The Lesvos refugee crisis as disaster capitalism.
Over the spring of 2015, refugee arrivals to Europe started recording an unprecedented increase. The vast majority of these refugees arrived to Greece, and foremost, to the Eastern Aegean Islands, Lesvos, Chios, Samos, and Kos. By the end of 2015, the island of Lesvos alone had seen the arrival of around half a million refugees. Much like any other “disaster,” the European refugee crisis has been exploited for political and economic purposes. Policy makers both within and beyond Europe have evoked the trope of a “crisis” to push for more restrictive, selective, and securitized immigration and border regimes. Meanwhile, commercial actors have secured profits through providing technology and infrastructure to strengthen border enforcement, but also through providing services that have aided states to house, to feed, to administer, to detain, and eventually also to deport, arriving refugees. In critical entry points along the EU’s external border, where a more immediate humanitarian crisis has been (and partly still is) unfolding, a whole array of nonstate actors have been contracted to provide services in receiving, holding and detaining facilities.
On the island of Lesvos, where the fieldwork for this study was conducted, local authorities, communities and activists were largely left to handle the initial stages of the refugee crisis. The autumn of 2015, however, saw the mobilization of a large number of non-state actors to the island. The private security company G4S was, for example, contracted to run the security in the European Union Hotspot of Moria and private travel agencies and shipping companies transported refugees from the Island to the Greek mainland. Besides these larger commercial players, local entrepreneurs tapped into new markets created by the crisis through providing food, goods, housing, and services to refugees and personnel involved in managing the crisis. With state-led efforts largely focused on surveilling, controlling, and securing the border, the bulk of the humanitarian relief work has been (formally or informally) outsourced to non-state actors. By January 2016, the local authorities in Lesvos reported that over 80 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were running operations throughout the island, aided by several thousand volunteers. The unfolding emergency further attracted journalists, photographers, celebrities, artists, filmmakers, activists, researchers, as well as “voluntourists.” The scenes in sites throughout Lesvos during the peak of the crisis can, quite frankly, be described as a “spectacle” that rendered not only the absurdities of the European Union’s border regime painfully visible but also how the crisis had become “big business.”
In the following paper I approach this ‘business’ aspect of the refugee crisis. More specifically, I am interested in discussing how processes of extraction in relation to the crisis center on the bodies and hardships of arriving refugees. A growing body of work highlights how neo-liberal logics increasingly underpin the broader governance of contemporary borders. Part of this is visible in the outsourcing and privatization of key functions in border enforcement, leading to an increasing reliance on on a whole array of private actors in efforts to deter, curb, and manage “illegal” immigration. As migrants and refugees attempt to cross these increasingly selective, restrictive, and securitized borders, their journeys, waiting, detention, relations, suffrage—and even deaths—have become a profitable business for various actors. Ruben Andersson proposes that we can therefore think of borders as representing “extreme zones” of profit extraction—where human lives are being “expelled and mobilized” as economic assets. In this “predatory bio-economy,” as he terms it, it is therefore essentially “the very vitality—and, above all, misery—of human life itself” that is being commoditized.
The usual suspects in such processes are the corporate actors who supply the technology, the know-how, and the personnel for border surveillance and enforcement. This includes private security companies, defense contractors, and others that have made the detection, detention, and deportation of “illegal” border crosses their core business idea. And yet, as indicated in the brief snapshot from Lesvos above, the border/migration industrial complex also includes the many different actors that perform humanitarian relief work in critical border sites. While these are often motivated by an entirely different set of objectives relative to the commercial players, they do nonetheless, as critical scholars of humanitarian border work have underlined, constitute an institutional feature of the way contemporary border regimes are governed and sustained.
There are several interesting aspects of the humanitarian response in Lesvos. One, mentioned in the introduction to this essay, has to do with how major humanitarian players mobilized resources to Lesvos during the autumn of 2015. This development transformed refugee reception on the island, as the know-how and material resources brought by large international NGOs replaced the largely informal systems of reception run by local activists and groups. Astonished, and sometimes also angered, local actors watched how organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC), with annual operating revenues approaching 740 million USD, swept in to erect camps and other forms of infrastructure across the island. While private donations are a major source of funding for organizations like the IRC, the European Union also (belatedly) released funding to the organization providing emergency support in the Greek islands. European Commission documents, dated December 2017, reveal how 481 million Euros have been allocated to UN agencies and NGOs active in Greece, and key recipients among the NGOs are the Danish Refugee Council, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the IRC, and Oxfam.
