Interview |
Michalis Psimitis "The anti-immigration policy makes the islands a field of conflicts and tensions"

Interview |
Michalis Psimitis "The anti-immigration policy makes the islands an arena of conflicts and tensions"

Michalis Psimitis, Professor of Sociology at the University of the Aegean and Coordinator of the Anti-Racist Observatory of the University of the Aegean, explains the goals served by the escalation of control and surveillance regimes for refugees, including the creation of closed structures promoted by the government with the support of the EU. He analyses the qualitative elements and the ideological features of the counter discourse, explains why the solidarity climate of 2015 and 2016 no longer exists on the islands and points out that the arena of conflict between progressive people and fascist and far-right views is and will remain open for a long time to come.

From the ‘chaos’ of Moria to the controlled structure of Kara Tepe and to the planned centre in Vastria, what changes do you consider the most important in terms of surveillance and control for refugees? What are the signals and the most important issues that arise from the design of the new centres as points of criticism of the state’s intervention? 

It is obvious that this escalation of control and surveillance regimes to which you rightly refer serves, among other things, two main goals. The first is located within Lesvos and consists in the pursuit of a pattern of total isolation, complete control and total surveillance of refugees on the island. Thus, we gradually move from the vast and uncontrolled camp of Moria, as a ‘necessary evil’ of a first and chaotic refugee response, to the smaller, organised and police-controlled structure of Kara Tepe, while the final goal is a centre in the Vastria area where refugees will be isolated, trapped in a 245-acre fenced area very far from Mytilene. They will thereby be more effectively controlled: on the one hand they will be deprived of the possibility to move around the city, on the other hand, any forms of collective protest they (are forced to) choose  to resort to in the future will be far from the ‘centre’ and therefore remain invisible.  

The second goal is nationwide, insofar as the creation of the Centre in Vastria aims to send or rather reinforce an older message to all potential refugees, i.e. those who in the future might venture across the Aegean to reach the Greek islands. The message is “do not bother to come, because a life of deprivation and hardship awaits you, without any possibility to move freely, to circulate, to interact with others, to consume, to protest, in short, a life without dignity”. This realises an older and well-known slogan of the political leadership, to “make their life unbearable” as a precondition for preventing migration! This objective, coupled of course with the fact that we have systematically had deaths at the borders in recent years (as demanded a few years ago by a far-right official who now heads a ministry tasked with protecting life…), marks the essence of our country’s migration policy under the New Democracy era. The planning of the construction of the new concentration centre in Vastria absolutely serves this policy.

What are the qualitative elements and the ideological features of the counter discourse, of mobilisations and arguments against the new structure in “Vastria” and in Kara Tepe? There is a feeling that people with a far-right agenda prevail. To what extent is this true?

The debate around the new structure broadly reflects the different perceptions prevailing not only about migration but also about life itself. We have seen one point of view, that of the government and the more conservative part of Greek society, which exudes racist, xenophobic, chauvinistic stereotypes full of nationalist and religious fanaticism. An inexpensive jingoistic patriotism  practiced with deadly repressive effectiveness against defenseless people whose crime is the search for a better life! The opposite ideological discourse is that of the most active civil society, of progressive and socially sensitive people, of social movements defending the rights of refugees as part of universal human rights. It is a discourse which proclaims that values such as freedom, justice and dignity are reduced to rhetorical pomposities when we tolerate people living in coercion, injustice, and indignity. 

It is a mistake to define discourse which unites political and religious opinions with social attitudes ranging from political solidarity to the philanthropist conception of coexistence as exclusively left-wing. Far-right discourse also comes into play in the conflict between the two different views. It sometimes appears as dominating the local agenda, especially in recent years. The truth is that the climate of solidarity of 2015 and 2016 no longer exists. Much of local society today has become more reluctant towards refugees and has activated defensive reflexes that had been set aside in that two-year period. However, this does not mean that far-right and fascist attitudes have become dominant in the local society. The far-right tries to exploit these reflexes but its ominous ideology repels many people, so it tries to disguise it as love for our country and religion! In any case, the arena of conflict between progressive people and fascist and far-right views is and will remain open for a long time to come on Lesvos and the other islands.

What are the most significant points of criticism of the new structure and what are the biggest fears of the local communities on the Aegean islands already hosting RIC?

Local communities in the Aegean fear that the islands will remain the main levers for ‘dealing’ with the refugee issue in the coming years. It is a fear that stems from the visible developments of the implementation of the anti-immigration policy of the Greek government with substantive support from the EU. In other words, to the extent that a ‘Fortress Europe’ is being built against refugees, then the Aegean islands will become places of permanent confinement for these people and, naturally, the islanders will assume the role of ‘jailers’ with all the consequences this carries for the development of local communities.

We still have to see from which angle we should criticise the new structures that have been designed and whose construction has already been attempted by the government, while in the last few days the residents of Chios and Mytilene have prevented the first disembarkation of the machinery intended for use in the construction of these centres on their islands. The need to prevent new detention facilities from operating on the islands must not lead to acquiescence of the far-right view of getting rid of refugees by any means possible. Local communities certainly need a fresh start in development. At the same time, however, refugees need support and solidarity in order to build a better life in the places where they want to settle. The fact that the EU pretends not to understand that its anti-immigration policy renders the islands arenas of conflict and tension should not result in the detriment of either local communities or refugees. We need a response that does not assume from the outset that local communities and refugees are incompatible concepts, now more than ever.  

How has the movement against the creation of new closed centres on the Aegean islands evolved since the announcement of their creation? 

In reality, this movement began to take shape in February 2020, with large protests of islanders and clashes with the 14 riot police squads that the government had sent at the time to suppress local opposition to construction works for the planned closed detention centres for refugees in the requisitioned areas of Lesvos and Chios. Already then, we had noted the phenomenon of a very massive reaction to the government’s repressive operation and a powerful, albeit extremely heterogeneous movement in social, political, age and professional terms. In fact, the intensity of that joint two-day struggle temporarily concealed the unbridgeable differences within the movement.

These manifested immediately after the departure of the riot police, when far-right assault groups set up roadblocks at key points on the island, terrorising and harassing volunteers and journalists, setting fire to the short-term refugee accommodation centre in Skala Skamnia and preventing refugees from disembarking at the port of Thermi. The situation does not differ much today. For example, a few days ago, in the spontaneous effort of citizens to prevent the disembarkation of construction machinery of the structure in Vastria in the port of Mytilene, right-wing and left-wing citizens were side by side, reacting from different starting points. Of course, this time no one was under the illusion of a so-called ‘common struggle’. In reality, there is a movement that defends peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation between people of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, and a counter-movement that cultivates hatred and rejection of different people. Therefore, the question is not only what exactly will happen with the new structures, but also which perspective for the solution to the problem is needed. Whether the movement or the counter-movement prevails will largely determine the quality of social coexistence on the islands in the years to come!

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