an international
peer-reviewed journal
ISSN 2041-3254

Journeys of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugees from Syria Confronting Fortress Europe

by Rafeef Ziadah
16 May 2016 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Reflections on Dispossession: Critical Feminisms [14] | Article


According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of registered Syrian refugees was 4,086,760 as of late 2015, with 6000 people continuing to leave each day.[1] As early as 2013 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees declared that “we have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago.”[2] While the picture of the drowned child, Alan Kurdi, made headlines and came to symbolise the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, the much longer history of the European Union’s exclusionary immigration policies, extending the role of surveillance, enforcement, externalisation and securitisation of its borders, was swept aside.

The pronounced rise in the electoral fortunes and popular support for racist and xenophobic parties across Europe, exacerbated by economic austerity politics in border states like Greece and Spain,[3] as well as the political situation in the Mediterranean region, including both the uprisings in the Arab world and the large-scale dispossession caused by the conflict in Syria, have brought the debate about the EU’s migration system to the fore; but researchers and campaigners have been pointing to the defects and violence of EU immigration policies for some time.

This chapter aims to trace the lived reality of dispossession associated with crossing European borders, looking at the specific case of Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria. The more than half a million Palestinian refugees living in Syria are no exception to the mass flight out of Syria, with an estimated 63% of the community displaced by early February 2014.[4] Palestinians, however, because of their particular status as almost ‘permanent’ refugees, have faced much greater difficulties entering other Arab countries compared to Syrian citizens. Jordanian authorities have largely refused asylum to Palestinians coming from Syria, and overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon lack the necessary infrastructure to host them. In this context, Palestinians escaping Syria have had few options but to attempt the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, or by land from Turkey, to seek safety in Europe. Once they arrive in Europe, however, they encounter an array of state-backed policies that criminalise asylum seekers.

More specifically, the chapter analyses the ways in which Palestinian refugee women fleeing Syria are experiencing the twinning of securitised borders and exclusionary racism that does not permit them the much coveted legal status of asylum seeker in Europe. European institutions have in the past decades blatantly moved to restrict the right to claim. asylum that is supposedly enshrined in the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees[5] As noted by Davina Bhandar in her paper in this volume: “Official legal status has been used to define and legislate the very nature of personhood in society. Status determines membership, belonging and may also define the rights and entitlements that a political subject or actor can demand of the state.” Exclusion from status in the EU, including the status of asylum seeker, is a key mechanism through which migrant lives are regulated.

Beginning with a discussion of the historical evolution of EU border policies, the chapter moves on to outline of the characteristics of the Palestinian community in Syria and the situation following the 2011 uprising. I argue that Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria are suffering a double burden as stateless people; their continued exclusion from asylum procedures and the fact that surrounding borders are closed to them is leaving them in a dire situation. This discussion draws upon semi-structured interviews with Palestinian refugee women from Syria who arrived in Greece from 2011–13 (three of which are outlined in detail below), following hazardous journeys across sea and land. Since the interview were undertaken the situation has only gotten worse, thus this paper offers only a snapshot of that particular period. The women were each forcibly separated from their children and husbands during their journeys, and, following their arrival in Greece, have faced a state apparatus preventing them from applying for asylum. Their narratives indicate the specific intersection between multiple dispossessions, racism, and the militarisation of European borders which has come to typify the migrant experience.

Two central arguments are advanced throughout this chapter. First, that despite all the rhetoric the EU has opted to curb migration by militarising and externalising its borders. Second, that in dealing with the rising number of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean, it is imperative to implement a comprehensive asylum system, one that at least contains minimal protections, including access to legal assistance and respect for the principle of non-refoulement. At present, even this minimum is lacking.

The documentation of the following journeys of dispossession holds significant implications for refugee rights as well as for anti-racist groups concerned with defending Palestinians and other minority groups in Europe. Understanding the regulatory mechanisms and policies imposed by the European Union and individual European states against refugees and asylum seekers, and, importantly, looking at how such mechanisms are experienced by those subjected to them on a daily basis across Europe’s borders and detention centres, can allow us to develop more coherent strategies to challenge them.

