The ferry


ne of their Arabic speaking translators, a Greek whose parents had migrated from Sudan in the 1970s, told me that the Doctors of the World operates a mobile unit on the ferries, taking the same route that the migrants do, from the islands to Athens, returning again and repeating the same journey. If at one time, loudspeakers on the ferry made announcements only in Greek and English, now you could also hear Arabic and Farsi. Above me on the upper deck a No Borders activist group holds a large banner with the “No Borders” slogan inscribed on it, while journalists hold their cameras and equipment protectively, ready for action on the field. On the ferry, those migrants who had enough resources to book a cabin were allowed to move freely throughout the whole space of the ship as opposed to those who did not; the ferry personnel made sure that the latter stayed put within the boundaries of the lower deck, a space reserved only for them, where they could sleep only on chairs and on the floor.

Police officers come and go and sometimes check the papers of a migrant who, to them, in the words of my interlocutor “[do] not look like a refugee but more like a Pakistani.” “I guess it is because I have darker skin, that the police man checked me,” a young man who was indeed from Pakistan commented to me,“but I showed him my papers and he said that it is ok, I can continue my journey, it is ok for me to be here.” This traveler was not perceived to belong to the category of the “deserving refugee” but he was holding the right document that gave him (at least in early March) the right to the ferry. But as the police officer commented to me later on, to “nothing more than this”: “Pakistanis will not be granted the right to stay in Greece nor be allowed to continue to Europe legally” (Conversation with police officer on March 9th, 2016, on ferry from Lesvos to Samos).

In this intervention, I want to turn to the mobile aspects of the “hotspot” system governing Greece, that is, certain routes and categories that are being reified as identities mapped out between the islands and the mainland. Thus, I hope to move beyond the idea/image of a homogeneous national border and remote islands (geographically and politically) at the external border of the EU. The fact, for example, that Greek ferries now have announcements in Arabic and Farsi, highlights mobility and the specific remoteness of islands in relation to Athens and the right to mobility. The ferry, like the border itself, follows the people which have passed through it, into the interior of the national state and beyond. It defines who and how many people are going to take which ferry. It decided who will go to Athens and who to Kavala (a port in North Greece) and from there to the northern border at Idomeni. And, now more recently, the hotspot system decides who will stay on the islands and who will be ferried back to Turkey.

The ferry, in this way, also becomes a hotspot, a mobile spatial entity, that brings us close to Paul Gilroy’s conceptualization of the ship as a micro-political and micro-cultural symbol in motion, forcibly dislocating and relocating people from the islands to the mainland. Analyzing the hotspot from the perspective of the ferry helps us to understand how the hotspots are situated in a transportation network and that there is continual circulation between them: of migrants to the mainland, of humanitarian workers and volunteers, of doctors, of EU officials, and of researchers.2

Protest at the Olive Grove outside the Moria hotspot on Lesvos (Source: Shah, March 2016)

The right to the ferry

March 12th, 2016. Outside the official registration center of Moria hotspot on Lesvos island, at the Olive Grove, Pakistani migrants seeking refuge with the support of an activist NGO that operates outside the Moria hotspot hold a protest demanding their registration that will enable them to buy a ferry ticket for the Greek mainland. UNHCR is telling them that “Europe” has closed its borders to all Pakistani migrants. Just the previous day, the coordinator of the hotspot had visited the Pakistani migrants at the Olive grove and told them that the border has always been closed for them, that “Europe” never wanted them, and that gradually not only they, but migrants of all nationalities, are becoming a problem for Europe. She clarified that this was neither her decision nor that of the Greek government’s, but the EU’s.

During the protest, the Pakistani migrants shouted “We love you Greece, Europe please,” and “We are all humans.” At this point, the hotspot administrator gave them the option to accept “voluntarily return” or to enter the hotspot, apply for asylum, and be detained until their claim had been assessed. The Pakistani migrants knowingly resisted applying for asylum; they knew what this meant for them: that they would not be granted refugee status that their asylum claims would be rejected. Thus the asylum application process, for them, was experienced as immediate detention. They did not want to construct their identity as refugees in this way but just to register and move on with their journey to the mainland.

Indeed, when I was on Lesvos just prior to the implementation of the March 20th EU-Turkish deal, the hotspot was dealing with is what governmental actors and NGOs alike referred to as “the Pakistani issue.”3 “We just want to move on we don’t care to be refugees because we know what this means. We have the right to get registered, get the paper and take the ferry to Athens, like what is happening on other islands and up until now. If I knew the situation was like this on this island I would have tried to reach another island, like the one my friend was on.” He knew that the “refugee” card would do nothing but increase his deportability, make him, in other words, more vulnerable by detaining him on the island for an unknown time, while waiting for an answer, just to be rejected in the end. What they wanted was another kind of visibility: simple registration, a paper that would order their removal from the country within three months, which would enable them to buy a ferry ticket for Athens.

