“I’m Greek and every Greek must defend his homeland, the NGOs here are illegal, they are spies” Kaliailis Evaggelos is 73 years old, and he is a hotelier in Lesvos.”
Lesvos is the third largest Greek island, just 7 km far from Turkey and in 2015 experienced a huge mass migration; more than six hundred thousand people from the Middle East and North Africa crossed the island in one year. These events affected the local population in multiple ways. In article by Camili mentioned above, the Greeks are portrayed as people who, despite their effort to welcome foreign people, are still racist, ignorant, and violent. On the other hand, the NGOs, especially western (it is important to place Greece in the right sphere of influence and it is not the western one), which are always good and have the moral aim to save. However, I also reckon that the quote above highlights some key elements I would like to investigate. The first one is homeland, which is linked to all the nationalism that rose in Greece after the 2008 economic crisis. Then there are NGOs, which cannot be ignored in shaping the situation on the island. Finally, many Aegean islands have an economy based on tourism as the man of the article, who is a hotelier, demonstrates. I do not want to deny what is happening in Lesvos, but I believe that after the immediate emergency moment in 2015, the main mistake done was a narrative one. The foreign actors involved claim to know more about Greeks than Greeks know about themselves (Kirtsoglou, 2013). The pretension that NGOs, with the best intentions ever, have more rights to be on the islands than the natives, creates a hierarchy of importance, which is the source of all the misunderstanding that has occurred, leading the Greek people into the arms of far-right movements such as Golden Dawn.
What crisis is Greece facing?
In 2008, Greece started to deal with a devastating economic crisis, which led poverty to skyrocket, driven further by the high unemployment rate. The GDP per capita had declined by 26,7 % between 2007 and 2016, and the Greek population started to live in real poverty. Since 2011 Médicine du Monde, who had a long-lasting program to assist migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, had started to see a dramatic change in their clientele: a growing number of Greek citizens were seeking assistance in their clinics. The economic crisis slowly turned out to be a humanitarian crisis and Greece became the first country inside Europe to receive humanitarian aid, downgrading Greece from a functioning democracy to a failed state in the eyes of international community. Europe’s perception of Greece, criticizing the annoying antics of the Greek government (Cabot, 2019), was one of inferiority. The way the EU and the Greek government considered the referendum about the Austerity Memorandum is emblematic of this judgment. The celebration for the negative result of the referendum was an important moment because in Syntagma Square there were leftists side by side with Golden Dawn members. A clear lack of support from Europe and a punitive attitude (Kirtsoglou, 2013) from their European partners gave way to an Anti-Europeanism feeling in Greece. The greater mistake of the EU was treating the State and the inhabitants as the same entity; and as it always occurs, this analogy ended up creating a real identification that increased the nationalist feeling and exclusionary aspirations (Kirtsoglou,2013). The economic disparity, combined with the geopolitical position of this country, made the Aegean islands the ideal border of the European fortress and Greece an eternal second rank member of the European Union. Unfortunately, tragedies never come alone and after the economic crisis the outbreak of the Syrian war and the Arab Spring gave birth to a new humanitarian crisis in Greece that overshadows the difficulties of Greek people: the refugees.
The moral duty to host
Given its location, Lesvos would have more naturally been part of Turkey, and its position, not only between two states but also between two continents, made it the island of refugees a long time before 2015. In 1922, at the end of the Greece-Turkey war, the Ottoman Caliphate’s reprisals in the Izmir zone against citizens of Greek origins forced them to escape by sea. The hosting people today are the nephews of those fugitives, who decided in most cases to welcome refugees. Lesvos is the third largest Aegean Island, and between 2015 and 2016 hosted around six hundred thousand refugees. That is a huge number, but it becomes even bigger if read as seven times the island population (around eighty thousand inhabitants). The current emergency seems quite foreseeable. Between 2015-2016, before the EU-Turkey agreement, everyone on the island silently did their part and a strong civil society emerged. Two Lesvos locals have even been nominated for the Nobel Prize for helping refugees: Emilia Kamvisi, known as the grandmother of Lesvos, who was 83 years old in 2016, and Stratos Valamios, a fisherman who ended up fishing more people than animals from the sea.
As soon as the pact with Turkey was signed, the problem seemed to be solved because the number of refugees started to progressively decrease. However, the ‘smart’ way in which the European institution decided to cope with the refugee issue was easy and not new: move the borders further from Europe and delegate to someone else the control. Usually, it is someone already compromised in the judging eyes of the international community (who better than Erdogan?), whom they begin to blame for the treatment of refugees. The result was predictable, while the center of the EU was set free from migrants, the border countries, in particular the margin areas like Lesvos, became ricking time bombs where people were left alone to face something bigger than themselves. The image of Lesvos has been already ruined for international tourism, business at the island’s hotel and tavernas has slumped around 80%, especially along the 7.5-mile stretch between Skala Sikamineas and Molyvos (Alderman, 2016); despite the common belief, the arrivals never stopped. When I was there in 2019, the organization I worked with, assisted 14,531 refugees, 48% of whom were under 18 (LHR Report, 2019). Hence, a haunting thought started to come to my mind, if it has been so hard for me to be there, just for one month, how could the locals coexist with this tragedy daily since 2015? The words of Avramoupolou (2020) seems enough comprehensive: “Most of us tried to help those arriving. We would volunteer days and nights [...] but for how long can you do this? [...] We are also tired. Now, the borders are closed but these people are stuck here. What can we do? Why don’t they [the authorities/the state] do anything? What are they waiting for? We also need to continue with our lives, to go back to our jobs, to take care of our families”. The Greeks, were trapped as well as the refugees. Hellenic people who had the chance fled. Indeed, after the economic crisis, Greece registered a significant emigration of educated young people.