Breaching Fortress Europe

EU policy makers continue to raise migration as a security concern, while European institutions increasingly harmonise a system “to decide which people can move freely around the world, and which people will have their movement restricted.”[6] As Sivanandan notes, the EU’s policies towards asylum seekers and migrants constitute a type of racism “not just directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at Western Europe’s doors, the Europe that helped to displace them in the first place.”[7]

Borders, as spaces of managed exclusion and inclusion, function as the cornerstone of this system. This paper, following the work of Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, looks at borders as acting beyond their stated function of geographical demarcation of space. Rather,

the border is for us a method. By this, we mean not that the border provides an abstract methodology that can be detached from its material contexts and applied generally across any number of empirical situations. We understand method to emerge precisely from the material circumstances at hand, which, in the case of borders, are ones of tension and conflict, partition and connection, traversing and barricading, life and death. Border as method thus entails not only an epistemic viewpoint from which a whole series of strategic concepts as well as their relations can be recast. It also requires a research process that continually accounts for and reacts to the multifarious battles and negotiations, not least those concerning race, that constitute the border both as an institution and a set of social relationships.[8]

So-called “border management” has been an integral part of the EU project: abolishing internal borders went hand-in-hand with establishing stricter processes of entry to Europe.[9] The externalisation of European borders, in particular, was a key stage in a process whereby legal mechanisms of exclusion have since meant that asylum seekers are held in regions of origin and are not allowed to reach European territory in the first place to make their asylum claim. In fact: “The ultimate aim is to create an entirely different model of ‘refugee protection’ based, not on individual rights, but on a system of warehousing the displaced in large camps in their region of origin until a conflict has been resolved to the satisfaction of western powers.”[10]

The EU High Level Working Group on Asylum and Immigration, established in 1999 and made up of member-state officials and the European Commission, sought ways in which trade and development aid could be connected to migration, in order to ensure that non-EU states do not allow onward migration to Europe and also to ensure that they accept the return of rejected asylum seekers. Policies turning “Third World governments into immigration police for Western Europe” were formalised at the Tampere European Council Summit in October (1999)[11]; a December 2007 EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon further established a “strategic partnership” linking migration and development.

The EU’s Global Approach to Migration (GAM) framework and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) are two particularly significant policy frameworks that have augmented the externalisation of EU borders, whereby non-EU member states are implicated in EU border management policy, with the EU facilitating trade agreements for cooperation, providing surveillance technologies, and advising on border controls and overall securitisation of the border. The GAM in particular was important to extending border management beyond EU state borders and into the territories of “neighbours” as well as “neighbours of neighbours.”[12]

Beyond the policy frameworks, the creation of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the EU (Frontex, founded in 2005 with its headquarters in Warsaw) was a critical step in externalising EU borders and coordinating border management efforts between EU member states, neighbour states and those neighbouring them in turn. Significantly, with the policy frameworks and Frontex operating as the enforcement mechanism, the conceptualisation of EU borders shifted to policing migratory routes and looking at migration on a regional scale, rather than at specific entry/exit points or geographical demarcation-points. With these transitions, the EU border was no longer fixed, but was externalised and shifted fluidly according to migratory routes.

These EU policy frameworks and Frontex campaigns faced a challenge, however, following the Arab uprisings of 2011, when, in response to popular revolts, the European Union was eager to maintain border control agreements it had established with the former regimes. High Representative Catherine Ashton’s new Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean, launched in March 2011, specifically set out EU plans to deal with migration:

The Commission has mobilised its instruments to support Italy, and other Member States if needed, in case a massive influx of migrants from North Africa were to materialise. This response includes operational measures and financial assistance. The Frontex joint operation HERMES 2011 was launched on 20 February, with assets and experts from a number of Member States. If required, Frontex operations could be strengthened to help deal with possible new inflows. The Commission is ready to mobilise i.e. financial assistance from funds such as the External Borders Fund and European Refugee Fund which amount to EUR 25 million in total.[13]

In addition, the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) of 11–12 April encouraged Frontex to speed up negotiations to conclude arrangements on border control. Although the Hermes Joint Operation was meant to include a ‘search and rescue’ element, the primary focus was on preventing entry into the EU. According to UNHCR figures, in 2011, more than 1,500 people drowned or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, making that year the deadliest on record.[14] It is clear from the number of deaths that the primary focus of EU operations is the prevention of entry to Europe and re-establishing its previous border management agreements with dictatorial regimes.

