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Our Friends who Live Across the Sea

A bronze, life-size male figure carrying a suitcase mounts a massive set of stairs to a jetliner that does not exist. He is slightly hunched, frozen mid-step. Whatever the statue was initially intended to signify, today it is a metaphor for the six thousand people who now inhabit Ellinikon, a derelict airport thirty minutes from the center of Athens, Greece. The sculpture stands in front of a wire fence, behind which most of the refugees live. Faded boarding passes litter the ground, as though all the airport customers suddenly dematerialized, only to be replaced by a new generation of travelers. Thanks to the closure of the Macedonian border, on March 7, and a controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey, announced soon after, this new generation has been stopped in its tracks, immobilized like the man cast in metal.

Before visiting Greece, I had never given much thought to what limbo feels like, but now I know it is crushing. Greece’s fifty thousand refugees and migrants are part of a larger wave of more than one million people who arrived in Europe in 2015. They came primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but also Pakistan, Iran, Kurdish territories, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and elsewhere—men and women, old and young, parents and their offspring, and thousands upon thousands of children traveling unaccompanied by adults. While member countries squabble about how to stop the influx, the de facto strategy has been one described by investigative journalist Apostolis Fotiadis as “militarization and externalization.” Huge chunks of budgets that could be allotted to humanitarian purposes are being redirected to border security, biometrics, and surveillance; NATO warships return migrants to Turkey, as Frontex, the EU’s border agency, patrols the coastlines; curtailed rescue missions mean thousands have and will be left to drown in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, two favored migratory routes. Fear of terrorism is invoked not just to keep people fleeing terror away, but to justify killing them through a strategy of neglect.

“Do not ask me about the boat ride,” Abid told me, shuddering. Abid is twenty-one and made his way to Ellinikon from Pakistan, where his family sought refuge from Afghanistan after his father was killed by the Taliban. After weeks of intense debate with his mother, whom he obviously loves dearly, he spent his savings on the dangerous voyage to Europe. He understands that there is now a good chance he will be sent back to Turkey, and he radiates sadness bordering on despair.

The West speaks the language of universal rights while practicing exclusion, vetting individual asylum seekers as though refugee status is a privilege to be bestowed on a select few and not a legal entitlement for all human beings in need of protection. Policymakers, pundits, and angry Internet commentators are determined to distinguish between those fleeing war and those seeking a better life, but the division between those who have “legitimate” asylum claims and those who can be categorized as “economic migrants” is as artificial as the borders that block people’s movements. (Poverty can be as deadly as combat, though the job of bureaucrats is to deny such complexities.) In the words of Princeton professor Didier Fassin, refugees have been reconfigured from “victims of persecution entitled to international protection to undesirable persons suspected of taking advantage of a liberal system.” This shift did not happen spontaneously. After World War II, workers were needed to help rebuild European nations that would soon be players in the Cold War, which meant various populations were welcomed into Western Europe first for their labor power and later for their symbolic pro-democracy, anti-Communist significance. But today, unemployment is rising and Islamophobia has superseded the Red Scare.

Against this backdrop, Afghans like Abid are increasingly treated as job-hunting opportunists, though their country has been rocked by decades of conflict. Many will be denied asylum and deported, as some already have been. The official bureaucratic rationale is coldly mathematical: unlike Syrians, for example, Afghans who reach Greece cannot apply for “relocation” to a second EU country because in the past their asylum applications have fallen just below the threshold acceptance rate of 75 percent. The true ethnic, economic, and political calculus is, of course, even more complex and fatalistic. Afghans tend to be more impoverished than their comparatively affluent Syrian counterparts (many of the nearly five million Syrians who have fled since 2011 were once middle class—doctors, teachers, shopkeepers, with houses and cars), which makes them less desirable “human capital” for an increasingly neoliberal Europe. And the United States and the EU insist Afghanistan is safe, or at least safe enough to send people back to—the world’s superpowers still don’t want to admit that Operation Enduring Freedom was a blunder. If the war was a success, there cannot be legitimate refugees. I cannot fathom making an accusation of illegitimacy to Abid.

