The world has been recently unsettled by the emergence of the pandemic COVID-19. People all over the globe find themselves facing many changes in their everyday life which are needed to control the spread of the virus. Amid this global health crises, it’s visible how some “humans” matter more than others so I decided to address the low position that migrants hold in the global hierarchy due to a well-constructed and regulated system aimed at the dehumanization of those subjects. In order to do so I will start with an overall characterization of Moria: the biggest European refugee camp, located on the Greek island Lesbos. Afterword I will briefly report the episode of an unwanted British cruise ship and of its passengers eventually rescued from international diplomatic intervention.
The comparison between the refugee camp Moria and the British cruise ship Braemar emphasizes the durable inequality and colonial settled mindset that characterizes European thought which, by now, has been assimilated and accepted by the rest of the world.
Lesbos is one of the many Greek islands facing the Turkish coast that have been literally invaded by migrants in the last twenty years: more than 42,000 men, women and children are now estimated to be on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos. Refugees are unable to leave because of a containment policy determined by the EU, and they are forced to remain on the islands as detainees until their asylum requests are processed by long and complicated burocracy.
Moria, situated on Lesbos, is the biggest refugee camp in Europe with its 20,000 inhabitants living in a space initially designed to host only 3,000 people. One might ask how did the camp become so overcrowded? In two words: “Fortress Europe”. In 2015 the EU commission in Brussels decided to turn refugee camps into “hotspots”, or detention camps. Hence, their “undocumented” inhabitants of which many are unaccompanied minors, became illegal detainees. To make matters worse, the Greek government has recently decided to suspend asylum rights in order to stop the stream of immigrants from the islands to the mainland. Is no surprise that the Greek islands’ population has been growing exponentially since then. Apostolos Veizis, director of the medical operational support unit for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) in Greece referring to the decision to suspend asylum rights, stated that: “the imposition of the restriction of movement on the people of the camps and not for anyone else on the islands is unacceptable and discriminatory (…). You are locking children, women and men into severely overcrowded camps where the sanitation and hygiene conditions are horrific” (Spinney L., 21-03-2020).
Even thou Greece is part of the EU, it has been treated as part of Europe’s borderlands, as a giant prison camp where to block and detain migrants to minimize the risk of “invasion” for the core EU nations. This “Fortress” strategy has had tremendous outcomes for the people on the islands, especially for Moria where there is limited access to running water (toilets and showers regularly block due to overuse), restricted access to electricity, complete absence of a trash collecting system or health care. In addition to this, the living space for the detainees is very limited (an average of 3sqm per person) and the refugees houses consist in shacks built with recycled materials and garbage (Camilli, A., 2017).
In a situation already at the limit, a new factor of fear and crises has recently entered the scenario. The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed at the beginning of March when a Greek woman from the town of Plomari was tested positive. The Greek government showed no interest in intervening to prevent the spread of the disease among the refugees and neither the EU acted in this direction. In the absence of support from the Greek authorities, an increasing sense of urgency about hygiene and health care has grown on Lesbos. Moved by their own initiative, refugees started organizing sewing homemade masks, placing antibacterial soap on olive trees and educating kids about the many precautions to adopt. Nevertheless, the situation seems hopeless and preventing a humanitarian crisis seems unlucky to happen.
The pandemic resulted worldwide in the closure of borders, the discouragement of movement and a general increase of fear and xenophobia which intensified the European Fortress politics. At the beginning of March, the EU has financed Greece with €700m destined to the “upgrade of the shield”. Therefore, the so called “shield”, meaning the Greek border, has been reinforced with new infostructures and highly militarized means placed to block “undocumented” people and defend Europe from the “invasion”.
I would like to emphasise that I do not want to focus on the most recent events concerning the spread of the Corona virus as such, I simply take the occasion to use this global crises to highlight the inequality of the system in which we live in, as a litmus paper that inevitably shows two different behaviours, two different ways of being “human” and two different ways of representing humanness. My aim is to bring on the table a reflection on the inequalities that are consistent part of everyone’s everyday life, but which are easily forgotten in case you stand on the “innocent”, privileged and democratic side which controls, and have controlled for centuries, among many things, knowledge creation. As Gloria Wekker states:
“The claim of innocence, however, is a double-edged sword: it contains not-knowing, but also not wanting to know. Precisely because they tend not to understand the racist world in which they live, white people are able to fully benefit from its racial hierarchies, ontologies and economies” (Wekker G., 2016, pg. 17).
Braemar Cruise Ship
The British cruise ship Braemar with its 682 passengers and 380 crew members was supposed to spend only 14 days in the Caribbean Ocean in the beginning of March, but after the first case of COVID-19 outbroke on board, the cruise has been turned away from several ports in the Caribbean, including the Barbados and the Bahamas. The Braemar had to spend one week anchored off the Bahamas coastline in what has been described as a “limbo”: a stressful situation of paralysis and uncertainty that finally ended with the intervention of Cuba (Marsh, S. & Acosta, N., 2010).
The Cuban government decided to receive the ship and its infected passengers for “humanitarian concerns” and the need for “a shared effort to confront and stop the spread of the pandemic. […] The key thing for us (Cuban Government) is to get guests home as quickly and as safely as possible” (Reynolds E. & Oppmann P., 2020).
