Lesbos, European scandal

The Greek island of Lesbos, the homeland of Sappho and Anacreon, the cradle of Epicureanism, once a dream destination, has become the scene of a humanitarian nightmare. J. Ziegler denounces the contradictions of the European Union in matters of migration and the conditions for welcoming refugees.

In this new book, after notably The new masters of the world and those who resist them (Fayard, 2002) and The Empire of Shame (Fayard, 2005), the Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler reports on his mission to the Greek island of Lesbos as vice-president of the advisory committee of the Human Rights Council of theUN in 2019. Indeed, theUN took up the issue of the refugee camps that had recently proliferated on the Greek islands that year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called on Greece to decongest these camps and denounced inhumane living conditions on the island of Lesbos, where, in three months, more than 10,000 people have ended up.

Jean Ziegler is both an academic (he has notably taught at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) from Geneva), a third-world, alter-globalization and anti-capitalist activist, and an international civil servant, having held various positions for theUN and for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). From 2000 to 2008, he was Special Rapporteur on the right to food at the Human Rights Council of theUN. In addition, since 2009 he has been a member – and now Vice-Chair – of the Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee onUN.

During numerous missions, he was led to analyse the food situation of different populations, and to sound the alarm, declaring in particular in 2008 that “100,000 people are murdered every day” because they die of hunger.

This new book is a continuation of his previous works which denounce the abuses of the capitalist system, such as The Right to Food (Fayard, 2003), The Empire of Shame (Fayard, 2005), and are characterized by a humanist or even utopian dimension, such as Paths of hope, These battles won, sometimes lost but which we will win together (Seuil, 2016), and Capitalism explained to my granddaughter (hoping she’ll see the end of it)(Seuil, 2018).

The inhumane treatment of migrants in Moria camp

On this island of Lesbos with its rich thousand-year-old history and heavenly landscape, Ziegler was able to observe, dismayed, the gigantic refugee camp of Moria, the largest in Europe (4.5 hectares). Overcrowded, this veritable “concentration camp”, as the author characterizes it, even if this comparison is debatable, is, according to his testimony, a hell for the human beings who survive there in “sordid” and “desperate” conditions. 35% are children, and their physical and mental health is endangered by this detention. There are more than 4,000 of them, while the camp was initially planned for 150 people.

He deplores the inhumane treatment they are subjected to, intentionally using the term “refugees” and not the more pejorative term “migrants” (we discuss this choice later). The latter are fleeing war, torture and the destruction of their country. They represent 58 nationalities, but most come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or sub-Saharan Africa, and are from the middle class. Doctors, teachers or lawyers are not rare there. Indeed, to flee, you still need to have the money to pay the smugglers. Just the short crossing between the west coast of Turkey and Greece, while it only costs tourists €35 on the ferry, costs refugees more than €1000 per person, and is sometimes done at the risk of their lives, in overloaded zodiacs chartered by the smugglers.

THE UNHCR estimates the number of refugees parked in the 5 ” hot spots ” – the official term used by the European Union, which could be translated as “hot spots”, a euphemism for these areas of concentration of human misery in the Aegean Sea. The “hot spots”, writes Jean Ziegler, are according to him at the service of a very specific strategy of the European Union which can be summed up in two words: deterrence and terror.

A denunciation of the responsibility of the European Union

Ziegler denounces the real “hunt” for men that he sees organized on the high seas by the European Union authorities. The Greek and Turkish coast guards, obeying the instructions of the European Union, and the Frontex agency (European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders, created in 2004, and now the European Border and Coast Guard Agency), push back the refugee boats, even shooting at them. Ziegler underlines what he perceives as the hypocrisy of Frontex: while this agency is supposed to play a role of rescuing refugees, its boats are equipped militarily, but not medically, he observes.

This denunciatory statement is in line with an alter-globalization literature that criticizes the impunity and exactions of this border police of the European Union. Thus the association ATTAC had called for the dismantling of Frontex as early as 2008. In 2017, several associations such as Cimade, the Human Rights League, Gisti and Migreurop launched the “Frontexit” campaign calling for the agency to be abolished.

Ziegler claims that the European Union’s fight against refugees financially benefits arms manufacturers and arms traffickers and reveals the close relations between certain Brussels bureaucrats and these “arms dealers”. The sociologist observes, through his investigation, that the arms industry lobbies are very active in Brussels, which is corroborated by several recent academic studies, such as those of Eleonora Gentilucci, and by surveys by alter-globalization associations and media.

