ATHENS – As I walked through the makeshift refugee camp in the Olympic Park in the Greek capital, I thought for a moment I was in South Africa.
My mind took me back to abandoned buildings and townships in Johannesburg, where refugees and migrants live in inhumane conditions. It took me a while to realize I was really in Europe. My eyes could not believe what they were witnessing.
The complex, consisting of Athens’ old airport, Ellinikon, and the park that hosted the 2004 Olympic games, shelters around 4,000 asylum seekers and refugees, mainly from Afghanistan.
Hundreds of tents are set up on sidewalks, under unbearable heat, where kids play and adults chat or smoke cigarettes. Hanged bed sheets and blankets function as fences, separating tents, protecting them from the sun or inquisitive eyes. Inside the airport, countless tents occupy every square inch of the building. Breathing becomes difficult, let alone moving.
Refugees longing to move forward safely are now ironically stuck in what once was a place to take off.
Although the scenario and context were completely different, the impression in my mind was the same. Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, whether in Johannesburg or Athens, were treated as if their lives did not matter, as if they could be disposed in a landfill of social and political injustice.
Indeed, we live in times of disposability. Mountains of waste piling up in the surrounds of Delhi, vast stretches of dead zones in oceans, unparalleled loss of biodiversity and the escalation of poisoned agribusiness lands – these accelerating phenomena embody our disposable approach to life.
But we are failing to realize that the global response to forced displacement applies an alarmingly similar logic to human lives. Piles of human bodies are accumulating in refugee camps and borders, while others are vanishing in the Mediterranean. Over 2016, nearly 3,000 people disappeared at sea. Meanwhile, the rise of legal restrictions that in turn increase social exclusion, have led to uncertain futures for those seeking refuge. When such policies are concerted, they fragment lives, poison the human spirit and further corrode entire communities, ultimately leaving the displaced with a sense of hopelessness.
What we notice in these times of unprecedented forced displacement is that the dispensability logic is not restricted just to surplus workers, as was the case during the industrial revolution, when Karl Marx pointed to the intrinsic capacity of capitalism to generate “surplus populations” and thereby waste away millions of workers’ lives.
Achille Mbembe, the African scholar and philosopher, and Henry Giroux, the American cultural theorist, have extended Marx’s theory to disenfranchised populations.
In exploring racial dehumanization in Africa, Mbembe attributed the logic of disposability to a long-term process of life devaluation, in which certain racial groups and vulnerable populations are systematically dispossessed and exposed to violence and exclusion because their lives are deemed less meaningful. The policies, in turn, render them more unworthy.
Giroux, on the other hand focuses on the American context, arguing that contemporary modes of governing populations that employ brutal and punitive methods have intensified human disposability. The physical manifestation can been seen in the form of certain migrant and minority populations living in zones of exclusion and abandonment as the excess of society.
This disposable approach to forced displacement is wasting the future of children, qualified professionals and talented artists, many of whom are now in Europe. Such attitudes are most palpable in the informal refugee settlements in Athens, where their physical surroundings are telling visuals of a deliberate disenfranchisement policy.
For instance, at the Olympic Park settlements, privacy and personal space are unattainable. Since there is no security in the premises, lone women and children are easy targets for sexual exploitation or human trafficking.
The Olympic Park is under the management of UNHCR and entrance is only allowed with permits. Unfriendly Greek police monitor the gate, ensuring that no one asks any questions or takes any photos. But it is not clear whether any international organization is responsible for the neighboring area, the airport where tents have continued to spring up. There were no signs of IOM, UNHCR, MSF, UNICEF or Save the Children in place.
The only organizational presence was a private stall for food distribution. The catering company’s manager said the Greek government hired the company to provide three daily meals to the refugees. People queued up twice a day under the scorching sun with their registration papers in hand, to collect bags of food. The dinner package also contained their next day’s breakfast.
Fortress Europe deems refugees unwanted. With restriction of movement, refugees are either thrown away in isolated camps or urban slums. Mainstream political narratives portray refugees as economic burdens to host countries or as threats to society. As a result, those who flee war zones are fated to fall into zones of invisibility, control and confinement. Refugees are groomed into submitting to exploitation and oppression – by political systems, smugglers, employers and radical organizations.
This reality should encourage us to inquire how, in the continent where human rights and refugee protection came into being, people are still dehumanized and treated as the waste of society.
Over the course of this series, I will portray the so-called “refugee crisis” through the logic of disposability based on my field experience in different contexts – from the migrant communities of Johannesburg and the displaced populations of Brazil to the ghettoed refugee settlements in Greece and France.
As the commentary continues, I hope to shift the reader’s focus towards the underlining intention of this exploration – the call for an approach based on a heightened consciousness that recognizes the importance of placing value on all human lives.
Ultimately, we will need to find humanity amid this global refugee crisis to be able to ameliorate the escalating violence, conflict and displacement that have gripped our disparate yet hyper-connected communities.
This is the first installment of “Displaced and Disposable,” where humanitarian worker Bruna Kadletz visits displaced communities – from her home town in Brazil to migrant settlements in Johannesburg to asylum centers in Europe – to explore current approaches to accelerated migration.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Refugees Deeply.