1 ‘Solidarity to Refugees’: The Developmental Cycle of a Cultural Innovation

This essay discusses ‘solidarity to refugees,’ its rise in the form of a new patriotism, and its decline and fall from 2016 to 2021. It approaches ‘solidarity to refugees’ ethnographically, from the bottom up and in emic terms, as a socially and politically productive symbolic structure of affect towards displaced people.Footnote 1 ‘Solidarity’ (alilengii) as well as ‘hospitality’ (filoxenia) are analysed as emic or native terms, rather than employed as general, descriptive categories, and, thus, they are put in quotation marks. The emic strategy that is adopted here puts analytical emphasis on the everyday usage of unofficial categories on the ground. From the locals’ point of view both ‘solidarity’ and ‘hospitality’ have provided the key metaphors that alternatively organise their engagement with the irregular travelers. Therefore, the analysis of both metaphors in the specific historical context of their use and from an emic perspective allows the more thorough, in depth understanding of the set of meanings that inform the engagement of locals with the displaced people and the transformations in local attitudes.

‘Solidarity to refugees‘ (alilengii stus prosfiyes) has been one of the most important legacies of the so called ‘European refugee crisis.’ In Greece the two categories, solidarity and refugeehood, have been around for some time now, yet until recently they have been kept separate from one another. ‘Solidarity,’ literally meaning ‘standing by someone,’ suggests a horizontal, egalitarian attitude of support towards a fellow human being who needs help. It historically referred to comrades suffering police prosecution or, more recently, to victims of the economic crisis.Footnote 2 The term ‘refugee’ referred to the Ottoman Christians who came to Greece after the big Exodus mostly from Anatolia in 1922.Footnote 3 These two symbolic categories, ‘solidarity’ and ‘refugee,’ came together for the first time in the course of the ‘refugee crisis,’ a development that was made possible by the resignification of ‘refugee’Footnote 4 –now meaning a person on the move– and its application to the displaced people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, who arrived in big numbers to the Aegean islands. In 2015, in a short period of time, yesterday’s ‘migrants’ turned into ‘refugees.’ The new identity, which was attributed to the, mostly Syrian and Afghan and often ‘middle class,’ irregular travelers by the locals, allowed the extension of ‘solidarity’ to them. They were treated as vulnerable human beings (anthropi) in need, irrespective of color/race, ethnicity, social class or age.Footnote 5

The new symbolic formation replaced the historically dominant ‘hospitality to migrants’ (filoxenia stus metanastes). The latter suggested a contradictory attitude of openness to the newcomers from the East. As is evident in the rich ethnographic literature,Footnote 6 ‘hospitality’ combines two opposite sides, xenophilia and xenophobia. It identifies the migrant’s settlement in the host territory as a ‘problem’ to be dealt in a hierarchical way and an assimilationist direction. In the period before the ‘refugee crisis,’ ‘hospitality to migrants’ was in retreat, exhausted by the violent conflict between its two political sides, the xenophilic Left and the xenophobic Right battling for political hegemony.

The replacement of ‘hospitality to migrants’ by ‘solidarity to refugees,’ in the autumn of 2015 and during the climax of the civil war in Syria, was a turning point. The upcoming attitude was a cultural innovation carrying the promise of deep changes in the Greek collective sub conscious. During the first years of the economic crisis a wave of the worst xenophobic violence ever experienced had swept Greece, a wave that reached its probably highest point with the murder of Shehzad Luqman in January 2013 by Golden Dawn members.Footnote 7 Two years after, a major reversal of cultural mood seemed to be on the way.

I have been ethnographically following closely the whereabouts, the ups and downs, of ‘solidarity to refugees’ from a privileged position, Skala Sykamnias, ‘my anthropological village,’ a small fishing community that received more than a quarter of a million irregular border crossers in a period of a few months, and Mytilene, my professional base and capital of the humanitarian regime in Greece.Footnote 8

Since the EU-Turkey Statement of 2016 the ‘refugee crisis’ has entered a new phase. Because of the deal and the subsequent re-bordering of the Aegean, the displaced people became trapped on the islands and their place in the humanitarian regime as asylum seekers became contested from different sides. The development of protests by both locals and asylum seekers and the intensification of conflict reached a climax with the ‘pogrom’ against the 150 Afghan asylum seekers who occupied the central square of Mytilene in April 2018. This was a turning point. As a good part of the local population withdrew its tolerance towards the asylum seekers and generously offered it to the violent xenophobes, the patriotism of ‘solidarity to refugees’ came to its conclusion.

In this essay I would like to address a set of questions on the developmental cycle of ‘solidarity to refugees’ –its rise, demise and eventual fall. How has ‘solidarity to refugees’ been gradually reconfigured in the new circumstances, after the EU-Turkey Statement of 2016? What was the impact of the conflicts around the prolonged stay of displaced people on the island, of the asylum seekers’ struggles but also of the xenophobic reactions to their presence, on ‘solidarity’? How do the grassroots mobilisations for and against the displaced people and contests around ‘solidarity’ impact high level politics? I particularly want to address these issues from the angle of the events of April 2018, a moment of climax of grassroots struggles and a turning point in local attitudes towards the irregular travelers.