As soon as the deal was signed all the migrants that were already in the hotspot, who had arrived prior to the deal, were forcefully removed from the hotspot and ferried to various military controlled camps on the mainland for their asylum cases to be processed there. Those who were deemed ineligible for asylum, such as Pakistanis, were transported to detention centers on the mainland, what are known as pre-removal centers such as the ones in Korinthos and Amigdaleza, to be eventually deported. The reasoning for this: to leave space for all those migrants who would arrive after the deal because the new arrivals would not be allowed to exit the islands until the finalization of their asylum process. Indeed, the majority of them have been imprisoned on these islands for more than six months while many deportations to Turkey have taken place.

The right to the ferry, in other words, has become a daily demand within the “hotspot” reality. Every evening on Chios island, for example, migrants who now can exit the official “hotspot” but who cannot enter the ferry because they lack the necessary documents, gather at the port just before the ferry is ready to embark for Athens. They hold protests there while many of them also try and board the ferry, clashing with the police. Moreover, a few days ago a Syrian friend of mine working as a translator in Kara Tepe camp on Lesvos missed her second and final interview in Athens because the authorities at the port did not allow any migrant to enter the ferry, even those who had “papers.” Their reason was that there were too many migrants with false papers. Gathering at the port in crowds is considered now a crime where arrests take place and imprisonment within a separate section of the “hotspot” is practiced. Thus, I argue, when speaking of “hotspots” in Greece, it is particularly important to turn our analytical gaze to the ports and ferries.

Protest by Pakistani migrants at the Olive Grove, Lesvos (Source: Shah March, 2016)

At the Olive Grove

When the EU-Turkey deal was signed, police started to raid the spaces and camps in which mainly Pakistani migrants had found refuge from detention outside of the “hotspot.” Pakistani migrants  decided collectively to turn themselves in and go inside Moria so that the police would not have to come to the Olive Grove arrest them and cause trouble to the volunteers. In other words, the Pakistani migrants felt that they had no other option than to enter the hotspot and take part in the process its system imposes: detention and asylum application.

Hotspot mechanisms which aim at a criminalization of the “economic migrant” has resulted in all those migrants who are categorized as such to defend themselves as “refugees,” that is to use other strategies of visibility/invisibility in order to prove they are not criminals. The protest that was held at the Olive Grove on the March 20th implementation of the deal, was clearly different from the protest prior to the EU-Turkish deal though they took place at the same site: “we are also refugees, we are not criminals, Europe please help us,” was the protest’s main slogan. A few hours later they entered a space in which, since the end of March, many protests have taken place.

At the end of April while volunteers at the Olive Grove packed up the tents and other infrastructures for Thessaloniki4 to begin their new projects. Basem, a migrant from occupied Baluchistan (Pakistan), also packed his belongings and boarded the ferry for Athens, as he had officially entered the asylum procedure. In this way, he left one identity for another; that of the “refugee-volunteer” (as he put it) volunteering at the Olive Grove for the “asylum applicant.” In other words, he was hoping to be acknowledged as a “refugee,” to gain the political status of the “refugee.”  The journey from Lesvos to Athens delineates new forms, strategies and struggles of visibility and invisibility. The ferry also symbolizes, therefore, shifting identities, both existentially, from one subjectivity to another, and geographically, from the island(s) to the mainland. In this way, migrants’ strategies create links between the islands and the mainland that escape the official accounts of a migrant’s journey by governmental actors and scholars alike.

Although Basem has been identified as a “Pakistani,” he managed to leave Lesvos and take the ferry to Athens, due to the fact that an NGO helped him to receive his protection card, an interview date in Athens and a ticket for the ferry; in other words, the right to leave the island and move within “Greece.” “Back then this card was the most important thing anyone could give me, it helped me to cross a border but now after having arrived and lived in Athens for a while, it has become useless, it does not help me to cross other borders here, on the contrary it has created itself borders, it is a border by itself,” he told me when I met him a few months later in Athens. Basem referred to a shift from the category of the “refugee-volunteer” to the asylum applicant and the different strategies of visibility/invisibility that are at stake/involved. Indeed, during the time of the “Pakistani issue” that took place in late February just before the EU-Turkish agreement in March he didn’t seek refuge by hiding at the Olive Grove just outside the “hotspot” by trying to become invisible in order to avoid arrest and detention but instead chose to become more “visible” as a volunteer: “I fought for a name, to become somebody not just a refugee who was to be given food and clothes, I became a “refugee-volunteer.”

