Following the historic summer of 2015, when nearly 1 million people transited through Greece and overcame multiple border barriers within Europe, Lesbos was rapidly reconfigured as one of the main epicenters of a renewed violent phase of mobility control and militarization through the implementation of the “hotspot approach”.
Introduced by the European Agenda on Migration as an emergency response, organizations such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Europol were deployed at the European Union’s external borders in order to assist, monitor and assist frontline states such as Greece to register and fingerprint migrants. A historical step toward the Europeanization of border regulations in the Aegean Islands, this hotspot approach has contributed to the proliferation of buffer spaces such as Lesbos, the reconfiguration of the recently destroyed Moria camp as a violent EU hotspot on October 2015 and the subsequent entry into force of the EU–Turkey deal of March 2016. This deal, through the then new Greek asylum law 4375/2016, allowed for the detention, illegalization and deportation of migrants on the basis of nationality, thus denying them any chance for international protection in Europe.
This post is based on research conducted during a three-month period between September and December 2016 in Lesbos, where I participated in ethnography-volunteering with a small humanitarian organization in the Kara Tepe refugee camp, 5 kilometers from the former Moria camp. However, in seeking to determine why migrant populations of certain nationalities were living in Moria under conditions of prolonged detention, riots and frequent deaths, receiving no humanitarian aid and without access to the asylum process in Lesbos, I left the camp at Kara Tepe in order to meet with them in the streets, public squares and ports of Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, and later in the depths of the Moria camp.
Asylum, migrant detention and the power of deportability in Lesbos
In October 2016, during one of several demonstrations in Mytilene against the EU’s border policies, I met Jack, a young Algerian asylum seeker living in Moria. Jack, along with hundreds of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Algerian and Cameroonian migrants, have been fishing, protesting and surviving in Moria camp because they belong to nationalities with an asylum recognition rate that is less than 25% of the EU average as calculated by the EUROSTAT database; thus, their cases are considered a priority and are not assessed for long periods by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO. As part of the EU–Turkey deal, Greece had to enact a new asylum law, 4375/2016, which includes key elements of European regulations (Hänsel and Kasparek, 2020). The Europeanization of the new asylum law became one of the most effective mechanisms of the EU border regime in recent years in the Mediterranean in that it created an exclusionary procedure in terms of nationality and racial discriminations under international law, as well as deepening Greece’s role as post-colony of the central economies of the EU. As a consequence, the Greek asylum process was separated into two parts: one for the mainland, and another exclusively for the Aegean Islands called a “fast-track border procedure”, reconfiguring Lesbos as a novel border laboratory with the aim of illegalizing and indefinitely immobilizing migrant populations under the threat of deportation.
I contend, therefore, that the restrictive and violent fast-track border procedure was based above all on the channeling of asylum seekers into different but similarly exclusive procedural routes based on asylum recognition rates (above and below 25%) measured by nationality and calculated based on EUROSTAT statistics. At the end of 2016, migrants from nationalities with high acceptance rates (above 25%) and potential refugees such as Syrians were subjected to the controversial admissibility interview—a filtering system prior to the asylum examination aimed at preventing people with a high probability of protection according to the Geneva Refugee Convention from applying for asylum in Greece on the grounds that Turkey is considered a safe third country for asylum seekers, as established by the EU–Turkey deal.
Migrants of nationalities with low recognition rates (below 25%), however, were entered directly into the Greek asylum examination process. While this pathway was supposed to be fast due to their “expected rejection” (Hänsel and Kasparek, 2020) by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO, the detention experiences of Jack and dozens of others I met demonstrate how border procedures turned out to be even more violent, slow, opaque and confusing for these “economic migrants” than for potential refugees.
After entering Moria from Turkey in summer 2016, Jack was arrested on the beach by the Hellenic Coast Guard and placed in detention in the so-called pre-removal center, a high-security detention area within Moria with a capacity of up to 420 people. As an Algerian belonging to one of the nationalities of “bad Arabs”, as Jack described it, he was subjected to the racist “Pilot Project” of the Greek Police: a detention procedure launched after summer 2016 and exclusively targeting single men coming from certain “low profile” countries considered to constitute a danger to European security and the international public order, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While the ultimate goal of the program was the deportation of these economic migrants, the vast majority of people like Jack were released and left to fend for themselves in the Moria camp after three months of isolation, uncertainty and violence under arbitrary and illegal detention by the Greek state and the EU agencies (Saranti, 2019).
Although Syrian refugees, whose suffering and the conflicts they are fleeing at home have received international media coverage, are more likely to obtain international protection in Greece, migrants of nationalities with both high and low asylum recognition rates were placed in a position of deportability (De Genova, 2002) and legal uncertainty as soon as they arrived in Moria. Therefore, I assert that the fast-track border procedure under the new asylum law 4375/2016 is subjecting virtually all asylum seekers on Lesbos to processes of illegalization, immobility and the possibility of deportation based on nationality, with the aim to make them voluntarily renounce their right to asylum. This procedure is an attempt to establish a legally institutionalized process of refoulement, so that the power to deport or impose that possibility is the cornerstone of this procedure, which generates feelings of anxiety, worry, suffering and anger among migrants.
Black holes, racism and anti-Black policing in the ruins of empire
At the end of November 2016, I entered Moria with Hiroshima, a Congolese friend of Jack who led me inside the camp through a small hole in the fence, allowing me to carry out a quick transgressive ethnography. Inside the African area, as some of the residents called it, Hiroshima introduced me to his fellow migrants from Cameroon, Congo, Senegal and Mali. Having been politically persecuted and completely ignored by the Greek state and the EU for more than eight months at the time we met, they lamented above all being racialized by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO because they were Black and seemingly not deserving of international protection as they were considered only “economic migrants”.
