Cause of Death: A tragedy in a Greek refugee reception centre

The story of an avoidable death, one of many casualties of Europe’s current asylum politics…

In one of the ‘reception centres’ for refugees on the Greek islands, a 45-year-old man with a known heart condition was repeatedly turned away by the doctor on duty last week. According to activists in the camp and witnesses, people looked on helplessly while aid workers ignored the refugee’s pleas for help. He reportedly spent four hours in agonizing pain before passing away. He was to travel to Athens that day, en route to be reunited with his family in Germany. Having survived the Islamic State in Iraq and a perilous crossing in a rubber dinghy from Turkey to the Aegean island of Samos, this father and husband died because of the inaction of the well-staffed and generously-funded humanitarian and state organizations in the Samos ‘Reception and Identification Centre’. Along with at least 3,740 others in this year alone, he lost his life as a result of the deterrence and containment policies that these reception centres represent. In many ways, this is but another story about disgraceful neglect by the Greek authorities and even better equipped organizations such as the UNHCR known as ‘United Nothing’ to the camp’s residents in the overcrowded and squalid reception centres. But an anthropologist might wonder if it is more fundamentally to do with the nature of refugee camps, where people are reduced to ‘bare life’ by humanitarians who are something of a totalitarian force in their power over life and death through the distribution of food and medical services. I took these rather gloomy theorizations with a pinch of salt when I carried out undergraduate research in Samos; people seemed to make do despite the camp’s many problems, shooting the breeze by the island’s port, poking aid workers’ legs and spicing up the austere meals provided by the army. Yet Greek reception centres on Europe’s edges ultimately serve to render persons (potentially) deportable, and deportability requires disposability. As anthropologist Miriam Ticktin has asked with reference to the destruction of ‘the jungle’ in Calais by the French authorities: what does it do to our perceptions of fellow human beings when we store them away in shipping containers in the name of humanitarianism? There is nothing exceptional about the aid workers’ inaction; mutual distrust characterizes relations between aid providers and beneficiaries in refugee camps the world over. Nor is it odd that a man suffering a heart condition was living in a perpetually-flooded reception centre with a population three times its official capacity. As made very clear by the EU-Turkey Deal, these reception centres are governed not by the imperative of protection but by the supposed need to contain, deter and control the movement of displaced populations into EU territories. I am as disappointed and outraged by aid workers’ neglect in reception centres as the next volunteer, especially this week. But we must not let our criticisms of humanitarian inadequacy and indifference in Greece distract us from asking why we allow the lives of refugees to depend on the benevolence of aid workers in the first place. Indeed, this death speaks to the urgency of protesting the policies that bring these reception centres into existence. Europe’s current asylum politics of deportation and containment deals amounts to a form of ‘disallowance to the point of death’ (to borrow a phrase from Foucault), of which this tragedy is but one example. Although sad and shameful, aid workers’ alleged response to the dying man is anything but surprising amidst a politics that requires a collective ignoring of pleas for help. Illustration courtesy of Leonie Sinden

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