Immigration & cross-border migrating populations in Europe | Interview with Dr Evgenia Iliadou

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Η συνέντευξη στα ελληνικά ΕΔΩ. Interview taken for Aftoleksi by Georgia Tsatsani.

Dr Evgenia Iliadou studied Sociology at the University of Crete and Social Anthropology at the University of the Aegean; she recently in 2019 completed her PhD thesis upon awarded scholarship on “Border Harms and Everyday Violence: The Lived Experiences of Border Crossers in Lesvos Island, Greece” in Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University, UK. Since 2020 she is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom teaching her students about border policies and everyday violence. This interview was conducted exactly after the new refugee influx from central Asia after the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan in August 2021.

The island of Lesvos is set at the central crossroad of East/West and Greece/Turkey, especially after the Treaty of Lausanne and the EU-Turkey Statement in 2016. How your ethnography experiences violent displacement and public politics on the refugees?            

Indeed, Lesvos has a long history of border crossings. Forced displacement has been a lived experience for people of Greece and Lesvos since the beginning of the 20th century. Due to the Greco-Turkish war, and the population exchange, approximately 1.2 million Asia Minor refugees were displaced from Turkey to Greece and other neighbouring countries. In Lesvos, a total of 60 per cent of those now resident are descendants of the 1922 Asia Minor refugees. Since the 1990s again Greece and Lesvos have been important border gates for thousands of forcibly displaced people coming from Albania and war-torn countries, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Somalia. Since 2005 I have worked as an NGO practitioner in detention centres and refugee camps on Lesvos and the Greek mainland by providing support to forcibly displaced people. I am also a descendant of Pontian refugees myself. My family during the genocide was forced to flee their home and seek sanctuary in Russia.   

Inevitably, the genealogies of forced displacement on Lesvos, and my own first-hand lived experiences as a researcher, NGO practitioner and activist are captured and explored within my ethnography. They are examined in relation to the 2015 refugee ‘crisis’ and the current and ongoing developments on the refugee issue. In my ethnographic work border violence, border controls and displacement are perceived as a continuum rather than a ‘crisis’.     

The big migration influx to Europe, the so-called “crisis” of 2015 is on the frontline after the recent developments when Taliban took charge again in Afghanistan. What comes next in the following years according to your opinion?          

First of all, for me the term ‘crisis’ which is systematically deployed in the official discourses to describe the large-scale forced displacement in 2015, this term is superficial and ahistorical. These discourses routinely (mis)represent human suffering, displacement, violence, and deaths – at, within and beyond borders – as ‘new’, ‘random’, ‘unforeseen’, unpreventable ‘events’ and tragic ‘accidents’. However, as I mentioned earlier, Greece and Lesvos, have a long history of forced displacement, (border) violence and border-related deaths. These are the outcome of lethal political decisions, which have been enforced since the 1985 Schengen Agreement, and have greatly proliferated in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee ‘crisis’. What I am trying to say here is that the misery that we have been witnessing unfolding at the Southern EU borders should be seen as a continuum – a violence continuum – across time and space rather than a ‘crisis’. In addition, the term ‘crisis’ is problematic as it obscures the fact that the actual crisis is primarily a crisis in the countries of origin – the countries from which refugees are fleeing in the first place.

Therefore, a crisis is foremost a crisis for refugees themselves since they are forcibly displaced from their homes and fleeing from wars, conflicts, violence, and persecution. Afghanistan is an indicative example. Afghanistan might be in the headlines after the Taliban took charge, but over the past four decades Afghan refugees have been experiencing violence, insecurity and forced displacement.   

By taking into consideration the above-described situation, the enduring conflicts combined with lethal border policies have produced a suffocating environment for the people who are forced to cross borders. It looks like that the situation will continue like this for a long time. It might become even more intense in the following years if we consider the climate change which will progressively force people to migrate.   

Is camp’s suffering the end or just the endless beginning of human odysseys in Europe? 