2 The Rise of a New Patriotism: ‘Solidarity to Refugees’ from a Grassroots Movement into a State Project

2.1 Birth: Grassroots Empathy in the Caring Border

‘Solidarity to refugees’ was born on the frontline, on the shores of the Eastern Aegean islands, the squares of Athens and along the route that was followed by the irregular travelers on their way to the Northern European destinations. It first emerged in the grassroots, in everyday practices of rescue at sea and first reception, among ordinary citizens, activists, local and foreign volunteers and humanitarian workers. It took the form of empathy with and support for the displaced people, particularly in the early phase of the ‘crisis.’Footnote 9

In the summer and autumn of 2015, almost one million displaced men, women and children entered European territory through the Aegean. Half of them came through Lesvos. The record number of people who crossed the European Union (EU) border in its Eastern Mediterranean route employed a new type of passage to the Aegean islands: due to the short distance to cover it was a private, small scale, and easy to manage operation involving inflatable dinghies usually carrying 40–60 people. This type of passage invited an equally decentralised and privatised, but also democratic, grassroots model of response.Footnote 10 Since the official state authorities were unable to cope with the situation, a significant part of the work of rescue and first reception of the border crossers was realised unofficially, by many private individuals –locals, volunteers and activists. In the context of an unprecedented mobilisation of human and material resources throughout Europe, relying on social media, thousands of foreign and Greek citizens came to Lesvos to help. At the peak of the crisis, more than 3000 non-local volunteers and activists were operating on the island. The rise of digital grassroots humanitarianismFootnote 11 totally transformed the frontier zone of Northern Lesvos into a humanitarian borderscape, an unstable, diverse yet highly energetic margin. As the policies of deterrence and the pushbacks were replaced by the spontaneous offering of help by thousands of volunteers, a caring border was produced.Footnote 12

In these conditions, an attitude of welcome to the displaced people emerged in the frontline and gained wider visibility particularly through social media. ‘Solidarity to refugees,’ as this attitude was coined by ordinary citizens, activists, politicians and the media, was generated from below.Footnote 13 In the context of unofficial rescue and reception at the grassroots, the relationship of many locals and foreign volunteers with the border crossers, mostly middle class Syrian families with lots of children, became personalised; spaces for interpersonal interaction and empathetic understanding of their predicament were created, and this, in effect, radically altered the local attitudes towards them.Footnote 14

During the 2015 crisis the irregular border crossers stopped being conceived as ‘illegal migrants’ (lathro-metanastes). Instead they were reclassified as ‘refugees.’ The emic category of ‘migrant’ suggests a claim to settle in the host environment and thus raises the sovereign worries that dominate the practice of ‘hospitality.’ ‘Refugee,’ on the other hand, is a politically innocent and sympathetic category, which in the local mind, besides recalling the traumatic memories of the 1922 ‘Asia Minor Disaster’ and the massive exit of ethnic Greek Christians from Anatolia, suggests a person on the move, in transit, with no intention to settle in the locality.Footnote 15 For the first time in local perception the displaced people were divested of all troubling particularities –the color of their skin, their ethno-national identity, their language or, most important, their religion- and were identified on the basis of a common denominator, as vulnerable, suffering ‘human beings’ in need.

‘Solidarity,’ suggesting a rather lighter form of sociality than ‘hospitality,’ with fewer ‘obligations’ attached to it, a short-term arrangement that lasts as long as the other is in a state of need, was often employed in the extra-parliamentary Left towards ‘comrades’ suffering police prosecution. After 2010, it gained wider currency and characterised the ‘solidarity movement’ towards the victims of the economic crisis.Footnote 16 In 2015 the reconfiguration of the irregular travelers in need made possible the dramatic change of attitude. Thus, ‘solidarity’ was extended to include them, thereby replacing the politically controversial ‘hospitality to migrants.’

2.2 Consolidation: The Humanitarian Regime

This shift of attitude was initially partial. Xenophobic reactions were strong on the ground, leading to internal strife and intercommunal conflicts that started breaking down the local communities in the front line.Footnote 17 Yet ‘solidarity to refugees’ was soon consolidated in the context of the regime of humanitarian governance, which was established under UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) auspices when Greece was officially declared to be in a state of ‘humanitarian emergency.’Footnote 18

In the summer and autumn of 2015, the collapse of the border and the subsequent retreat of the state to the very basics created a vacuum in the management of the ‘refugee crisis.’ Greek authorities, despite their commitment to apply the ‘hotspot system’ in the frontline, could not manage the massive flows alone.Footnote 19 For the first time the EU deployed its own humanitarian response unit inside Europe and UNHCR increased its staff in Greece from a dozen to around 600 in a few weeks.Footnote 20 The interstate agents that took control of the situation, in cooperation with international and few local NGOs under the auspices of the UNHCR, gradually filled the vacuum side by side with the grassroots initiatives and the experimental ‘structures’ that were born in the informal humanitarian sector.