In impeccable English with an eloquence that is uniquely his, Abid tells me he used to work as a language teacher. Now he’s leading informal classes at the camp. What is an intelligent and ambitious young person in his position supposed to do? His former life was untenable, but his lot has not improved. When Abid spoke of the feeling of being “alone” and “abandoned” at Ellinikon, he suddenly appeared a million miles away from my side. I could have a conversation with him, and write about him later, but I could not pull him from out of the void and into my world of stability and comfort and access.

As our conversation unfolded, Abid sighed. His problems stem from the simple misfortune, he reflected in concise summation, “of being born in a poor country.”

Nothing to See Here

If Abid had arrived in Greece a month earlier, his story would be radically different. He would have been doggedly pushing north on the difficult journey through the Balkans—hoping to reach Germany, the place nearly everyone I spoke to held up as a kind of promised land.

The West speaks the language of universal rights while practicing exclusion.

Germany became the dream destination of the desperate after chancellor Angela Merkel was publicly shamed during a PR stunt gone awry. Breaking the script, a young, crying Palestinian girl asked why it was that her family might be deported in the coming months. Soon, Merkel made a dash for the high road and declared Germany a haven. In 2015 migrating individuals and families began hiring smugglers, boarding flimsy small boats, and crossing the Aegean to reach Greek islands in unprecedented numbers: Greece was a pit stop on the path to Munich or Berlin. Since the EU’s recent deal with Turkey, Greece is a holding pen. Germany, some expert observers say, wants to stem the human tide without having to endure the negative publicity that would be associated with closing its borders; thus, the recent EU plan is designed to force Greece and Turkey to do that dirty work. For all the criticism the deal has attracted—Amnesty International called it “a historic blow to human rights” and a “flagrant violation of EU and international law” that abuses the global Refugee Convention; Doctors Without Borders ceased work in the Moria detention center on the island of Lesvos, refusing to be “instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation [with] no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants”; the Council of Europe reported that “new arrivals are systematically detained in inadequate conditions on an uncertain legal basis”—it is having the desired effect. The torrent of boats has slowed to a trickle, but not because the problem has been solved.

“The only reason the refugee crisis is now in the spotlight lies in a banal but brutal fact: it has penetrated from the periphery of Europe to the heart of the European Union,” Croatian theorist Srećko Horvat has written; the unstated goal of the EU-Turkey deal is to reverse this trend. Thus, informal camps are being supplanted or replaced by prison-like detention centers. Migrants who arrived or arrive on Greek shores after March 20, the date the new rules went into effect, are apprehended, held, and processed by a system aimed at returning them to Turkey. (For every “irregular” migrant from Syria who has illegally crossed over the Aegean and is sent to Turkey, Europe will take one Syrian from Turkey who has gone through the official channels, though the total number of relocated people cannot exceed 72,000. In return for its troubles, Turkey will get more than $6 billion and various special privileges that would otherwise be denied to a human-rights-suppressing autocracy.) Quarantined in Turkey, a country that already hosts more refugees than any other on earth, and a place not exactly known for its press freedom, refugees will be that much harder for privileged westerners to see. With the flow of dinghies stemmed, there will be fewer outrage-stirring images of dead toddlers washing up on beaches frequented by sun-loving tourists. Obliviousness can be restored.

No-Man’s Camp

Early on the morning of Monday, March 21—the day after the EU-Turkey deal went into effect—I visited Piraeus Port. For months the passenger ships had been bringing three to six thousand people a day. I watched the early morning arrival of what would be one of the final ferry-loads of refugees from the islands, only now there was a new twist—a massive and growing tent city, where more than five thousand people were then estimated to be living (that number is diminishing as officials move residents to government-run camps). As the boat disgorged its human cargo, tourists first and then refugees, I intercepted a twenty-six-year-old Kurdish woman who would have fit in at any hip Brooklyn café and a thirty-nine-year-old Afghan mother whose nine-year-old nephew eagerly and sweetly translated Persian into English until she broke into tears, telling us she had lost a son and that as a woman traveling without a man she felt very afraid. The boy faltered, and I also fumbled for words. What could I possibly say to console her?

