A narrative from the dirty doorsteps of ‘Fortress Europe’

Speech given at ‘Vi har Plads’/’We have Space’ – a solidarity manifestation for the refugees of the world with a particular focus on the situation in Syria.

By Michelle Schulze from Asylret • September 2015

Today I will give a talk on a particular experience of ‘fortress Europe’ that I recently had. When I describe Europe as a fortress, I refer to a regime with an inside and an outside; something which my experience of being on Lesbos – as a place in between – brought into sharp relief. As an ‘insider’ going to this in-between place, these are some of the insights that I gained, and questions I am left with:

Lesbos has become the first arrival point to Europe for thousands of migrants. Or should I say refugees? I don’t know any longer. All of these people are fleeing from their homes because, at home, there is only dread, violence, trauma, war, poverty, conflict and misery.

Before coming to Lesbos, I thought that maybe it was possible to imagine the pain and suffering these people have been going through – but you can’t. And it is equally hard to understand or imagine the additional terror they are subjected to the moment they reach fortress Europe. On Lesbos the normal distinction people make between refugees, immigrants, ‘illegal’, ‘irregular’ or ‘economic’ migrants became the most ridiculous thing. All these terms could be seen for what they are: dangerous misconceptions. Classifying, and relating to, the traumatized and dispossessed in this way would not allow me to assist them in the moment where support and assistance was needed. These conceptual categories are all imagined – and they tell us nothing about people’s circumstances or their path to, what is meant to be, a place of refuge. When people are fleeing horror, there is no distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ migrant. Whether we are were educated or not, whether we had money or not, whether we were fleeing starvation or persecution, we would be equally desperate and want to regain our dignity as human beings.

What matters is that we are all equally human. Yet, still, populations and particular human beings are expelled from what is meant to be understood as humanity. This is particularly the case on Lesbos, it is an ‘outside’ space of Europe – the dirty doorstep. What matters is that we all have humanity and the equal rights that come with this – to live a life free from pain, suffering and suppression. Today, fortress Europe kills people with its words. On its doorstep, it expels and condemns people: a limitless death, even for the living.

Everyday between 700 and 1300 people arrive on the island after crossing the dangerous ocean and the violent brutality of Turkish authorities. There is a lack of response and support from the EU. Despite the fact that fortress Europe has vast resources at its disposal, the structures imposed on Lesbos have created an entire economy based on exploitation and subjection. Not having enough buses, amongst other things, meant I was forced to decide whose needs were worth more than others. It made me feel complicit in fortress Europe’s cruel and cold-hearted selection of the worth of human lives. The people who arrived on Lesbos could not have realized that getting across the indiscriminate deathly ocean was not the darkest moment on their journey away from terror. They had crossed the ocean in all manner of vessels, boats that were not seaworthy and inflatable dinghies. Many feared for their own lives as they made their short ocean journey, some had witnessed the death of the ones they loved; they were torn apart by tears and sorrow. The boat has become the symbol of a particularly endangered and suppressed human existence; people who are forcibly displaced from their homes. The boat is the carrier, the mediator, of a long history of migration. And also, right now, the boat has become one of the biggest taboos of contemporary European society and political space. In that space, people don’t want to talk about the boats, the life and the history they carry along.

One day I met an Afghan boy on the coastline, he was looking towards Turkey – he wanted to go back. He had just been to a Greek village 2 km from the coast – he had tried to get on the bus to a place where he could be ‘processed’. After seeing and experiencing all that he had on his journey to this place, he found that that there was no bus for him. So, he just felt like going back. What kind of Europe drives a child away? What kind of world is it that we live in?

The chaos on Lesbos is even more disordered because the different groups operating do not really talk to each other about how to organize things better. Everything is fractured. The NGOs are not there, the UNHCR claims to be there but is not. The absence of professional aid struck me. The MSF, the IRC and Islamic Relief are there. But rather than collaborating, the organizations and different groups appear to be caught up in a game of power that prevents anyone from having an overview or usefully organizing the situation. The volunteers, generally not the professionals, are those with ‘hands on’ the humanitarian crisis – yet many lack even the basic skills required to deal with traumatized people in a sensible way. Where is the response from the politicians, where is the responsibility and the large-scale plan for action that is urgently needed on the island?

After arriving on the shores of Lesbos, people are largely abandoned. Without Greek official documents, migrants are excluded and expelled from public transport facilities. Sometimes special buses come, other times they don’t. Just on the island, people must walk long and inhumane distances, from 5 to 70 km. One day, I met a Syrian father, he was looking for help and explained that his wife was walking further down the road, 9 months pregnant. I went with him to find her; she had walked 23 km in the mountains and was having contractions. We went with her to the nearest health centre to find an ambulance. We drove from there to the hospital in the main city, Mitilini (where people must also go to get their documents in order to leave with the ferry for Athens). She gave birth the moment we reached the hospital. The day after, I went to see her at the hospital. On getting there, a nurse informed me that she had tried to run off twice during the night. It was shocking. Yet, what would you do? If you had just given birth to a tiny human being, knowing that you had no money, no documents, no milk in your breasts, and that you had to flee through the Balkans, cross several borders, barbed wire fences, teargas, ruthless police violence and fascist journalists kicking you and your child into the ground, what would you do? You would think about how to protect your child. The mother loved her newly born child but she knew how fucked up her situation was. She felt terror and horror knocking. She feared death.

It is close to unimaginable to understand the extent to which this family and thousands of others are left to themselves by the cruelty of European states and their sovereign hold over migrants’ lives. This terror is a suspension of all that is normal and yet it has become normal. So whilst the Danish immigration minister Støjberg is sitting in her private jet on the way to an EU summit to discuss how to ‘distribute’ a ridiculously small number of 40,000 or 120,000 persons, many hundreds of thousands more are worse than ignored: they are made completely powerless. And this is not to forget the millions of people abandoned in the camps of the Middle East; those who are too impoverished or weak to make the perilous journey that should be towards refuge, those that are left bereft of even that hope.

While the political elites of Europe find it scarily and uncannily easy to reject, expel, discriminate and undermine, one tries to hold the line on Lesbos. So that a woman does not give birth on the street; so that a child with down syndrome and a weak heart does not have to walk for 65 km in unbearable heat. One uses one’s severely limited power to hold back the extreme callousness of European xenophobia. Everything one does on the island is, and feels like, a drop in the ocean. ‘Inshallah’, is all you can say. This makes you feel powerless and helpless. The hardest thing is that you know what people will have to go through after they leave Greece and that, compared to this, Lesbos is just ‘baby food’. So whilst the political elite attend EU summits in grand hotels, you see that even those who manage to hold onto their lives are losing hope and humanity – being existentially killed. And all this is being done by EU leaders via remote control. This is only possible in a world of parallel universes where a person can be lying (asleep, unconscious or dead) on a street, while white European tourists walk over her in a blind haze, oblivious to everything – other than the next cocktail.

What kind of world is it that we live in, where the only channel for hope is a prayer that no one hears?