The local regime of humanitarian governance involved three categories of actors-the displaced people, the locals (including state officials) and the foreign humanitarians. It was premised on a very simple idea of how to inter-connect the three sides: state and municipal authorities offered ‘hospitality’ to the foreign humanitarian actors and, through them, provided help and ‘solidarity’ to the displaced people. You often had the impression that local authorities were nominally present in the running of humanitarian affairs. The actual work, the division and coordination of humanitarian labor or the administration of funding were done by the experienced foreign humanitarians.

From the perspective of local authorities, this worked as a disemic model of governance: ‘hospitality’ towards the ‘inside’ of the humanitarian regime, the foreign humanitarian agents of governance, ‘solidarity’ towards the ‘outside,’ the irregular travelers, recipients of help. Through their inclusion in the hierarchical structures of ‘hospitality’ and their subjection to the ‘law of hospitality’Footnote 21 the humanitarian ‘guests’ symbolically confirmed the sovereign status of the local authorities –they offered the illusion of sovereignty– and got literally a free hand to pursue their operations. Local authorities, on the other hand, performed ‘solidarity’ indirectly, through the foreign humanitarian actors and their actual contribution in the provision of aid.

Although the unconditional welcome of ‘refugees’ was adopted in official discourse, ‘refugee solidarity’ primarily informed unofficial humanitarian action, and in this capacity started working as a sort of legitimising superstructure of the humanitarian regime. It also became more established as the humanitarian regime expanded its own social and economic base forming a whole assemblage of mechanisms and practices and producing important spatial transformations which I have described using the term ‘humanitarian town.’Footnote 22 I refer to a new dimension of urban space, which is produced by the humanitarian regime. As the town adopted the properties of humanitarian space it turned into a complex, dynamic field, where various political, institutional, and economic agents, forces, mechanisms, and processes met to produce antagonistic relations.

The humanitarian town is composed of a network of interactions emplaced in humanitarian spaces, yet extending far beyond them in all directions.Footnote 23 It is geographically located in all sorts of humanitarian spaces –camps, ‘structures,’ residences, offices, warehouses, ‘schools,’ recreational facilities– and made of all sorts of interactions (between displaced people, humanitarian workers, state officials and locals), yet it is shaped around two defining types of accommodation, the camps and the urban refugee residences and places of refugee sociality. After March 2016 the hotspot and the municipal camp of Karatepe suggested the bureaucratic, disciplinary and ultimately biopolitical aspect of the humanitarian regime, while the places of residence and sociality in the town offered alternative outlets for interaction and, often creative, experimentation.Footnote 24

For the displaced people the humanitarian regime worked as a special entrance to local society. In this respect, it mediated between the locals and the displaced people, thus changing the terms of their interaction. It eventually functioned as a buffer zone, offering much needed assistance, visibility and protection from xenophobia. It also offered spaces of experimentation in new ways of inter-cultural action and interaction that promised the transcendence of the narrow limits and the self-centredness of ‘hospitality.’

The humanitarian regime relied on the social alliance between the professional humanitarians, the segment of the local population that embraced ‘solidarity to refugees’ on pragmatic grounds and the idealist ‘solidarians.’ The regime eventually became more solid as it acquired roots in the growing humanitarian economy. Humanitarian tourism was in full swing. New professions emerged and a good part of the local population either diversified in the direction of the booming humanitarian economy or became employed in humanitarian structures.

2.3 Official Upgrading: ‘Refugee Solidarity’ as a State Project

‘Solidarity to refugees’ was also fashioned from above and eventually upgraded into a new patriotism by the SYRIZA (Sιnaspismos Rizospastikis Aristeras [Coalition of the Radical Left] -ANEL (Anexartiti Elines [Independent Greeks]) government and the sympathetic media.Footnote 25 As a big, principally mediatic, state project, the new patriotism capitalised on the border spectacleFootnote 26 and the stories and representations of rescue and reception. ‘Refugee solidarity’ was celebrated as a distinctive mark of the local and national character and a property ingrained in places such as Lesvos or Skala. In this capacity, it was embraced by large sections of the population at the national level, turning into a sort of national pride and an asset with which the government attempted to restore the country’s wounded international image.Footnote 27

The crisis attracted the attention of world media and eventually offered immense visibility to the village, the island, and the protagonists of the humanitarian drama. The journalists were primarily interested in the rescue at the frontline. The new spectacle of the caring border portrayed the rescue in dramatic aesthetic terms as a relation between a vulnerable refugee, often a child or a woman, and a virile male lifeguard or just a caring person. In this respect, the visual economy of the crisis adopted a strong soteriological tone.