However, one can criticize his use of the word “camps” (it is impossible to put this place on the same level as the “death camps” of Nazism) and discuss the amalgamation between the arms lobbies and arms traffickers, as well as the unilateral condemnation of the Frontex agency, whose role could have been more developed.

L’UN and its powerless High Commission for Refugees

Ziegler finally deplores the inaction of the UNHCR in the face of the scandal of the refugee situation in Moria. The description is Kafkaesque: the waiting times for asylum applications to be processed are very long, up to three years… The civil servants and military personnel managing the “hot spots” in Greece are described as corrupt. The sanitary conditions are deplorable (waste and excrement flowing into the open air), the food provided is spoiled, the children are traumatized and often victims of violence or sexual abuse. Recalling that this camp is the result of an agreement made in 2015 between the European Commission and the Greek government providing for the creation of 5 “hot spots” on Aegean islands, the aim being to dissuade refugees from coming to Europe, the author shows that this situation violates international texts, in particular Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (text signed by the 193 Member States), the 1948 Convention on the Rights of the ChildUN Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, the Covenant ofUN on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 (which defines the “right to food”, a right violated in Moria), and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989.

The author notes, overwhelmed, that the inhabitants of the camp must queue up to 4 hours every day to obtain water and an inedible food ration. He himself, in 2007, then UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, wanted to obtain the status of “hunger refugees” for human beings fleeing famine, without obtaining the approval of the UNHCR.

An unjust and Kafkaesque system

The book is written in a clear and lively style, illustrated with character portraits, and punctuated by historical flashbacks and focus on other refugee camps such as Yarmouk in Lebanon (which was until its destruction in 2017 the largest Palestinian refugee camp, many of whom now find themselves in Moria). The author clearly explains the mysteries of the asylum application system, which is desperately slow and in bad faith, and evokes other deadly places for refugees in distress, such as the Turkey/Syria border where, over 750 kilometers, a wall has been built, equipped with automatically triggered machine guns, which kill entire families in distress every day.

He dissects the ins and outs of this unjust system in which Europe bears a large share of responsibility: in fact, it was in 2016 that Brussels reached an agreement with Turkey, by which the latter committed to welcoming asylum seekers returned from Greece, in exchange for the payment of 6 billion euros. Three years later, Turkey has welcomed 3.6 million Syrians onto its soil, but without granting them asylum as such.

Jean Ziegler criticizes not only the European Union, but also the institutions of theUNand in particular of UNHCRwho are not doing enough for refugees. He recalls, however, that the Chilean Michelle Bachelet, when she was High Commissioner forUN human rights activist, had denounced this situation, to which she was sensitive (having herself been imprisoned and tortured by the Chilean military during the dictatorship in her country).

Despite everything, Ziegler underlines the humanism of the NGO such as “Pro Asyl” or “Refugee Rescue”, whose courageous activists save refugees at sea; and the solidarity of the inhabitants of Lesbos with the refugees, who have jointly created an artistic centre and provide legal aid to refugees. Indeed, 60% of the population of the island of Lesbos is made up of descendants of Greek refugees from Asia Minor, following the war that opposed the Greeks and Turks from 1919 to 1922, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in the First World War. Another example of a solidarity initiative: in Moria, theNGO “Refugee Support Aegean”, made up of 12 Greek lawyers, fights for the rights of refugees, and theNGO “Lesvos Solidarity”, an association of island residents, supports the construction of a reception center for sick refugees and children without families.

The work, however, sometimes remains a little approximate in the vocabulary used: thus the author, out of humanist concern, systematically calls asylum seekers “refugees”, including undocumented immigrants who have not yet obtained refugee status, a title which is defined by the Geneva Convention of 1951. Let us recall that the recent work by the anthropologist Michel Agier and the lawyer Anne-Virginie Madeira, Defining refugeeshas rigorously examined how to characterize the different categories of refugees. Michel Agier had previously directed the important collective work A world of camps (La Découverte, 2014), where he analyzed in a more systematic and scientific way the situation of the 12 million people then living in camps all over the planet. By comparison, Ziegler’s book is more in the register of emotion and lived history. This book nevertheless remains a major testimony and a very important work because of its character as a whistleblower on one of the greatest scandals of our time.