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Is it only a crisis if you see it?

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Alexandra Bousiou | 20 September 2018

Source: author

I have been conducting research on the border islands of Greece since 2015. Throughout this time, I have more than once found myself struggling with writing about what I witnessed. Besides the long, painful process of conceptualizing and theorizing empirical material and the mere fact that these images were awful beyond description, it became clear that the label given to the situation I was observing had very high political stakes. Words become images and they eventually find their way into shaping reality. This piece seeks to give a simple example of this journey as I have observed it on the Greek islands.

In early 2015, before massive media coverage and the arrival of NGOs, people on the ground were already ambivalent regarding the choice of terminology for the crisis. Sometimes they chose a term according to audience, sometimes according to context. “Migration crisis,” “refugee crisis,” “reception crisis,” “European crisis,” and “humanitarian crisis” were the options most often employed. Local Greek politicians, humanitarian workers, and local volunteers were used to using the word “migrant” as an umbrella term and they were not necessarily accustomed to international law terminology. Still, quickly they adopted and started calling the new arrivals “refugees.” They became, “Syrian refugees fleeing war,” especially if they were talking to international researchers. Listening to them talking to each other in Greek, they would switch between the terms. In a way, they conformed instinctively to political correctness. A logic of, “If we talk to Europeans we should show we are using the UNHCR language,” emerged. This, of course, changed with time. In the beginning, it was “refugees,” a year into the situation, they would start by talking about a “refugee crisis” followed by a clarification – it is not only refugees, of course. Some of them are economic migrants. Some would use the phrase, “migration crisis” instead. Some would go even further and discriminate between the “real refugees” and the rest leaving one to wonder, what is the alternative? Not real refugees?

In modern times, words are always accompanied by images. The drama on the shores, as it was depicted by the UNHCR drone videos, showed overcrowded inflatable boats, videos of search and rescue operations, babies crying, women fainting the moment they set foot on land, volunteers trying to pass new arrivals over water, and mountains of lifejackets covering every inch of the beaches, and so on and so forth.

Source: author

This representation of reality by the media, by the reports of UN agencies and NGOs, by the volunteer groups making pleas for funding, promoted an idea of “crisis”. In reality though, up until March 2016, the situation for both the refugees and the local communities was not only a situation of crisis but also a situation that still encompassed hope. The hope of temporariness, the hope that there was a possibility to move through the crisis and towards normality. The average stay of refugees on the islands was between a few days to a few weeks. Talking to refugees, one could easily see the hope of continuing their journey, escaping the territory of crisis, the island of crisis, and the degrading living conditions which accompanied the term “crisis”. Although the amount of people arriving was overwhelming, locals still considered their islands a transit space. They reproduced the “accident of geography” narrative. We are right on the border; people are fleeing war; we are doing the best to accommodate them. Their hope was expressed through initiatives to provide services, to respond to the humanitarian aspects of the crisis, and to participate in the national and European dialogue on what should be done. It consisted of hope that the policy makers at higher levels and civil society organizations would eventually provide a solution to the crisis either through legal passage or a swift transit to the mainland, accompanied by improvement of the reception conditions.

Three years into the “crisis” the media has departed, most NGOs are gone, and, in Northern Europe, we rarely see images of the situation on the border islands. My students asked me a couple of months ago, “Is there still a crisis?” Local Greek society also questions the terminology of crisis. A normalization of the “crisis” is scary. There is a fine line between the accident of geography and the “creative governance”[1] of the geographical restriction that turns the islands into prisons. The idea of temporariness has been disillusioned and the contestation is explosive. The traces of refugees need to remain hidden; the refugees need to stay hidden; tourism needs to return. The main demand of local residents is decongestion of the islands. The main tool of resistance is denying the creation of new camps, or even the expansion of existing ones. A local politician told me, “If we create capacity, more will come. We cannot take more.” Syrians arriving to Lesbos in June 2018 will have their first asylum interview scheduled for 2020. They will endure two years of waiting until their first opportunity to say that they are fleeing war. The hope of moving away from the “crisis” is fading, the conditions are degrading regardless of the vast funding towards humanitarian aid. Many people sleep in tents, on the ground. They have 1.5 liters of drinking water per person per day during the hot Greek summer and the sanitary conditions are abysmal. In Europe, the crisis is, “over.” Refugees do not arrive in the Northern European countries. The crisis at the border islands is hidden, the spectacle at the shores is no more. No one wants to talk about it anymore. People are stranded, hidden from those who used to take notice but still very much there.


DISCLAIMER: This article was written in June 2018. In August BBC, reported on the situation in Moria stating, amongst other information, that even children bellow the age of 9 have attempted suicide. Read more here.


[1] See Baldacchino, G. (2014). Islands and the offshoring possibilities and strategies of contemporary states: insights on/for the migration phenomenon on Europe's southern flank. Island Studies Journal, 9(1).



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