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Forgotten on the wrong side of the border

Note by the LeftEast editors: this text has been published in co-operation with the Serbo-Croat language web portal Bilten.Org.

Early in the morning of December 9th, Greek police closed the make-shift camp by the border town of Eidomeni. The eviction from the camp marked a further deterioration in the lives of thousands seeking refuge at the Greek-Macedonian border who in squalid and freezing conditions had been blocked from crossing into Macedonia for over two weeks and had in turn, as act of protest, blocked off the crossing. Their single demand was entry into Macedonia from Greece and transit onto destinations in other countries of the European Union, to reunite with families or reach places where asylum systems guarantee the minimum of social protection and rights.

The worsening of the situation at the border that led to the eviction began on November 18th when Macedonian authorities restricted passage and access to basic social protection while transiting to people of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan citizenship. Only refuge seekers with valid personal identification from these countries or Greek registration documents attesting to this status were allowed to transit through Macedonian territory. This defined a new criterion for access to humanitarian assistance—nationality.

The closing of the border for selected nationalities, which involved also setting up a barbed-wire fence, was the result of a European policy for stricter border controls. On 18th November, Slovenia barred 168 Moroccans from entry and returned them to Croatia with claims that as economic migrants they were not eligible for humanitarian protection. In a domino effect within a single day, Croatia, Serbia and then Macedonia adopted reciprocal measures for strict controls at the borders. In addition to Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, Croatia added also Palestinians to the list of nationalities allowed transit as refugees. All others were denied access to claiming asylum and moving onwards, considered economic migrants, without due procedure and assessments on the spot.

Protests at the border

Backlog was imminent at the Greek-Macedonian border as soon as only SIA nationalities were allowed to cross and others were dismissed on grounds of being economic migrants.

On average, over 4000 people seeking refuge from the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Africa have been crossing this external border of the EU daily since the summer 2015, UNHCR data shows. The practice whereby refuge seekers are being separated by nationality for priority registration, access to the right to seek asylum and the segregational consequences of the practice, regardless of its intent, had already been reported in registration centers on the maritime frontiers of the EU, most notably at the island of Lesvos in Greece.

Migrants sew their lips together in protest at the Greek-Macedonian border, source FranceToday.Ga
Migrants sew their lips together in protest at the Greek-Macedonian border, source FranceToday.Ga

Adopting a similar practice in November 2015, countries along the land-frontiers of the EU on the Balkan migration route left thousands stranded on the Greek side of the EU border, by the town Eidomeni. Among them were Moroccans, Palestinians, Iranians, Pakistanis and Somalis. In protest, some sewed their lips shut undergoing a hunger strike, others placed roadblocks at the border obstructing movement of remaining refuge seekers and freight trains.

Prior to the dismantling of the camp at Eidomeni on December 9th, Greek police forces mapped the tents and location of different groups by nationality. Singled out, those nationalities who had been barred entry into Macedonia were sent by the busloads to the outskirts of Athens, where they were held in vacated Olympic sports facilities—site related to another ruination, the eviction and displacement of Roma residents in preparation for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Many of the refuge seekers were immediately relocated from the interim shelter to detention centers across Greece. Together with activists, they continue to raise the alarm about the prison-like conditions in these centers.

State of emergency

The decisive moment for the selective practice at the border separating economic migrants and refugees on the basis of nationality came on November 18th as defense and interior ministers of EU member states met in Brussels to hold extraordinary meetings in the wake of the Paris attacks and declare yet another state of emergency. A campaign against immigration and refugees was initiated after the attacks in Paris, targeting the Balkan migration route. States along the route disregarded calls by activists and nonprofit organizations to maintain an open-border policy. In the days after the Paris attacks, as the tabloids’ preoccupation with the markedly inconclusive assumptions about the identity of one of the attackers and his travel history along Serbia, Macedonia and Greece intensified, the desire for strict control of entry at the borders resounded with national authorities.

Prior to November 18th, the external land border of the EU with Macedonia was mainly unattended by the Greek police for exit controls and documentation screenings from Greece. Police on the Macedonian side of the border, positioned at a border-stone edging the frontier, would amass incoming refuge seekers upon entry in groups of fifty, speedily herding all towards the registration tent in the transit center “Vinojug” near the Macedonian town of Gevgelija. There, registration documents were handed out only at daytime, never at night. Not all at the transit center received them before boarding the mandatory train transportation while obliged to remain seated, in waiting for the train’s arrival. After the 3,5 hour train ride in cramped cars, they continued northbound, almost never screened for documents upon exit from the country towards the border with Serbia, the next on the transiting route.

When the EU border agency FRONTEX announced the opening of its offices at Eidomeni, Macedonian police introduced mandatory document screening for all refuge-seekers at the border crossing. Now access to the right to claim asylum and transit is allowed only to those who present a valid ID or a registration document issued by Greek authorities that confirms their origins in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Nationality has become the new humanitarian criterion of who and what is worthy of humanity.

Humanitarian exceptions

Economic migrants are exempt from international protection, adjudicated the spokesperson of the Slovenian police as the new asylum regime was imposed along the Balkan migration route. In this statement, the spokesperson shares with his counterparts in Europe a logic that draws meaning from relevant international and national laws and definitions which set the economic migrant apart from the refugee, because they are deemed to have left their home out of “personal convenience” for improving their quality of life.

