Making live and letting die: ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’ and Fortress Europe

Chloe Haralambous reports on the refugee and migrant crisis from the Greek island of Lesvos, just a few miles of the Turkish coast. 93,000 people have made the journey into Europe through Lesvos this year. Resentment towards European elites was already high among the islanders due to the Greek crisis of austerity. In recent weeks, this resentment has spilled over into attacks on foreign NGOs and, by extension, the refugees – the only people weaker than the islanders themselves.

This article looks at the fate that awaits people when they arrive on island, and argues that the division between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ only serves to justify a European border regime that has left thousands to die, and created misery for many more.

Photographs by Julian Köberer.

The beach under the Korakas lighthouse, Lesvos


On the eastern tip of the Aegean island of Lesvos, Korakas, a semi-demolished but functioning lighthouse, perches on a cliff just twelve kilometres from the Turkish coast. A popular landing site for refugee boats, Korakas has become a point of assembly for village men. Watching through binoculars as the fragile rubber dinghies struggle across the border, they place bets on the brand, size and horsepower of the boats’ engines, and each stakes his claim to the approaching bounty. An engine can be worth up to €500 – a small fortune for people in rural Greece. The practice of waiting for, spotting and claiming the engine has acquired the status of ritual, while rumours circulate about a treasure-trove of engines hidden in the fields.

The morning I drove to Korakas, the approaching boat promised a decent engine, and long before it arrived, the men argued over it, and after recourse to obscure codes of thieves’ honour a rightful claimant was selected. We sat leaning against the lighthouse, waiting. Underneath us, life vests, deflated boats, discarded passports, shoes, clothes, children’s toys, and backpacks too heavy to carry lay strewn along the length of the beach. A half-finished embroidery of two birds lay held down with a stone, the needle and thread still hanging, and the loose edges flapping in the wind.

Landing at Korakas

For EU citizens and for Turks, the crossing from the Turkish coast to Lesvos is a simple affair – many make a day trip of it. It costs €10 by ferry. The average cost for a migrant is €1,000, paid to Turkish smugglers. For days before their crossing, they are hidden in the woods, often in locked windowless huts without food or water. Then the smugglers’ men arrive to beat them to the shore and onto the boats, not giving them time to protest that this fortune of theirs seems to have been paid for a place on a cheap rubber dinghy built for fifteen, but loaded with up to sixty. The edge of the dinghy flexes dangerously just ten centimetres above the sea. As the summer ends and the weather begins to turn, the sea gives up bodies.

On this occasion at Korakas, the first approaching dinghy looked to be carrying around 30 people. A few miles behind it, a second broke through the mist, then a third. The first now a kilometre off the coast, a Norwegian ‘search and rescue’ vessel appeared as if from nowhere, looming over it and hiding it from view. ‘You are not allowed to cross the border’, the loudspeakers exploded. And again. I translated for the men around me. They slapped their thighs and cursed ‘the Europeans’. The commotion lasted only a few moments: ‘the Europeans’ moved on to the next dinghy and the momentary captive continued towards the shore: warned, but neither stopped nor helped.

A new arrival helps locals detach the dinghy’s engine

‘The landing’ is a special moment. Far from pictures of human misery, landings are an image of total jubilation. A few meters from the beach, the people on the dinghy cry out, ‘God is Great! God is Merciful’. Men jump, somersaulting into the water and drag the boat onto the beach. Many drop to their knees to kiss the soil and pray. They have breached the fortress; they have made it to Europe. Women wipe down their children and change them into clean clothes – ironed little shirts, long pink princess’s dresses, glitter shoes – so they can enter Europe looking their best. As wet clothes are wrung dry, my co-villagers make their way discreetly down the rocks to claim the coveted engine. One neighbour, sensing my disapproval, explains, ‘the Europeans screwed us over and now they have left us to deal with this mess. At least we can get something out of it.’

It is likely seeds of doubt were already beginning to settle among the new arrivals. Some might have wondered whether they had fallen short of entering the Europe they had imagined. In June, the term ‘humanitarian crisis’ trended here, as the EU used that sanitised language to acknowledge the immense human cost borne of austerity in Greece. On Lesvos, many have been left poor, dispossessed by a floundering state and by Europe’s continuing imposition of austerity. On the decline, the welfare state and the European project expose their most elementary power: what the philosopher Michel Foucault described as ‘biopower’ – the power to ‘make live or let die’.

