From Transcapes: Migration Crisis or Zemblanity?

In continuity with our reflections on mass migration as a phenomenon to be politicised, and politicised in anti-Statist directions (e.g. no borders solidarity), we share below a reflection on the “migration crisis” by members of the Transcapes Research Collective based in greece.  

Crisis or Zemblanity? Viewing the ‘Migration Crisis’ through a Greek Lens

Yannis Christodoulou, Evie Papada, Anna Papoutsi & Antonis Vradis


This intervention traces how Europe is being (re-)produced through ‘crises’ on three scales. Firstly, at the level of national territory, looking at the crisis-ridden Greek state. Secondly, through everyday border practices on the island of Lesbos and, finally, in the Mediterranean that acts as Europe’s primary locus for its aggregate (and often experimental) bordering practices.


The migrant is the emblematic figure of our time. An ‘outlier’ in a statistical norm that more and more of us now find ourselves as citizens with ever-decreasing rights and/or as ever-increasingly transient, fluid subjects navigating through borders and faced with a punitive state. Such a description might be a potential explanation for the enormous wave of solidarity shown to those people on the move through Greece from the beginning of 2015 onward. In the figure of the destitute refugee/migrant, a great proportion of the Greek population could be reading an extreme version of their own plight, where they feel incapable and unable to determine their destiny in any shape or form. The financial crisis Greece is faced with has developed into a transfer of sovereign power and a near total incapacity for local populations to determine the course of developments, political, financial or otherwise.

These transient and precarious populations – migrants and austerity-hit Greeks – are turning the EU construct on its head. They are challenging both the Union’s normative foundations of solidarity, its borders and those treaties restricting and managing their movement. By actively questioning the nation-state-territory trio, they create a spectacular moment for the European polity. This moment breeds new insights into migrant agency (Mezzadra, 2011) that directly challenge the role that the dominant discourse of victimization ascribes to them. Migrants here are neither victims nor villains and can finally be recognized as the prime movers of social history (Nail, 2015). At the same time, understanding the present moment as part of a longer historical trajectory of the making and remaking of Europe, this intervention reflects our attempt to trace how Europe is being (re-)produced at three major levels. First, at the level of national territory, looking at the crisis-ridden Greek state; second, at the molecular level, where we look at everyday bordering practices on the island of Lesbos and, finally, the Mediterranean as a primary locus of Europe’s aggregate bordering practices.

The liberal democratic reason that governs European border practices and the various agreements on mobility that Europe has negotiated with third party states relies on specific and narrow perceptions, built around economic self-interest, regarding why people migrate, which in turn produces specific categories and subjects of people. In this assemblage borders become spaces of selection between legal and illegal, deserving and undeserving, threatening and non-threatening subjects and where migration meets security as a practice (see Balzacq et al., 2010; Huysmans, 2004). The construction of the current European ‘migration/refugee crisis’ is precisely the articulation of this intersection between space, security and liberal democratic reason. It assumes a normality that is interrupted by a sudden event – a mass influx of people – that in turn renders this very space as a locus of unfolding emergencies, allowing for rapid and exceptional interventions. We argue that rather than a chorus of unexpected events culminating in a crisis, the events occurring at the EU’s south-eastern border are an unpleasant un-surprise. They are in this instance a zemblanity, the opposite of the pleasant surprise that is serendipity.

The View from Greece

Greece’s predicament – overburdened by years of austerity and gatekeeper of Europe’s south-eastern sea and land borders – is now more poignant than ever. Since early 2015, the number of people arriving in Europe through Greece’s borders has reached record levels, and the country was unequivocally declared, both internally and by the EU, unable to respond. The same diagnosis had been made in the past: essentially, Greece was never considered to have the technical expertise and mechanisms in place to manage even one-tenth of the current numbers of arrivals.

