Since July 2021, a zeppelin has been hanging in the Greek sky, surveilling the borderline spanning from the Evros’ river delta to Alexandroupoli’s port. Almost three million euros have been reserved only for the first six months of its operation. And that’s not all; the aerial surveillance machine has a complementary part on the ground. The Greek Ministry of Citizen Protection along with the commander in chief of the Greek Police decreed the recruitment of 250 additional border guards that will join the Frontex officers already deployed at this border crossing “for a period of eight (8) months – after the completion of an initial four-month training – who will be assigned to local Police departments of Evros’ regional units, to meet the needs of protecting the external borders of our country”. The total cost hence amounts to EUR 3.921.971,80. These are two new entries in a long list of indicators that the carceral apparatus of the state and its surveillance infrastructures at the external borders are turning hypertrophic, at the expense of the subordinate classes.
Since 2020, Greece has been determined to become a pioneer together with Hungary in lowering safeguards for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It designated Turkey a safe country for the nationalities most represented in asylum applications. It was the first country to suspend the right to apply for asylum for a month, in March 2020, upstreaming the Geneva Convention that does not permit blank suspensions of the right to asylum even in times of war.
According to the recent report of the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament, Greece has been persistently violating the right to asylum, unapologetically and illegally denying people the right to enter the country, and expelling people without following legal procedure (pushbacks) with the explicit support of Frontex. In addition, in its most recent blow, the government passed a new law obliging asylum seekers to lodge their applications only on “hotspot” islands or in the Fylakio reception center, about 20 km from the Greek-Turkish border. This obliges asylum seekers already living within the territory to head back towards the border, still undocumented, in hopes of making it safely and lodging their application.
In view of Europe’s hostile management of migration – which has been drawn to extremes as the situation on the Greek borderline indicates – irregular entrance has become the only option for many of those seeking refuge in Europe. But surviving the border is not enough, since its fortification is complemented by the mushrooming of internal borderscapes and even vigilant manhunts in the Greek hinterland.
Refugees resort to paying for rides in cars with no license plates stealthily rolling on side roads. If spotted, the standard procedure applies, which means that their drivers will be declared smugglers, tried, fined, incarcerated and deported.
Whilst the click bait label of “smuggler” yields gains extracted from an audience convinced that Greece is invaded, most of the “smugglers” are people entrapped in precarity, driving refugees in mainland Greece in exchange for some extra cash, or are themselves refugees left with no choice but to take it upon themselves to get behind the wheel as a way to erase their debts to the real smugglers.
Smugglers make daily headlines, but the ongoing tragedy of migrants’ deaths on the side streets of border cities rarely makes the news in Greece. On the rare occasion that it does, the deaths are reported as mere facts detached from the context in which they occur. No journalist follows up on the story, no investigator looks into the circumstances of death, and no police officer is interested in conducting an investigation. News like the story of a car turning into a shapeless mass of iron resulting in the death of the eight migrants it was carrying, are rarely placed in their wider context of Europe’s migration regime.
Migrants pushed to stealth routes in dangerous side roads, vehicles accelerating at the sight of blue police lights, cars overturning on highways, the blatant disregard of death, are in fact very much correlated with the securitarian shift indicated by the zeppelin hanging over the border. They are also connected to the hostile discourse of a government investing all its political capital – expecting high returns – in punitive security as the catchall solution to all social problems.
In the meantime, the European Union, stuck in protecting what it hazily calls “the European way of life”, corroborates Member States’ policies with its own strategies against “fighting migrants smuggling”, instead of ensuring safe pathways to asylum. Policies to isolate refugees and migrants are pervasive both within EU and non-EU states.
For example, advocating for the creation of remote screening centers in border areas, therefore replicating the hotspot model at the European level, has been the European Commission’s focus since the proposed New Pact on Migration in 2020. The Commission’s push is not limited to member states. It has been waving EU money and promises of membership to Balkan states pushing some such as Albania to adopt national legislation replicating similar screening procedures.
Caving at the alleged recent pressure from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, the Commission is proposing looser asylum rules while perpetuating the narrative of “seekers undeserving of asylum”. This not only leads to the deepening of social fears of migrants, but also inevitably leads to the legitimation of previously fringe far right parties and to the normalization of vigilant violence that are plaguing Europe. The initially blind trust of the shared economy project and ensuing disillusionment with the destabilizing effects of “the free market”, gradually gives way to a collective fear of racialized “others” who are sketched as erosive to the European way of life. Securitization and militarization turn into means of consolidating a collective European identity based on fear.
The dangers migrants are exposed to are no longer limited to border areas. A silent campaign of enforced “disappearances” from inland Greek cities was launched last year, perpetuated by the Greek police against undocumented or even registered asylum seekers and recognized refugees. Police officers are racially profiling and apprehending people on the streets. They then transfer them from one police station to the other, to be then driven to the banks of the Evros river and ferried across to Turkey in dinghies. What’s more is that the state entitled itself to detain asylum seekers for identification purposes in case it can establish fair grounds to consider them a threat to national security. What started as an exception has become the norm with thousands of asylum seekers getting unjustifiably detained. Workers in these detention centers whisper of yet another hidden policy subscribing to the secretive but widespread campaign of pushbacks: asylum seekers are allegedly released only to be transported in police buses to the Evros river and pushed back to Turkey.
Refugees and migrants are treated as surplus people from a politico-economic apparatus that strategically invests in incarceration, molding a new social division between deserving nationals and undeserving, racialized and gendered “others”. It grows its political legitimacy and harvests political returns by cultivating fear against racialized subjects.
Taking advantage of widespread precarity conferred to widespread segments of the populations, it turns those disconcerted by the reverberations of the economic collapse against the new subordinate classes. In Evros, the local media celebrate the view of the zeppelin that oversees the borders, celebrate the recruitment of a new breed of border guards, celebrate the alleged trickle-down economics of securitization, and the anticipated flow of money expected to “flood” the local economy through uniformed officers’ pockets, hired to make migrant passages less porous. The top-down syntonization of carcerality at the expense of migrants’ lives proves how politically profitable fear is, and how difficult it is to overturn it.
Nikos Vrantsis is a freelance researcher and a PhD student in Human Geography affiliated with the Institute of Housing and Urban Research, Uppsala University. His research focus is on topics related to housing exclusion, and the entanglement between property regimes and violence.
Alexandra Bogos has been a human rights defender in Greece since 2017, providing migrants with legal information. For the past 2 years, her work has been focused on advocacy guided by the ideal of respect for human rights and accountability of perpetrators of violence. She is currently working with the Border Violence Monitoring Network, a watchdog network of organizations reporting on pushbacks and state violence. Alexandra is a law graduate and still believes justice will prevail.