Refugees walking in a dark Europe

In her article titled “We refugees”,[1] Hannah Arendt writes: “Well it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having a radical opinion”. She adds: “Even among ourselves we don’t speak of this past. Instead, we have found our own way of mastering an uncertain future. Since everybody plans and wishes and hopes, so do we”.  She concludes: “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples”. What she reveals is the conscience of the refugee throughout history.

In his study on Hannah Arendt’s article, Giorgio Agamben proposes the refugee’s condition as “the paradigm of a new historical consciousness”[2]. This is because the refugee “unhinges the old trinity of state-nation-territory”.

He proposes a different idea of Europe sparked by the refugee: “not as an impossible ‘Europe of the nations’, whose catastrophe one can already foresee in the short run”. We could see Europe “as an aterritorial or extraterritorial space in which all the (citizen and noncitizen) residents of the European states would be in a position of exodus or refuge”. This prophetic text, which contrasts what is currently happening in Europe, concludes: “Only in a world in which the spaces of states have been thus perforated and topologically deformed, and in which the citizen has been able to recognize the refugee that he or she is – only in such a world is the political survival of humankind today thinkable”.

Today, refugees are facing a Europe with fenced territories, segregation and exclusion. Their bodies become vulnerable, outcasted bodies. They drown at sea; they form endless masses of people at the borders that wait and often face violence. This violence they face is often related to their gender and gender expression.[3]

As they cross borders they have the power to subvert dominant narratives. What happens is that vulnerability gets a voice. Places are being transformed. Circumstances change radically as loss, death and confinement seem to become routine. This is where solidarity comes into play. The landscape is transformed by means of new emergency topographies, created on the islands, at the borders, in cities. Spaces of survival and solidarity structures are created on the islands, such as makeshift lodgings on the beaches, while abandoned spaces are reoccupied, such as in the case of the former summer camp facilities PIKPA on Lesvos, etc.

One self-organized space in Athens that accommodates refugees has been formed in the refugee housing complex on Alexandras Avenue. The complex had been constructed to house refugees from Asia Minor in 1922. There is a  children’s playground there as well.

Various groups in the city continue to occupy scattered buildings to accommodate refugees, such as the building on Notara street, the Ghinis building, the 5th Lyceum of Athens , City Plaza and others. Alternative structures of education and everyday life are created, in spaces such as Steki Metanaston (meaning “immigrant hangout spot’) and through artistic practices.

Public spaces, such as squares and ports, are being transformed as refugees settle in squares, such as Victoria square and Piraeus port.

Even as travel has been prohibited, hospitality and solidarity prevail. Many people set their everyday lives aside in order to express their solidarity and offer the little they have. This is a new condition and is associated with the stories of Greek refugees (1922) and immigrants to the USA and northern Europe (1960).

NGOs promote compassion as a strange virtue, associating it with charity and philanthropy. They want to take care of the foreign newcomers and get in touch with them, leaving the citizens and the state behind, often profiting financially from the situation and making refugees even more foreign and vulnerable.

Political changes take place at a rapid rate and the decisions are catastrophic, as Europe, by means of a gloomy agreement with Turkey, which the Greek government has signed, which decides to close the Balkan passageway, to limit flows and detain refugees in the new camps that are the detention centers, “hot spots” built around the country. Limited flows means that the refugees will not be able to move and will deported to Turkey, which is considered a safe third country. The borders with Turkey will be guarded by Frontex and NATO. The Geneva Conventions and the refugees’ right to move are abolished.


The foreigner with no identity is thus formed, a stateless person that is trapped and confined. The journey becomes dystopic. A situation of non-belonging is formed that excludes, by means of the exertion of power, which depends on borders and camps and, consequently, on confinement. In these spaces, the refugees lose any legal status and become exiles in spaces of confinement. Another one of Hannah Arendt’s articles comes to mind, in which she desribes the stateless person’s condition through the refugee’s image, in which  power is related to borders and prison, camps and confinement. She speaks of “the concentration camps, those laboratories in the experiment of total domination” where people “are more effectively cut off from the world of the living than if they had died”.[4]

The refugees’ otherness is placed somewhere else and thus remains unexplored. It is placed at the edge, in a waiting zone, it is exiled. Those places are non-places, where the individual is considered foreign and will remain isolated in a state of exclusion in an atopia and in confinement.

According to one European official, the Greek islands will become a new kind of Ellis Island. It is decided that hospitable places that have been the result of collaborative work, such as PIKPA Lesvos, have to disappear.[5]

There has been large reaction against the implementation of the detention center policy. Refugees can live in the cities, in housing developments, with us, in our neighborhoods, where solidarity communities are formed, where resistance exists against the production of misery of the stateless people.

Refugees remain in Idomeni. They are there, determined to cross the borders. They devise new routes through the river and are driven back, hurt by the violence they have been subjected to. They do not live. They stay with their bodies exposed and confident. Their bodies are all they have left. They attempt to set themselves on fire, they form human chains, they occupy the railway lines, they sit in, holding flowers in their hands (1-3-2016), they proceed to hunger strikes, they stay there, they are not convinced to move, they appropriate the space of the railway line,[6] transforming it into a place of free gathering. Their nomadic[7] consciousness arises, as does their awareness of the borders variability.

Other refugees remain in the port of Piraeus. Some of them have returned from Ellinikon, others from Korinth. They are to leave for Idomeni. There are currently 3000 refugees held as prisoners in the detention center in Moria (Lesvos), behind barbed wire. Violence seems to be absolute as people are trapped in Greece.

500 people will be deported to Turkey on Monday (April 4th). The hotspot of Chios was abandoned massively by refugees. Nobody knows what the future will bring. Will refugees return to Turkey? Will they stay here, sinking in silence? Will they find ways to cross paths illegally and reach Northern Europe? People are talking about routes that lead from Western Greece to Italy.

The only imponderable factors that the nation-states and their mechanisms never managed to restrain are people’s needs and desires. These will continue to emerge from the breaches, the gaps, the new territories, the crowded port, the marshes and the railway line in Idomeni.


Eleni Tzirtzilaki


[1] Arendt Hannah (1943) We refugees, the Μemorah Journal, vol. 31, no. 1

[2] Agamben  Giorgio (1996) Mezzi senza fine: Note sulla politica, Torino, Bollati, Boringhieri

[3] (2016) According to the Greek Transgender Support Association (ΣΥΔ), ever since the beginning of the refugee crisis, more and more cases of refugees leaving their country of origin  due to persecutions, threats against their life or freedom and violence caused by their sexual orientation, identity or expression of gender are being noticed.

[4]  Arendt Hannah (1951) The Origins of Totalitarianism

[5] PIKPA (2016-22-3) PressNews release 

[6]  Butler Judith, Spivac Gavatri Chacravorty, (Seagull, 2007) Who sings the Nation-State?, We need more complex ways of understanding the multivalence and tactics of power to understand forms of resistance, agency and counter-mobilization (p. 42).

[7] Tzirtzilaki Eleni (2008), The displaced, Urban nomads in metropoleis, nissos