Long before the economic crisis, Greece had been viewed as a country at the social, political and not just geographical fringes of Europe. As a member state it was viewed in terms not dissimilar to Europe’s southern neighbours. A state not doing as well as it could financially and in terms of good governance, not doing enough and always in need of assistance (financial, technical etc.) This narrative became a self-fulfilling prophecy once Greece received its first financial bail-out in 2010 and was consolidated throughout the crisis that came to define Greece as a space of interventions that have repeatedly overridden territorial sovereignty. Very early on, the EU adopted a public discourse (both at the level of politics and the media) that was based precisely on this role and was reinforced by the narrative of the lazy and oriental Greek, further aligning it with those non-EU members of the Mediterranean neighbourhood. It therefore comes as no surprise to see that Greece once again has become the locus of ‘crisis’ – this time the ‘refugee crisis’. Greece as a space of ‘crisis’ is as much geographical as it is political. Greece’s geographical position at the external borders of the EU – the majority of which, as a sea border, is very difficult for Greece to control on behalf of the Schengen zone. Meanwhile, politically, Greece is once again portrayed as the member state not doing enough to stem the refugee flows. This puts Greece in a perverse paradox: how can a country stem flows of people on the move without violating human rights and other EU obligations relating to fundamental rights (see Pallister-Wilkins, 2015)? Greece is repeatedly criticized for the practices that result from this paradox, while concerns voiced by the Greek government about Frontex’s mandate are perceived as a failure to control the external border. Within the current crisis, pregnant with productive promise, Greece is threatened with a punitive exit from Schengen, while the Greek government is forced to abdicate and accept Frontex taking control of its external borders (Robinson, 2015).

The imposed European solidarity and burden sharing, as materialized in September 2015 through the Emergency Relocation Mechanism, ostensibly balances out the hard line above. However, this nevertheless uses the opportunity of crisis and feeds into the assumed role of Greece as the weak link, highlighting at the same time, however, the weakness of the supposed solidarity that normatively underpins the Union. What solidarity that is offered from the Union is meagre in the face of the mobilizations of people throughout Europe and on the island of Lesbos in particular.

Enter Lesbos

Border practices and their attendant security mechanisms produce a dual outcome. On the one hand, people transiting are seen as a threat and various barriers – literal and bureaucratic – are raised to prevent movement that make alternatives to land border routes ever more risky. The fence of Evros is a case in point. Soon after it was raised, entry routes into the EU through Greece shifted to the alternative Aegean route. At the same time, the proliferation of Search and Rescue operations and the concurrent development of humanitarian assistance programmes render the lives of those crossing worth saving (Vaughan-Williams, 2015: 4). Seen through a lens of policy making, this is nonsensical. Something deeper clearly lies in this ostensible gap between policy/rhetoric and practice. Assistance at the level of life now goes hand-in-hand with the recording and eventual controlling of the flows (through hotspots and the technologies of border control).

Preliminary ethnographic data collected by the authors on Lesbos point to the concurrent development and sophistication of the registration apparatus in the Moria Hotspot along with a simultaneous proliferation of humanitarian assistance actors in the same space. In a twisted sequence of events, the burden of responding to the immediate humanitarian needs of those arriving in large numbers had been primarily met by the local population, international volunteers and the limited capacity of the local authorities, while the official humanitarian response came in much later and not at the sites where needs were greatest and lives were at imminent risk. While this time-lag may be seen in terms of funding cycles and operational planning on the side of the Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) and relevant humanitarian response actors, their near absence even to date from critical locations of need raises questions as to the role of humanitarian actors. Here an early analysis of their response suggests that these organizations are engaged in assisting the management of flows on behalf of a reticent and/or absent Europe rather than providing immediate life-saving relief.

The Mediterranean Filter

While these final lines were being written, we had been witnessing apocalyptic scenes at the Greek-Macedonian border crossing point of Eidomeni. Here only specific nationalities – Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan – were being let through to move on to Macedonia en route to the north. The nationalities were chosen in a seemingly arbitrary way, or some claimed based on the assumption that these were ‘genuine refugees’. Such practices had little or any legal basis and this filtering occurred without the application of proper asylum procedures. This, haphazard performance of the ‘refugee category’ was a practice first introduced by Slovenia, causing a chain reaction to previous border passages. This geographically backward chain reaction inevitably ends back in the Mediterranean that continues its contested nature, this time as both a fluid, deadly filter and as a container of flows.

Scaling up then from Lesbos and the Greek state, the current ‘migration crisis’ is reconfigured as a stage for the performance of a range of gatekeeping practices in the Mediterranean as a whole. In this assemblage the Mediterranean is assigned the role of European gatekeeper. We argue that in order for the Mediterranean to fulfil its assigned role as the gatekeeper of Europe, the EU and its member states use theatrical tricks, invent tactics and employ deus ex machina, such as the selective filtering of refugee populations. Many of these new devices are played out in Greece and become possible exactly because of the multiple Greek ‘crises’ and the weakening of Greek sovereignty. Here Greece’s exit from the Schengen Agreement, much like previous threats about Grexit, produce ephemeral and fear-laden discursive diversions that have acted as instigating forces for reconfiguring the Eastern Mediterranean space from a transit space into a holding space.

