Notes From the Margins…

The non-people of Igoumenitsa

  • June 21, 2011
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Amid all the media attention directed towards the Greek debt crisis and the potential collapse of the eurozone that may result, little attention has been paid to the tens of thousands of undocumented migrants who are effectively trapped in Greece without any possibility of achieving legal status.

For the last few years now, the Greek-Turkish border has been the main route for undocumented migration into Europe, but many migrants have found themselves stranded in a country that does not want them to stay but will not allow them to continue their migratory journey. In 2009 exactly 11 people were accepted as Geneva Convention refugees in Greece out of nearly 30,000 applicants. Another 45,000 applications remain unresolved, in some cases dating back more than a decade.

These figures do not include the thousands of migrants who have not applied for asylum or who have remained in the country after their applications were rejected. The migrant population also includes deportees sent back to Greece from other European countries under the Dublin Convention rules, which oblige all asylum seekers to make their applications in the first country they enter.

Not surprisingly, many of them are desperate to get out of Greece by any means possible.   Last autumn I visited the Greek coastal town of Igoumenitsa as part of my research for my book on borders and migration.  It’s a little town of about 15,000 inhabitants 344 kilometres north of Athens, at the end of the Egnatia highway to Alexandroupolis.   For tourists, the main attraction of Igoumenitsa is the port where they catch ferries to Corfu.    In the last two years its become a migrant bottleneck, where migrants seeking to reach other European destinations try to smuggle themselves aboard ferries heading further afield to Italy.

When I was there,  about 400 people were living in hills around the port.   Some of them had built semi-permanent plastic shelters, but many had only a plastic sheet or nothing at all.  Their situation was really dire.  Every evening they would come down to the port and look for a way to get onto the ferries, while the police harassed them, sometimes violently.

In the daytime you would sometimes see them, coming into town to buy things or searching through rubbish bins.    They included Sudanese,  Somalis, Eritreans, and Iraqis, including former translators with US forces in Iraq.   Their circumstances were bad then, but they’ve got a lot worse since.   In the last few months local police have gone on the offensive in an attempt to drive them away from the town, chasing them away from the port, confiscating their food, and trying to keep them trapped in the mountains.

To behave in this way towards people whose ‘crime’ consists of looking for work or refugee protection is truly horrific.  The Greek authorities have opted for repression in their dealings with the country’s undocumented migrants, but they are also doing the dirty work of the European Union as a whole.

Much of this has taken place beneath the radar.  But the Greek anti-racist website Clandestina has just published a handwritten ‘demands of the immigrants of Igoumenitsa’ here, which shows how bad things have become.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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