The suffering and violence refugees experience neither begins nor ends inside refugee camps and detention centres in Greece and Lesvos. Suffering and violence are instead a part of a continuum. I spoke earlier about the violence continuum – a concept which is rooted in the Social Anthropology of Violence. This is a very interesting concept which not only gives prominence on the deep historical roots of (border) violence, but it also highlights that the violence and suffering that refugees experience begins in the countries of origin due to war, conflict, violence, destitution and severe human rights abuses. Violence and suffering continue while refugees are en route and cross the multiple land and sea border pathways which lead to Europe. In addition, violence and suffering continue after the border is crossed and even when refugees manage to reach Europe alive due to the inhuman, appalling, degrading and dehumanizing conditions they are coerced to live inside refugee camps and detention centres. Parallel to that, refugees experience bureaucratic violence as the multiple procedures they must adhere to (i.e. registration, identification, asylum etc.) are inconsistent, Kafkaesque, and lengthy by generating enduring waiting and suffering. However, violence and suffering does not end there but continues in Northern EU states. As progressively wealthier EU states implement hostile, violent and anti-migration deterrent policies refugees are exposed to further violence, detention and eventually deportation.

For the refugees you worked with, how did displacement become less than a minor issue given that everyday problems are bigger than fantasy? 

As I mentioned before refugees experience multiple forms of violence and harm in their countries of origin and while they are en route and cross the borders, but only to confront with violence and misery again in Europe. I am not sure if displacement does become a minor issue in comparison to the everyday problems they are dealing with inside refugee camps in the host countries. Refugees’ everyday life on Lesvos is not always easy given the escalation of racism and violence from a part of the local community. The situation of refugees on Lesvos is known and has been widely documented and presented in the media in recent years. Violent uprooting is a painful experience, but this pain is exacerbated due to the appalling, inhuman, degrading and harmful living conditions inside refugee camps. What I find very striking is the overwhelming bureaucratisation, procedural chaos, inconsistency and uncertainty, enduring waiting and queuing, the maze-like and mentally exhausting procedures which refugees must adhere to while living in the aforementioned harmful sites. This inconsistency, chaos and degradation are, in my view, intentional, a well-designed deterrence policy which is made to make refugees’ lives unlivable by constantly inflicting them pain. In this way refugees are coerced to withdraw their asylum claims, and either traverse alternative dangerous perilous migratory pathways to other European countries or “voluntarily” return to their countries of origin. 

Gender-based violence is frequently inflicted by trafficking networks. Definitely Greece is a good example. Please, tell us more about human trafficking in Greece.   

Gender-based violence is a serious violation of human rights which disproportionately harms LGBTQ+, women, and girls. However, in situations of forced displacement the risk of exposure to gender-based violence is significantly higher. As I mentioned earlier refugee LGBTQ+, women and girls experience multiple forms of violence in their countries of origin, throughout their journey to Europe as well as inside refugee camps. What is very striking is the escalation of sexual violence which is inflicted at, within and across borders. Let me explain. What I have documented throughout the years is a significant escalation of border rapes. As border controls, the securitisation and militarisation of borders progressively proliferate and expand even beyond the EU territory, the perilous journeys become riskier and more expensive, whilst refugees become even more dependent on smugglers and traffickers who facilitate their journey to Europe. Due to these overpriced journeys, refugees become indebted to smugglers and traffickers in order to finance their journey and secure a place within a car, lorry or boat which leads to Europe. This situation generates an asymmetrical power relationship and dependency of refugees on their facilitators in the form of a debt which however creates an obligation: that it must be paid off. I have documented various forms of debt of this kind. One of them is the sexual debt or rape.

Refugee LGBTQ+, women, and girls who cannot pay the facilitator are routinely extorted to ‘trade’ sex or raped from border station to border station, before and after the journey, en route and even within the boat by their facilitators, border guards and other middlemen in order to be permitted to cross the border. 

However, this form of violence does not end there – that is, when the border is crossed. Sexual violence is endemic in refugee camps and detention centres in Greece as refugee populations are systematically abandoned into structurally harmful environments that not only allow, but also create the conditions for such atrocious acts of violence to take place. There are numerous reports documenting rapes in refugee camps. 

Border-crossers have actually created a conflict among European countries proving how unprepared European Union was to assist people from Asia and other Muslim countries. How has religion affected their everyday life in the so-called Christian Orthodox Greece and Catholic Europe?    

Although it is very difficult to answer this question in a few words, I have to say that all these years that I have been supporting and interviewing refugees, religion was never a problem for them. It is rather the opposite that takes place. I mean that it is the host countries and a part of local communities that frequently perceive refugees and their religion as a threat and/or a problem by systematically suppressing them. For instance, refugees are forced to practice their religious and cultural rituals, rites, and customs in very dirty, degrading, and overcrowded sites as there is no provision for religious places of worship in refugee camps and detention centres in the Greek mainland and the islands. Another example of the religious oppression that refugees experience is in cases of deaths as the performance of some culturally appropriate burial and ritual procedures cannot be guaranteed and the dignity and memory of the dead cannot not be respected. The anthropologist Mary Douglas in her work showed that the absence of death rituals signifies the disruption of social order – a danger, pollution, and impurity which is transmitted upon by contaminating the living and whole communities. Therefore, it is the host communities and countries and the lack of care which frequently inflicts cultural violence and oppresses refugee populations.

