Thickening the ‘Unthickable’

March 4, 2013

Essay by Yorgos Rimenidis.


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Migrants in front of Makeshift Homes in the port city of Patras, 2011. © Tom Jamieson.

Thousands of people from the countries of central Asia and Africa, fleeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terror of the Arab Spring or simply poverty or coercion, cross the borders of Europe in search of a better life. Migration has a long history behind it, alternating between conditions of deafening tension and states of quiescence. In recent years, the escalation of migration has been accompanied by a proportionate rise in the debate around it. Yet, whether migration is seen as an epidemic disease or as a field of common struggles, the debate is always permeated by a sense of urgency. Statistics, numbers, analyses and proofs, originally tools for reading geopolitical strategies, policies, and spatial changes ultimately become regulators of life itself. In this sense, it is worth noting that the figures quoted in the public debate are, in most cases, merely indicative; they may over or underestimate reality depending on the priorities that dictate and reproduce them in each case.1 On the other hand, proof is meant to decrypt the confirmed or rejected interpretations and claims as to whether, or to what extent, an event has really taken place; in other words, it “comes to determine the correct balance between rights and wrongs, common goods and necessary evils.”2

1. Territorealities3

For most of its length, the border between Greece and Turkey coincides with the axis of the Evros River down to its mouth in the Aegean Sea. At the northeastern tip of Greece, the river goes into Turkish land; these 6.5 miles of dry-land border were, until recently, Europe’s largest “back door.” There have been many sea crossings through the Mediterranean, but in the last years this area has been the flashpoint of entry for illegal migration flows towards the “European paradise.” To migrants this was—and perhaps still is—a plausible option: the rough river crossings in flimsy plastic boats frequently led to tragedies in Evros, whereas this was the only route they could follow on foot, crossing Edirne’s bridge over Evros and then scattering among the garlic and asparagus fields.

The crossing of the Greek-Turkish border is inscribed in the migrants’ imagination as the “first step” in their journey’s completion, since Greece is not their final destination. On the contrary, it is used as a stopover and stepping stone for continuing the journey to central and northern Europe. Of course, the procedures they must follow are tangled in a web of bureaucracy, Greek and European, which rarely leads to a legal positive outcome: the newly-arriving sans-papiers, once arrested or when they voluntarily report to the local police or Border Control Stations, are led to Detention Centers. The Centers record their country of origin and enter their fingerprints into the European database to facilitate implementation of the Dublin II Regulation. Those who are to be deported back to their countries are either taken to various Temporary Detention Centers within the Greek territory or—due to the daily influx of migrants and the limited detention facilities—released after a few days and given a document that stipulates they must leave the country within 30 days. With this document they proceed to Athens, where many apply for political asylum, or to the ports of the Ionian Sea where they attempt to cross into northern Europe, reversing the trick of Odysseus4 and using ship containers instead of a wooden horse or hiding under the trucks’ engine covers.

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Map of Greece.

2. Forensic Infrastructures5

The mainstream political and communicational discourse that is produced and reproduced to describe the condition of human mobility is taken from military textbooks and goes into media with warfare terminology: military equipment, high-tech surveillance and monitoring devices, patrols and minefields, walls and fences, detention camps. Thus, everything that Europe tried hard to repress and forget from the past seems to be returning with a vengeance, nurturing fear towards the “new enemy.” Moreover, in view of the solemn pledge to end the problem of illegal migration, a series of prohibition and repressive practices pander to the citizens’ cultivated xenophobic reflexes and are favorably received: the installation of border walls and the establishment of migrant detention centers is seen as a natural and reasonable act of self-defense.

In the case of the Evros region, army and war terminology has had a rhizoidal relationship with the territory for decades, anyway. We could easily claim that the tense territorial antagonism between Greece and Turkey belongs in the past, but this tension has left some active remains. Indeed, apart from the obviously strong presence of the army, the land by the banks of the Evros River is strewn with live minefields that have shifted from their original place, due to flooding and the unstable soil, and are thus difficult to locate and deactivate. The recent mutilations of passing migrants and the unusual cemetery of the Mufti of Didymoteicho, where anonymous migrants are buried in mass graves, testify as to how a territory in peacetime may hide an underground that is armed and active in a quasi-state of war.

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Guard tower, Evros River in the border region between Greece and Turkey, 2011. © Tom Jamieson.

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Unmarked graves, unusual Muslim Cemetery for immigrants, 2011. © Tom Jamieson.

A stepping-up of border protection measures by the Greek police and the “messianic” mission of Frontex did not seem able to check the border-crossing activity in the area. Despite increased patrolling with special vehicles, patrol boats and helicopters, and for all the installation of a surveillance network of thermal cameras, night vision cameras and other monitoring devices, the flow of migrants into the Greek territory continued unabated. The topography around Evros seems to share the passionate desire for attaining the “European dream.”

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Frontex video reports. © Courtesy of author.

The Greek authorities’ latest attempt at curbing illegal migrant flows was the partial “walling-in” of the country. The construction of a fence along the land border of Evros was completed on December 16, 2012. This is an artificial boundary, 6.5 miles long and 13-ft high, consisting of two parallel lines of chain-link fence with barbed wire between them, which is deemed impenetrable without mechanical means. Despite reactions by NGOs and warnings by various international organizations that drew attention to the ineffectiveness of similar structures, this fence was added to the list of measures that regard Europe as an expanded gated community, confirming the illusions of modernity that comforted itself with the idea of an open Mediterranean.

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Evros fence, 2013. © DPA.