At Piraeus, the glistening water contrasts surreally with the drab sea of tents, where families attempt some normality. Mothers sponge-bathe their kids with ice-cold water, laundry hangs to dry, people pass the time by playing soccer. Tents are remarkably orderly, with blankets neatly folded, and shoes always carefully placed outside the door. But not everyone has a tent, as the parents asking me for a “house” made clear. Inside the port buildings, where people sleep neck to neck, the first thing occupants signal to me is that the place stinks, as if there is some way I could fail to notice.

Everywhere there are children, making the most of terrible circumstances as children tend to do. The adorable faces, playful smiles, and constant embraces can almost cause one to forget what they have endured. Later, Alex Sinclair, a twenty-three-year-old Canadian who came with his mother and sister to volunteer after seeing the crisis on the news, shows me drawings collected from the Port coloring station. In one, done in the style of a child aged five or six, marker lines in the upper left corner trace planes dropping bombs. On the right side is a stick figure of a little girl holding a Syrian flag, her chest oozing blood.

This drawing illustrates why people will continue to leave Syria, even if Frontex and national police manage to block them from reaching Northern Europe. If you’ve seen before-and-after photos of Aleppo, you know you would try to leave too. Salam, a twenty-year-old who not long ago had meaningful work as a music teacher, told me her mother was shot while the family was home having tea. “Fssssssssst,” she said, imitating the sound of the bullet that lodged in her abdomen.

When the motor of Salam’s small boat died in the middle of the Aegean, her younger brother Jousef fixed it, likely saving everyone aboard. He is only eighteen and already a hero, but one no nation will formally recognize.

Crisis of Consequence

It is commonly said that there are two crises unfolding in Greece—the refugee crisis and also an economic one. The word “crisis,” in both cases, functions as a euphemism. In the first, it passes off a long-term and predictable political disaster rooted in the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a sudden and unexpected emergency, or (depending on who is doing the analysis) a repercussion of the Arab Spring. In the second, it hides the fact that Greece’s economic problems began long before the ostensibly left-wing Syriza government capitulated to creditors last summer. (Greek politicians cooked the books to join the EU monetary union; Goldman Sachs trapped the public in a toxic swap deal at the turn of the millennium; as early as 2005 the International Monetary Fund warned of the country’s “potentially explosive debt dynamics.”) More fundamentally, and as any good Marxist will tell you, crises are not aberrations but intrinsic to capitalism—or, to put it in the more contemporary parlance of Silicon Valley techies, crises are a feature and not a bug.

Huge chunks of budgets that could be allotted to humanitarian purposes are being redirected to border security, biometrics, and surveillance.

Young people I met in Athens reminded me that they have lived their adult lives against the backdrop of crisis, an emergency that has become normalized. Many are being forced to migrate themselves, to head north to Germany or Denmark or the United Kingdom to work, creating conditions of identification with others who have been uprooted and dream of improving their lot.

The Port of Piraeus is public property, and a port worker and union organizer told me she is proud that the state has allowed the refugees to use the space. But beyond the location itself and some very basic and inadequate sanitation, the port authority doesn’t offer much. The infrastructure was made for tourists passing through, not thousands of permanent residents. While the Red Cross, UNHCR, and other NGOs have small outposts, almost everything provided to the refugees comes from regular citizens—tents, clothes, and much of the food and health care. People are opening their apartments and homes, giving refugees the chance to bathe or rest for an afternoon, and occasionally to stay indefinitely.

Most Greeks I spoke to chalked this up to their culture’s tradition of hospitality, but there are more explicit political motivations at work. Spontaneous offers of individual assistance are matched by collective initiatives, the so-called “solidarity structures” that blossomed in the wake of the 2011 Syntagma Square anti-austerity movement. Just inside the boundary of an upscale neighborhood called Kolonaki, a high school that had been closed for more than five years was recently reopened by a group of activists; it now houses more than three hundred people, including approximately two hundred children. The place is dilapidated, but it is infinitely better than Piraeus or Ellinikon or countless other way stations, including the infamous Idomeni camp, on the Macedonian border, where more than ten thousand people currently languish in muddy fields.

