Political Structures and Power Dynamics

As borders continue to close and re-open, policies to restrict and permit movement, and international and local laws amend to block or allow for asylum we see the that the future for refugees in Europe is dim and the present is even more uncertain. The abrupt and ever-changing nature of this crisis has dictated the livelihoods of millions of people and added a layer of unprecedented complexity to the way in which state actors, non-state actors and refugees interact. How this interface occurs within the setting of a refugee camp has especially been affected by the additional complexities of this unique context. Barbara Harrell-Bond argues that the greatest corruption of power in the camp setting is that of the hierarchical relationship between the humanitarian worker and the refugee and that because of the inherently patronizing design of the refugee camp and provision of resources and services within, that this dynamic can only ever be asymmetrical, where refugees are “symbolically disempowered”.  Building upon this notion, I offer that in the context of the European refugee crisis, specifically focusing on Greece and Serbia, this power dynamic is disrupted by the overriding presence of integral other actors, such as state authorities, and by the spontaneous formation and unpredictable nature of the camps within these countries. To properly illustrate the complex reality of the various manifestations of power dynamics in the context of Greek and Serbian refugee camps, the parameters of specific camps and the presence or absence of crucial actors must be discussed.

Central and Local Government & Military and Police:  

In Greece it is the central government’s stance, with added pressure from the EU, to mobilize human and financial resources to support the massive refugee population. Yet while the country is in the midst of a dire economic crisis that has been conceivably exacerbated by the influx of refugees, this directive is only carried out on a limited basis with the central government leaning heavily on the military and local governments with even fewer resources. After the complete chaos when over 1 million people moved through Greece in fall of 2015, at the direction of the EU the Greek government put forth an initiative to set up five “hotspots” on five of the islands with the highest number of refugee arrivals. These “hotspots” were supposed to be used as registration and accommodation centers that would be provide government provided food and non-food items. Once the borders and migration routes were shut due to the enactment of the EU-Turkey, the “hotspots” that had already been opened became more permanent detention centers for potential asylum seekers or those who arrived on March 20th and after, who could be sent back to Turkey. Upon visiting two of these centers, the one on the island of Leros as mentioned above and the other on Kos, it is clear that the way in which the site was constructed from the top-down and the heavily militarized operation leaves little space for any interaction between different parties in the camp. Both camps are surrounded by layers of barbed wire and are purposefully put in locations that are as far from the local population as possible. If the geographical location of the centers is not isolating enough the complete lack of contact between the refugees and military guards, who are present at all times, is enough to make anyone feel like a pariah and a prisoner.  Because these sites were a project pushed on the Greek government by the EU and put into the spotlight as a form of official government response, the political and social hierarchy reflects that of an authoritarian structure it seems to maintain control.

This militant prison-like camp setting is not the case for all state run camps in Greece, in fact it is more common for state security forces to be responsible for the management of a camp yet be a completely absent actor. For example the Ritsona refugee camp located 2 hours outside of Athens is an Air Force and Military run camp. The physical structure of the camp is very different from the island “hotspots” as it has no fence enclosing it, everyone lives in tents rather than the portable containers on the islands, and the camp is open for people to go and come as they please throughout the day. The camp was formed directly following the implementation of EU-Turkey deal when the Balkan route closed, as the government and UNHCR responded to more and more people becoming stuck in Greece. While the overall management of the camp was delegated to the Greek military in partnership with International Organization for Migration, the NGO workers and refugees in the camp reported that little to nothing is done in terms of improving infrastructure, security and access to necessary resources as a result. During an interview with Asa Swee, the Greece Country Director for the NGO Lighthouse Relief, that operates as the women and children’s protection lead in Ritsona camp, she provided the following example of how the military allowed the camp to have no running water for over 3 months.

“This is the biggest struggle for the people in the camp, how there is no running water. For 3 months if you asked the military why there was no running water in the camp they would say that it was someone else’s responsibility – the IOM, the Air Force, the local leftist party, anyone but them. It took a group of volunteers hiring and funding an outside contractor to do the job to finally get running water.”

There are multiple features of this camp that allow the military to be inactive in its management. First, is that the camp is geographically located far from any monitoring entities and the refugees living there have yet to go through the pre-registration process with UNHCR making the camp almost invisible to outside authorities. Also, the co-management structure allows for scapegoating and exchange of culpability. To further complicate this, as IOM is an international entity, you have the deeply political relationship between domestic security forces and international non-state power actors at play. Another example of this dynamic between international non-state and state actors being played in the camp setting in Greece, was in a camp called Sindos, that was opened in late May 2016 to accommodate for the thousands of people who were being evacuated from Idomeni camp on the FYROM border.