Skala was a major provider of the raw materials –the emotional narratives of the drama of rescue, personal accounts and, most important, photos– with which the romance of ‘solidarity’ was produced. A cataclysm of photos from the village flooded the globe. The best example of course is the photo of ‘the three grannies feeding the refugee child’ by the photographer Lefteris Partsalis, one of the most significant photos of the 2015 crisis. This photo had a remarkable career. Soon after it became viral on the internet it was upgraded into a big background poster at the joint press conference of the Greek Prime Minister and the President of the European Parliament, it latter figured as the emblem of Lesvos during the Pope’s visit to the island and covered a wall in the Mytilene airport. This emblematic photo offered immense visibility to Militsa Kamvisi, the elderly woman who was photographed feeding the baby, turning her into a star of ‘solidarity.’ As an effect of the immense visibility she gained from the photo, she gave tenths of interviews to the national and international press, she was awarded prizes (including being one of the three official candidates for the Nobel Peace prize who were selected by the Greek government), and, together with the other two elderly women of the photo, inspired a wave of humanitarian pilgrimage to Skala.

In all these performative activities, ‘solidarity’ was celebrated as an essence that lies in places, such as Skala and Lesvos, or in ordinary individuals: all these were assumed to constitute the ‘human face’ of Greece or Europe. The actual behavior of people, emptied of its idiosyncratic complexity, in visual and other forms, turned into the symbolic base of a political project. Thus ‘solidarity to refugees’ emerged as a new symbolic topos with which citizens could identify and thus turn to ‘solidarians.’Footnote 28 Α new cosmopolitan form of political attachment and, as in the case of constitutional patriotism, a post national identity, not to say faith, was under construction.Footnote 29

In one word, all this together –the representations, the honors, the exhibitions, the visits– were fused into a larger political project; they made up what I have coined as the new ‘patriotism of solidarity to refugees.’Footnote 30 This has been the political legacy of the ‘refugee crisis.’ In 2015–2016 the ‘patriotism of solidarity to refugees’ adopted multiple functions: it legitimised the humanitarian regime and provided an important political horizon to the Greek government of the Radical Left which was shaken by the negative outcome of its negotiation with its creditors. It also overshadowed the dark side, which was present from the first moment of the crisis: the xenophobic reactions, the exploitation of the asylum seekers and, particularly, the internal strife that was generated by the passage of the displaced people through localities.

3 The Decline: Excessive Bordering and the Political Contestation of the Ambiguous ‘Asylum Seeker’

The new patriotism fell victim to the closure of the Balkan corridor and the effects of the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016, which, by instituting an internal border, set the new terms of (im)mobility in the Aegean. It was undermined by the social and political protest and conflict which arose around the immobilisation of the displaced people and the ambiguous status of the asylum seeker that was officially attributed to them. After March 2016 almost all irregular travelers opted for seeking asylum in Greece. The legal status of the asylum seeker provided the source of a new identity, which politically enabled the displaced people yet also exposed them to the suspicion and eventual hostility of the locals since it hung suspended in-between the (innocent) deserving ‘refugee’ and the (threatening) ‘migrant.’ Under these conditions ‘solidarity to refugees’ eventually demised where it was actually born, at the grassroots, in the very consciousness of all those who had earlier expressed sympathy yet later, in the course of the struggles that were generated around the continuous presence of the displaced people on the island, turned their back to them.

The decline of the new patriotism is a multi-factor phenomenon. Here I want to discuss three principal factors: the formation of the internal border and the immobilisation of the border crossers on the islands, the fragmentation and eventual decline of the humanitarian regime and the contests around the challenging figure of the ‘asylum seeker.’

3.1 The Internal Border as a Source of Stagnation and Subsequent Protest

The policy of geographical restriction of the newcomers to the islands, which became effective in the context of the EU-Turkey Statement, had an immense impact on the mobility and the local demographics of the displaced people. Once stuck on Lesvos the new, more ethnically diversified, arrivals radically transformed the local humanitarian scene.

The internal border was not waterproof. Quite the contrary, there was a certain degree of mobility of displaced people across it, in the direction of the Greek mainland, mostly on grounds of vulnerability.Footnote 31 The Greek government strategically managed the otherwise restricted mobility of displaced people, by closing and opening the tap depending on the number of arrivals, through the manipulation of the criteria that decided mobility, and particularly the criterion of ‘vulnerability.’ Thus, emphasis shifted from the external caring border of 2015–2016 to the internal strategic border.

Yet, the very slow pace of the asylum process, which was engulfed in legal battles over the rights of the irregular travelers and suffered structural weaknesses (e.g. small number of asylum officials) resulted in big delays. For this reason, an increasing number of asylum seekers were stuck in Lesvos and the other frontline Aegean islands, suspended in a prolonged state of waiting. Their ‘congestion’ on the islands, to use a popular term, was a continuous source of strain for them as well as for the locals. It fueled the corrosive forces that eventually undermined ‘refugee solidarity’ in the Aegean.

No doubt, this was a complex situation. The life of displaced people in Lesvos from 2016 onwards had its bright as much as its dark sides. On the bright side, one could count the new spaces of symbiotic sociality, primarily organised around projects of informal education, ‘schools’ and ‘nurseries,’ which had spread all around, in the humanitarian town and the camps, and the limited, yet important, immersion of the asylum seekers, who lived in apartments, in urban life.Footnote 32 On the dark side, the hotspot of Moria dominated as a clear case of failed protection. Oversised, with serious problems in sanitation, accommodation and medical aid, the hotspot was a constant source of often suicidal violence.

