A conversation at City Plaza with Nasim Lomani
On 22 April 2016, Nasim Lomani and a group of activists occupied the abandoned City Plaza Hotel near Victoria metro station in the centre of Athens, repurposing the building to provide accommodation for nearly 400 refugees. Part of the Economic and Political Refugee Solidarity Initiative, Nasim wanted to create a ‘positive alternative to fight against the refugee camps’, which are often built on unused tracts of land or abandoned agricultural warehouses, in harsh conditions which do not meet basic humanitarian standards. I met with Nasim at City Plaza earlier this year, to discuss the movement and how it is situated within the wider context of the 2010 Greek debt crisis, the 2016 EU-Turkey deal and the European asylum seeking process.
In March 2016, the western ‘Balkan route’ – a route by which refugees, asylum seekers and migrants travelled from Greece to northern Europe – was closed. This route had constituted the only hope for thousands of people seeking protection in Europe. In the wake of this closure, on 18 March 2016, the European Union and Turkey issued what is commonly known as the EU-Turkey deal. The European Council stated that the deal would offer ‘migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk’: those forcibly returned from Greek shores can expect to be accommodated in Turkey.1 In turn, Turkey is rewarded for ‘stemming the flow’ of migrants in Europe.2 As a result, Greece transitioned from a short-term transit country to a long-term host country. This transformation posed a direct and severe threat to the well-being of the migrant population and drove the country into a dire humanitarian situation. These entwined events – the closure of the Balkan route and the EU-Turkey deal – began a new paradigm in the EU’s approach to migration flows. European leaders have heralded its ‘positive results’, its ‘continued trend of progress’ and its ‘steady delivery of results’, while acknowledging some ‘challenges’ along the way.3 Recently, EU member states such as Germany and Malta have called for the model of the deal to be replicated elsewhere.4 However, what has been absent from these analyses of the deal is a concrete or effective strategy for accommodating the 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants currently bottlenecked on the Greek islands, where they are living in limbo.5
Before the deportation deal with Turkey began, new arrivals to Greece could move quickly to the mainland. But since March 2016, most newcomers have not been able to leave legally, and deportations have largely failed to materialise. A leaked letter, written by an agency representative of the UNHCR and dated 23 December 2016, revealed that the organisation had been unable to monitor whether most returned Syrians from Greece had been given legal protection.6 And in Greece, the vast majority of refugees still on its territory are now stranded in around 50 squalid camps across the country. The government has attempted to provide appropriate first reception conditions for asylum seekers, and to speed up relocation of refugees to other EU countries, but such duties have been described as ‘Sisyphean’ tasks.7
In response to this monumental administrative failure, Nasim Lomani along with a consortium of activists, volunteers and anarchists set up a solidarity movement to shed light on the Greek government’s responsibility to provide accommodation, protection, and the free passage of refugees. ‘When the EU deal happened with Turkey the border closed, Frontex closed, and around 50,000 people were trapped in Greece. The Greek government decided that if you wanted to help refugees you had to either work for the UNHCR or the government – directly carrying a card saying you are a volunteer. Two ideas were clashing: politicians saying they were against refugees and the charities being for refugees. The government closed parts of Athens that they saw as “facilitating” refugees. The city municipality and the Greek police forbade refugees to be in Victoria Square – an open space, a public space. So we created an initiative called Solidarity to Economical and Political Refugees’.
On 22 April 2016, Nasim and his fellow organisers broke the locks, reconnected the utilities, cleaned up the rooms and occupied the City Plaza Hotel near Victoria station in the centre of Athens. ‘The idea behind the squats was to bring people into the city. There are 2,000 people living in 12 squats across Athens, with 400 here in City Plaza’. Nasim and his associates wanted to create a ‘positive alternative to fight against the refugee camps’ on the outskirts of the city, which are often built with rudimentary facilities, on unused tracts of land far from the city centre or in abandoned agricultural warehouses. After financial markets were sent reeling by Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 Greece became the centre of Europe’s debt crisis. Suddenly shut out from borrowing and veering towards bankruptcy, the country was issued bailouts from the so-called troika – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – which would eventually total more than €240bn.8 The bailout money mainly went towards paying off Greece’s international loans, rather than making its way to domestic purses. What followed was an extremely heated and widely publicised period of economic turmoil that saw Greece become the poorest country in western Europe, its economy shrinking by a quarter in five years, and unemployment rising to near 25 percent. Then in May 2015, with the government limping along after six years of austerity measures and the northern EU having decided that it did not want vast numbers of migrants heading its way, Greece had to figure out how to house and feed 50,000 people trapped within its borders after the EU-Turkey deal. Camps were quickly assembled, with the Junior Minister announcing that they would not be ‘four-star accommodation’.9 Nasim and his fellow organisers are pushing against this lack of hospitality, which at best portrays refugees as tolerated guests, and at worst as unwelcome intruders.
