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he meanings were multiple; the ironies deliberate and critical. We later learned from a visit to the Kempsons, UK artists-turned-humanitarians who live on the northern tip of Lesvos, that many of these life-jackets are worse than useless. Sold to refugees for a small fortune in Turkey, they often turn out to be fakes filled with foam that absorbs water. Instead of keeping migrants afloat if they are cast into the sea, the fake jackets weigh them down and pull them underwater. Like roadside memorials these faux life-jackets can be found all over Lesvos, serving to commemorate the dangers created by geopolitical violence with high-visibility wreckage.
Frequently ghosting the Lesvos shoreline next to the tattered remains of life rafts, the life-jackets have also been piled onto a mountainous ‘graveyard’ that MSF has documented with a video designed to highlight both the vast scale of the phenomenon and the individual personal cost of the refugee reception crisis in Greece (MSF, 2016). Amidst this landscape of geopolitical endangerment and inhospitality, the scenes of SAFE PASSAGE we document here instead serve to render solidarity visible. They might also be said to schematize cosmopolitan hospitality—following Rodanthi Tzanelli citing Bernard Stiegler to theorize the transnational recycling of Lesvos life-jackets by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei (Tzanelli, 2017; see also Pierce, 2017). But our main argument here, and in our accompanying journal article in Society and Space (Mitchell and Sparke, 2018), is that as spaces of hospitality they instantiate ‘geosocial solidarity’, a term we use to suggest that they also counter, however incompletely, the geopolitical insecurity being mediated and managed through the EU’s so-called Hotspots.
Juxtaposed with the life-jacket landmarks of precarity around Lesvos, the recycled SAFE PASSAGE sign at the entry to PIKPA instead invites all those who pass through to see the camp as a space of safety and welcome. By recombining material objects associated with vulnerability, the sign underlines how the solidarity of the camp aims to support refugee passage through precarity into agency, dignity, and community. It is in this way that we see signs of SAFE PASSAGE as illustrating the geosocial work of the camp and other sites of migrant solidarity in countering the geopolitical mediation and production of danger in EU Hotspots. Some other illustrations of this geosocial work are practical, aimed at enabling safe passage with navigational advice about locating services and securing resilience on the move. A poster on the wall at PIKPA, for example, provided a guide for safe passage into Athens with a detailed listing of free resources for refugees in the Victoria neighborhood.
Other examples of geosocial activism are more radical, linking the agency of safe passage with resistance as well as resilience, and articulating rights to accommodation with rights to the city and new demands for cosmopolitan citizenship through squatting, cohabitation, and international solidarity (see also Mudu and Chattopadhyay, 2017). This is the case with our other main example of geosocial solidarity, the City Plaza squat, which is itself located in the Victoria neighborhood of Athens, and which has turned the logic of safe passage into forms of living and learning together that also embody ties to other social movements, ties which thereby prefigure more revolutionary shifts away from the putative humanitarianism of the Hotspots altogether. (For current information on City Plaza see their Facebook page For current information on PIKPA and Lesvos Solidarity see their website.
Notwithstanding the many variations in geosocial solidarity, we are interested in how together they transform the precarity produced by geopolitics into agency. One small illustration of this that we mention in our article is the recycling of the faux life jacket materials as ornaments at the Mosaik cultural center in Mytilene, another space of welcome and relative safety organized by Lesvos Solidarity.
And in a further indication of the everyday passage into experiential safety opened up through such geosocial space-making, a scene of a holiday party at PIKPA documents the passage out of want and worry for refugee families at a table of food under the decorative shapes of a star, christmas tree and heart cut out of faux life jacket foam by the children themselves.
