„In a bosses‘ world, we are all strangers“

Interview with the Clandestina Network

On the 5th of December, activists from Thessaloniki squatted a house to provide shelter for migrants stuck in Idomeni. Around 100 people could stay there at a time. There, we met with members of Clandestina to discuss the events of the last weeks, especially the eviction of the protest camp in Idomeni, at the border between Greece and Macedonia.

What kind of group is Clandestina, what are you doing?

Clandestina is small counter-information network on migrants’ struggles and solidarity. It exists since 2007, although its members have been working together on these issues since 2003.

Can you give us some historical background? How did the Balkan route occur?

The emergence of the Western Balkan route as it exists today is very much connected to the so-called crisis. Before the crisis there were around 400,000 sans-papiers living in Greece. Now probably around half of them have left. Many went to Turkey to work in the new factories built across the Turkish-Bulgarian and Turkish-Greek borders. Also, since 2011, 300,000 Albanians have left Greece because of the crisis. Many of them had been here for over 20 years, their children don’t speak Albanian.

The majority of transit migrants coming to Greece saw the country as a stopover, a place where they could work to cover their onward journey. After the crisis this was no longer possible: There were no jobs anymore. As a consequence, the smuggling circuit changed. People who had no money to pay for smugglers anymore started walking up to Serbia on the medieval foot track along the Vardar river, that joins the Danube in Serbia. At the moment, this path follows the railway tracks that begin in Idomeni. From 2011 to 2014, around 200,000 people left Greece, mainly using this route.

The crisis was a major turning point also on another level. Migrants tried their luck in petty smuggling because there were no other jobs. Many started charging fees of a few (like 10 or 20) Euros for a trip across the border. So many ended up in prison, because unlike the professional smugglers who, in many cases, have contacts with parts of the police or can achieve deals by pointing to the “small fish” of the smuggling industry to be arrested in their place. This loose involvement with smuggling destroyed a lot of solidarity networks inside the communities.

In other words, the crisis was the beginning of the Western Balkan route. It is the moment more people started to walk. The state made the borders more permeable to the north. Migrants were unofficially allowed to exit Greece this way because they could no longer make money for the smuggling business, and the state didn’t want to have too many people stuck in Greece. During the first years, the number of people passing through this route was steady but low. The situation in Syria made the numbers grow at a very fast rate. Look at the numbers: In 2014, around 50,000 people came to Greece (and 70,000 left). During the first six months of 2015, 70,000 people crossed Greece. During the last 4 months the number has risen to over half a million.

What is your perspective on the events in the last weeks in Idomeni? What was the role of the Greek government? What role did the threat to be kicked out of Schengen play?

The events of the last weeks are extremely important. They mark a shift in the strategy that had been followed in the last months.

The media profile of Greece in the last six months was that the Greek people are helping refugees. The authorities needed some time to intervene with this image. They were waiting until they could use international pressure effectively as an excuse for taking action.

We have the impression that the way the eviction of the camp in Idomeni was carried out was not what the Greek government wanted. They had hoped that bad weather and the lack of perspective (but also lack of food and support) would solve the situation in Idomeni by exhausting and discouraging people from staying. Nobody expected that the really bad winter weather would come so late in the year, and that the period of persistent efforts to cross the borders lasted so long. Also, the government did not expect so much solidarity in Idomeni from internationals or volunteers. More crucially, it did not expect so much resilience, so many self-organized structures and protests.

The threat to exclude Greece from Schengen was only geared to the Greek audience: they have heard similar threats in the recent past. All the austerity measures were introduced ‚because otherwise Greece would have to exit the Eurozone‘. The SYRIZA party rhetoric is that they don’t approve of austerity measures but ‚they are obliged to vote for them‘. The same technique is being employed with Idomeni and Frontex. What they say is that they don’t want to act against migrants but they are ‚forced to do it, or else…‘.