EU policies that restrict legal routes for refugees and asylum seekers have meant that those seeking safety are left vulnerable to various networks and routes of entry. This is strikingly apparent in the situation of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. Palestinian refugees from Syria, in particular, are refused entry to Jordan, and in many cases have been returned at Lebanon’s border or cannot find shelter or work in Lebanon’s already overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps. Palestinian women refugees interviewed, were adamant in explaining that they had attempted the regular routes to receive visas, but were rejected at all points and were left with no other choices but to enter Europe irregularly. This is not to suggest that regular routes do not (re)produce their own sets of power relations and hierarchies, rather that barring such routes generates more dangerous migration options rather than the stated goal of managing inflows.

The Palestinian diaspora in Syria

Given the centrality of the history of dispossession, Palestinians are an emblematic case of how dispossession and statelessness is experienced in a global order organised through state control over borders. Border crossings constitute, as Rashid Khalidi notes, “the quintessential Palestinian experience” because “the most basic issue raised by Palestinian identity, takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified.”[15] But this process of “checking and verifying” does not end once borders are crossed. For refugees it continues through exclusionary policies long after they make their way into new countries.

The conditions facing Palestinian refugees from Syria attempting to enter Europe today must be put in historical context. Ongoing dispossession has been a fundamental marker of Palestinian identity since 1948, when armed Zionist militias expelled over 700,000 Palestinians from their towns and villages in Historic Palestine. This mass population flight, described by Palestinians as al-Nakba (catastrophe), is the origin of the contemporary Palestinian refugee experience.[16] It did not end, however, with the cessation of hostilities in 1948, but continued through subsequent decades in successive waves of expulsion and dispossession. These included: the internal displacement of approximately 35,000–45,000 Palestinians who remained on their land and obtained Israeli citizenship following al-Nakba; the expulsion of up to 500,000 Palestinians in 1967, during Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and the continuing political and bureaucratic measures employed by Israel that have compelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave Palestine from 1967 to the current day. In addition, Palestinian refugee communities in neighbouring Arab countries were to experience forced displacement and precarious living conditions – from the military attacks on refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon in the 1970s through to the expulsion of the Palestinian refugee community in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion. By 2011, the number of displaced Palestinians had reached at least 7.4 million people, representing around two thirds of the global Palestinian population (11.2 million).[17]

The realities of Palestinian dispossession began in the early 1880s with the onset of the colonization of Palestine by the Zionist movement. Following several waves of colonisation by European Jewish settlers throughout the late nineteenth century and continuing through the British Mandate period (1923–1948), Jews had reached around one-third of the total population by 1948. Throughout these phases of settlement, officials in the Zionist movement openly discussed plans based around the transfer and expulsion of Palestinians from the land, in order to fulfil the goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. As Selig Soskin, former director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Settlement Department put it in a memo to the Twentieth Zionist Congress in 1937: “I therefore insist on the compulsory transferring of the whole rural Arab population from the Jewish State to the Arab State. It is a preliminary step to the up-building of the Jewish State.”[18] These notions of transfer were actualised in a series of military plans, the most famous of which was Plan Dalet, as well as in the creation of Transfer Committees, which were established by the Jewish Agency in the early 1940s. Beginning before the outbreak of hostilities in the 1948 War, and continuing through 1949, over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their towns and villages. The United National Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established after the mass expulsion of Palestinians to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and inside the occupied Palestinian territories.