Despite the moments of real relief they create, the solidarity spaces we highlight do not secure safe space either absolutely or indefinitely. Rather, our suggestion is that they afford some limited and relative forms of reprieve for refugees from the dangers created by Europe’s reception crisis and by the increasing suppression of welcome for refugees around the world (see also Gill, 2018; Sparke, 2018). The EU’s Hotspot approach to dealing with this crisis was itself meant to bring coordination and control to the borders of Europe in ways that were also supposed to make refugees and the EU itself safer at the same time (Vradis et al, 2018). Instead, as many other contributors have highlighted here in Society and Space website essays and journal articles, the kinds of care turned control performed in the Hotspots have exposed the stark limits of the EU’s liberal humanitarianism as well as the failures of its neoliberal speed-ups turned slow-downs (Antonakaki et al, 2016; Garelli and Tazzioli, 2018; Painter et al, 2016; Pallister-Perkins, 2018; Tazzioli, 2016). They have also thereby led to what we describe as the geopoliticization of humanitarianism. This is a phrase we adapt from Jennifer Hyndman to describe the diverse geopolitical declarations and projections of safe space used to manage refugees and territorialize their movements (Hyndman, 2012). In both the creation and administration of the Hotspots we suggest that this geopoliticization of humanitarianism has ended up capsizing the meaning of safe space altogether, turning the sites of intra-EU, inter-agency coordination into danger zones that look more like concentration camps than spaces of welcome.
The entrance to the Moria Hotspot on Lesvos is a case in point. With the main gate surrounded by multiple layers of barbed wire, it looks just like a prison. This is also precisely how many of its denizens have come to view Moria, denouncing it as a jail in the graffiti on the main road back into Mytilene.
To be sure, at the time of our research many refugees at Moria remained free to come and go. There was also a more hybrid geopolitical-turned-geosocial space of commercial welcome and cosmopolitan mixing outside the main gate where some enterprising locals were selling a wide range of Greek and middle eastern snacks, and evidently accepting cash to pay for it in an even wider range of currencies.
However, the complex mix of geopolitical hopes that led to the creation of the Hotspots—hope that the approach would make Europe and refugees safer at the same time, and hope that this would simultaneously forestall reactionary anti-refugee rejectionism and hyper-nationalism—have turned over time into an even more complex stew of fears, including the increasing xenophobia animating reactionary movements across Europe, and fears amongst refugees themselves about all the associated dangers, including the increasing dangers posed by delay, detention, and death in the Hotspots themselves. Our journal article documents these dangers in greater depth, highlighting how the geopolitical projection of ‘safe space’ designations onto these and other unsafe spaces has systematically endangered refugees through the circumvention of Geneva protections. Here the main point we wish to underline is that for all these reasons the promise of EU officials that the Hotspots would make refugees and Europeans safer has proved false. The geopolitical performance of protection has failed to protect refugees, instead only leading to the halfhearted projection of national police powers into a performative pastiche of EU coordination and control. In Lesvos we witnessed armed Frontex police from Germany stand back and complain about the behavior of refugees in Cologne while volunteers distributed safety blankets to a raft of refugees newly arrived from Turkey.
Similarly, the British coastguard cutter HMC Protector stayed moored in Mytilene harbor the whole time we were on Lesvos in December 2016, geopolitically performing British BORDER FORCE protection, but with a crew (staying at the same hotel as us) talking over breakfast about problems posed by refugees ‘back home’ rather than actually mitigating all the problems faced by refugees at sea.
It is amidst these performances of Hotspot geopolitics (and in contrast to the unsafe spaces for refugees they have created) that we came to see the scenes of safe passage activism as constituting geosocial counter-practices. Framed another way, in terms inspired by Doreen Massey, they turn the ‘power geometries’ of migration into enabling experiences of ‘throwntogetherness’ (compare and connect Hyndman and Mountz, 2018, and Sparke and Mitchell, 2018). The counter-practices have by no means secured complete freedom and escape from the dominant border politics that Hotpots are supposed to secure. But by working to make migration safer in situated, embodied, and relational ways, they have opened up and continue to enable diverse opportunities in which migrants and their allies can critique and move beyond the geopoliticization of official humanitarianism. The diversity of these opportunities is itself important to underline, and in our article we describe the resulting variations in geosocial solidarity in relation to six sorts of practice: namely, i) physical safety; ii) personal dignity; iii) organizational autonomy; iv) radical democracy; v) spatial liberty; and vi) social community. Here we want to document some of the different scenes of safe passage that these practices have created.