Precisely, irresponsible political choices have funneled people into Greece while making it impossible to move from there. The reflection made by different scholars is that, in the end, the situation of migrants and Greeks today is not so different. “Citizens themselves – not just refugees – have also come to expose the limits of rights on Europe’s margins” (Cabot, 2019). The common feeling was that for refugees there was still a weak hope of change, their final stop was not Greece, for the poor Greeks there was no such albeit faint prospect. Another superficial consideration, denied by scholars, was that the refugees ‘have no one’, while the Greeks had at least their family, friends, etc. The reality was instead that many Greek citizens experience increasing social fragmentation and atomization (Cabot, 2019). Furthermore, the final link of this chain of undervaluation is what I quoted in the introduction, the location of the centre of gravity for the acquisition of knowledge about the nation ... outside the nation itself (Kirtsoglou, 2013). This led to a radicalization of the nationalist sentiments and an exclusionary perception of the land, everything accompanied by an idea of cultural incompatibility between Greek and Muslim lifestyle. Specifically, Kirtsoglou claims that they as scholars could have been able to record the voices of minorities and to bring to light the oppressive and exclusionist strategies that required their interventions, but they have not succeeded in making a real difference in the ideological fabric of Greek society (2013). They were not able to acquire the locals’ perspective and she concludes:
If we cannot take our informants seriously, if we cannot relate to their painful histories and if we cannot produce a grassroots analysis of their fears and apprehensions, then we can never represent them anthropologically and we will never allow their voices to be heard. That task will continue to be undertaken by a group of dark-minded thugs who –ironically- call themselves ‘The Golden Dawn’ (Kritsoglou, 2013).
The role of NGOs in Lesvos
In this last paragraph, I would like to reflect on the role of NGOs on the island and their relationship with the inhabitants. I spent one month on Lesvos in Skala Sikamineas, which is a small village on the northern shore, just 4 nautical miles (6,5 km) from Turkey’s coast, volunteering for an international NGO. In the village, there was no direct contact between the refugees and the locals, the volunteers were the representation of what was happening. Somewhere between Skala Sikamineas and Sikamineas existed Stage Two, where hundreds of refugees waited to be transferred to a better place (unfortunately it was Moria, the main refugee camp which has been described as hell on the earth). The inhabitants of Skala have, from my experience, been amazing. For example, there was the owner of Goji’s, the taverna in the main (and only) square of the village, who was considered the mother of all of us, everything we needed she was ready to help with. Once I was spotting on a cold afternoon of December, an inhabitant passed by and brought us hot tea and biscuits. They were aware of the importance of the NGOs for the management of the emergency. Nevertheless, we had some problems too. The small wooden houses built at the night spotting point have been destroyed several times by someone who did not want us there. However, the hardest interaction was with the Hellenic Police, they felt like they were the supreme order and we had to abide by their decisions. We usually had to face Frontex, the Hellenic Coast Guard, and the Hellenic Police, who had to be present at each landing. Sometimes they helped us, sometimes they stood by just watching, but other times they were a real obstacle. Unfortunately, things degenerated as soon as I left. In the first months of 2020, Stage Two was closed by the authorities and then burnt down. Later, the NGO I worked with was forced to stop their activities and evacuate all volunteers due to the extremely high tensions and insecurity. Afterward, with Covid-19, they completely left the island so as not to put the locals in danger (LHR Report, 2019). Despite all this and the clear will of the locals not to have a new refugee camp, the latest European dispositions are to open five new camps in the Aegean islands. One of these will be in Lesvos, which after the fire of Moria now hosts 7,200 migrants without assistance. The location chosen is at the northern-east part, far from facilities, like supermarkets, but also far from locals’ eyes.
What is happening now in Greece is a clear example that we have learned nothing from what occurred, and that above all we did not learn, once again, to listen. Europe continues treating Greece as an inferior member who has a population without political sovereignty. Hence, it is ‘normal’ for the feeling of nationalism to rise among the Greek population, making the best possibility they have to be heard as an organization like Golden Dawn. The events that took place in Lesvos last year, aggravated by the pandemic, represent a clear manifestation of the will of the local population. Europe, as always, did not heed and all the underestimation and the oversimplification led to a tense situation where two vulnerabilities met and exasperated each other. I deem that the attempt to create a hierarchy of grief is a huge mistake because it pits suffering people one against the other. This process produces a quest for legitimization for who is living the worst sufferings. Despite all this, who has the moral authority to judge who has suffered?
Anna Ciafardoni enrolled in the master's program in "International Cooperation for protection of Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage" at the University of Bologna. She participated in the Overseas project and had several experiences in Greece working with people on the move. She was in Lesvos in 2019 and in Athens in October 2021, and in the summer of 2021, she did an extracurricular internship with "Mediterranean Hope" in Scicli (Ragusa).
Foto: credits Luca Gambi