Documenting the Crisis of Asylum in Greece

by Heath Cabot

Shortly before I completed my doctoral fieldwork in Athens in 2008, a German refugee advocate explained to me his decision to become more involved in doing advocacy work in Greece: “everyone knew that Greece was a mess, but no one was talking about it.” The problems surrounding asylum in Greece were, until recently, largely anonymous – certainly not an obvious choice for a doctoral project. “Why Greece?” I was asked as I put together my grant applications. Over the eight years that I have researched this topic, in which the challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees in Greece have often gone unnoticed, an emerging culture of critique and documentation has increasingly characterized asylum and immigration as “Greece’s other crisis.” Greece is no longer a place that no one talks about.

I first did fieldwork in Athens amid the excitement and whir of construction leading up to the Olympics of 2004, just a few years after the initial hope and prosperity incited by the inauguration of the Euro-zone. In this newly gleaming Athens with its gleaming new metro, I encountered emerging anxieties about increasing immigration and, more urgently, stories of growing numbers arriving from (newly-war-torn) Iraq and Afghanistan. In a bit of a gamble, I decided to build a dissertation project around asylum in Greece. Two years later, when I began my primary fieldwork at an NGO in the Athens city center, I had read proliferating NGO reports of violence on the land and sea borders: sea deaths in the Aegean, drownings in the river Evros on the border with Turkey, illegal deportations of “mixed flows” of migrants, terrible reception conditions.


In just a few weeks, I saw how deeply the violence of the border had permeated the city. I encountered a young Somali girl who died of tuberculosis after having been released from a Greek hospital; two Iranian fathers who still had shrapnel from landmines in their backs after leading their families across the Greek/Turkish border; and again and again, I was told of beatings and mistreatment at the hands of the Athens police. Yet, while the broader pool of Athenian citizens seemed to know that there were “problems” with immigration and refugees, this violence remained concentrated in certain pockets of the city: in Omonoia square and its environs; Agios Panteleimonas, Attiki; and, perhaps most powerfully, at the “Tmima Allodapon,” the “Aliens Police” at the edges of the city center.

These photos were taken at Allodapon on an early July morning in 2008 by myself, and – primarily – by Salvatore Poier, my partner in more than research. In my PoLAR article, “The Governance of Things: Documenting Limbo in the Greek Asylum Procedure,” I write about Allodapon as the bureaucratic site where applicants lodge asylum applications and, in doing so, often encounter pronounced police violence. When these photos were taken, the violence at Allodapon was becoming a notable issue for asylum advocates, and a number had made attempts to document the chaos photographically. A group of Greek activist lawyers was harassed by police and had their cameras taken and photos deleted; a British ethnographic filmmaker with whom I informally collaborated had his footage confiscated. The fact that Salvatore and I came away not just with ethnographic material but also with photographs seemed, at the time, to be a kind of coup – despite the fact that what we had done was risky to ourselves and to others. I passed these photos on to workers at the NGO where I had done much of my fieldwork, giving them permission to use them as they saw fit. Until now, they have not seen the light of day, except in a few of my conference presentations.


In the three and a half years since, the violence and extreme oversaturation of Greece’s asylum procedure have become major concerns for those engaged with immigration and asylum politics in Europe and the rest of the world. These issues in Greece are not easily disentangled from European power asymmetries, including EU policy and Greece’s geopolitical proximity to sites experiencing profound violence and instability. Nevertheless, Greece has come to serve as a kind of proxy for these broader problems. NGOs and international organizations have released scathing reports; EU governance bodies have issued recommendations and condemnations. Recent documentaries, some impressively nuanced, some impressively less so, garner thousands of YouTube hits. While the “crisis” of asylum in Greece is not nearly as new as it may seem given this recent proliferation of media reports, it has now come to the attention of Greek, European, and more global publics. Such forms of documentation may run the risk of obscuring the deeper, subtler roots of this crisis, but they are certainly effective. The Greek state – no doubt partially in response to this increasingly robust culture of documentation and critique – is now in the process of radically revamping its asylum procedure.

Meanwhile, the brutality of the Athenian police not just toward migrants but also toward Greek citizens has also exploded into the public realm, most powerfully through the 2008 shooting of a teenager, Alexandros Grigoropoulis, and the riots that followed. In the revolts accompanying the financial crisis, radical left media outlets continue to document exhaustively the lines of MAT (Greek swat teams) facing down citizens engaged in both peaceful and violent protests. In addition to the police, some citizens have turned violent against migrants in attacks and vicious pogroms initiated by radical right groups in areas where many foreign residents live. Increasingly politicized migrant and refugee community organizations have documented this violence through photos of broken bodies – bruises, blood, mouths emptied of teeth. Blogs, Indymedia, and other leftist outlets continue to add to the growing store of testimony and images.