Non-Governmental Organizations and UNHCR:

International Non-Governmental Organizations have been instrumental in the response to the refugee crisis within the limitations the refugee camp. Although these entities are technically not aligned with any state to say that they do not add an additional layer of politics to the camp setting is untrue. In the context of Greece, where NGOs are working with exponentially higher numbers of refugees than in Serbia we see a similar if not exacerbated version of the divide between humanitarian and refugee. While the barrier may be firm, the unpredictable fluid nature of the day-to-day reality allows for less of a permanent asymmetrical dynamic and more opportunity for shifting power. This is due to the fact that in many cases camps are formed around refugees, rather than being built to bring people in. In the case of Idomeni, the site began as informal settlement as refugees used the space as a transit hub, where initially they could freely walk from Greece into FYROM. As border policies tightened, a fence built around the space by border guards and eventually the route closed completely, thousands of people were forced to call the border camp their new temporary home. This sparked the arrival of countless local and international NGOs to the camp. As the space had already been functioning without the support of the state and relaying on minimal support from NGOs, refugees themselves built the foundation of the camp from the bottom-up. Because of this, it is reported that the community leaders from the refugee organizations had practically equal seats at the table as humanitarian workers. As reported, by Idomeni independent volunteer, Athenasios Thamakris, and based on the overwhelming number of refugees present at the camp, it was in the best interest of the NGOs to cooperate with and listen to the actual needs of the population that had originally established the site. Athenasios argued that Idomeni was “the best organized camp, because of good coordination between the different NGOs and the NGOs and refugees”. He also noted that the overriding reason the camp was perceived as a success from his view was because the state was not involved.  

On the contrary to the scene in Idomeni, there exist many camp structures in Greece, which allow for the misuse of power on the part of NGO workers. In the military run camp Sindos, which was opened May 2016 outside of Thessaloniki to house people being evacuated from Idomeni, refugees live in tents squeezed into empty warehouse buildings. I visited Sindos two week after it opened and one week after refugees began living there, hence power dynamics were still being felt out and established by all parties present. While shadowing a staff member from the organization Women and Health Alliance International (WAHA), whose mission is to provide access to adequate health care to women and girls, I witnessed what Harrell-Bond would refer to as “inhumane humanitarianism”. When leading us on a tour of the camp, the WAHA staff member took us through one the warehouses used as housing. He proceeded to stop and yell at a refugee man and his son who storing empty water bottles near their tent, claiming it was “disgusting and unsanitary” to keep trash in this area. Once we had made it through the crowded warehouse, we encountered a group of people having a water fight using the large bottles provided by the camp. The WAHA staff member began screaming at the refugees, that they stop throwing water while we passed through saying such things as, “ you must learn to respect foreigners” and “don’t come to me when you’re out of water in 2 days”. Ultimately, the water fight did not stop and the WAHA staff became even more audibly enraged threatening use his power to prevent the refugees from securing a refrigerator to use during Ramadan and continuing to shout how they all needed “to learn respect”. By using his position of assumed authority and as a gatekeeper of resources to exert maximum power over the refugees, this NGO worker demonstrated the crux of Harrell-Bond’s argument. That the power that can stem from this type of asymmetrical relationship, is extremely seductive for those who see themselves as “deserving” of such power over others as often humanitarians do. Also, in this camp setting, which was designed to detain refugees physically, also can confine in psychological and emotional ways through the allowance of exploitation of power by actors who have no real legal authority.

Lastly, the UNHCR must be discussed as a non-state key actor in the refugee camp setting. As Harrell-Bond argues, the post-flight experience for refugees involves prolonged suffering in the process of legal registration and seeking asylum. She continues, that despite UNHCR being established to protect the rights of refugees, including the right to asylum, the UN entities staff have been found to be following procedures less favorable than UNHCR itself advises states to respect24. The current situation in Greece, refugees are waiting months just to be registered and are facing years of insecurity while awaiting asylum and family reunification decisions. This is a primary reason why UNHCR is seen a pariah within the context of the refugee camps in Greece. In Ritsona refugee camp, which has been open since March 2016, UNHCR has yet to start the pre-registration process. Also, NGO workers and refugees in the camp reported that UNCHR representatives only come to Ritsona every couple weeks, despite being the only source of registration aid and information for the 1,000 people that live there.

“I would rather be back in Syria where at least I can know my fate, rather than being here and subjected to this psychological warfare of information holding that UNHCR subjects us to”.

This statement, from a Syrian male who had been living in Ritsona since March, is a sentiment shared throughout the camp amongst refugees and understood by the NGO workers who are also kept out of the information circles of UNHCR. When asked about her experience working with UNHCR in Ritsona, the Greek island of Lesvos and in Idomeni, Asa Swee admitted that from the perspective of a service delivery based organization it is easy to blame everything that goes wrong in the camps on UNHCR because from the ground level they do not seem to be able to get anything done through the endless layers of bureaucracy. As to how the UN agency is perceived in the camp setting she says, “its so so bad they take off their vests when they go somewhere because they don’t want to have visibility because then everyone in screaming at them.” Because refugees must comply with UNHCR to maintain their asylum and resettlement opportunities, the above description of how the agency is perceived in the camp setting in Greece must be indicative of a major deficiency on their part and long withstanding frustrations on the side of the refugee.  The traditional long-standing framework whereby one overarching agency or body is responsible for the needs of an every-changing population in a volatile environment is no longer viable.

Written by: Alex Wynn