It is not easy to describe the exact balance between the two extremes since the living conditions of the asylum seekers were quite volatile and changed all the time. Yet, the management of the internal border through the strategic handling of ‘vulnerability’ by the SYRIZA-ANEL government, systematically failed to decongest the island and diminish the pressure. It was principally undermined by the spectacular on-going inability of the authorities to improve the conditions in the hotspot of Moria. Therefore, the hotspot was increasingly exporting trouble to Mytilene and the rest of the island. The bad conditions in the hotspot were regularly leading to unrest –riots, suicides, inter-ethnic violence– and fed a chain of protests and mobilisations from all sides. This was increasingly becoming an ideal environment for the application of the strategies of Ultra-Right xenophobes and their allies who struggled for visibility and political gains. The occupation of the central square of Mytilene by tenths of asylum seekers and the violent reactions of locals in April 2018, as well as the arson of a number of humanitarian facilities in the first half of 2020, and the eventual destruction by fire of the hotspot of Moria in September 2020 are key moments in this middle term cycle of contention and unrest.

3.2 The Humanitarian Regime Under Transformation and Eventually in Retreat

From a certain moment onwards, particularly after the UNHCR ended its ‘emergency response’ in Greece and reduced its staff in 2017, the humanitarian regime shrunk in numbers and its informal sector, the grassroots humanitarians, went into retreat. As the regime turned into a more bureaucratic and technocratic direction, it started fragmenting into its multiple components (e.g. the professional humanitarians and the activists).

The policy of geographical restriction changed the operational priorities which after 2016 shifted from rescue and first reception to accommodation, protection and education. As rescue was bureaucratised and went back to the full control of the Hellenic Coastguard and Frontex, the bipartite character of the regime also changed, and, with the retreat of grassroots humanitarianism, the unofficial side declined and to a large extent became integrated into the official one.

Most importantly, the humanitarian regime became increasingly Hellenised, thus losing its disemic character: ‘hospitality’ overpowered ‘solidarity.’ On the one hand, the Greek state authorities gradually took control of important functions in the administration of humanitarian finances, in education and in the overall management of the crisis. The UNHCR retreated from the role of financial manager and coordinator to that of consultant, while the foreign NGOs occupied an increasingly marginal position. On the other hand, the growth of Greek NGOs and the recruitment of Greek personnel by the big international organisations facilitated the better integration of humanitarians with local society. In this regard, the social base of the humanitarian regime stabilised, and its compositional dualism increased as well.

The hotspots changed their function, which now included not only reception, identification and the detention of those facing deportation, but also the processing of asylum applications, accommodation and even informal education. The official camps and structures of ‘hospitality,’ such as the hotspot of Moria and the municipal camp of Karatepe, replaced the informal camps of first reception in the centre of public attention. The Moria hotspot, particularly, grew into a huge administrative structure. At the same time, as the state regained control, the humanitarian regime fell prey to the antagonism between political parties. It was subjected to the dynamics of the extremely polarised political scene (1 year before the national and municipal elections of 2019) and embedded in the heated debates around burning ‘national issues’ such as the difficult Greek-Turkish relations.

Under these conditions, ‘solidarity to refugees’ started losing its glamour, fell in popularity and became deconstructed into its technocratic, philanthropic, transactional, and politico-ideological components. At best, in this new context the predicament of the displaced people was increasingly thought of as a matter of asylum rights and/or in terms of services, and, more generally, ‘hospitality,’ offered to them, and not as an issue of ‘solidarity to refugees.’

3.3 The ‘Asylum Seeker,’ a New Political Subject and a Challenging Puzzle

Asylum, as an institutional structure, and the asylum seeker, as a legal category, were available yet underdeveloped and certainly peripheral in the Greek socio-legal context before 2015.Footnote 33 In this sense, the establishment of the humanitarian regime and the widespread adoption of asylum strategies by the irregular travelers who came to Greece after March 2016 signaled both a quantitative and qualitative change. A new identity was born out of the official category. The ‘asylum seeker’ emerged for the first time as a recognisable identity, suspended between the ‘refugee’ and the ‘migrant.’ This emergent identity is still perceived by many as strange and challenging.

From March 2016 onwards, the great majority of the border crossers opted for applying for asylum in Lesvos. In contrast to those who arrived before March and continued their journey across the Balkan route in order to apply for asylum somewhere in Northern Europe, the newcomers after March risked their forced return to Turkey if they did not ask for international protection. Also, in contrast to the many thousands of African and Asian travelers, who irregularly crossed the Aegean since 2000 to be lost in the grey zone of invisibility, they were more generously offered the (diachronically available) option to claim the status of asylum seeker and the rights that go with it and, therefore, place themselves under the aegis of the humanitarian regime which had become available after 2015.

