‘But we will stand upright’ – report from the migrant hunger strike in Athens’ Syntagma square.

Migrants awaiting reunification with their families in accordance with EU law have been on hunger strike in Greece and Germany for several days. Ida-Sofie Picard and Will Searby report from Athens.

(Photo: Ida-Sophie Picard and Will Searby)

The hunger strike in Syntagma square has been ongoing for eight days now. In Lesvos migrants have been on hunger strike for 15 days.

The protest today marched past the Greek parliament towards the German embassy, but was blockaded before it arrived by lines of riot police. Hunger strikers were forcibly prevented from accessing the embassy to submit queries about their status. Against explicit legal provision for the six-month reunion of families, these migrants are being held in deplorable conditions in Greece; separated from their children, parents, partners and other family members.

The increasingly desperate conditions for refugees and migrants in Greece, and across European countries more generally, are a direct consequence of both the 2015 EU-Turkey deal, which involved Turkey committing to frustrating the movement of migrants into Europe, and the more recent deal struck between Germany and Greece in order to slow migration into northern Europe.

The Greece-Germany deals in particular offer a useful insight into the politics of migration in the European bloc. A `cap’ on the transfer of migrants from Greece into Germany has been in effect for some time already. This is disputed by both governments, but the rate of transfers clearly confirm its existence. This summer deals were signed for the return of migrants from Germany to Greece; these deals were largely non-negotiable, as their success was an implied condition of further bailout funds to Greece from the European Central Bank. In other words, European capital and fiscal unity is used to enforce the draconian border regime, even where this is in direct contravention of European law. This goes some way to showing the inextricability of the politics of European migration and border control from the politics of debt-management which is central to the European customs union.

For those on hunger strike in Syntagma Square, these deals mean that despite having the right papers to be allowed into Germany, they are trapped; held indefinitely for weeks, months and even years. The desperation and anger was tangible as the hunger strikers, their family members – including many young children – and about 100 people attending in solidarity, gathered to march on the embassy earlier today.

We were able to speak to three of the seven men on hunger strike; they are accompanied by seven women, who were unfortunately unavailable for comment.

Mohammed is from Qoms, on the Syrian Turkish border. He now lives in Piraeus in a caravan under a motorway bridge with his wife and one of his two sons. They left the overcrowded camp a few months ago. He hasn’t seen his second son, a 15-year-old now living in Germany, for eight months.

He told us: “We go to the office in Greece and the refer us to the other office. We ask the asylum office; they say ask ‘the manager’. No-one knows who ‘the manager’ is. They told us ten days [to be processed], they’ve told us ten days for eight months.”

Mohammed’s example proves just how arbitrary the distinctions between the migrants of fortress Europe can be. Whilst European law entitles him to transfer and asylum in Germany, the endless bureaucracy is forcing him to consider becoming one of the thousands of travellers who make their way across Europe in cramped busses and cars with illegal smugglers.

Doomo is Yazidi, and escaped from Sinjar with his wife and three children during the Da’esh genocide of the Yazidis. They travelled to Turkey and from there Doomo’s family went on to Germany as refugees, while Doomo stayed behind in Istanbul. Before he could follow his family, Germany re-established its border controls in August 2015, and Doomo has been trapped in a refugee camp in Greece ever since. Nine months ago, he received word that his wife had passed away. At that point he had not seen her, or his children, for over a year. Three months later he received his approval for family reunification.

“Everyone here left everything behind; their families, their dignity”, Doomo told us. “We came with one wish – for peace and security. That is the basic human right we asking for. Everything I had is gone, my home, my land. I am stuck in a camp with nothing, in limbo”.

In Hungary the border is a barbed wire fence; in Calais it’s the channel and across southern Europe the Mediterranean claims thousands every year, but a ubiquitous aspect of the migrant crisis, from immigration checks in the NHS to these constant deferrals, is the mindless, unceasing and soul-destroying pettiness of bureaucracy.

Jamaal, also from the Syrian-Turkish border, took his residency in Athens in February 2016, but he travelled into Europe months before. His wife went with four of his daughters and three of his sons to Munich, while he waited behind with another of his sons. As with Doomo, the German government’s sudden closure of the border separated his family, and he has not seen those that reached Germany for two years.

Some of the only contact he has had has been in the form of Doctor’s notes. The first was a letter informing him that his 13-year-old daughter was dying of cancer. The next, an appeal from his daughter’s doctor to the Greek government, asking them to let him travel to see her before she passed away. Now, Jamaal gets notes from his remaining children’s psychiatrist, all of them are traumatised by the death of their sister.

Jamaal told us “This is sinful. My daughter died not far from here [in Germany] and they wouldn’t even let me bury her. The last words I heard on the phone from my daughter was her telling me ‘I am sick; I am tired'”

One of Jamaal’s daughter is only four years old. She doesn’t know her father.

These personal statements are deeply moving, but they also testify to a political struggle. The strikers themselves are acutely aware of this. In a press conference last week they declared solidarity with the hunger strikers on Lesvos, who are demanding their right to leave the island, and announced: ‘We struggle here for everybody’s right to be with his or her family’. Fidan, a Syrian mother participating in the hunger strike declared: “We are standing together against the European policies of deterrence […] none of us will give up.”

For those of us more removed from the immediate effects of European border policing this struggle offers urgent lessons on the need to dissociate the politics of freedom of movement and migrant solidarity from the legal architecture of the European Union. The relegation of Greece to a peripheral debt-colony by European economic power is a necessary condition both of European fiscal union and of European migration policy. By comparison, the limited provisions of EU law for migrant justice are not only routinely flouted, but also serve as a smokescreen for the brute violence of the European project.

But the politics of the hunger strike is best expressed in the statement put out on behalf of refugees from “different camps and places in Greece”:

We want to shout out against the cruel migration policy of deterrence that Europe imposes on us and our families; a system that is aimed to unnerve us and make us give up. But we will stand upright.

The full statement can be read here: http://hungerstrike.commonstruggle.eu/reunite-us-families-now/

For further information: http://rsaegean.org/fighting-to-reach-loved-ones-refugees-one-week-of-hunger-strike-in-athens-over-delays-in-reunifying-with-their-families/

There is one comment

  1. chris jones

    Thank you for this. It is accurate and revealing. Good to hear refugee voices. Many quickly grasp the politics involved. Indeed as we see on Samos such understandings are critical to their survival as it stops them from turning all their anger inwards with disastrous consequences for their well being.
    The ongoing development of the frontier islands into prison islands for the arriving refugees is also a direct consequence of the EU/Turkey pact of March 2016 as well as the German /Greek agreement on returns. (Hardly an agreement. It was imposed on an enfeebled subordinated Greek government.) It is now very difficult for the refugees to escape Samos (to Athens). Many here want to return to the previous arrangements prior to March 2016 which saw the frontier islands being mainly transit points with the refugees being moved on to Athens within a few days. But the islands have no support at all; instead both the EU and the puppet government in Athens are demanding that refugees (unless especially vulnerable) are held on the islands until a decision is made about whether to let them pass or to deport. That they are held in appalling conditions and are subjected to the torture of endless delays and no information as to their applications are all part of the deterrence policy identified by the current hunger strikers. It is made abundantly clear that the message from the frontier islands has to be DON’T COME as if the refugees had much choice in the matter.
    Many of the refugees in Athens have come from these islands and spent months there yearning for the day when they can leave for Athens and then move on to where they hope to settle. But as the article points out, their arrival in Athens does not mark the end of the torture they endured on the islands. It is all so cruel.

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