In addition, as conflicts, violence and forced displacements escalate some EU countries receive disproportionate numbers of refugees. In the last few years we are witnessing the rise of islamophobia, hostility, racism, and xenophobia. Lesvos is an indicative example where part of the local community frequently targets and abuses refugees as well as humanitarian workers, volunteers and activists. In that respect refugees are exposed to state violence, dehumanising reception conditions as well as to the hostility and everyday violence from ordinary citizens in the host communities. This is because often refugees become scapegoats who are blamed for various problems that the host community is dealing with (e.g. unemployment, criminality). In my point of view, it is important for us to raise awareness in order for local communities to understand that the problems arising due to migration are an outcome of exceptional border policies. These policies produce poverty and destitution upon refugee populations who sometimes might resort to petty crimes. 

In any case, violence is still here. There are crimes out of immigrants themselves as well as major crimes of solidarity. How does an ethnographer deal with them or is really ever a researcher able to transcend any obstacle?      

As I mentioned before the extreme border policies which have been implemented in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis in Greece and Lesvos have produced a harmful context for refugees. On the one hand, refugees get stuck and wait in refugee camps or in various accommodation facilities within the island in limbo without being able to fully embed into the host society. They cannot formally work, go to school or the university and they are dependent on cash assistance programmes and the various NGOs operating on the island. On the other hand, the conditions in the refugee camps are harmful, humiliating, degrading and appalling. This situation forces refugees to destitution and precariousness by pushing them to do unspeakable things, which otherwise they would not, in order to survive. For instance, during my research I documented cases of raped women having unwanted pregnancies but who could not do an abortion because they needed to be assessed as vulnerable in order to be allowed to leave the camp and travel to the Greek mainland. I also documented cases of refugees doing survival sex inside and outside the camp, abusing alcohol and drugs or committing petty crimes. Despite the dominant representation of refugees as criminals one should consider how the management of migration, the border policies themselves, produce misery, and poverty by pushing refugees to destitution and desperation. Through this lens, the recent arsons which destroyed the Moria hotspot (known as Moria camp) should be also seen as acts of desperation and reaction against the extreme suffering that is inflicted upon refugees by the state. They should not be seen or treated as criminal acts. However, what we are witnessing is exactly the opposite – that is, the systematic criminalisation of migration by the states.

Similar to the criminalisation of migrants, people who help and support refugees (i.e. volunteers, NGO practitioners, activists) are targeted by the state and are criminalised as well. This process is often called as the criminalisation of solidarity. Through this process NGO practitioners who are involved in sea rescue operations are often accused by the state for facilitation and are charged for smuggling.

I have first-hand experiences of this criminalisation myself as when I was working as an NGO practitioner I was intimidated and targeted by the state as well. I have publicly talked about these experiences and I have incorporated them in my analysis. In my view, an ethnographer should explore, analyse and actively challenge these systematic state practices when she documents them throughout the research process, when she witnesses them unfolding in the field. I also believe that as ethnographers and social scientists we have a moral obligation and responsibility to challenge these practices as they inflict harm, notably to forcibly displaced persons.

The militarization of the camps in Lesvos not only in Moria but also in Pagani and Kara Tepe has already transformed the utopia of Europe to a dystopia close to a Kafkaesque labyrinth, as you argue. Is there any way out?    

Indeed, the situation that refugees currently experience in Europe is dystopian. Refugees are fleeing violence and suffering in their home countries but only to experience violence and suffering inside refugee camps and detention centres in Greece and even in some of the wealthier western countries. In my view there are two possible ways of exiting this current situation: the safe passage/open borders approach and the No Borders approach.

On the one hand, the notion of safe passage is commonly used by people supporting refugees as well as humanitarian organisations who advocate for the opening of legal routes by EU policy makers which can lead refugees safely to Europe. A safe passage encompasses the facilitation of transportation of refugees to and inside the EU. Furthermore, it includes the provision of humanitarian aid and easy access to asylum procedures at the entry points and along the border pathways as well as dignified reception conditions. Safe passages mainly signify an alternative, more humane approach to the current border politics. 