People try to scale fences around the Moria camp hoping to register with the police inside

Since the beginning of the year, nearly 400,000 migrants have crossed into Europe through Greece; 220,000 of them have made the journey through Lesvos. The local population was left to respond to the influx with no help from the state. The ‘humanitarian crises’ of austerity and migration were superimposed. My Eurosceptic neighbour meant no ill-feeling to the migrants. He was only stating facts: ‘we are both people whom Europe is leaving to die. But some of us die better than others’.

The European Union has allotted €475m to Greece to help it cope with migration. The problem is one of public capacity and infrastructure – these funds cannot be absorbed. Though a number of NGOs have imported their services and still others have sprung up locally, the state remains reluctant to relinquish its monopoly over the management of the crisis: it both does very little and prevents others from helping in its stead. Migrants arriving on the beach are told to walk up to 70km to register in Mytilini, the island’s capital.

New arrivals begin the walk up from the landing point

Though the Greek coast guard dispatches several buses daily and a few more are funded by UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders (but manned by the coast guard), they do not come close to matching the arriving numbers and no selection criteria makes sense: to transport women, babies and the disabled means separating families; keeping families together means leaving migrants in need on the road. The coastguard is in the habit of suspending buses altogether and for indefinite periods, intentionally leaving people on the road in order to create buffer zones between beaches and camps, providing some relief to squalid migrant camps that perpetually overflow as malfunctioning registration centres allow no one to leave the island, even as thousands more arrive daily. People with prosthetic limbs are left to walk the distance on crutches; a young man with cerebral palsy is dragged along the road in the sun by his grandmother.

A village of 150 inhabitants will find itself overrun with 1,000 migrants a day. People are left to sleep on the roadside with no food, no toilets, and no heating. Many locals who helped when the migrant arrivals began now find both their resources and their patience depleted: ‘we are under siege’, they say. Some direct their efforts towards demonizing the migrants: claims are made that the mass influx of a predominantly Muslim population results in the desecration of roadside churches. Rumour has it that migrants have taken to defecating on the icons. Golden Dawn has doubled its vote on the island since January.

Outside the Moria camp

Nonetheless, as my neighbour put it, some locals ‘get something out of it’. The absence of the state has allowed improvised micro-economies to develop and flourish around the crisis. The cult of the engine is perhaps the most lucrative of these businesses. Engines collected on the coast are sold to middle men from Mytilini, who in turn sell them back to smugglers on the Turkish coast; the engines are attached to more refugee boats and are picked up again on the island and the cycle continues until the engine corrodes with sea water and the boat flounders. The scarcity or total absence of state or NGO-organised transportation from beach entry-points to the distant city brings many migrants to pay locals to drive them there (prices range from €10 to €50 per head). Once in the camps, small and irregular rations of food and water force migrants to buy food. An assortment of food stalls, canteens, or simply locals standing outside the camps with six-packs of water bottles, have been installed to cater to migrants for above-market prices.

Some die better than others; some structures still carry. A poor Greek man is still a white man; hanging by a thread on the border of Europe, he nevertheless remains attached with the zealousness of the misfit. Among migrants, too, hierarchical structures are quick to take root. Some of these, such as frequent class differences between the average Syrian and her fellow migrants, are imported and find expression even in such chaotic settings as the migrant landing point: middle-class migrants are better treated by locals who describe them as ‘more like us’; they are well-educated, better dressed, speak English.

Such class distinctions correspond to clear material differences. Middle-class migrants can afford to make use of the improvised micro-economies built around the refugee crisis: they make money for the island. These economic divisions broadly fall along ethnic lines. These are superimposed onto taxonomies constructed by the EU and grafted onto the local social fabric, internalised and performed. The most striking of these is of course the distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’, which maps onto class differences. The shorthand for this on Lesvos is ‘a Syrian is better than an Afghan’.


