Memorialization and power are inherently interlinked. What gets remembered, how and by whom are particularly important factors when it comes to questions of securitization, bordering and displacement. In many cases states look to forget rather than to remember the people and stories that have passed through their borders, or that they have violently prevented from doing so. Yet, against this backdrop, academics (Petridou 2020; Bounia, Witcomb and Papataxiarchis 2020), film makers, activists and grassroots movements, as well as galleries and museums have found different ways to remember or to question and critique the ways in which left-behind objects are engaged with and in some cases essentialized and appropriated (Gatta 2016; Matteo 2021).
In this piece, I engage with a site full of memories and left-behind objects that have not been curated or catalogued, but rather simply continue to exist as a discomforting ghostly presence on a hillside above the town of Vathy, on the island of Samos, one of the five ‘hotspots’ used to process the asylum claims of displaced people in the Aegean.
For many years the hillside above the town of Vathy was home to the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) of the same name, an old military base with the capacity to house around 650 people that at the height of overcrowding in 2020/2021 hosted around 8,000 people stuck there in limbo awaiting the next stages of their asylum procedure. Predominantly in unsuitable informal structures that failed to protect them from the weather, making them ever more vulnerable to dehydration in the summer, freezing in the winter, as well as a multitude of physical and mental health problems.
Following the building of a Closed and Control Access Centre (CCAC) in a remote hilly area of Samos (the first of five ‘prison- like’ [Author interview 2021] structures to be opened in the Aegean as part of Greece and the European Unions (EU) new approach to asylum management in the country) the old camp was evacuated, and equipment appeared at the bottom of the hill to start to dismantle what was left.
The camp had seen terrible fires, lack of access to clean water, broken and damaged facilities and failures to protect minors within them, inedible food provision as well as a slow and broken asylum system, limited access to education and to medical assistance. The remaining structures on the hillside act as a reminder of the afterlives of crisis. The effect of being stuck here, in a never-ending asylum process has a long tail. The closure of the camp and the removal of people from this space does not mark an end point to the trauma and vulnerability that the system, and its physical and spatial imagining in the form of the camp, have caused (Bird 2022).
Like many other ‘sites that haunt’ across Europe, this ‘non-site of memory’ (Sendyka 2016) will eventually fade away. Either as a result of its deliberate removal, the plans for which are apparently in place (Author interview 2022), or as the remnants and memories are returned, in some part at least, to nature.
Until that time, the site and its memories, then, raise two questions: firstly, what lessons can be learnt about bordering, asylum and humanitarian responses from the fading structures, the remnants of lives lived on the hillside, and secondly what should be remembered, and how should that remembering be facilitated?
Lessons in amongst the grass
In the summer of 2021, as camp residents and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) prepared for the inevitable move from Vathy to the CCAC, a 90 minutes walk through the hills from the town, the number of people in the camp vastly reduced. People were either formally moved to the mainland, or able to leave by unofficial means (Author research notes 2021). Opposition to the new camp, with its barbed wire, ‘prison-like’ aesthetic, entrance and exit gates and procedures akin to airport security, as well as a curfew, all suggested that what little autonomy people had on the island would be even more severely curtailed.
While the original RIC at Vathy suffered from many problems, some of which are mentioned above, what it did enable was easier access to the town for the people housed there, which meant access to legal support, community spaces and other NGOs, as well as opportunities for community building within the extended area of the camp. As the camp expanded beyond its official boundaries into the surrounding olive groves referred to as ‘the jungle’, community spaces also started to form and informal shelters became personalized, enabling at least some small level of autonomy within this highly confined, bordered and securitized existence.
Churches and mosques were built out of canvas and pallet boards, as were school spaces. Small businesses formed where people came together to cook, and barbers plied their trade (Author interview January 2019).
As the camp now stands empty, abandoned remnants of the lives that passed through here remain, memories of the childhoods that were affected by the trauma of war and persecution but also by the continued ever-present practices of bordering and encampment. Young people whose access to activities, to education and to distractions from their situation was provided rarely by the Greek state, but instead by NGOs who created spaces in which they could reclaim their agency, crafting a life beyond the hillside (Beattie and Bird 2022).
Within these spaces NGOs offered a small element of relief. Providing for people’s needs such as clothing and hygiene, but also offering access to education for both adults and young people. They were also able to provide an alternative to the often-inedible food offered inside the camp as well as community and safe spaces where people could come together, have warm tea and even charge their electrical devices. These NGOs often found themselves in a difficult position, vitally important for filling the huge gaps in state and INGO provision, but also forced to become complicit in the bordering work of the state that allows these terrible conditions to continue (Bird and Schmid 2021). The remaining structures, then, are a reminder of the failures of the state, the EU and the international community to provide safe housing, a caring asylum procedure and a system grounded in support and welcome. What the NGOs provided in contrast were lessons in how to build community, fill gaps in provision and provide the sense of welcome that was in other ways so desperately lacking.