On the other hand, the No Borders approach argues in favour of the abolition of borders and sites of confinement. The main argument is that all the repressive, extreme, military and securitised interventions at, within and beyond the borders, which have been enforced in the name of ‘crisis’, security and public order across time and space have justified, legitimised and normalised human rights’ abuses, suffering and even killings by making the dystopia of borders possible. Altogether, these exceptional border policies and practices – the border regime – have produced a ‘dystopian border landscape’ which is made to intentionally inflict pain by making refugees’ lives unliveable.

The continuum of these interventions has exacerbated the harm border crossers experience in border zones, refugee camps and detention centres by endangering their lives instead of protecting them. Therefore, the actual problem is the border. Hence, a No Borders approach argues against this dystopian border landscape. It argues in favour of the freedom of movement and the abolition of borders, controls, detentions, and camps. 

A factor in crowd psychology is the island’s isolation which leads to the pattern of “Prison Island”. Is Lesvos a postmodern prison indeed? 

I do not use the theory of crowd psychology in my work, and I do not see forcibly displaced people, who are kept in refugee camps and detention centres in degrading conditions, as a ‘crowd’ or ‘mob’.

Refugees are systematically (mis)represented in the official discourses as ‘mob’ or ‘hordes’, ‘numbers’, and ‘flows’, but these are victimising and dehumanising terms.

Also, inside the refugee camp refugees are depersonalised and dehumanised further into a faceless mass. Contrary to this dehumanising representation, in my work I give prominence to refugees’ agency, lived experiences, autonomy and notably multiple forms of resistance.

Furthermore, the operationalisation of islands as prisons, sites of confinement and filter mechanisms or control of refugees’ movement in the name of public order and social control has a very long history. The feminist geographer, Alison Mountz, has extensively shown how islands, literally, metaphorically, and routinely have been instrumentalised into an ‘architecture or archipelago of exclusion’, wherein people are systematically ‘denied, excluded or minimally given access to rights, care and international protection’. 

In Greece, islands have a long history in functioning as spatial and temporal confinements, as some of them have been used in the past as prison islands – that is, zones of quarantine and isolation, displacement, and confinement of the undesirables; the lepers (Spinalonga Island in Crete), the mentally ill (Leros Island), and the exiled leftists from the dictatorship of colonel Ioannis Metaxas from 1936 to 1941 (Gavdos, Anafi, Karpathos, Leros and Lesvos islands). Some of these islands continued to operate as prisons during the dictatorship, between 1967 and 1974. The islands in the past were used for the isolation and containment of those who were considered dangerous for ‘polluting’ or ‘intoxicating’ the population with their illness or political beliefs. However, since the 1985 Schengen Agreement – when progressively the project of Fortress Europe is materialised, strengthened, and expanded – the Greek islands have systematically been operationalised as offshore spaces of border control, management, isolation, dispersal, containment, and deportation of the ‘undesirables’. Therefore, in my opinion Lesvos is not a postmodern prison. So, to some extent, when I deployed the metaphor of Lesvos as the Prison Island, I had in mind the aforementioned operationalisation of islands throughout history.   

Your doctoral thesis is theoretical and definitely a great fieldwork. You were the right person to get through having a solid background in Sociology and also being a social scientist trained as an anthropologist in important Greek Institutions before coming to the UK for your PhD research. What are your future plans for research in social policy?

I am currently doing a postdoctoral ethnographic research on violence, vulnerability, and refugees’ lived experiences in the Greek refugee camps. I am also a member of Border Criminologies at the University of Oxford which is an international network of researchers, practitioners, and those who have experienced border control. I am currently developing a short video with Border Criminologies in which I narrate lived experiences from detention centres including photos, and drawings made by refugees. In the following years my aim is to do more fieldwork focusing on refugees’ experiences, migration and border violence. In addition, my aim is to disseminate more of my research findings to academic and non-academic audiences and certainly to teach more to students about forced migration and border violence.             

More information for Border Criminologies in Oxford University is available HERE.


Rephrasing Bronislaw Malinowski, Evgenia met her Prisoners of the Eastern Aegean at Lesvos where she had the chance to live since the early 21st and also work for them as a sociologist and NGO practitioner. Dr Evgenia Iliadou is now a post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey and her research is forthcoming from the Bristol University Press.

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