The “odyssey” of the Braemar has concluded happily after one week of reclusion on a fully equipped cruise ship, with complementary benefits offered by “MS Cruise”, aimed at entertaining the guests during the inconvenient situation (Reynolds E. & Oppmann P., 2020). Moreover, professional medical care was available on board 24/7. After having docked in Cuba, travellers have been sent home by plane, three to be precise, of which one specifically dedicated to the infected passengers previously under isolation, accompanied by health professionals. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) about this episode stated that “as always, the health and safety of passengers and crew is the highest priority” (Dorethy B. & Philips D., 2020)
At this point, it might be significant to shed light on the provenience of those passengers that moved international diplomacy, Cuban authorities, three planes of the British Airline, all for “humanitarian” concerns. The 682 passengers were mostly British, but also Belgian, Colombian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, New Zealand, Norwegian and Swedish citizens.
Where Does the Philanthropism Go?
“It is important to look at words, because the crisis on human mobility in contemporary Europe is a crisis that takes place primarily on the epistemic level.” (Innocenzi, 2019, pg. 5).
The two cases just presented show unequivocally different ways of approaching “humanitarian” concerns. British travellers are treated as victims to be rescued and many institutions and international newspapers proudly intervene in name of human rights. Where does this philanthropism go when dealing with Lesbos? It’s still there but redirected. Once again whites are depicted as victims in need of protection: instead of defending refugees’ human rights, European white innocents must defend themselves from the threat of “invasion”.
“Refugees”, “asylum seeker”, “economic migrant”, “undocumented migrants” on one side and “citizens”, “legal citizens”, “guests” on the other, are among the many names given to the various categories created to regularize and institutionalize European mobility (Innocenzi, 2019). The obsessive and pervasive way of cataloguing and categorizing humans has worked for Europeans to dehumanize all the non-European population in order to justify exploitation and mass genocides during the colonial period. Yet is this really over?
The lack of sense of responsibility, concern and ethics when imprisoning, shooting or denying basic health aid to someone tagged by the system as “undocumented”, or “illegal”, shows the perpetuating of the colonial system: creating two categories of “human” through norms while keeping undisputed the European point of view. This can only tell us that there is much more behind white innocence than merely economic supremacy, it is in fact a curated andsustained “sociological identity” (Nasar, 2018).
Under the same threat, the epidemic of COVID-19, it appears quite evidently that some lives are worth being rescued while some others are worth being forgotten or even attempted to. This tendency has roots in the colonial period and in the dichotomous system based on dominators and dominated which since than has been produced and reproduced on global scale. Nonetheless there is a price to pay for being part of the “legal” citizens: “Many insist that what Europe needs are tighter controls. Those who take such a view need to be honest about their argument. Instead of hiding behind euphemisms such as “border controls” or “shield”, they should openly say: “I’m happy to accept mass detention, torture and killing as a price worth paying for keeping undocumented migrants out.” For that is the essence of Fortress Europe” (Malik K., 8-03-2020). Could this be a game changer? Indignation and European admission of guilt might change, or challenge, the cards on the table.
Camilli, Annalisa, “Dentro il centro di detenzione di Moria, nell’isola di Lesbo”, internazionale.it, 2 July 2017
Camilli, Annalisa, “La paura del coronavirus nel campo profughi più grande d’Europa”, internazionale.it, 12 March 2020
Camilli, Annalisa,“A Lesbo finisce l’Europa”, internazionale.it, 3 March 2020
Doherty, Ben and Phillips, Dom, “Coronavirus: cruise passengers stranded as countries turn them away. Thousands in limbo around the world as vessels seek a port at which to dock”, theguardian.com, 16 Mar 2020 16.22 GMT
Fallon, Katy, “The Greek refugees battling to prevent Covid-19 with handmade face masks”, theguardian.com, 18 March 2020 11.00 GMT
Giovannetti, Megan, “Violence and Virus on the Greek Islands. The European Union mismanages the refugee crisis and the COVID-19 outbreak”, progressive.org, 12 March 2020
Innocenzi, Nadine (2019) “Necropolitica del Mediterraneo. La costruzione sociale dell’indifferenza collettiva alla frontiera europea.”in Cosmopolis
Malik, Kenan, “Detention, torture and killing … how the EU outsourced migration policy. Only a morally warped ideology can justify opening fire at those fleeing for their lives”, theguardian.com, 8 March 2020 08.00 GMT
Marsh, Sarah and Acosta, Nelson, “Passengers of British coronavirus-hit cruise ship evacuate in Cuba”, reuters.com ,18 March 2020
Nasar, Meer (2018) “Race and post-colonialism. Should one come before the other?” Ethnic and Racial Studies
Pinelli B. (2015) “After the landing: Moral control and surveillance in Italy’s asylum seeker camps” (Respond to this article at. Anthropology Today)
Rankin, Jennifer, “Migration: EU praises Greece as ‘shield’ after Turkey opens border. Bloc leaders announce financial support as UN questions Athens’ suspension of asylum applications”, theguardian.com, 3 March 2020 16.42 GMT
Reynolds, Emma and Oppmann, Patrick, “Coronavirus-hit cruise ship in diplomatic scramble to find somewhere to dock, CNN.com, 16 March 2020
Sigfrid Grønseth, Anne (2013) “Being Human, Being Migrant: Senses of Self and Well- Being”, Berghahn Books, Incorporated, Introduction pg 1-21
Spinney, Laura, “Fears of catastrophe as Greece puts migrant camps into lockdown”, the guardian.com, 21 March 2020
Wekker, Gloria (2016) “White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race”, Duke University Press
About the author
Chiara Sammito is a 26 years old Italian student currently enrolled in the Master course Global Studies and Cultural Encounters at Roskilde University. She obtained her Bachelor degree in Asian Language and Culture from the University of Turin, in Italy. In order to study hindi, Indian culture, religions and Buddhist philosophy, she lived in India for two years. During this period, she collaborated with various local NGOs working with disadvantaged kids, indigenous people and sex workers.