Remembering and forgetting
The practice of moving camps to peripheral locations, out of sight of towns and cities, hidden away in the hills or in old, abandoned ports, behind large concrete walls and barbed wire fences is commonplace in Greece and elsewhere, another example of the lack of care and welcome mentioned above.
It is in fact becoming more common with informal housing provision being evicted and people being moved out of city centres (Bird and Schmid 2021). In moving people further away from central hubs, this not only limits their access to vital support, both from NGOs and from what little state level assistance exists, i.e. access to the job market, to schools and to the opportunity to become actively involved in local communities, it also actively enables forgetting. Forgetting on the part of the state, the EU and the international community more generally who forget the people to whom they owe support under international law and amongst local communities that forget the people who have passed through their towns, who often contributed to the local economy and who could have been welcomed into those communities. Yet, while these policies actively facilitate forgetting, the spaces are left behind, the blemish on the hillside remains as a memory prompt because ‘sites of abandoned memory are incongruous […] there is emptiness where we expect plenitude, there is no fulfilment where we expect there to be’ (Sendyka 2016: 691). These haunting spaces, many of which affect people on an emotional register, bring to the fore feelings ranging from empathy to disgust in those that pass by, forcing them in some cases to remember.
Disgust, in particular, ‘evaluates what it touches, proclaims the meanness and inferiority of its object. And by doing so it presents a nervous claim of right to be free of the dangers imposed by proximity to the inferior’ (Miller 2022: 9). Abandoned spaces like these require their witnesses not only to imagine the lives of others within them, but also what their own lives would be like if they were forced to visit Samos not as tourists or live their lives here not as valued members of the community, but what they would experience if they had to flee persecution or war and then survive here, in this camp. If they had to come to terms with the fact “that this is Europe” (interview with the author, July 2021), and that this is how they would be received.
Thus, the ghostly presence of these spaces is important. They are a reminder of the failures of the international refugee regime and what desperately needs to change. This is not to suggest that the remnants of this camp should be left on the hillside, an uncomfortable reminder for the local community, but, on the contrary, that the lessons and memories it holds must be recognized and responded to, that the last seven years of ‘crisis’ cannot be simply removed from history by the bulldozers which will inevitably clear these structures. Rather, this place, like many others like it, must be remembered, learnt from and not repeated. Because ‘this is Europe’, but it should not be.
Beattie, Amanda and Bird, Gemma (2022). ‘Recognizing Everyday Youth Agency: Advocating for a Reflexive Practice in Everyday International Relations’, Global Studies Quarterly (online first), available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/isagsq/ksac060 (accessed 07 December 2022).
Bird, Gemma (2022). ‘Gendered Assumptions of Vulnerability: A Case Study of Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 on Displaced Populations at the Borders of Europe’, in IOM (ed.), The Impact of COVID-19 on Migration and Migrants from a Gender Perspective, Geneva: IOM, 119–128.
Bird, Gemma and Schmid, Davide (2021). ‘Humanitarianism and the “Migration Fix”: On the Implication of NGOs in Racial Capitalism and the Management of Relative Surplus Populations’, Geopolitics (online first), available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14650045.2021.2008361 (accessed 07 December 2022).
Bounia, Alexandria, Witcomb, Andrea and Papataxiarchis, Evthymios (2020). ‘The Politics of Mnemonic “Restorative Practices”: Contesting Memory, Mobility, Identity and Objects in Post– “Refugee Crisis” Lesbos’, in Alexandra Dellios and Eureka Henrich (eds), Migrant, Multicultural and Diasporic Heritage: Beyond and Between Borders, London: Routledge, 147–163.
Gatta, Gianluca (2016). ‘Stranded Traces: Migrants’ Objects, Self-Narration and Ideology in a Failed Museum Project’, Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, 7(2): 181–191.
Matteo, Giovanna Di (2021). ‘Memorial Tourism and Citizen Humanitarianism: Volunteers’ Civil Pilgrimage to the “Life Jacket Graveyard” of Lesvos, Greece’, in Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert and Elisa Pascucci (eds), Citizen Humanitarianism at European Borders, London: Routledge, 160–177.
Miller, William Ian (2022). The Anatomy of Disgust,Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Petridou, Elia (2020). ‘Refugee Life Jackets Thrown off but Not Away: Connecting Materialities in Upcycling Initiatives’, in Philipp Schorch, Martin Saxer and Marlesn Elders (eds), Exploring Materiality and Connectivity in Anthropology and Beyond, London: UCL Press, 228–246.
Sendyka, Roma (2016). ‘Sites That Haunt: Affects and Non-Sites of Memory’, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 30(4): 687–702.
About the Author
Gemma Bird is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and IR at the University of Liverpool and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen. As an activist-scholar her research sits at the intersection between political theory and International Relations, focusing recently on migration, humanitarianism and advocating for a radically different approach to global borders and displacement. She has recently published in the journals Geopolitics, Global Policy, Cooperation and Conflict and Global Studies Quarterly.