In the meantime, I have continued to conduct and write up my research. In 2011, I finally acquired official access to the insides of Allodapon, spending three days amid those working in the asylum unit, observing asylum interviews. There, surprisingly, I met – alongside less vocal folks – a number of officers who cited as much anxiety about the adjudication process and the violence outside as the legal advocates with whom I spent so much of my time. As the Greek government reforms the asylum procedure, building an independent authority for the examination of asylum claims, the process will be – finally – removed from the purview of the police. Some officers expressed worry about job security, but most spoke of the change with profound relief.

I am glad to have acquired this kind of layered, multi-sided knowledge of the Greek asylum procedure. In my PoLAR article, I write not just of violence but of the ways in which this violence is undermined or undone. This argument has ethical and ethnographic grounds. I believe that a focus on nuance and indeterminacy can bring alternative histories and voices into view. But I also can’t help but regret that I am coming awfully late to this movement of documentation that has emerged around the asylum procedure. I have left coverage to journalists and their impressive (but no doubt hurried) capacity to identify “key” players. I missed the opportunity to circulate images that (perhaps) could have been important.


And this is where I want to conclude: those of us who do research on political violence may want to make more powerful use of venues of documentation that are hurried, urgent, off the cuff, but more capable of responding to emerging crises than the meritocratic, controlled, polished nature of the peer reviewed article. I know too many young colleagues working in similarly charged locales who are nervous about putting work out there without the legitimacy of the peer review process. But, the field is changing, even in more traditional venues for anthropological writing, particularly through the use of digital technologies: the SCA hot spots, AE’s online section, and this, PoLAR‘s new online interface. We have examples of books that young academics, intellectuals, and activists have put together under the pressure of time, with the purpose of not just commenting upon but actively intervening in debates (see, for example, Revolt and Crisis in Greece, which is edited by Dimitris Dalakoglou and Antonis Vradis). So, take these photos and this commentary as my own rather late offering which is, I hope, better late than never, and my own attempt to participate in building a more crisis ready anthropology.

Behind the Image

by Salvatore Poier


The process in which one or another person was selected by police in order to be interviewed was completely arbitrary. After asking the crowd to sit or squat down, a man who I presumed was a police officer (even though he did not wear a uniform – in the picture, he is the middle-age man with glasses taking a paper from one person) looked briefly at the papers of those closest to him. Then, after a few – what I could tell – random decisions to allow people inside, he called out “African men,” and the crowd opened to let African people from the back pass through. This picture was taken right before that, when the non-uniformed officer was selecting one of the last people before calling for the Africans. I wanted to take a picture to give testament to the arbitrariness of the choice, and the clear play on power that police exercised over (as yet) undocumented migrants who knew they could be rounded up and deported at any time. I was near the front of the line, squatting alongside the others, blending into the crowd, trying to quietly take a picture; my camera did not have an extruded lens, so it was easy to turn it on without creating to much awareness of it. But – I still have no idea how – the flash went off. Earlier, I had taken a number of pictures without problems, but probably in the tight crowd a button was pressed, and when I took this picture, it generated two-flashes (the “anti-red eye” flash and the regular flash). The person in front of me turned around (you see him in the picture), blaming me with his eyes for my recklessness. The police allow no pictures in these occasions, even though the whole process happens in a public street.

Right after taking the shot, I hid the camera, hoping not to be caught. A uniformed police officer came over, demanding to know who had taken a picture. I was caught in a dilemma: to take responsibility or not? I was not afraid of the police, since unlike those around me, I am European citizen. But I was concerned that these pictures were going to be deleted, and so – again – no testimony, no evidence of what was happening could survive. I sat quietly, postponing my decision as I waited to see the reaction of the officer. He asked again, and then he pointed at someone in front of me, taking cell phones and checking the pictures in it – and then he did the same to a man just to my right. I was determined to say something if someone else was singled out. Everyone around was glaring at me, because they knew I was the one. I felt so cowardly, so stupid, and so privileged: the European academic smuggling himself into a crowd of asylum seekers just to satisfy his curiosity. I sat there, hoping that those around me perhaps thought I was doing something good for all of them – taking pictures to make public the violence and arbitrariness of the asylum process. Yes, these pictures survived and are now public, and the obscenity of the process of selection exposed. But I was, once again, relying on a Western narrative of domination and still today I am so ashamed of that.

Recommended Citation

Cabot, Heath, and Salvatore Poier. Documenting the Crisis of Asylum in Greece. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online. April 22, 2012.

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