We will stand upright

November 14, 2017

Migrants awaiting reunification with their families in accordance with European Union law have been on hunger strike in Greece and Germany. Ida-Sofie Picard and Will Searby report from Athens, in an article for the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website that was published November 8.

THE HUNGER strike in Syntagma Square in Athens has been ongoing for eight days now. In Lesbos migrants have been on hunger strike for 15 days.

The protest today marched past the Greek parliament toward 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 throughout European countries more generally are a direct consequence of both the 2015 European Union (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.

Refugees on hunger strike in Athens' Syntagma Square
Refugees on hunger strike in Athens' Syntagma Square (Ida-Sophie Picard and Will Searby | rs21.org.uk)

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 and 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 they 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 10 days [to be processed]--they've told us 10 days for eight months."

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

Doomo is Yazidi, and escaped from Sinjar with his wife and three children during the ISIS genocide of the Yazidis. They traveled 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 National Health Service 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 traveled 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 was 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 traumatized 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 4 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 Lesbos, 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."

First published at rs21.org.uk.

Further Reading

From the archives