Karatepe camp, Lesvos

Last month saw a deeply moving wave of demonstrations and initiatives sweep across Europe as thousands gather to show their solidarity with refugees and to call on their governments to accept more new arrivals. At the same time, EU and US leaders suddenly waxed lyrical over the plight of the refugees: Jean-Claude Juncker made an impassioned plea to the EU to open its arms. This bought them some respect – admiration, even – from the international community. For a brief moment before she raised the German drawbridge on Austria, Angela Merkel was celebrated as a humanitarian hero for shrewdly welcoming migrants amid a domestic labour shortage.

Where once European leaders staunchly resisted the term ‘refugee’ as threateningly compassionate, now it seems a verbal tic. As the tone of mainstream debate appeared to shift towards sympathy and solidarity, it was easy to wonder whether we had exaggerated the EU’s willingness to blockade itself against migrants, and the nests of hatred fostered in order to secure the ideological integrity of fortress Europe.

That would be a misunderstanding of the impact of the refugee crisis on the structure of European migration policy: it is not changing it, it is securing it. The way in which this solidarity is mobilised or, in the case of many European leaders, aped, deserves reflection. The distinction between refugee and migrant, sponsored by international humanitarian agencies – notably UNHCR – and initially hailed as a progressive move, is vulnerable to appropriation.

The ‘refugee’ is not simply the product of her experience. The word ‘refugee’ describes a collection of rights which an asylum-granting nation-state pins to a person, ‘recognizing them’. A ‘refugee’ does not exist before this act of recognition. The suggestion that some people arrive as ‘refugees’ and others as ‘economic migrants’ glosses over a process that masks specific sets of interests. When we mobilise around the term ‘refugee’, we are acting within a framework erected in the interests of the state, and protesting in the space that the state has cut out for us.

Moria camp, Lesvos

The racism of fortress Europe is bolstered by pitting the violence of war against the violence of poverty. The refugee is sanitised – a white pebble of pure human suffering washed up on the shores of Europe. The refugee is not after your jobs, or your benefits or your tax euro; the refugee has come here because she could not do otherwise. Meanwhile, those who risked their lives fleeing poverty and who have journeyed here ‘by choice’, are consigned to the newly fortified category of the immigrant lusting after Europe’s precious bounty.

If the refugee gains anything at the expense of the migrant, the advantage is short-lived, not least because European countries’ definitions of who qualifies as a refugee will become increasingly narrow as people continue to arrive at their doors. The most pressing danger, though, is that by depicting ‘economic migrants’ as opportunistically riding the wave of public sympathy reserved for the ‘real’ refugee, the EU can justify the brutal measures it devises to deflect all migrants from its shores.

EU leaders now plan to establish ‘hot spots’ on border regions such as Lesvos in order to detain migrants until their eligibility to enter further into Europe can be verified. Even as Juncker’s eyes misted over with compassion, he addressed complaints that many ‘non-refugees’ are entering the EU illegally by promising to increase spending on the EU’s coastguard and on its border-guard, Frontex. Indeed, it seems that a large part of the €475m made available to Greece as aid for immigration has gone towards creating a new high-tech Frontex regiment.

Frontex is an armed ‘defensive’ brigade. Its purpose is not to sort ‘legal’ from ‘illegal’ migrants. It is itself illegal, defying the Geneva Convention’s non-refoulement clause, which bans countries from turning back refugees. For our purported search and rescue vessel towering over the dinghies off Korakas did not specify that ‘non-refugees are not allowed to cross the border’, nor did the fact that the dinghy had crossed the border miles before make any difference. The purpose of Frontex is to keep everyone out wherever possible and at all costs.

The pitting of the migrant against the refugee creates a cruel ruse: ‘were they all refugees we would let them in,’ ostensibly benevolent European policy-makers explain. The armed enclosure of Europe is due not to us, they insist, but to them, those rapacious immigrants who not only make our lives difficult but who also endanger refugees’ lives by seeking to rob rights that are not theirs to claim.

European leaders have thus co-opted sympathy for the refugee into a means of dividing the desperate against each other, forcing them into a confrontation whose purpose is to ensure that neither is saved, and that the architecture of Fortress Europe is kept intact. The ideological distinction between migrant and refugee benefits neither. In practice, their fates are intertwined. They are either made to live or left to die together.


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