During these times, I remember Basem going about the town of Mytilini, from the port to the Olive Grove, with a yellow jacket tagged with the badge of the NGO and his identity/profession volunteer. In this way he stood out among the other refugees with his name even visible on a badge with the inscription underneath “translator.” He stood out among the “locals” moving around the city. “Of course the police noticed/recognized me, they even knew me but this was my aim” he told me, “to become visible as a volunteer so I would not be arrested along with the other Pakistanis.” This is yet another example of resistance the hotspot system.

At the Olive Grove outside the Moria hotspot on Lesvos (Source: Shah, March 2016)


Moving our analytical gaze from the ferry to the Olive Grove allows me to describe what I see as the unevenness of categories between hotspots and migrants’ strategic use of/protest against categories in different spaces/times. I discern, in other words, uneasy borderlands along/within/through the various identities that the migrants adopt by mapping out their own trajectories in a “Greece” that by governmental actors (Greek and EU) and academics alike is described as “burning.” Already from the islands we discern an uneasiness/unsteadiness around certain categories that are being reified as identities (“local,” “volunteer,” “migrant,” “refugee,” “asylum seeker/applicant,” and “refugee-volunteer”). On the islands such categories may be imposed on the migrants and at the same time adopted either to remain invisible on the islands and thus to avoid detention/deportation or simply to board the ferry to the mainland and move on with their journey. In other words, migrants adopt them at particular moments, depending on the hotspot reality of each island that they find themselves in and the rapid changes that characterize them; border controls, visa regulations, asylum process, ferry regulations, NGOs, and volunteers working “within” the hotspots.

Along with the distinct migrants experiences, unsteady geographies of the hotspot regime can be traced even before the migrants arrive on the islands, that is, on the Aegean passage from Turkey to Greece. Exactly because the conditions and border practices of each hotspot differ, migrants being aware of this from previous travelers or by the facilitators on their journey, often get to “choose” which island they would prefer to disembark on. “Some islands are more expensive than others,” a migrant from Pakistan on Lesvos in March 2016, pointed out to me. Each island has a standard price depending not so much on its distance from the Turkish coast, as one would imagine but on “how easy it is to depart from that island for Athens” or to cross the other border, as the same migrant from Pakistan put it, referring to the “internal” border that exists between the Greek islands and the mainland. How easy and fast it is to board the ferry for Athens speaks of the specific border practices and conditions characterizing the “hotspot” on each island. And with specific conditions I am referring to everything that forms part of what Ruben Anderson calls the “border industry”: coastguards, Frontex, border officials, police, UNHCR stuff, EASO stuff, NGOs, volunteers, activists. It is also important to point out here that once an island became a hotspot, in other words, once the hotspot was fully operating on the island, the price to reach it from Turkey rose, as it was thought that the registration/identification/fingerprinting process would become faster.5 Why migrants decide to land on a specific island instead of others is something that challenges FRONTEX’s definition of migrant routes as driven by smugglers and it grants migrants empirical and conceptual autonomy.

My aim here has been twofold; first, to introduce the ferry as a mobile hotspot and secondly to link the mobile hotspot to Basem’s effort to craft specific identities as he moves from the island to the mainland. What these specific mobilities between hotspot islands and mainland, whether, forced, channeled, or voluntary, show us are the interconnections between the hotspot islands and mainland. At the same time, we can see how these present and ongoing patterns of mobility interconnect to established migrants’ previous but also current movements between hotspot islands and mainland and how, in turn, their stay on the islands is affected by the operations of the hotspot system. Established economic migrants move from the mainland to the islands in order to work in the low paid jobs of the tourist and agricultural sector, or, in the recent past to escape from the racist attacks of the fascist Golden Dawn supporters and police raids in the urban cities (Athens). It is important, in other words, to connect and contrast hotspots’ policies and practices to those on the mainland, particularly the ways in which islands, ferries, and the mainland work to construct “the economic migrant.” 


1 These are three of the five islands that have been identified as hotspots in Greece. The other two are Leros and Kos.

2 The ways in which the hotspots are situated within a transportation system/network are also revealed by the fact that many researchers whose ethnographic site until recently has been the urban metropolis, ever since the islands have become hotspots, have been travelling to the islands for fieldwork. In other ways, there is a continuous movement between the islands and the mainland. Here, in relation to the movement/network between the mainland and the islands, some of the migrants decided not to move on but to remain on the islands while others after their interview in Athens returned to the islands preferring to wait for the decision there.

3 After the deal the Pakistanis officially became the economic migrant and thus deportable subject per excellence. Indeed, it is the migrants from Pakistan that are detained in separate sections within the hotspots, under the pretext of criminal or potentiality for criminal behaviour.

4 Most of the NGOs, humanitarian actors, volunteers and activists abandoned the islands when the deal was implemented and transferred their activities/operations to the mainland.

5 Of course this was before the EU-Turkish deal when there existed a larger heterogeneity among the five hotspots on the islands. 


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