Welcome to Athens, you are 54,674 in the queue

Burn down Moria and all borders

I arrived in Athens the day that David Graeber died and the same week that Moria camp on Lesvos went up in flames in a act of resistance against the brutality of Europe’s carceral logic of inhospitability towards refugees fleeing war, violence and poverty across the Middle East and Africa. Moria was built in 2013, along with most of Greece’s barely functioning asylum infrastructure, to house around 3,000 people though it is said to have been hosting 20,000 this summer in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. I know now from my short experience working with asylum seekers in Athens these months that people want to escape the islands as soon as they can, if they can, and I’ve seen the reasons too, in the rape reports, the ashen faces and the wounds, the talk of that hell they were in. This article features excerpts of diaries of aid workers in Moria working with unaccompanied minors (warning, a distressing read), and gives some idea as to the hell that people run from to Athens and other cities on the mainland if they can. Moria, all the ‘Reception Centres’ on the Greek islands, the closed camps on the mainland, the graveyard of the Mediterranean in general, are Europe’s shame, but also the open secret of the carceral racism that lies at the heart of modern states, transposed in this case to the EU, but also practised on initiative in many cases by local and state security forces.

If they do reach Athens without being pushed back to the islands or to Turkey, they come up against a fresh set of hurdles: being ‘illegal’ on the mainland, by having your asylum case registered on an island, you are unable to access any public services including hospitals (except emergency walk-ins), social pharmacies, housing, or the UNHCR’s cashcard monetary support for asylum seekers. Many end up sleeping in Athens’ parks and abandoned buildings, all the more so since the new government led by Mitsotakis’s right wing ‘New Democracy’ has evicted the squats that were housing refugees and asylum seekers in the city since coming to power last year. The ‘New Democracy’ dream is of a gentrified city hospitable to property developers and hipster tourists with northern European money, that has no place for the shabby anarchist paradise of Exarchia in the very recent past, a place that David Graeber would no doubt have celebrated. Exarchia was held up as an ideal of autonomy and self-governance, where people came together to organise against the police and the state, and preserve community, public space and independence. The neighbourhood was famously a no-go zone for police, and the site of frequent clashes against cops, notably in the protests that followed the police shooting dead a 15-year old boy there in 2008. Since New Democracy came to power, most of the squats in Exarchia have been evicted and the police go into the main square just to show that they can. A couple of guys I was chatting to the other day in the context of a discussion about seeking asylum/getting registered in Athens said they wouldn’t go into Exarchia because they’re scared of getting picked up by the police. What a difference a year makes, in this the most cursed of years.

I’m here with Khora, a group that was founded in 2018 ish, by a collective of people involved with Moria camp in 2016. They then reoriented to Athens, and Khora for a while occupied a building in Exarchia, on Asklipiou. They offered a space for asylum seekers, refugees and anyone else to join together and self-organise, with a social kitchen, an asylum support team for legal information, a creative collective, language classes, and a free shop. They were then evicted from this building in 2019 in the national crackdown on groups seeking to make Greece slightly more hospitable for those making long and difficult journeys into Europe. That huge building remains empty while hundreds of people have no safe shelter in Athens right now. This article gives a good picture of the situation on the mainland as I’ve understood it in my time here. A limited snapshot – I currently have around 15-20 people on my caseload, and around 10 of those are street homeless. Others have gone through a horrible journey from survival sex to safe accommodation often on a wing and a prayer, particulary for the undocumented. Athens with the coming of the cold weather and the ringing of the requests that come through to our whatsapp account: ‘I’m cold, I’m sleeping in the park, please help me…’ the Greece I’m seeing feels a long way from the picture postcard white-roof villages of Mykkonos, or the high-brow ancient pillars of Athens’ tourist-haunts. Although it sometimes feels like you’re pissing into the wind, unable to do any of the small but hugely significant tasks that would help someone’s situation: get them an interview at the asylum office, get them a house, fix the problem with their cashcard, the reason I’m with Khora is that, as I was reminded the other day, for some people, Khora is the first space in Greece they entered and were treated as a human being not a number. Greece’s bureacracy is many ways crumbling and archaic but where it succeeds is in being intensely complicated, requiring at every turn several numbers and documents, being sent to another office, always needing your father’s name for some reason. In the face of this dehumanising bureacratic nightmare, if I can make one person feel less like a nameless piece of paper and more like a real human being then it might be worth it.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_20201003_161942541.jpg
Abandoned building, Kypseli. The kind that many are finding refuge in, in the absence of other options.
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