Their immobilisation on Lesvos radically changed the terms of their perception by the locals. The newcomers ceased being thought of as ‘refugees,’ they reminded the ‘migrants’ of the old days, yet not exactly, at least not as long as they claimed refugee status and the aura of the ‘refugee crisis’ had not disappeared. They belonged to an in-between category, a transitional official status that allowed accessing the support of the humanitarian structures that mediated in their involvement in Greek society. Their institutional and symbolic emplacement in the humanitarian town, the raison d’être of which were the asylum seekers themselves, made a difference, particularly in offering visibility and a basis of empowerment.

On the other hand, the settlement of asylum seekers in camps and apartments was a continuous source of worry. Also, the ‘special rights’ (to humanitarian protection, medical care, accommodation), which were awarded to them by the humanitarian regime, their membership in one of the parallel worlds that emerged in Greece during the years of the crisis, and their visibility were challenging. Instead of hiding (as their predecessors did before 2015), they were all around: men, women and children, proudly taking their evening promenade in the town’s main waterfront, performing their cricket in the playground of the central Lyceum or attending the many informal structures of education and sociality that were spreading in the humanitarian town!Footnote 34

On top of all these, the new, post-2016 group of displaced people exercised their political agency systematically and persistently. They did so often in some sort of coordination with ‘solidarians’ and activists, who shared local knowledge with them, introduced them to the Greek ways of assembling, marching, protesting, and making claims, as well as exercising their rights, and ‘showed them around,’ exploring together the symbolic geographies of mobilisation in an alien environment.Footnote 35 This is how a genealogy of asylum seeker protests and mobilisations was created.

Under these conditions, the humanitarian town became a contested space, particularly as organised groups exploited the growing discomfort around the asylum seekers to pursue xenophobic political agendas. Subsequent conflicts between locals and humanitarians, between locals and the government, between asylum seekers and the government or between locals and asylum seekers were generated.

During these conflicts, the UNHCR was caught in the middle, in an awkward position of neutrality, increasingly marginalised as the Greek state was taking control of the management of the refugee population, unable to put a brake to the internal fragmentation of the humanitarian regime. Humanitarian assistance was losing its nerve as it became increasingly bureaucratised and the informal base of the humanitarian regime, activists, and volunteers, became alienated from its formal administration by the UNHCR and the big NGOs. Particularly foreign activists, who strongly criticised humanitarian officials, started facing the open hostility of the locals.

4 The Events of Sappho Square

4.1 The ‘Pogrom’

On Sunday 22 of April 2018 an unprecedented burst of xenophobia took place in Lesvos. The xenophobic incident, which focused on the occupation of the town’s main square by a big group of Afghan asylum seekers from the hotspot of Moria,Footnote 36 provides a very interesting angle through which we can analyse the developmental cycle of ‘refugee solidarity’ and the causes of its collapse.

The incident happened as two separate moves of protest came together in the central square of Mytilene turning it into a battlefield. The first involved around 150 Afghan asylum seekers –men, women, and children– who occupied Sappho square protesting against their restriction on the island, the bad conditions in the hotspot of Moria and, particularly, the insufficient medical care. Their collective action was part of the long chain of similar moves, demonstrations, occupations, and hunger strikes, which were taking place on the island since March 2016. Asylum seeker mobilisations were testimony of the bad living conditions but also an index of the empowerment of the displaced people. Their repertoire of collective action was becoming increasingly sophisticated as they acquired ground knowledge and became familiarised with local ways and modes of political becoming.Footnote 37

The other move came from organised groups of local xenophobes, who were systematically trying to politically exploit the growing discomfort with the prolonged stay of asylum seekers on the island. It involved activists belonging to the Right (Nea Dimokratia) and the Ultra-Right (Golden Dawn), organised in Facebook groups, exploiting ‘national sensitivities’ during a period of tension in the Greek-Turkish relations and investing in the alleged threat of Islamisation of the island by the primarily Muslim newcomers.Footnote 38

Previous asylum seeker mobilisations had a peaceful conclusion despite the tensions that arose with locals. This time, the centre of the humanitarian town turned into a battlefield. After the end of an informal gathering of local citizens to honor the traditional lowering of the Greek flag in the main square of the town every Sunday, a sort of secular ritual that had gained greater attention because of the crisis in the Greek-Turkish relations, a large group of around 200 right-wing extremists, joined by hooligans and young sympathisers from nearby villages, attacked the Afghan squatters with stones, heavy metallic objects, bottles, Molotov cocktails and flares. The asylum seekers defended their ground peacefully with the help of some ‘solidarians’ and other asylum seekers from Moria. The police did not manage to restrict the local xenophobes and their attacks went on for more than 5 h. According to official calculations, more than 30 people, mostly asylum seekers, and a few policemen were injured and taken to hospital.

