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Exclusion & the Biopolitical Moment: Reflections on the evictions of refugees from Athens

The evictions of Athens squats in the Exarchia neighborhood of the city were expected once the elected New Democracy center-right party, were voted into office with a 39.85% win on July 7 of this year. What was less expected was that the center-right party whose Prime Minister is a Harvard and Stanford graduate would prove its predictably conservative agenda to have more in common with the discourse of far-right movements. The language in the media coverage of the Exarchia evictions of some 23 buildings is telling. A September 14 update by Hélène Colliopoulou in AFP (Agence France-Presse), culling from various Greek newspapers notes, “Conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who campaigned on a ticket of jobs creation and public safety, earlier this month called the central Athens district a ‘den of lawlessness.’  The reference to “lawlessness” comes up continuously in the rhetoric of the PM to make the point that what constitutes lawfulness is explicitly represented by the bodies that formally enact it, from the government to the police. In the most concrete sense of this statement what is “outside” of the law is anything those “in uniform” view as a challenge to its formality, a naked threat to lawfulness that is never itself nuanced beyond the law’s visible presence.

To describe the evictions as the law’s having taken advantage of a community’s vulnerability is to speak, too, of a certain nakedness in their given circumstances. As many of the pictures that flooded the media were presented as “uncovering” the interiors of these “dens of lawlessness.” We saw the disheveled blankets in the rooms, gas burners where people cooked on the floor, unwashed plates etc. For the record plastic basins of plates would regularly be carried across the court yard of the 5th school squat on Oktaviou Merlie street, to the outdoor sinks, where a group of us have been voluntarily helping out since March of 2016 when the borders out of Greece closed for non-EU members. As this trope of what is viewed as dirt is conflated with lawlessness, the general discourse of exclusion in the press is making liberal use of language as cliché as it is crude in its ideology of apparent protection. I’d like to point out that when there was a draining and plumbing issue at the squat, basins of plates and such were carried across to the park where people washed their things by the water tap that was there. For the record, too, when a police eviction is conducted in the middle of the night or early hours of a morning and people are generally asleep, and have to gather their belonging in a matter of minutes, the images left behind will be messy. In these three and a half years of time with refugee families, one thing I learned was that resourcefulness was almost always connected to an ethos of hospitality, a sense, whether explicit or implicit, that the broader world from which the migrant refugees have been excluded and within which they seek refuge, is a continuous effort at “a being-at-home in the other” to borrow from a conversation the late philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle has with Jacques Derrida. Nakedness, to amplify this metaphor, is what the uniform, in this case police and policing apparatuses, is hiding or covering. The vulnerability it wishes to camouflage, and in the extremities of totalitarian regimes abases and Others to the point of abjection and death, is what it fears in itself.

Take then the chilling language of how steps in the “new asylum system” is being put forward by the minister of Civil Protection Michalis Chryssohoidies “Only those mentioned in the Directive are now vulnerable and post-traumatic stress is eliminated as a reason for vulnerability while the concept of vulnerability is tightened.” What constitutes vulnerability is being redefined, or “tightened”; in a decision that considers the majority of incoming flows to be “migrants” as opposed to “refugees” an overt move to sidestep UNHCR and EU measures to protect those vulnerable groups seeking refuge. As “economic migrants” their status changes, the suggestion now is that these communities have moved voluntarily as opposed to having been forced to do so, making it easier for the government to reject asylum requests.  

It was wrenching to see the picture of the aged Iraqi gentleman in the media coverage of that Monday morning of September 23, led by a police woman who was wearing blue plastic gloves and had her mouth and nose covered with a cloth mask. I remember him in the school courtyard, often sitting alone, watching us with the children, or sometimes, though more rarely, speaking with someone. I remember him that last Thursday we were at the school carrying a bag of tomatoes and a plate of yogurt to the courtyard, coming down the steps, and nodding as I nodded in greeting. His story from the little I knew of him was that he had been in Greece for some 15 years; that he had served in the Iraqi army during the war, and somehow ended up in Greece. He looked like he might be in his 70s, a tall man, probably handsome in his youth. Perhaps he was at the squat because he liked the company of people, perhaps he had been homeless; the image of his being led down Oktaviou Merlie, the police woman holding onto his arm, and in her other hand a bag that looked like garbage she was going to dump, his other hand held by a younger man, another of the evicted people. For some reason I thought he was vaguely blind, but that is most likely my projection, a kind of Tiresias; he gave that aura, self-possessed and wise. And that morning rather than the white flowing shirt and loose pants I usually saw him in, he was looking dressed up in a pair of grey slacks and long-sleeved blue stripped shirt. The photograph was one of Marios Lolos’ photographs that were a thankful antidote to other photographs in the media. Lolas caught several of the children’s faces at the windowpanes of the buses, some smiling and waving, some weeping. Lolas’ images made it impossible not to see the emotions on these faces, a thankful contrast to the narrative other photographs of the squat’s interior were suggesting, that the evicted families were “trash” as a police unionist was quoted saying in Hélène Colliopoulou’s AFP article.

Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of bare life, or zoe, a term and concept he gets from Hannah Arendt, points out, with Arendt, that the refugee has become a threshold marker of “the fates of human rights and the nation-state,” so much “that the decline and crisis of the one necessarily implies the end of the other” (134). As Arendt has shown it is the nation-state that transforms zoe into bios, the political man recognized as a citizen of the nation-state under its laws. Homo sacer, the “sacred” or “accursed” man, is constituted outside of the parameters of the citizen, or previous to it, as politically neutral “creaturely life” that has as yet to be inscribed into “the juridico-political order” (127). Thus bare life represents that which is not covered by the law, to continue with the metaphor of nakedness. The body uncovered by law, vulnerable and exposed becomes in Agamben’s words “what is at stake in the political conflict” of modern democracy’s “secret biopolitical calling” (124), one that invests itself in the demarcation line between an “us” (those whose bare life is legitimized by law), and “them” (those whose nakedness is defined as being without the covering of the law). This isn’t the place to discuss Agamben’s reading and analysis of Arendt’s understanding of the decline of the nation-state and its attendant “End of the Rights of Man,” but I would like to foreground Agamben’s understanding that the refugee “signals” the “radical crisis” (126) within which the idea of citizenship and by extension the nation-sate constructs itself. In the English edition of the Greek Ekathimerini newspaper of October 1, there was a meeting to discuss the Moria Camp riots on the island of Lesbos after a fire in a container house of the overcrowded camp built to house some 3,000 now houses approximately 13,000. At least one woman was killed. In the aftermath, and belatedly, measures are to be taken but rather than language such as “integration” “aid” “support” and such, we again have the term “tightening” and the recurrence of “safety” and “security”; there was a step to “radically increase the number of deportations,” for example, as Helen Smith reports for The Guardian.

We are back to the question as to whose safety and security is at stake, and here the binary of “us” and “them” is overtly reductive. In the evictions all the squats represented “them” i.e. “the lawless” in so far as they were squats, but that is where the comparison ends. This is, or was, 2015 and 2016 when the largest refugee flows were coming into Greece, the country itself was in the throes of its own financial crisis, which continues; squats were set up in empty or abandoned buildings where collectives were formed. There were efforts to have them legalized. A Syrian migrant some 30 years in Greece had initially tried to have the 5th school building legalized so those squatting might rent it but the request was rejected. The 5th school was the last of the evictions, and perhaps last on the list because of its difference. It is important to point out that while squatters all the individuals and families were not undocumented; the majority had papers in process for asylum. One Afghan mother had made a request for housing. Her two sons were enrolled in the neighborhood schools. There was a Pakistani family with 4 daughters aged 8 through 15 also in the neighborhood schools. The morning the 5th was evicted some of the local children going to school recognized their classmates, unclear as to why they were being led by police onto a bus. The rhetoric of conservative, and certainly fascistic bodies, build themselves out of an exclusionary ideology of nationalism that foregrounds the State as a space in need of being “protected” and “cleansed”; in the August 26 Guardian piece by Alex King and Ioanna Manoussaki-Adamopoulou, we have the repeated platform of New Democracy’s “Promising to ‘clean up Exarcheia,’” as its “rhetoric has conflated drug dealers, criminals, anarchists, and migrants.”