In Lesvos, the resources of these major organizations were centered at the arrival, registration, and holding sites across the island. Prior to the EU–Turkey Statement, arriving refugees formally registered and temporarily stayed at the First Reception Center of Moria, located a few miles outside of the island capital of Mytilini. Walking around the Moria camp in January 2016 we observed frantic activity both within and outside the camp. At this point the Moria camp, much resembling some form of high security prison with high walls and several layers of barbed wire fence, hosted several thousand people. Due to the vast number of daily arrivals, the camp’s capacity was, however, far from sufficient, causing an informal camp, run by both the larger actors as well as small-scale and ad hoc initiatives, to grow on the adjacent hill. This hill now featured tents of various sizes, a clinic, a child-friendly area, restrooms, a mosque, soup kitchens, and a “tea house.” Along the road facing the hill and the camp, taxies, minivans, and busses are parked. Here some food trucks and make-do cafés also serve food and drinks. Walking toward the main entry gate there was also a small stall offering sim-cards that read “Vodaphone.”
As Naomi Klein has noted in her account of post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka, a striking feature in Lesvos was the “branding” of humanitarian spaces. Apart from professionals walking around in branded vests, everything from rubbish bins to refugee housing units, blankets, buses, toilets and information boards, carried the labels of organizations. The Kara Tepe camp a few miles from Moria, hosting families and other “vulnerable” groups of refugees, almost resembled a “theme park” for humanitarian emergency relief—with the names and symbols of organizations attached to almost every piece of infrastructure. The camp staff informed us that the rationale for this was for the benefit of the refugees (in order for them to identify which organizations provided which services); however, the branding of these spaces needs to be seen in the broader context of the marketization of humanitarian action. Making their contributions “on the ground” visible (as well as auditable) to major funders is central to the operations of these organizations. Beyond branding, such visibility was further ensured through an active online and media presence—aided also by the use of “famous faces” rallying support for their activities. For example, in June 2016, the IRC brought part of the cast of the American TV series Game of Thrones to the island to launch their “Rescue Has No Boundaries” campaign. Online viewers were asked to join the cast in raising funds to the IRC “in making a real difference.” A few months earlier, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees brought Special Envoy and American actress Angelina Jolie to Lesvos. Surrounded by large numbers of journalists and photographers she made a visit to the Moria camp.
The problems with staging humanitarian emergencies within the realm of “show business” are, no doubt, substantial. Critical scholars of humanitarian communication have long argued that celebrity advocacy premiers short-term and consumerist forms of engagement from the public—over longer-term systemic demands for change. In the context of the refugee crisis, and for the purposes of this essay, it also important to note how celebrity advocacy has been a way for humanitarian players to effectively exploit and couple market logics with the theatrics of disaster. In videos shot in the most dramatic locations, along the beaches and squalid camp facilities, celebrities have here traded their “fame” for “donations” to those who “actually do something.”
The theatrical dynamics of disaster exploited in such funding strategies from large as well as small organizations in Lesvos would soon also come into conflict with the branding of the island as a tourism destination. For local communities, the explosion in dramatic images from the beaches and camps of Lesvos were seen as posing a direct threat to their livelihoods. In the face of declining tourism, local volunteers and groupings repeatedly pled with international actors to take caution in how the island was being portrayed. As one woman expressed it in a meeting we attended, “We still have to be here and try to make a living” once the international volunteers and professionals have returned home, or have moved on to the next crisis zone.
