Death and dirt signifiers

In December 2017, the Greek Minister for Immigration Policy stated in an interview that he cannot guarantee that there would be no more dead people in Moria camp. This was even the softened version of what we first read in the news: “this winter there will be dead in Moria camp” or ‘“some refugees may freeze to death in the upcoming winter” just as had happened the previous one. Whatever the actual phrase was, the fact of the statements’ cynicism is the same. It actually admits the incapacity of the authorities to do the obvious: to protect the Moria population from the cold winter. It also accepts the inhumane conditions that led to last year’s deaths, and, worst of all, indicates the unwillingness to do something about it the next years. Such an approach also prepares the public for something that should be expected, is inevitable and, ultimately, is accepted. Or else, what has been widely known as a humanitarian disaster, is now legitimised. These words need no illustration; however, photographs of last winter in the camps come to mind: cold winter, no facilities, tents, snow, children, death.   

In late 2019, about two hundred refugees from Samos’ camps (where the conditions are not much different than in Moria) were transported to Vrasna village in Chalkidiki in order to stay at hotels for a period of six months. The locals did not accept the authorities’ decision; they “welcomed” the buses transporting refugees by throwing stones and thereby breaking some of the windows, finally succeeding to prevent their stay. A large part of the media covering the events spoke about racist behaviour. However, of particular interest is the opinion held by some journalists who suggested that the locals should had let the temporary residents stay there, most importantly because it is the government’s decision. They argued that citizens living anywhere in Greece should obey the government’s decisions and not create trouble—as they have previously done when protesting to prevent “investment plans” (for instance, in the struggle against gold mines in Chalkidiki) or protesting to reverse decisions about locations to dump the garbage produced in large urban areas. In such a narrative, it is not just the humanitarian approach that counts; more significant is the obedience to state laws and decisions. Consequently, the hateful riots of some people in Vrasna are falsely put in the same category as social movement struggles. Even worse, the refugees and migrants are seen as a problem, same as the garbage being dumped. A spatial matter arises too: in either case, the poorest of areas are chosen by the authorities to locate their infrastructures. The same can be said for the Moria settlement on Lesvos island.

A last comment about the Vrasna incident that represents the locals’ deeper rhetorics: an announcement claims that the locals “have been inhabiting the place for 2000 years and they hadn’t mixed with Minor Asia refugees in 1922.” Meaning they were hostile to them too —although considered Greek populations— proving their intolerance to any “invasion.”

Orestis Pangalos
December 2019