One such camp, Moria, located on the Greek island of Lesbos is a former army barracks refitted with steel mesh fences topped by coils of razor wire which typically hosts around 3,000 people all living in tents and shipping containers. Electricity and water supplies are poor. ‘In Moria you can understand a whole range of migration policies in one place’, Nasim says. ‘You can understand how they are managed. There is not one type of camp, of course. They’re divided into nationality, families, single men, underage... and which camp you’re in determines the level of services available to you. In total, there are 49 camps and “hotspots” all over Greece’.
Hotspots are locations with EU-run reception centres – often in frontline member states like Italy and Greece – tasked with identifying and fingerprinting migrants and refugees. They have been systematically established in key areas with help from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Frontex, the EU Police Cooperation Agency (Europol) and the EU Judicial Cooperation Agency (Eurojust). The hotspots use the information they gather to evaluate individuals’ asylum claims – relocating those deemed authentic refugees to Europe and facilitating the return of ‘irregular migrants’ to their country of origin. However, the Greek Asylum Service’s limited capacity to process applications in hotspots leads to excessive delays and prolonged stays for asylum seekers, contributing to a deteriorating situation.10 Despite many asylum seekers being highly vulnerable, authorities detain individuals indiscriminately – a practice out of line with the common rights and obligations of EU member states. It is, in Nasim’s words, ‘completely illegal’.
Through the work of Solidarity to Economical and Political Refugees, Nasim challenges the representation of refugees beyond the static, entrenched and familiar symbols of victimisation, passivity and poverty. ‘We don’t pretend we’ve found the solution to the refugee crisis’, Nasim says of City Plaza, ‘and it’s not our responsibility to either. But it’s a good example of how to do it better. We believe that we are creating a place where many more struggles can be organised and where the situation can be fought from the inside’. City Plaza is run as a cooperative, with residents taking up weekly responsibilities based on their individual skills, from cooking meals to cleaning, group child care and basic maintenance. Volunteers help out with medical clinics, administration and ad hoc activity classes. One week’s line-up promises sushi making, English conversation, yoga, kids movies and a nightly women’s dance party on the rooftop terrace.
But Nasim’s aims through City Plaza operate on a much wider scale too: ‘This is a project that we believe is more of a question. At the moment it’s not an answer: it’s a proposal. We’re trying to instigate discussions. One: how can we apply pressure for better and fairer policies? Two: how can we live together – and live better – with refugees? Three (which is very important to us): how can the movement intervene practically? We believe that you cannot be in this field without intervening practically. If you’re at the borders, organise people to protest, break fences, fight with the police’.
The EU relocation scheme and the EU-Turkey deal are collectively meant to remove most asylum seekers out of Greece, but with both schemes faltering, one of the early architects of the EU-Turkey deal envisages refugees never leaving.11 The UNHCR hopes to move 10,000 people out of the camps and into private accommodation.12 It is small private projects – like City Plaza – that demonstrate slivers of hope within this administrative chaos. Of course, City Plaza would be near impossible to scale up: the Greek goverment cannot replicate this model for a select number of refugees while leaving the vast majority in camps. However, as Nasim says, it’s a question, not a solution. How many unused buildings, not just in Athens but across various European cities, could be used to set up a housing collective in a manner similar to City Plaza?
1 ‘Answer to a written question – EU-Turkey migration deal – E-002760/2016’, European Parliament, 4 July 2016. Available from europarl.europa.eu.
2 ‘One year after the EU-Turkey deal: migrants and asylum seekers are paying the price with their health’, Médecins Sans Frontières, 14 March 2017. Available from msf.org.
5 ‘Operational Portal – Situation Mediterranean Situation’, UNHCR, April 2017. Available from data2. unhcr.org.
6 Catherine Stupp, ‘Turkey blocks UNHCR access to Syrian refugees’, Euractiv, 19 January 2017. Available from euractiv.com.
7 ‘A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks’, International Crisis Group, 17 December 2015. Available from crisisgroup. org.
8 ‘The Greek debt crisis story in numbers’, BBC News, 10 July 2015. Available from bbc.co.uk.
9 Daniel Howden, Apostolis Fotiadis, ‘Where did the money go? How Greece fumbled the refugee crisis’, Guardian, 9 March 2017. Available from theguardian.com.
10 ‘The implementation of the hotspots in Italy and Greece: a study’, European Council for Refugees and Exiles, 5 December 2016. Available from ecre.org.
11 Patrick Kingsley, ‘Prisoners of Europe: the everyday humiliation of refugees stuck in Greece’, Guardian, 6 September 2016. Available from theguardian.com.
12 ‘Alternatives to Camps: Making it Work’, UNHCR, 2009. Available from unhcr.org.
Nasim Lomani is an activist based in Athens. In April 2016, Nasim and a coalition of dozens of other activists in Athens took over the City Plaza Hotel. The modern seven storey building contains 110 rooms and had been unoccupied for seven years. Now home to 400 refugees, Lomani sees the building as serving a dual purpose: an alternative housing project and a centre to organise activist work.