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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]