LESVOS, Greece – Across the globe today, from Australia to Pakistan, there is a pervasive rhetoric relegating refugees to the status of “uninvited guests.”
Countries and their governments increasingly deprive migrants of their basic human rights unless they possess valid documents. This rhetoric often helps prevent those whose lives have been torn apart by war and violence from obtaining safe passage and securing freedom of movement. Instead of safeguarding the protection of vulnerable populations, the global response to forcibly displaced people has actually amplified vulnerability and suffering.
While these legal and political restrictions have put the lives of millions of refugees on hold, volunteers and others also have created remarkable networks of solidarity and acceptance in response to refugee flows.
During a recent trip to Lesvos, Greece, the islanders taught me an insightful lesson: when we see ourselves in “the other,” like many of the islanders who are themselves descendants of refugees do, we can sustain an open attitude, seeing “uninvited guests” as fellow human beings, deserving of support.
The refugee influxes that started last summer and continued into the cold months, with more than a million people crossing from Turkey to Greece, changed our collective perception of the Aegean islands. From a lauded tourist destination to the center of an unparalleled humanitarian crisis, Greece became the main gateway for refugees and migrants dreaming of security and human rights on European soil.
Human suffering, capsized boats and “graveyards” of life jackets in the turquoise-blue waters replaced postcard visuals of holidays and tranquillity. Images of flimsy boats and rubber dinghies filled with frightened children, women and men dominated last year’s newspaper headlines. Some of these captions warned Europe of being “flooded with uninvited guests” who would disrupt social welfare and stability and ultimately corrode European values.
Given the significance of Greece to the refugee crisis, I too made the journey from the Turkish coast to Lesvos by ferry. As I crossed the Aegean Sea, I tried to imagine what it feels like to be systematically dispossessed, unwanted and have all safe passages closed to me. But the privilege of carrying a valid passport undermined my ability to comprehend being “othered.”
As the boat approached Mytilini port, I was enraptured by the beauty of the island’s seaside and silhouettes. My arrival was safe and tranquil, in stark contrast to the frantic docking of many who landed on cliffs along this same coast and some who sank in the cold waters.
As soon as I started exploring the island’s mountain roads and remote villages, another striking contrast emerged.
In Lesvos, remnants of life jackets and boat parts and razor-wired detention centers silently testify to the disposability of certain lives. It becomes uncomfortable to contemplate the enchanting nature on the island while witnessing the human costs of our attitudes towards our fellow human beings. The normalized notion that certain populations and racial groups have less intrinsic value than others has enabled authorities to abandon refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean and let them drown without taking any lasting measures to curb the crisis. Overwhelmed and without solutions, the same authorities imprison the uninvited guests in detention centers, where they remain invisible to the international community.
Meanwhile, the failure to achieve consensus among European nations in regards to the destiny of asylum seekers poses yet another challenge to the thousands of refugees and migrants living in Lesvos. Their present and future are paralyzed. This failure traps them on the island while uncertain, ever-changing and delayed legal procedures define their precarious futures. Lesvos has become a holding cell for those who were seeking freedom at any cost. Without a set destination or an occupation, refugees and migrants walk along roads aimlessly or gather in front of detention centers and refugee camps.
In the face of rising human mobility and global instability, how can we sustain an open attitude towards “the other”? In Zygmunt Bauman’s latest book, Strangers at Our Door, the Polish sociologist supports the idea that the refugee crisis is actually a crisis of humanity. In his analysis, the only solution to our global predicament is to recognize humanity’s interdependence, and cultivate communities and cooperation among different cultures and across disparate value systems.
Lesvos’ residents have instinctively shared similar viewpoints. The local responses of the islanders have acknowledged our human interconnectedness, by promoting actions of solidarity and support. For instance, I stayed in a family-run guesthouse and the owners were hosting a Syrian-Palestinian family of seven. The Greek couple cared for the refugee children as if the youngsters were part of their own family. The wife told me that, because of the refugee crisis, tourism was weak this year, and they were going through economic hardships. Yet, despite facing adversity themselves, and perhaps partly as a result of their own hardships, they were able to support “the other” family. In their perception, this response is the most natural and only way to approach those who are in need.
During our extended conversations about the crisis and the island’s situation, I did not sense a hint of resentment against refugees.
In a world where human mobility walks side-by-side with logic of disposability and institutionalized bigotry, Greeks have shown to us that it’s possible to sustain an open heart to newcomers under hostile circumstances. Even though tourism has plummeted and the local economy hurt by fears of the arriving refugees, many islanders continue to embody what they call “philoxenia,” an ancient tradition of hospitality and love to strangers.
After witnessing the generosity of local individuals and solidarity groups that continue their support well after most others have left, It is difficult to grasp how a power dynamic in which smugglers, politicians and others involved in the crisis exploit and take advantage of vulnerable populations has become entrenched. When facing so much exploitation and suffering, it is easy for us to become cynical or fall into a cycle of frustration and anger. Aware of this danger, I seek out actions of solidarity to restore my faith in humanity, and I try to find the most inspiring stories of individuals detached from political agenda and organizations, who are helping refugees.
The next stop in my journey is Calais, France, where militarization has been employed as the sole reaction to asylum seekers who have been trying to cross over to the British side since 1999.
In our special series titled Displaced and Disposable, social researcher Bruna Kadletz visits displaced communities – from her home town in Brazil to migrant settlements in Johannesburg and asylum centers in Europe – to explore current approaches to accelerated migration. Kadletz has collaborated with St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in London towards the Spiritual Humanitarianism Project.