Early in the morning the police evacuated the square by force and arrested 103 asylum seekers, thus bringing to violent conclusion a peaceful occupation that had lasted for almost a week. Some newspapers spoke of a ‘pogrom’ and a ‘Crystal night’. Yet, many locals were quite understanding of the xenophobic violence and put the blame to the asylum seekers. Months later, the police pressed charges against some of the alleged local protagonists of the violent attack. The whole issue thus came and, till the winter of 2021, remained under judicial investigation. The asylum seekers were recently acquitted by the local court.

The events in Sappho square were a landmark. This was the most serious incident of explicitly xenophobic mass violence that ever happened on the island and one of the most serious in the country for a long time. After April 2018, asylum seeker protests and mobilisations on the island were frozen for more than a year.

The significance of these events exceeds local boundaries. What I find particularly remarkable is not so much the undoubtedly shocking scale of violence. The asymmetrical violence against the asylum seekers suggested something of greater significance–a clear shift in the direction in which local public opinion was moving. It marked the very end of the patriotism of ‘solidarity to refugees’ in its very birthplace.

4.2 The Threshold: Cultural Incompatibilities

During the asylum seekers’ occupation of Sappho square a threshold was crossed. This was primarily due to the religious mode of organising their political agency. For the first time in the long chain of protests, the asylum seekers avoided to conflate their mobilisation with local ‘solidarian’ actions or offer a recognizably secular, political identity to their protest. Instead they exercised their political agency in their own cultural terms. They pursued a stance of radical autonomy by explicitly articulating their protest in a religious, Islamic idiom. They almost turned the main square into an informal place of worshipping Islam.

The religious mode of mobilisation, which was employed by the protesting Afghans, worked as a powerful reminder of their ethno-cultural specificity. Besides increasing further their visibility, in the local mind this strategy transformed them into a threatening alterity and turned their protest into an act of hubris. For some locals it was also a matter of cultural and aesthetic incompatibility. Because, as one prominent local opinion maker and ‘sympathiser’ to the asylum seekers’ cause argued (from an allegedly secular perspective) in Facebook, Sappho and Islam do not go together!Footnote 39

Under these conditions, the occupation of Sappho square worked as a catalyst among the ‘tired’ locals. Once the Afghan protesters phrased their public collective action in religious terms, they energised the framework of ‘hospitality’ in the local mind, they activated, in other words, a structure of control that demands from the guest to respect the host’s culture, show cultural self-restraint and adopt a public stance of cultural conformity. The public projection of their ethno-religious difference in the context of a political mobilisation with big visibility clashed with the guest’s assumed obligation to comply with local cultural norms. For many sympathisers of the refugee predicament, particularly for those who identified with the refugees on the basis of a common humanity and not on ideological grounds of cosmopolitanism or radical equality, this behavior was too much: it suggested a selfish concern with (asylum) rights and the total neglect of the obligations (of respect) towards the host population.

It was under such conditions that the locals stopped tolerating the presence of the asylum seekers on the island. In April 2018, they instead tolerated the exercise of brutal violence against them by the xenophobic attackers. Those locals who, in 2015, were ‘shamed’Footnote 40 in some sort of pro-refugee action, now, without shame, shifted to reaction. The violent events signified that the protest of the asylum seekers surpassed the limits of tolerance and energised a clear and important shift in public opinion.

5 Conclusion: On the Cultural Limits of an Alternative Politics of Difference

The new patriotism of ‘refugee solidarity’ proved to be ephemeral. Its fate was decided where it was born, at the grassroots, in the interaction of local citizens with the displaced people. As at the beginning the outcome of this interaction largely depended on cultural perceptions of difference, so it was at the end. Once the logic that organised the interaction remained the same, then the new patriotism was destined to fall under the weight of excessive bordering. The migration politics of the conservative government which came into power in the summer of 2019 just confirmed and translated into policy the shift in attitudes towards the asylum seekers that had already taken place in front line societies.

A key lesson we get from the study of the developmental cycle of the patriotism of ‘solidarity to refugees’ concerns the formative power of moves on the ground, particularly in times of crisis. ‘Refugee solidarity’ was both born and concluded at the low level of politics.

‘Refugee solidarity’ grew into a grassroots movement under unique historical circumstances: the open, caring border, the mass mobilisation of young volunteers and activists from Northern Europe, the establishment of a humanitarian regime on European soil. Most important, its upgrading into the new patriotism was made possible by the conjunctural placement of the displaced people somehow outside the realm of the Greek regime of difference and the terrain of ‘hospitality’ because of their reconfiguration as ‘refugees’ in transit. The official adoption of these grassroots developments was also linked to an equally unique historical phenomenon, the transformation of a marginal political party of the Left, SYRIZA, into the dominant force in Greek politics during the first years of the economic crisis.

The decline of the new patriotism (from 2016 to 2018) followed the same bottom up path. ‘Refugee solidarity’ first demised at the grassroots while SYRIZA was still in power. The multifarious contestations around the presence of the displaced people on the island, which were organised around the slogan of ‘decongestion’, gradually undermined the potential of ‘refugee solidarity.’ As it has become clear, many factors contributed to this development, yet here I want to distinguish and discuss in greater detail one of them that became very salient in the Sappho square incident. I refer to the public mood towards the asylum seekers.