Among the obvious indicators of work to improve physical safety at both the PIKPA camp and the City Plaza squat are their health clinics.
Working with minimal resources, and alongside emergencies associated with both spikes in refugee arrivals and the economic austerity imposed on Greece by its European creditors, these clinics have offered embodied kinds of care that is vitally needed. As the ‘Clinic Schedule’ from City Plaza also illustrates, efforts are made to offer specialized services such as pediatrics, as well as basic primary care, doing so in a way that is designed to reduce language barriers and open access for all. Nevertheless, this has not stopped critics from attempting to shut down the sites in the name of public health. Indeed, after our research visits, and after our revised journal article was accepted, we learned of efforts (still ongoing now at the time of writing) by the Hygiene Service of the Region of the North Aegean to shut down the PIKPA camp using the excuse that it has had a detrimental impact on the local environment and that it presents a danger to public health (Lesvos Solidarity, 2018). In response Lesvos Solidarity has underlined how its efforts to secure health and safety at PIKPA remain overshadowed by the upheavals in refugee arrivals, and the resulting need to sometimes accommodate especially large numbers under crisis conditions. It has also countered by highlighting the double standard of the public agencies that simultaneously tolerate extreme overcrowding and widely condemned physical safety conditions at the Moria Hotspot. “The intervention of the Hygiene Service,” they therefore say, “raises serious questions with regards to the extreme severity shown towards PIKPA in contrast to the tolerance towards the hygiene conditions in the Moria hotspot, which are reported daily by locals, institutions, residents, organisations and by the local, national and international press” (Lesvos Solidarity, 2018).
The ongoing struggle over public health and safety at the PIKPA camp highlights how the work of geosocial solidarity remains in tension with dominant discourses and practices of migration management in ways that create ongoing contestation over the meaning of safe space. For refugees themselves these meanings are felt and expressed in personal ways that are linked in turn to the emphases in the geosocial solidarity efforts on personal dignity and the need for respectful interpersonal relations. These emphases help explain why so many of the refugees with whom we spoke told us they much preferred staying at PIKPA and City Plaza rather than in the Hotspots. At PIKPA the commitments to fostering respect in interpersonal relations were also illustrated in the camp’s main murals, celebrating everyone living together but also embracing discomfort.
Notwithstanding its debts to anarchist politics and the squat’s critical suspicion of state rules, city rules and NGO rules, City Plaza has also developed guidelines of respectful cohabitation that include, for example, the rules posted in multiple languages about the meals offered by the kitchen and the need therein for mutual respect by everybody involved in preparing and consuming the free food.
Creating house rules further illustrates the organizational autonomy held dear at City Plaza and, with concern mounting over the threat of closure, at PIKPA. Part of this autonomy involves eluding efforts to suppress the work of geosocial solidarity. Another part involves the direct political insistence on autonomy that has been most especially stressed at City Plaza, including the sign we found outside the front door explaining in all caps that: “CITY PLAZA IS A SELF ORGANIZED SQUAT. DOES NOT BELONG TO THE STATE OR THE NGOS.”
But as well as resisting cooptation by NGOs and the reassertion of geopolitical crisis management through the state, the Hotspots, and official humanitarianism, both Lesvos Solidarity and City Plaza illustrate how autonomy also demands everyday activities of practical, local and social organization. Sometimes, as has been more of an emphasis at Lesvos Solidarity, this has involved organizing work that starts from an acknowledgement that many of the refugees it serves are still caught up in negotiating asylum and contesting deportation through the Hotspots. A noticeboard at Mosaik in Mytilene highlights in this way how offering solidarity has to include, alongside language and meditation classes, providing a bus timetable to ensure safe passage back and forth to sites such as Moria.