I think of the now cemented up entranceway to the 5th school. I think of the ceiling fans we helped put in, the porta potties we helped fund as those living at the squat worked at fixing the drain system, which they did fix, the weekly visits of our volunteer group that included getting lice shampoo for the kids, pharmaceutical creams when we were asked for, the food from Sohail Sorkar and his store DHAKA that was purchased with donations from Greece, the U.S., and the U.K., all this to say that there was a self-sustaining community at the 5th glad to be finding themselves a part of the larger Athenian neighborhood. This had very little to do with the sweeping generalizations of the government’s marginalizing discourse. Agamben makes the point that one of the characteristics of modern biopolitics “is its constant need to redefine the threshold in life that distinguished and separates what is inside from what is outside.” That is “the oikos,” house in Greek, becomes a porous border when those rejected or unable to enter it as citizens of a nation-state, and be sheltered, find themselves in the nakedness of their bare life  “more and more deeply into the city, the foundation of sovereignty – nonpolitical life – is [here] immediately transformed into a line that must be constantly redrawn” (131). Agamben is suggesting that this is an opportunity to reconfigure zoe as a politicized life because “the distinctions and thresholds that make it possible to isolate sacred life” are no longer applicable when bare life is part of the polis, a fabric of its own zoe.

Predictably, the most recent measures taken by the New Democracy government demonstrate an authority doing little more than preforming its power. The policies regarding the refugees and migrants is now being processed under the “Civil Protection” ministry rather than the “Migration Ministry”; another move to emphasize a rhetoric that foregrounds threat. Policies already in place are being dressed up, or given new uniforms, to suggest a pro-active rather than the reality of a reactive, stance. “Perhaps if the government hadn’t shifted responsibility for refugee policy from the experienced office of the Migration Ministry to that of the inexperienced department for Civil Protection, they would be fully informed” notes an October 1 update from RefuComm that also points out the current government’s apparent ignorance of already established asylum laws. This is all very far from what Arendt and then Agamben have argued as the reality of viewing bare life, zoe as that “continuity between man and citizen” (131).  

When a group of us went to visit the evicted families the Saturday after that Monday of September 23, we drove to Corinth where they were now in a tent compound. The space is large with what looked like newly lain gravel, there were two facing rows of large white tents, and little else. The families were happy to see us and we them. Laila invited us into her small floor space covered with the grey UNHCR blankets. No one was allowed to cook in the tents, and there is no facility to cook outside of it, unlike the Elefsina camp where there is a kitchen with stoves. In Corinth food packets were handed out once a day. Though there had been a strike and a day and a half had gone by with nothing. Once the packaged food was received after the strike it was cold and probably not especially safe to eat. When I think these are the families whose children were in school in the Exarcheia neighborhood, who often cooked their own meals, buying ingredients from local shops, that in those first weeks of Spring 2016 when we had first started visiting the 5th one of the things I remember vividly was the scent of cooking. Rice. Nan. Lentils. Yogurt. In Corinth people were being handed potatoes in plastic covered packets. Plastic wrapped baguettes that had been defrosted. I was still being asked for things, a Celestoderm-V antibiotic cream for Sahar, Ameny wanted a black baseball hat, Arina a ball, Ailine a child’s umbrella because another girl had been given one. It broke my heart and reassured me at the same time that the requests were specific, that I could put a name to each one of them. 

Press articles listed chronologically as the Greek New Democracy government enacts measures on the refugee/migrant crisis:

“Inside Exarcheia: the self-governing community Athens police want rid of” by Alex King and Ioanna Manoussaki-Adamopoulou, The Guardian, Aug. 26, 2019

“Plans to move scores of more riot police to Exarchia area” by Yiannis Souliotis, Ekathimerini, Sept. 4, 2019 

“Row over Greek police raids in bohemian Athens district” by Hélène Colliopoulou, AFP, Sept. 14, 2019 

“Refugee eviction causes fury in Greece” John Psaropoulos, Aljazeera, Sept. 30, 2019

“Riots at Greek refugee camp at Lesbos after fatal fire” by Helen Smith, The Guardian, Sept. 30, 2019

“Refugee Government ‘Migration Problem’ – Plans for deportations and closed centers”

The Press Project, Sept. 30, 2019 

 “New Democracy’s ‘ambitious play’ for Asylum Seekers in Greece is Flawed and ill informed” RefuComm Oct. 1, 2019 

Other texts referenced:

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford UP, 1998

Derrida, Jacques, Dufourmantelle, Anne, Of Hospitality. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford UP, 2000

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