5.1 Volatile Tolerance

Why has the new patriotism failed as a deterrent to the xenophobic backlash? This is a key question. The answer lies in the exact character of mass ‘solidarity.’ ‘Refugee solidarity’ in the form of patriotism was a matter of tolerance rather than of actual engagement with the predicament of the displaced people. Through time, this tolerance, which had a shifting inclination either towards sympathy or towards indifference, proved to be quite volatile.

The majority of those who were once supportive of the cause of the ‘refugees’ were passive observers from a distance. They were agents not of empathy (that presupposes face to face interaction) but of an ‘armchair sympathy,’ a sympathy from afar that is nourished by the mediatic humanitarian sentimentalityFootnote 41 and is often expressed in donations. This attitude of sympathetic tolerance was made easier (not to say possible) by the ongoing movement of the displaced people. However, as it became clear in the April 2018 events, sympathy to the ‘refugees’ lacked firm foundations on alternative ways of thinking the predicament of the displaced people. Therefore, as it was constantly undermined by a strong undercurrent of ‘primary’ concerns about the self and ‘tiredness’ from the prolonged coexistence of local citizens with the ‘problem,’ it became easily exposed to political manipulation.

Most importantly, the tolerance towards the displaced people was defined from the start and remained under the terms of the historically hegemonic way of understanding difference, the assimilationist logic that evaluates the foreign migrant and the refugee on the basis of his (assumed) cultural compatibility with the (national) self. Tolerance is an endemic property of the Greek regime of difference. The puzzling or even challenging alterity of the other (irrespective of whether it is an alterity of sexual orientation, ethno-cultural identity or religion) is tolerated as long as it is kept at bay, in the sphere of cultural intimacy, remaining largely invisible in the informal margins of the everyday.Footnote 42

The tolerance of many local citizens was initially perplexed by the immobilisation, i.e. the continuous presence, of the displaced people on the island. It was further challenged by their ‘offensive’ visibility (often associated with incidences of petty crime) and their insistence on rights and their identity. Therefore, when their presence assumed the ‘aggressive’ form of protest it touched a sensitive nerve. The ‘protesting migrants’ who claim their rights looked the opposite of the innocent ‘refugees’ who need help. On top of this, the use of a religious idiom seemed almost as a provocative act. Based on their own cultural understandings the protesting asylum seekers did not adequately assessed the severe cultural limitations of their mobilisation. Instead of, at least, conforming to the local ways of being a political subject they employed their ways that puzzled and alienated even the few sympathisers to their cause.Footnote 43 The symbolic acts of reciprocity (e.g. gifts) towards the locals, which they employed during the protest, and some gestures of respect (e.g. cleaning the square) and obedience to the authorities were not enough in altering the local mood.

5.2 Innovative Failures

The upgrading of ‘refugee solidarity’ into a patriotic concern, not to say duty, and its conceptualisation as a national attribute further reinforced the articulation of local sentiment towards the asylum seekers in the terms of the assimilationist logic. The Left government did not work on the cultural foundations of patriotism. Probably, it did not have the time nor/or the political will. Therefore, it failed to reconfigure the Greek regime of difference, to shift it in a new, more open direction informed by a post-culturalist, dialogical understanding of the alterity of the displaced people from Asia and Africa.

‘Solidarity to refugees’ became popular in the wider population in the same essentialist terms with the old patriotism, particularly its Leftwing version, and, therefore, lost its innovative potential, its power to transform patriotism in a new direction on the basis of a critical awareness of the complex relation between national self and other.

As an effect, ‘solidarity to refugees’ was trapped in the same terrain with ‘hospitality to migrants’ that was reproduced as its counter-part. Both were anchored on a territorial sense of the self, conceived as essences endemic to place and nation. ‘Refugee solidarity’ eventually developed into a sort of humanitarian fashion which served well the functioning of the humanitarian regime yet lacked its distinct cultural logic. It became, therefore, vulnerable to the political struggles at the grassroots and eventually fell prey to the strategies of the xenophobic Right.

The asylum seekers are still around, living in hotspots, camps, apartments, and alternative structures. Their presence is still surrounded by ambiguity and suspicion and raises anxieties. In the recent past, SYRIZA dealt with this ambiguity through the realistic application of the Left, soft, tolerant side of traditional patriotism. The limitations of this strategy are clear. Since 2020 the New Democracy (Nea Dimokratia) party has eradicated the source of the ‘anxiety’ by eliminating the ‘asylum seeker’ as a distinct identity through the narrowing down of the legal category (and the undermining of legal protection), and by speeding up the asylum process and the reduction of the population of asylum seekers through pushbacks and legally controversial returns.

In these circumstances, the creative processing of this ambiguous identity remains a major challenge for the innovative political forces in Greek society. As long as the struggles of the asylum seekers continue, such challenges will be there, alive, a reminder that their predicament is a potential source of the host’s critical self-awareness.