‘Our problem is not economical’

Eidomeni, November 2015. Since the summer, the camp that had formed in Idomeni was daily in the international news. Thousands of people of various nationalities gathered there in order to cross to North Macedonia in groups. However, accessing the borders became more and more difficult. The earlier flexibility of access toward the North was becoming severely controlled; the borders were now guarded. Gradually, with few exceptions, no one was allowed to cross.

In those days, to protest this outcome, groups of people from Iran went on hunger strike. They lay on the train tracks at precisely the limit separating the two states, at the feet of the armed forces of repression of the northern side. Further back, still on the train tracks, a person from Iran–wearing signature sunglasses and a scarf–is reciting and singing. The banner behind him writes ‘Our problem is not economical.’ In this case, even if he was referring to his own ethnic group, the first person plural ascribed to common experience a collective character. Indeed, each one of all those who had arrived there from their places of origin, had attempted to escape bombings, civil war, violence, or political persecution. The declaration spray-painted on the banner offers itself up to further interpretations: On the one hand, it may constitute a response to the frequent distinction made between refugees and migrants, whereby the former ‘are entitled’ to move, while the latter do not, since they are not fleeing from a state of war. In cases where reasons are not fleeing war, they are often presented in public discourse as ‘economic causes,’ so, for ‘employment reasons.’ Thus, they are deemed to be undesirable, since, in this way, the jobs of local populations are thought to be more precarious. On a deeper reading, however (nevertheless very unlikely to be the desired meaning of the banner’s creators), the message could be addressed to all those who had experienced or were still experiencing the consequences of the ongoing Greek financial crisis–indeed, many of whom had already been forced to emigrate in search for work–that is, for ‘financial reasons.’ This would, in a way, be a fairly convincing argument for those who defend the right to migrate to Greece vis-à-vis those holding the opposing view.

Several cameras–photojournalists and filmmakers–capture the action, which a multiracial audience seems to enjoy. Meanwhile, their gazes turn to the background: a person succeeds in passing through the barbed wire fence and is running to escape from the police officers who are chasing him. The crowd applauds and smiles; some are celebrating. A little later, the fugitive returns with an escort, as his flight ended abruptly at the next checkpoint. A little bit further down, feelings of injustice,  anticipation, and anxiety turned to rage; spontaneously, small episodes broke out.

Approximately ten days had passed since the prohibition of access to the mudflat of Idomeni. Despite the rains, the unseasonably mild weather contributed to maintaining morale. Despite the miserable living conditions, people’s eyes were still hopeful. A few weeks later, the camp was destroyed; even the approach from Thessaloniki to the border was strictly controlled. In the months that followed, most of those who managed to cross the sea to Greece remained trapped in the hotspots of the Aegean islands.

Orestis Pangalos
December 2019