Greece has long been a hub of these kinds of “self-organized” or “autonomous” efforts, and is rightfully famous among the anarchist diaspora as a result. In the United States anarchists are lucky to have a bookstore or a bike shop, but in Athens they have a whole neighborhood, which is known as Exarcheia. There you will find numerous squats that house (and feed) dozens of refugees, and meet people who have participated in grassroots solidarity missions on the islands, pulling rubber boats to the shore and providing for and protecting people when they arrive. One longtime resident of Exarcheia told me of assisting a woman as she gave birth the second her precarious boat hit the rocky shore of Lesvos. He and his comrades don’t use the word refugees, he said, since refugee is a term that designates an official status that can be granted or denied by the state. Instead they call them “our friends who live across the sea.”

What Teeming Shores?

Now that I have returned home, the sea has expanded into an ocean. And instead of friends I can see and reach, I keep in touch with some of the people I met at the camps via a postmodern attenuated form of friendship, Facebook. Abid puts on a brave front on his page, but when I posted an article about a leaked plan to deport eighty thousand Afghans from Europe—“The Afghan elite will be rewarded with university places in Europe, under a new EU strategy to use aid and trade as ‘incentives’ to secure deportation agreements for economic migrants from ‘safe’ areas of Afghanistan,” the Telegraph reported—his anguish was expressed through a series of emoticons: shocked and crying faces and praying hands.

When we spoke at Ellinikon, Abid had mused about whether he and others should protest, to highlight the horrible conditions at the camp or the need for safe passage and open borders. But would demonstrating alienate citizens of their host country, or would it spur bureaucrats in Brussels to react, or would their efforts simply be ignored? This is one of the many dilemmas endured by millions of exiled and stateless people. They have no formal say over the policies that may well determine whether they live or die; they have virtually no political leverage. In theory, at least, citizens of more powerful nations have a voice—yet it is one we are collectively failing to raise.

In Greece no one asked me why Americans are not doing more to pressure our government to help refugees (Americans, it seems, are not held to a particularly high ethical bar). It is a question, however, that we must ask ourselves: What can those lucky enough to be born in rich countries do for the cause of common humanity? Others, including Abid, have sacrificed enough.

Protesting would be a place for Americans to start. While we share news stories of ultra-nationalist parties gaining ground in Europe, in the United States the xenophobes and warmongers have already won—without a peep of resistance. Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about closing the borders obscures the fact that as of April less than 1,300 of the 10,000 Syrians U.S. federal officials promised to resettle this fiscal year have been admitted, while 2.7 million Syrians are in Turkey, Germany has taken more than 500,000 Syrian refugees, and more than 25,000 have been resettled in Canada with an additional 16,000 applications approved or in process. Meanwhile, the Obama administration—Hillary Clinton State Department officials in particular—pours fuel on the flames engulfing the Middle East. In the press, the current surge of refugees is often compared to the one unleashed by the Second World War—a war that projects an aura of humanitarianism and heroism, even though the United States took only a tiny percentage of those seeking refuge from the Holocaust. Americans would be better off remembering Vietnam, the war we are always enjoined to forget. It was a disastrous and failed campaign that ruined an enormous number of lives for a pointless cause—kind of like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But beginning in 1975, we ultimately took 800,000 refugees from that region, proving, at the very least, such things can be done.

Ignoring history—out of a mix of malice and idiocy—our would-be leaders pander to the jingoistic and intolerant among us. All the while, those who are less bigoted remain trapped in a binge-purge cycle of outrage and indifference. While quick to express solidarity with the residents of Paris or Brussels in the wake of horrible attacks, we do not automatically identify with members of families displaced by war at Piraeus Port, seekers of asylum huddled in Idomeni, or an abandoned young person like Abid at Ellinikon. For now Abid remains in limbo, neither a citizen with rights, nor officially a refugee in the eyes of the state. He is a friend who crossed the sea, yet he is still being left to drown.