Although human rights organizations operate under the same legal reasonings about voluntary or involuntary movement as exceptions to grant or deny humanitarian protection, they have reacted against the reported practice at the Greek-Macedonian border and along the Balkan migration route whereby police officers set economic migrants apart from refugees in impromptu fashion at the borders. International agencies like the UNHCR have been assisting when refuge-seekers are denied entry, based on individual circumstances and mostly in cases of mixed marriages. Accordingly, restricting access to seek asylum on the spot, simply on the basis of citizenship or lack of documentation to attest it, is in violation of international laws. Protecting the right to asylum as a legal category, they have reminded national authorities bound by international laws (the Geneva convention) and relevant domestic legislation that valuation of one’s reasons to migrate and status of protection is based on merit and determined in month-long procedures.

Still, the separation of the economic migrant and the refugee represents a form of restriction to migration that ignores the multiplicity of forms in which social expulsion can take over the peoples’ lives.

Examples abound that reflect how the decision to introduce nationality checks on the spot as the criterion for humanitarian exception ignores the material realities of a regional history in the Middle East. By 2015, Syria alone had over 160.000 stateless people, and thousands of unprocessed asylum seekers and refugees from the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories. With the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, a quarter million of Palestinian refugees displaced inside Syria are facing stateless status. Over 70.000 have been forced to seek asylum in neighboring countries, like Lebanon or Jordan, where they do not enjoy the same access to education and the labor market that they had in Syria, forced to move onto other destinations. Having been transformed from settled refugees into stateless asylum seekers, they are now confronted with further disenfranchisement as border police separate refugees from economic migrants at the doorsteps of Europe.

With this example we see in the insistence on distinguishing between migrants and refugees the historical blindness compelled by a state of emergency and its consequences, reinforcing already established inequalities and creating new forms of violence and social divisions.

Political organizing for a state of solidarity

The discrepancies between the lived realities of those now at our European borders and the political solutions adopted by state leaders build on a critique of the reasoning behind the separation of refugees and migrants as categories eligible or not for humanitarian protection. Anthropologist Raia Apostolova joins this critique when arguing that the division, institutionalized in documents of the United Nations, constructs the refugee as a victim of force, and the economic migrant as a free agent driven by the search for economic gain, whose grounds for migration is not compelled by the “intervention of an external compelling factor,” in short, his or her movement is voluntary.

Social justice, anti-war and anti-racist groups have pushed this critique further. Standing in solidarity also with the refuge seekers forgotten and protesting at Eidomeni who were labelled economic migrants, they have emphasized the different forms of violence unleashed in the conditions of a globalized political and economic system and its ongoing “war on terror,” not recognized as international warfare. These include the infrastructure shattered by drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, forced labor in Bangladesh and Eritrea, dispossession in the occupied Western Sahara and Palestine in a repressive political and settler system. All of these places where the distribution of opportunities and benefits are ever more restricted or non-existent are countries of origin for the people barred entry at the Greek-Macedonian border and onto the European Union. Their social histories ignored, people on the move from these and other places are denied as referents to the present, interlocutors in a transhistorical world and vilified, when, as political actors they organize for their struggle.

Activist groups from countries in the Balkans and Europe have been organizing a response to tackle the injustice and the practice of segregation against refugee seekers they have been witnessing at the borders. In late November this year, at a second meeting in Thessaloniki, over 60 members of different groups across Europe agreed to take coordinated action on December 18th, the International Day of Migrants. This action is the first step towards mobilizing further and strengthening a transnational and politicized network against the European border and migration policies agendas, and countering in this way the state of emergency dictated by Europe  with a call for a #state of solidarity.

As countries in Europe are restricting passage to some nationalities by introducing new humanitarian exceptions and stricter migration regimes, activists and grassroots organizations are joining the struggle of people on the move, attempting to change together the political context with calls and actions for a state of solidarity —an ethical order based on justice and equality.

The author wishes to acknowledge the incessant and restless work by activists and people on the move at the borders, registration, transiting and reception centers. Their continued engagement and working together, also in the daily flow of updates and exchanges on the conditions at these sites shared on social media together with the stories that move together with the people seeking refuge have been central to this and many other writings that readers encounter daily.

MilaMila Shopova has received Master of Arts in Cultural Anthropology from the New School of Social Research and Master of Arts in East European Studies (Cultural Studies and history) from the Freie Unviersität-Berlin. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand. Recently, she has worked in international development in Southeast Asia and as part of the working group Solidarity for Mobility (LD Solidarnost) in Macedonia she has been implementing an awareness-raising campaign, Borders in flux: topographies of mobility and justice.


By Mila Shopova

Mila Shopova has received Master of Arts in Cultural Anthropology from the New School of Social Research and Master of Arts in East European Studies (Cultural Studies and history) from the Freie Unviersität-Berlin. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand. Recently, she has worked in international development in Southeast Asia and as part of the working group Solidarity for Mobility (LD Solidarnost) in Macedonia she has been implementing an awareness-raising campaign, Borders in flux: topographies of mobility and justice.

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