Visiting the African area under the guidance of Hiroshima and his friends helped me see how Moria, a militarized and prison-like camp, operated under a similarly concentrated organizational system instituted by the Greek state and the EU, and within the humanitarian framework. Inspired by Suárez (2015), I conceived of the African area as a black hole of Moria. What is a black hole? I propose that it can be understood as a fragmented border space (Hänsel, 2020) where displaced Black bodies from the former European colonies in Africa are racialized and dehumanized through practices such as policing, isolation and abandonment. These practices converge under the opaque, changing and illegible legal framework of the Greek asylum procedure, creating “grey zones” (Knudsen and Frederiksen, 2015) where the lines between legal and illegal are blurred so that many rights are restricted, physical violence is inflicted and humanitarian aid is abandoned, resulting in the exposure to social (Cacho, 2012) and physical death of those who enter into its gravitational field.
The black holes are those ruins of empire (Stoler, 2013) located in the limits of the Global North that could not be externalized outside the borders of Europe, so they are framed in a historical continuity of spatial re-actualization of specific violence against racialized bodies such as those of Blacks (Mbembe, 2003). Therefore, I believe that they are not exceptional and novel spaces in the context of the global securitization of borders, but rather constantly renewed practices that derive from the colonial system of white supremacy originating in the enslavement of non-Western societies.
In this vein, Wilderson (2003) asserts that the seizure and control of the Black body during slavery was achieved through gratuitous, non-contingent and instrumental violence in a foundational scenario of modernity. This powerful argument dismantles the humanist conception of Western violence as a contingent and defensive resource to locate it rather as an offensive and punitive methodology that has placed the Black body outside the category of the human since the very beginning of modernity, as proposed by Saucier and Woods (2014). Drawing on these authors, I therefore consider that asylum seekers such as Hiroshima and his fellow migrants were not violently abandoned and illegalized simply for having arrived irregularly in Europe in the wake of the EU–Turkey deal. Rather, their Black bodies, daring to be/being outside of Africa at the gates of the former empire, exposed them to the racist and gratuitous. Thus, black holes are specifically governed primarily by the motivation and duty of the “culture of anti-Black policing established by slavery” as codified through the fast-track border procedure, thus legalizing spatial confinement and humanitarian abandonment for the perpetuation of dehumanization (Ibid.:62).
While Jack was intensely illegalized, placed in the deportability zone (De Genova, 2002) by the Greek state and FRONTEX in the pre-removal center and forced to voluntarily renounce his right to asylum after being racialized as a “bad Arab” of an undesirable nationality, Hiroshima and his peers were situated under the specter of deportability because their bodies were illegalized and racialized centuries ago. They were rendered neglected, abandoned and dehumanized as a product of the most primordial racism based on biological classifications in the most hidden layers of Moria, until they were finally allowed to begin their asylum process as an effect of the recurring riots, fires and anti-racist demonstrations.
Jack and Hiroshima and his fellow migrants were differently illegalized and racialized but similarly subjected to degrading forms of violence without being allowed to apply for international protection. Their experiences reveal how the Greek asylum process, under the effects of the EU–Turkey statement, is based on a complex racialized and white supremacist structure that conceives, reproduces and perpetuates a clear and historical hierarchy of different types of humans based on both phenotypical and cultural differences, thus structuring them as threatening, dangerous or simply inferior and expendable.
Beyond the racial hierarchies based on both biological and cultural classifications for the selection of a reduced percentage of those deserving protection, I end by stating that, ultimately, all the migrants at Moria have been subjected to a process of indefinite immobility in Lesbos that prevents them from pursuing their life projects. Hence, the detention and deportability of Jack, and the abandonment and dehumanization of Congolese migrants such as Hiroshima, reflect the differentiated effects of racism, with anti-Black policing (Saucier and Woods, 2014) being the most visceral form of violence inflicted by the Greek state and the EU.
Cacho, Lisa Marie (2012) Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, New York University Press.
De Genova, Nicholas (2002) “Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31, pp. 419–447.
Hänsel, Valeria (2020) “Returns Without Warranty: The Grey Zone of “Voluntary Return” in the Framework of the EU–Turkey Deal,” Les Cahiers de Tunisie 226–227, pp. 21–29.
Hänsel, Valeria and Kasparek, Bernd (2020) Hotspot-Lager als Blaupause für die Reform des Gemeinsamen Europäischen Asylsystems? Politikfolgenabschätzung des Hotspot-Ansatzes in Griechenland, Rat für Migration.
Knudsen, Ida and Frederiksen, Martin (2015) Ethnographies of Grey Zones in Eastern Europe: Relations, Borders and Invisibilities, Anthem Press.
Mbembe, Achile (2003) “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15 (1), pp. 11–40.
Saranti, Elli (2019) Locked Up Without Rights: Nationality-Based Detention in the Moria Refugee Camp, HIAS Greece, Mytilene.
Saucier, Paul and Woods, Tryon (2014) “Ex Aqua: The Mediterranean Basin, Africans on the Move, and the Politics of Policing,” Theoria 61 (141), pp. 55–75.
Stoler, Ann Laura (Ed.) (2013) Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, Duke University Press.
Suárez, Liliana (2015) “Migration and Refuge in the Mediterranean, Beyond Borders,” Dialectología y tradiciones Populares, 70 (2), pp. 265–276.
Wilderson, Frank (2003) “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whiter the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9 (2), pp. 225–240.
 A European Agenda on Migration, European Commission (2015), https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52015DC0240 (Accessed 21 February 2021).
 European Council, EU–Turkey statement, 18 March 2016, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18/eu-turkey-statement/ (Accessed 23 February 2021).
 The names used in this article are pseudonyms chosen by the migrants themselves. Their real names do not appear here to protect their identities.