We tried, but it didn’t go well. The story of Samir, Lutfi and Omar is one of three economic migrants, of three young Algerians that through different routes have infiltrated themselves among refugees in order to get to Europe, among those who have escaped wars and bombing, from thirst and the dead, to the desperate search for a future that continues to slip out of their hands. They live in an old silos that is just ten meters squared. The roof has holes in it, eroded by the rust that floats in the air and gets everywhere. They escaped difficult living conditions in the South of Algeria: the motive therefore was not war, but social rebirth. Now what they call “home” is a rancid storage tower on the outskirts of town, where they live like squatters without running-water and electricity in the No Border Social Centre of Mytilene. In a compound of ruined building blocks and old abandoned factories live around two-hundred squatters entrenched in arranged accommodation and in make-shift tents, these migrants and refugees escaped from refugee camps in the north of the island of Egeo.
The operational methods of this trio of economic migrants is not all that different to that of the refugees. First, in order to infiltrate themselves inside a group of refugees who are fleeing they take a flight to Turkey, and, once they arrive there, burn all of their identity documents making themselves anonymous and stateless. This might seem complex to carry out but behind it all there is a network, an economical human machine performed by traffickers who are ready to offer this service and who don’t leave any space for error.
“We set off with a minivan from İzmir (Dikili, ndr) and we arrived in a forest near the sea. We then walked for around twenty minutes until we reached the beach. There we found people who were waiting with boats and their engines turned on, everything organised”, said Samir Solo, who just turned twenty-one and who was a laborer in the desert of Algeria. From İzmir in Turkey it is about twenty nautical miles that need to be covered in order to reach Mytilene in Greece. The price for a place on board one of the dingy boats and for a life jacket is 500 Euros. Some of the poorest only pay half of that, but you approach the vast ocean with the risk of ending up there for good upon facing the very first wave, or to reach the coast of Greece just floating as a corpse.
“What they give us is not help. They’re just a business!” continues the young Algerian.
The journey of economic migrants to Greece however, the “adventure” as Samir defines it, does not have a happy ending. It concludes with their arrival in a town in Europe that is in a state of economic collapse, operated by NGOs and infested with xenophobia from the Greek population who do everything they can to get rid of the migratory presence.
Samir’s adventure began in the Algerian desert, but is concluded in the refugee camp “Moria“, in “Guantanámo of Lesbo” from which they all prefer to flee. This is why an old, rusty silos that has holes in it has become a home: it is better to dress like a squatter and live illegally than be beaten repeatedly by Greek police.
“They were suspicious of me because I was alone on board. If you travel with children or with your family they don’t do anything to you and they treat you well. I, however, was alone. They questioned me three times, asking the same questions. They were identical questions every time. I felt like I was being taken for a ride, I lost my patience and I raised my voice. They picked on me because they thought I was an immigrant trafficker or worse a terrorist. I fled the camp and came here”.
The refugee squatters in the heart of Moria sort out their own illegal living conditions day by day. The result of this is a community marginalised by those who carry out their own autonomy and maintenance, “a network of alliances and self-supporting systems to ensure the security of every cell, and by extension, of the entire community network. So the relationship between the migrant is very important and the squatting is a big problem because the squatter is subject to more clashes with the police and the more dominant powers compared to other forms of activism and social rebellion.” (P. Mudu, S. Chattopadhyay, Migration, Squatting and Radical Autonomy, Routledge, London 2016).
In the No Border Social Centre – and in the other similar centers in the Agean Islands and in Athens – survival is ensured through a great chain of people: there are those who think about food, those who dig a hole in the pavement of the floor in order to keep water, those who are on look out on the roofs with bags full of stones ready to be thrown in case of intrusion (by the police, the local municipality or journalists), who play the guard and control access to the occupied structure.
For this group of rebellious migrants threats can come at anytime, but it is during the night that is their biggest concern. The darkness, along with the little electrical light that there is makes it even harder to control the area. During the night is the time to guard, it is the moment in which they could slip under the blitz of the immigration police.
On the islands of Lesbo, Chios and Samos the nighttime is when the paradigm of surveillance gets going in all its various ways, from the police who control the streets and the shores with the ships of the European Frontex agency that patrol the coast to track down migrants who are fleeing.
“From the Turkish coast of Ayvalık, to Dikili or Cesme it is not many miles across the sea to reach Europe. The traffickers ensure the dinghies filled with migrants leave at nighttime. As well as the darkness, after sunrise there is a lot of coastal traffic: the fishermen and small fishing boats leave the ports to work. Often the refugee boats hide between these and manage to hide from the radar and tracking systems.” Says Captain Cristian Dascalu of the MAI 1102 Romanian vessel of Frontex, who’s crew patrol the Greek-Turkish sea border from sunset to sunrise.
The patrol of the Greek-Turkish maritime borders is a result of a joint effort between the European agency Frontex, the Turkish Coastal Guard and the Hellenic one as well. The mandate of the twenty-three sailors on board the Political Frontier ship MAI1102 is to provide rescue services to the migrants who manage to cross the Greek maritime border and to logistically support the maneuvers of other military forces in the north of the Aegean sea.
“We are constantly in contact with the other forces present in the sea”, continues Dascalu, “and this is fundamental for the efficiency of all operations. Even if you do not shoot a single bullet, there is still a war in this part of the sea. […] The traffickers adopt various strategies to give consent to the passing of the refugee boats and increase the volume of business. Just a few days ago, for example, with the radar we intercepted an embarkation that pointed in the direction of Karfas. We notified all the information to the Turkish Coastal Guard who immediately garrisoned the area. But it was a bait: while the Turkish patrolled that area, another three dunghies with fast motors left the coast of Cesme in the direction of Chios. We caught two, the Croatian vessel dealt with the third.”
Video by Benedetto Sanfilippo