While it is hardly surprising that already large corporate-like NGOs have relied on marketized logics to sustain (and expand) their activities during the crisis, it is perhaps more interesting to take a closer look at the more sophisticated ways in which predatory and neo-liberal logics came to underpin the operations of the many small-scale, grassroots groups and initiatives that performed emergency relief across Lesvos. As several scholars have noted, the proliferation of many smaller and informal initiatives has been a defining feature of the public’s response to the EU’s (mis)management of the crisis. Many of these initiatives emerged in direct response to the unfolding emergency, and among the thousands of “volunteers” arriving to Lesvos, there were political activists, students, medical professionals, carpenters, members of faith-based groups, musicians, filmmakers, and so on. Many members of such smaller-scale and in/formal initiatives were eager to distinguish themselves from the humanitarian giants—perhaps especially from the corporate elements of their activities and campaigning. In order to sustain their activities, however, many of these groups also relied on private donations from sympathetic “spectators” in their country of origin or elsewhere.
During the peak months of the crisis social media platforms saw the vast proliferation of (crowd) funding calls from individuals and initiatives running activities in Lesvos. Much like the humanitarian professional agencies, such calls were often amplified through exploiting the theatrics of disaster—placing the suffering of arriving refugees front and center of graphic images as well as texts. A story that kept resurfacing during our field visits to Lesvos was, for example, how people would take selfies with refugees, and their children, directly upon their arrival to the beaches. Local activists also spoke of people arriving for brief, or even momentary, visits to snap pictures of themselves together with refugees in the midst of the chaos when overcrowded rubber dinghies were arriving.
In the village of Molyvos, a key entry point for refugees in the north of the island, the chair of the local Council explained how local residents had been “really amazed” with the photos taken by different actors along the nearby beaches. “They were trying to capitalize on the situation,” he said, ‘‘I would never take a photo with a baby in my arms!” While being critical of the way that organizations and movements came to the island to “harvest the benefits” of crisis, he simultaneously recognized that this situation was grounded in the state’s failure to provide decent reception conditions for those seeking protection in Europe.
For groups with limited budgets, selfies thus provided an “easy” and “low-budget” means to communicate their physical presence in the midst of the “drama,” which, in turn, worked to legitimize their financial claims. While the “dramatized” calls for funding from in/formal groupings in Lesvos is—no doubt—a testament to the desperate situation facing arriving refugees, these selfies—quite literally—place the refugee body at the center of value extraction processes. In many ways such strategies play on the same consumerist-oriented and neo-liberal ways of approaching emergency relief as the humanitarian giants exhibit. Refugees arriving to the islands here constitute “ideal victims”—deprived of rights, dignity, and agency—but in need of rescue (quite literally).
Lilie Chouliaraki proposes that we can understand these selfies with refugees in the context of the crisis as a technology of power that reinforces the “othering” of refugees—through the effective coupling of geopolitical and symbolic bordering practices. In order to fully grasp the meaning of this in the context of humanitarian action in Lesvos we need to revisit the works of scholars like Polly Pallister-Wilkins and William Walters, who have suggested that humanitarian border work often finds itself “complicit” with processes that center on exclusion and expulsion rather than with humanitarian ideals. As such, humanitarianism is being operationalized to manage, neutralize, or even “normalize” (failing) border management practices.
The actors involved in humanitarian relief work in Lesvos and beyond have clearly played a fundamentally important role in saving lives and upholding some form of decency and dignity in Europe’s (mis)management of the event we now know as the “refugee crisis.” It is important to recognize the role of these efforts—and the political importance of the many “solidarity encounters” such work has involved. The neo-liberal and predatory logics that underpin the European border regime, however, forces all actors—pretty much no matter their original intent—to run their operations in accordance with these logics. This has profound implications also for processes of extraction in relation to humanitarian border work more broadly, and during the time of crisis in particular.
The state’s withdrawal from key functions at the border—including for provisions of basic humanitarian relief, opens up a “market” in which actors compete for the sympathy, trust, and funds from public as well as private donors. In doing this, groups of various kinds not only rely on established (racialized as well as gendered) grids of intelligibility in the portrayal of human suffering and the actors who “actually do something”—but also on consumerist forms of humanitarianism (and even solidarity work) that reinforce neo-liberal logics. The theatrics of disaster, again, clearly play an important role in such processes—and the fact that refugees arrived to beaches in overcrowded rubber dinghies here provided an almost unprecedented opportunity to capitalize on real human drama.