The government is supposed to be left-wing, so they do not want to present themselves as totally brutal. It is no accident that the media had no access to the eviction of Idomeni. The authorities did not want images of riot police (400 of them!) attacking people just for being there. They succeeded fully in this publicity blockade.

On the other hand, the day before the eviction the focus in mainstream media was on the costs of the train blockade. This way they prepared the ground for the eviction: the economic pressure upon Greece to clear the situation in Idomeni was big, partly by the Chinese company Cosco, which owns the train cargo line that goes through Idomeni. They also own parts of the ports in Piraeus and Thessaloniki and are thinking of eventually buying the Greek railroads.

So far, the border is only closed for certain people. What will happen when they close the border to everybody?

Until now, an effective technique that is being employed by the state and forms an important part of its strategy of ‘letting misery spread‘ was to play off people against each other. This is what was happening in Idomeni. The conditions were dire, the segregation of people living side by side caused a lot of tensions, and the resulting conflicts were used as an excuse for the state to move against people in a number of cases.

What was the role of Frontex in this?

Frontex was more an ideological tool than anything else. The Greek government could claim once more that it was not responsible for the repression, that it was Frontex that enforced the border shutdown. They used the ’external requirement‘ to impose a Frontex mission the same way they used EU-Grexit-speak to pass the memorandum measures.

So what do you think is going to happen next?

The situation will get worse. During the last 20 years, the choice of successive Greek governments has been ’no asylum‘, but also ’no deportation‘. This means that a huge number of people were controlled by the smuggler circuits. This has now changed, as we said above, with the crisis in Greece and with the wars that followed the Arab Spring.

It is quite possible that the border will be closed for all migrants; it could be tomorrow, next week, next month. This is of course not a Greek State decision. It is more an agreement between Turkey and the EU. If Turkey wanted to close the borders to Greece, Turkey could do it immediately. It is a matter of bargaining (diplomacy, as they call it). The central European countries will decide that they will not want anymore people, when they feel they already have enough cheap labor force. They kindly accepted some – and advertised this everywhere. These first-comers were skilled workers or university diploma holders: One day before the evacuation of Idomeni, a UN survey stated that until October 2015, 86% of Syrian refugees travelling on the Balkan route had secondary or higher education, 16% were university students, 10% had medical or engineer/architect diplomas and 78% were younger than 35. The people on the road right now are markedly poorer. Germany is already deporting poor and unskilled people back to their Balkan countries of origin (Kosovo, Bosnia etc), they don’t want more ’human trash‘. But people will continue to travel, no doubt. The flow might slow down, the route might be redirected towards Bulgaria and Albania. However, these new routes would cost more lives, because of the high mountains there and the gangs attacking, beating and robbing migrants.

What are the political perspectives?

No one can tell for sure. It is well known that if a supposedly left-wing government doesn’t do well in ‘managing the economy‘, a far-right one might follow. As regards the situation of migrants, we could say the following: The response to the Arab Spring was a series of wars, which added blood and repression to the neoliberal attacks of the last 25 years in the global South and to the crisis in the developed countries after 2007. The recent wars have created a wave of skilled and cheap labour that core European countries need to exploit. So Balkan countries have somehow turned into smuggler-states, under the pretext of charity towards ’poor refugees‘. It was expected that at some point this would stop and that the States would assume the role of man-hunters. In this situation, if the social movement in Greece doesn’t continue to respond and act, then there won’t be much of a future, neither for the migrants, nor for the social movement itself.

At the moment many activists from different countries are travelling on the Balkan route. What can they do to support the migrants? What do you think European activists can do to support the local political structures here in Greece?

Networking, presence, political pressure, financial support… and mainly to continue making clear, everywhere, that migrants are not a human surplus to be managed in a more or less democratic or fascist way (i.e. the two traditional faces of capitalism). They are people. Our solidarity is not ‘proof of our humanity‘, it is the only way to reclaim humanity both for ourselves and for the migrants. We have a slogan in our movement for this: ‘In a bosses’ world, we are all strangers’.