The EU hotspot; Police war against the migrant

The EU hotspot; Police war against the migrant

This article by Mark Neocleous and Maria Kastrinou was first published by Radical Philosophy, Philosophical Journal of the Independent Left, 200 (Nov/Dec 2016)

‘Living in the camp you are restricted. You need at least six months to two years to learn the language, to get the permit … You have no control’, says Abu Tahrir, one of the many Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Greece. His comment was made in September 2015, a month of unprecedented refugee entrance to Greece following the escalation of the imperialist war in Syria, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the poor reception conditions in neighbouring countries and the supposedly warm welcome being organized by leading figures of European politics. All of which has been well covered in the mainstream press. Less discussed has been the fact that September 2015 was also the month when the EU’s new ‘hotspot approach’ to irregular migration was being fully implemented in Greece.


This new approach can be traced back to May 2015, when the European Commission (EC) established a new European Agenda on Migration, kick-starting a joint effort between the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Frontex (the EU Border Agency, essentially an international police force), Europol and the EU Judicial Cooperation Agency (Eurojust), with the intention of identifying, registering and fingerprinting all refugees in zones to be known as ‘hotspots’. [1] Frontex had previously written on ‘hotspots of irregular migration’, [2] but from May 2015 the ‘hotspot’ was formally adopted as the name for the registration centres. Operating initially on a small scale in Italy where four ports (Pozzallo, Porto Empedocle, Trapani and Lampedusa) were used to identify, register and fingerprint refugees, it was in Greece that the hotspot approach has been framed and implemented as the main EU answer to the ‘refugee crisis’, with five hotspots set up on the Aegean islands through which most refugees and migrants arrive in Europe (namely, Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos). Although the Greek army is responsible for the overall security of the hotspots, the sites are jointly administered and managed by the army, the Greek police, special police units such as the MAT (the ‘riot police’ operating under the name ‘Units for the Reinstatement of Order’), Frontex and Europol. But it is often Frontex rather than the Greek state that the refugees encounter: upon arrival, all refugees have to pass through Frontex personnel who check the validity of their documents, conduct personal ‘interviews’ (‘interrogations’ might be a better term) and translate their personal information into English for documentation.

Given the enormity of the refugee crisis, the EU has been keen to be able to answer the question ‘What has been done?’, as it asks rhetorically in one of its own reports on the crisis, and part of its answer is: ‘hotspots’. [3] Since 23 March 2016, the day when the EU–Turkey agreement went into effect, the ‘hotspot approach’ or ‘hotspot system’ has become the main EU mechanism for controlling and regulating migration and thereby manage the crisis (and, to some extent, to also show that it will step in when it considers that some states are not doing their ‘job’ well enough, as witnessed in the claims that Greece and Italy had been slow in certain tasks such as fingerprinting). This is likely to remain so in the future, with the EU promising to ensure the ‘proper functioning’ of the hotspots and strengthening Frontex and Europol in order that they might manage those spaces. [4]

All of which begs a question: why are they called ‘hotspots’? There is no doubt that in some ways the term ‘hotspot’ is meant to play on the ubiquity of this word as a contemporary cultural trope, but this obviousness may obscure something far more telling, something not touched on by the criticisms of the hotspots, which tend to focus on either their squalid conditions or their legality (for example, with routes out of Greece being closed off migrants are in many ways being detained rather than registered; likewise, although ‘inadmissibility’ is being used as the reason to ship migrants back to Turkey, in reality ‘inadmissibility’ often means nothing other than that the political and bureaucratic machine is working too slowly to adequately process asylum claims). [5] Neither the legality nor the sanitary state of the hotspot is our concern here. Nor is the fact that the hotspots use identification measures largely as instruments of exclusion. [6] Rather, we are interested in what the label ‘hotspot’ might tell us about the way the EU wants to manage the crisis. What might the hotspot tell us about how the EU imagines the refugee? But also, given that the EU’s management of the refugee crisis is a means for it to manage migration flows across Europe as a whole, what might the hotspot tell us about how the EU imagines the figure of the migrant in general?

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