Notes from the margins | A new kind of barbarism: the ‘non-people’ of Patras
New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Wednesday, June 6, 2012 0:00 - 3 Comments
By Matt Carr
Protest in Athens against Greece’s decision to build a fence along a section of its border with Turkey, April 2011 (Photo AP Photo)
I have just read a copy of the so-far unpublished report* by the German NGO Pro-Asyl and the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) on police brutality towards undocumented migrants in the port-city of Patras in Greece. It makes grim and often sickening reading. Patras is one of the main exit points in Greece for migrants and asylum seekers trying to make their way to other European countries.
Every year hundreds of people from Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea and other Third World countries pass through the city, where they live in squats, makeshift shelters and fields while they try to get onto a truck or ferry to Italy.
As an outlying ‘border country’ between the European Union, Asia and the Middle East, Greece has been a major entry point for migrants and asylum seekers for some years now. But the country rarely grants refugee protection, and the debt crisis has reduced the limited opportunities that were once available for undocumented migrant workers looking for low-paid off-the-book work.
As a result, tens of thousands of migrants are effectively trapped with no means of survival in a country that doesn’t want them, and which they are desperate to leave. As a signatory to the Dublin II regulation which stipulates that asylum claims can only be made in a single country – in practice, their country of arrival – Greece is also charged with preventing migrants and refused asylum claimants from continuing their migratory journey into Europe.
In Patras, responsibility for preventing these journeys is shared between the Greek police, private security companies, port authority officers and the special Hellenic Coastguard units that migrants call ‘commandos’.
The Pro-Asyl/GCR team has collated numerous testimonies on the routine brutality and cruelty shown by all these agencies towards the city’s migrants. Such treatment includes severe physical beatings, in which migrants have been knocked unconscious or had arms and legs broken.
Migrants have been hit by police officers on motorbikes, shocked with tasers, bitten by police dogs, forced into stress positions with their legs outstretched, thrown into the sea and kept for hours in freezing wet clothes, or forced to lie on the ground while police officers grind their boots on their head and hands.
Migrants have also been subjected to a range of humiliating and degrading punishments. Some interviewees describe how police and ‘commandos’ forced them to assume ‘shameful’ positions which they then photographed with their mobile phones. In some cases migrants have been forced onto all fours, so that police can ride them ‘like a horse’.
These episodes are invariably accompanied by racist verbal abuse and insults, directed at the migrants’ country, skin colour, family or religion.
Such behaviour is not the work of a few out of control racist police officers, but forms part of a policy of deterrence aimed at driving migrants out of Patras and dissuading others from following their example. This is why police confiscate the mobile phones of migrants, raid their squats, destroy their belongings and even take away their shoes, regardless of the fact that most migrants have no money even to buy food and often survive by hunting through rubbish bins.
The Greek authorities may not want this to happen, but neither the Greek government nor the EU have done anything to stop it. In Greece, as in other European countries, the escalation in these ‘deterrent’ tactics has been exacerbated by the economic crisis, which has fuelled the determination of governments across the continent to crack down on undocumented migration.
In Greece, migrants and asylum seekers are frequently vilified by politicians and the media as parasitical intruders and a threat to Greek national identity, and provide convenient scapegoats for a crisis they did not cause.
But the brutality of the Patras police is also symptomatic of a more general tendency amongst democratic states that precedes the immediate crisis, in which certain groups of people are designated as legitimate objects of violence and/or subject to vague and shifting legal parameters that remove such violence from external security and accountability.
The stress positions and ritualised humiliations used by the Patras police recall the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram as well as other detention sites in the ‘war on terror’. The gratuitous use of tasers and electroshock weapons as ad hoc instruments of punishment has become increasingly common in many countries, including the UK.
Police forces in Europe, in the United States and Canada have all shown a new willingness to use violence as a first-choice default response even to peaceful forms of political protest in recent years, and some are tooling themselves up for even harsher responses in the future.
In the United States and Europe, deported ‘illegal immigrants’ are routinely shackled and shunted across borders by private security companies and state officials like prisoners of war, and some have been killed during these journeys.
In Australia, refugees and asylum seekers have been detained, in some cases for years, in some of the worst immigrant detention centres in the world, which have driven them to riot or in some cases to commit suicide.
In countries across the world, there is now a continuum of violence that spans militarised law enforcement, the policing of protest, immigration control and the battlefields of the ‘war on terror’, which is steadily eroding notions of human rights and democratic accountability that took so many years to acquire.
The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has written powerfully and suggestively of the drift towards ‘states of exception’ by modern democracies, in which certain categories of people occupy the old Roman concept of homo sacer – whose lives were unworthy of sacrifice and useless to the God and to whom anything could be done.
As Agamben suggested, the notion of an ‘exception’ can easily become normalised, leading to the permanent marginalisation, exclusion and persecution of whole groups of people.
History is filled with episodes in which states have stripped certain categories of people of their rights and even their humanity, and the migrants of Patras are one more example of this bleak tendency in our own era, which is leading slowly and inexorably towards a new kind of barbarism that may not be fascism, but which is not that far removed from it.
*The report was published on 20/06/2012.