Balzacq, T., T. Basaran, D. Bigo, E.P. Guittet & C. Olsson (2010) Security practices in Denmark.
R. (Ed) International Studies Encyclopedia Online.

Huysmans, J. (2004) The European Union and the securitization of migration, Journal of Common Market Studies, 38(5), pp. 751–777.

Mezzadra, S. (2011) The gaze of autonomy. capitalism, migration and social struggles, in: V. Squire (Ed) The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity.

Nail, T. (2015) The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press). Pallister-Wilkins, P. (2015) The humanitarian politics of European border policing: Frontex and border police in Evros, International Political Sociology, 9(1), pp. 53–69.

Robinson, D. (2015) Why Brussels wants to police EU’s borders, Financial Times, December 10.

Vaughan-Williams, N. (2015) Europe’s Border Crisis: Biopolitical Security and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press).


In a recent post, we reported on the activities of the no border kitchen (NBK) camp on the island of Lesbos.  The camp has now been dismantled by greek authorities (21/04/2016), as part of the european union wide effort to stop and manage the flows of migrants, deporting them to “safe” third countries, such as turkey.  What however is ultimately at stake is the need to undermine or repress efforts of solidarity that are carried out at the margins of, or in opposition to, State authority; a solidarity that threatens that very authority.  We publish below a statement from the no border kitchen collective (from, preceded by a brief introduction (from Insurrection News) …

This morning at 6.00 am, police surrounded and forcibly evacuated the “No border kitchen” camp in Mytilini. All 350 immigrants and refugees were arrested and trasported to the detention centre of Mori?, whilst 19 solidarity members of the camp were detained for 3 hours before letting them free without charges. Police brought bulldozers and they demolished everything. Now there is nothing there to remind that in this place 350 people have found shelter for over a month and every day they were provided with proper food, clothes and medical attention.

This incident is not the only one. The last 2 weeks, authorities are targetting solidarity structures all over Greece. Yesterday they invaded the Soli Cafe in Chios, today they took down the “No border kitchen” camp in Lesvos. Now its time to intensify our solidarity efforts.

Solidarity to the refugees!
End the criminalization of solidarity structures!


About the eviction of the camp in Tsamakia, Mytilene

Today at 6 o’clock in the morning Wednesday, April 20, 2016 the camp in Tsamakia of Mytilene was violently evicted by strong police forces. Policemen and undercover cops, in cooperation with the coastguard, invaded the camp and forced the immigrants to enter buses, while undergoing physical and verbal threats, as well as sexist and racist comments. During this violent pogram, the immigrants were not given time to collect their documents and belongings and were not informed about their rights or the destination of the buses. After the eviction of the immigrants, 19 solidarity members were detained without any accusation or explanation and were finally released after being held for 3 hours in the police station. Legal representation was invaluable in mitigating the bullying tactics of the police. During this time, solidarity members were denied permission to care for their pets and all structures and tents were destroyed by the municipality.

During the past 5 months the No Border Kitchen has been active in Tsamakia beach, promoting open borders for all humans by providing food to more than 1000 people that passed through Mytilene in search of freedom and opportunity. Last month, after Moria, the former registration center became a prison, many people decided to camp around the kitchen in order to enjoy freedom of movement, self-determination and the family atmosphere. Solidarity members have been working, cooking and living together with the migrants in an effort to overcome petty nationalism and racism. NBK also provided legal and medical advice, first aid and supplied humanitarian needs. Destroying NBK camp is part of a continuing effort on the part of authorities to impede and even stamp out the self-organized solidarity movement of Lesbos which has been active in recent months. Police, the mayor and many authority figures have shown prejudice and discrimination against these solidarity activities as is evident in the threats NBK has received with arrests and eviction since it started.

We as solidarity members choose not to respond to the ridiculous and sensational rumors spread by the press which posted a video of a dead dog to influence public opinion against refugees that killing or eating dogs ocurred in our camp. NBK is a vegetarian kitchen that chooses not to sacrifice any life, let alone cherished pets.

NBK will continue to support the refugees in their struggle to enjoy freedom of movement with human dignity.

No Border Kitchen Lesvos


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