At the PIKPA camp and even more so at City Plaza other signs on the walls indicate that organizational autonomy is linked in turn to political struggle that we think can best be described in the terms of radical democracy. Alive to the intersectionality of political struggle, these illustrations of political engagement clearly articulate refugee politics with other struggles—ranging from days of activism aimed at ending violence against women and girls (highlighted in multiple posters at PIKPA) to anti-war/anti-imperialism/anti-fascism marches in Athens (highlighted in a poster at City Plaza about an “Anti-war, anti-imperialist, antifascist demonstration in solidarity with refugees. Rights, freedoms, protection. Humane living conditions,” and featuring a banner declaring that “NATO, the US, the EU and Governments sow wars, impoverishment and uprootings [displacement]. Refugees and migrants welcome”).
To be clear, the short periods of our participant observations in Athens and Lesvos make it impossible for us to assess the degree to which such signs of radical democratic articulation signaled enduring commitments to social movements beyond the camp and the squat or lasting challenges to dominant delineations of insiders and outsiders. Other scholars are now beginning to publish studies based on longer periods of volunteering and solidarity work that illuminate some of the complex recodings of domesticity and security involved (e.g. Cirefice, 2018). But as we suggest in our journal article, we do conclude, based on our interviews and other research, that the work of geosocial solidarity has reterritorialized the space of the political in ways that, at the very least, create an alternative to the geopolitical territorialization of safe space in the Hotspots.
In contrast to the penal and parole like experiences of coercive (im)mobility created by the Hotspots (Garelli and Tazzioli, 2018), another important aim of geosocial solidarity has been enabling and expanding spatial liberty for refugees. Scenes of this very geographical aspect of safe passage work have already been highlighted here, including the bus timetable on the noticeboard at Mosaik, and the guide to free services near City Plaza in Athens on the wall at PIKPA in Lesvos. With the latter sign seen through the windshield of the Lesvos Solidarity vehicle emblazoned with its www.lesvossolidarity.org URL, it is also possible to see how this geosocial solidarity work opens geographical safe passage across a whole range of spatial scales, from local transportation to national navigation to global communication.
The ways in which the spatial movement secured through geosocial solidarity is linked to local social movement and global communication at the same time further illustrates the multi-layered kinds of community building we saw at both City Plaza and PIKPA. Both places have sought to develop meaningful connections with their neighbors, including with the public school next door to City Plaza in Athens and with austerity-stricken households around Mytilene that have benefited from the free food and clothing prepared at PIKPA. In turn and internally both sites have also fostered new kinds of transnational community through solidarity between refugees and international activists and volunteers or ‘solidarians’ as they are called at City Plaza. It is by way of marking this community that we included in our journal article a photograph taken by Nasim Lomani of all the diverse kids from City Plaza holding signs outside saying ‘CITY PLAZA: WE LIVE AND LEARN TOGETHER’. We share this image again here to conclude this photo essay, noting as we do that the way the letter ‘Z’ is being held sideways allows one to read the sign as saying something supplementary, critical and questioning too: namely, ‘CITY PLAN A: WE LIVE AND LEARN TOGETHER’.
We want to ask in closing what it would mean to make living and learning together the global City Plan A, not just for Athens, and not just for cities across Europe, but for citizenship globally? The scenes of safe passage we have highlighted here suggest that many activists and refugees working for and through geosocial solidarity are seeking to expand the rights of citizenship in just this critical cosmopolitan way. However, as we have also underlined throughout, their efforts remain in tension with Hotspot geopolitics and with the other dominant power relations defining and dividing citizens from non-citizens and sub-citizens. This is a tension that cannot be wished away or ignored. It is unrelenting and has deeply damaging embodied consequences for all those pushed towards sub-citizenship and extended exile (see also Hyndman and Giles, 2018; and Sparke, 2017). And because of a rising global backlash against refugees, the associated geopolitics of exclusion and border building threatens now to turn still more deadly. In the face of this violence, we hope more scenes of safe passage through geosocial solidarity can continue to be constructed and connected globally (see also Carney et al 2018).
Our especial thanks to Natalie Oswin for her invaluable editorial advice and support, to Nasim Lomani for permission to use his ‘WE LIVE AND LEARN TOGETHER’ photo, as well as to Antonis Vradis for a wonderful welcome to Athens and just-in-time translation help.