Intensive security measures at the borders may help concentrate the tide of illegal immigration at specific passages or divert them to other routes—often controlled by networks of goods and people smugglers—but can never reduce inflows or provide a comprehensive and responsible answer to a problem of this kind. It is thus easy to see that such measures are of a representational rather than political nature, and that the infrastructures behind them are mainly of a strong symbolic importance, inscribed in our perception as the new sacred places where we direct our prayers for security and protection against the “metaphysical other”: the foreigner.

3. “Snakes and Ladders” game

In the absence of a consistent and commonly accepted migration policy, several geopolitical and crucial humanitarian issues remain at stake. Saskia Sassen claims that “economic globalization denationalizes national economies; in contrast, immigration is re-nationalizing politics.”6 Indeed, while European politics controls its Member States’ national economies and flows of capital and services, at the same time it grandly delegates the sovereign right/obligation to control their borders, as if these borders were strictly theirs and not Europe’s as well.

Moreover, a series of international conventions and bilateral agreements are used as mechanisms for shedding responsibility and allocating tasks rather than policies for the protection of those who move within their territories. In this sense, the implementation of the Dublin II Regulation places the burden of protecting EU external borders on the countries that lie on its periphery, thus taking for granted that illegal migrants are prevented from entering and taking no interest in what happens to those who do find themselves inside its borders. According to Dublin II, when an asylum seeker has irregularly crossed the border into a Member State, that Member State will be responsible for examining the asylum application. On January 21, 2011, a historical ruling of the European Court of Human Rights found against Greece for the inhuman and degrading treatment of an Afghan immigrant, in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Belgium was also ruled against on the basis of the same article for deporting the immigrant to Greece, as per the rules of Dublin II, while being aware of the inhuman conditions in Greek detention centers. Thus, it is easy to understand “the tension caused by the conflicting priorities of protecting human rights and protecting national sovereignty.”7

In the same context, migration brings to the forefront various legal issues and questions such fundamental questions as those of identity, citizenship, national sovereignty, or even legality.

4. Liminality: Misreading and Interpretations

The roads of migration, on which the limits of human desire are inscribed, come against physical boundaries; these are easily crossed, only to be replaced by new ones that are more complex, intangible and hence stronger. Indeed, on their way to Europe, the migrants who cross the Greek borders find themselves trapped in the country, on the strength of the Dublin II Regulation. In this sense, the borders of EU extend throughout the Greek territory, and the same is true of the other countries on Europe’s southern and eastern borders. Thus, we can view southeastern Europe as a liminal space where social exclusion translates into conditions of territorial, religious and economic isolation; in other words, into a series of practices that form part of what Étienne Balibar describes as the “European apartheid.”8

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Fylakkio Detention Center, 2011. © Tom Jamieson.

Migrant detention centers, where inhuman living conditions and the blatant violation of basic human rights become the rule, undertake to produce homogeneity out of multiple and diverse elements. This implies the loss of the migrant’s individual identity and the creation of a generic image and a flat, fictitious impression that points at migration as the source of evils, criminal activities and delinquent behaviors. Furthermore, the migrants’ loss of identity leads us to recognize in them the traits of a peculiar liminality betwixt and between the condition they are leaving behind and the one they wish to join. Migrants ‘are no longer’ what they were, but at the same time they ‘are not yet’ what they wish to be.

In recent years, the immigrants’ conditions of transience added up and became permanent. Over this period, the projected image of mess and crisis was inextricably linked to migration. The inadequate handling of the issue had a detrimental effect on the citizens’ democratic and humanitarian reflexes. Amid the harshness of the unfolding crisis, Greek society failed to avail itself of the wealth and the cultural pluralism it could draw from a positive communication with immigrants and their different, revitalizing images, views and behaviors. What was cultivated instead was fear, uncertainty and insecurity, which paved the way not just for xenophobia and racism, but also for an extreme racist violence orchestrated and escalated by extreme right ideologies. Obviously, this last aspect goes beyond humanitarian issues to jeopardize the institutions of democracy and legal order.

At this juncture, since there is no guarantee that forced human mobility will slow down and that no further peak in migrant flows into Europe is expected, the lucid understanding and interpretation of the question of migration and its role in the social field is more necessary and urgent than ever before. All indications are that the “planetary deficit of opportunity and social justice”9 keeps rising, the result of which is people will continue to migrate in an increasingly mass way.

It is not enough for the structures that will receive the tides of migrating populations to accept the culture of the different; they must create the conditions for its existence.

In an age when the software of nations, i.e. their social makeup, has passed from a state of endemic residency to that of a shifting multitude,10 it seems both unproductive and ineffective, and yet also inconsistent, that their hardware should be concentration camps, walls and fences. As regards “everyware,” allow me to credit it to Giorgio Agamben: “the river of biopolitics that gave homo sacer his life runs its course in a hidden but continuous fashion.”11

1 For more information on the flexible use of figures, see Olga Lafazani, “Games with the Numbers”, accessed Jan 30, 2013.
2 Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Notes from Fields and Forums (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012), 14.
3 See Lilia Mitsiou, Territorealities, M.Arch. Thesis at the University of Thessaly, Department of Architecture (Sept. 2012), supervisor: Professor Lois Papadopoulos.
4 On the Trojan Horse, see Homer, “Little Iliad” in Martin L. West (ed.), Greek Epic Fragments; From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
5 Eyal Weizman, op.cit.
6 Saskia Sassen, Loosing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 63.
7 Ibid., 65.
8 Étienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, trns. James Swenson (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).
9 Mike Davis, “Living on the Ice Shelf: Humanity’s Meltdown”, accessed Jan 30, 2013.
10 Zissis Kotionis, “Multidomes: the Multitude’s Spaces” in Yorgos Tzirtzilakis (ed.), Multidomes: Multitude, Commons and Architecture (Volos: University of Thessaly Press, 2012), 202-213.
11 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trns. Daniel Heller-Roazen (California: Stanford University Press, 1998), 72.