile some more
    activists arrived because it had turned out that the migrants very well
    wanted support.

    One hour later about 50 activists got inside because of a lucky break.
    Some sat down, other started to talk to the people inside and also
    others tried to make the open gate unusable. The security and the cops
    were overstrained with the situation and their colleagues from Athens
    had enough work at the harbour. … really a good situation …. till, well,
    till the human rights activists again destroyed the situation and the
    possibilities. One of them made a deal – without someone has asked for
    that – with the police that we are going to leave and therefore the cops
    are not going to attack us. To make more pressure on the activists he
    also pointed out that the rest of the woman and children wouldn’t be
    released if we stayed. He acted like a cop to sabotage this action. To
    make it short: The cooperation between NGO’s, social workers and parts
    of the camp preparation scotched every action. In the opposite every –
    partly planned – release was pointed out as a political success of the
    camp.

    Also in other issues it was impossible to figure out a context between
    contents. After a short spontaneous blockade of a military parade that
    takes place in Mitilini every Sunday there were a lot of critique for
    this action. In Greece there is unfortunately also for the radical left
    just a small discussion about the military. In the rest of the society
    there is less to no discussion. The military parade on the next Sunday
    was not only companied by riot cops but also by nationalists and some
    fascists who attacked verbally the info point. Also the military action
    of the greek army (in Afghanistan) is no point of discussion in Greece.
    Contexts like war and reasons for migration are ignored. So this action
    as well was criticised because of the confrontative character. Here
    again we missed the chance to dispute politically. Instead of that, the
    camp only pointed at the illegal detention and tried to encourage the
    dealing position of the local social workers.

    In spite of all our fundamental critique there also where some good
    pointed actions like the boat-action in the harbour or the occupation of
    the roof in Pagani. There is a good documentation about all this so we
    don’t want to stress more on this. Everyone can watch the videos. We
    made this report mainly because of all the “success news” coming from
    Lesbos and we really disagree with that point of view. We really don’t
    want to play our role as “small sheriffs” to enforce the Geneva
    Convention or to be the cue ball of the local social workers. We
    criticise emphatically the politic of power of some of the preparation
    team to blockade the dynamic of the camp and the idea of having direct
    actions. And of course we would like to have a discussion about our
    critiques in Solidarity.

    At the end we send solidarity greeting to the comrades in Rotterdam,
    keep at it!
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