A central feature of the Palestinian diaspora experience are the refugee camps, in which around one-quarter of the total refugee population (registered and unregistered) were reported to live at the end of 2011.[19] Lebanon and Syria have the largest portion of refugees who live in camps – in Lebanon, around 53% of the country’s Palestinian refugees reside in official camps, while in Syria the figure is approximately 64% (including unofficial camps).[20]

The camp experience forms an essential bridge to the ongoing displacement of the population. Spatial organisation of the camp tends to be divided according to refugee village of origin; al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, for example, is divided into four quarters named after the villages from which most inhabitants were expelled – al-Tira, Lubya, Balad al-Sheik, and Ein Ghazal.[21] This spatial organisation itself is indicative of the very lived connection between the refugee camps and al-Nakba in historic Palestine. As Farah notes, “refugee camps, marginal and unequal spaces, are therefore striated by the traumatic history, and the larger struggle for repatriation and national independence.”[22]

Nonetheless, despite the collective memory of exile that is sustained in the camps, it is important to acknowledge the social transformation that has occurred through the process of dispersion. For many Palestinian refugees, the displacement from Palestine also constituted a process of class formation, in which refugees – many of whom were from rural villages – were to become integrated to varying degrees into the workforce of their host country. This process differed significantly between Arab countries. In Lebanon, for example, Palestinian refugees were excluded from certain occupations and thus formed a distinct stratum within the Lebanese labour market. In Syria, however, Palestinians were generally integrated into the Syrian working class.

At the end of 2011, there were approximately 510,000 UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees in Syria.[23] Of this number, around 310,000 were housed across 14 refugee camps (10 official and 4 unofficial)[24] The largest of these camps is al Yarmouk, an unofficial camp established in 1956–1957, which housed an estimated 140,842 residents, just over 45% of the country’s camp refugees. Palestinian refugees in Syria are heavily urbanised, with many of the unofficial camps, including al Yarmouk, established in city centres in order to provide access to government services. This group is also a young population, with around one-quarter of all UNRWA-registered refugees.[25] In general, Palestinian refugees in Syria have lived under better living conditions compared to those in other Arab states. Although still sub-standard, housing conditions for refugees in Syria were shown to be better than other Arab states, in a comparative study conducted in 2004, with 22% of refugees classified as living in overcrowded conditions (three or more persons per room), compared to 34% in Jordan and 28% in Lebanon.[26]

One of the reasons for this comparatively better standard of living in Syria was the high degree of integration of refugees into Syrian society. While Palestinians were never granted full citizenship, various laws (most notably, Law no. 260 of 1956 and Law no. 1311 of 1963) entitled them to equal rights in the areas of employment, residence, trade, and access to social services. As a consequence, Palestinian refugees were able to access educational, health, and other welfare services on par with Syrian citizens. When it came to education, for example, Palestinian refugees attended Syrian government schools and universities were open to them on an equal basis with Syrians.[27] With the exception of the right to vote and participate in government and municipal elections, Palestinians were granted the same rights as their Syrian compatriots in both the content and practice of the law.

With the outbreak of the popular uprising in Syria in mid-March 2011, the position of the Palestinian community was to come under severe pressure. During the first few weeks of the uprising, no public statements were issued by any of the main Palestinian political factions. From April 2011 to February 2012, a period during which some Palestinian refugee camps were targeted by the regime as part of its repression, the official Palestinian stance was one of neutrality, although the pro-regime faction – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) (PFLP-GC) – did speak in support of the government[28] From early 2012, following the departure of Hamas from Syria, the officially neutral position of the different factions began to fragment. Hamas came out in support of the uprising, while Fatah and the other factions continued to uphold a position of neutrality. The PFLP-GC and the smaller pro-regime organization, Al Saiqa, took positions in support of the Assad regime.

This political fragmentation needs to be situated in the context of a sharp escalation in violence and repression continuing since mid-2012. As of late 2013, there had been an estimated 100,000 casualties in Syria, with an average of 5000 deaths occurring each month. The rapid militarisation of the conflict forced many families to flee their villages and towns. As noted above, According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around 6000 people continue to leave each day.[29] On top of this, four to six million people had been internally displaced within the country, and almost seven million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.[30]

Due to their integration into Syrian society, Palestinians have been deeply impacted by this situation. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates that around 63% of the Palestinian refugee population in Syria had been displaced as a result of the conflict by early February 2014. Of this figure, 270,000 were displaced within Syria itself, while a further 70,000 had left the country. Most of the latter fled to Lebanon, joining the already established refugee communities there and placing enormous stress on the already limited camp infrastructure in the country. Others went to Jordan – despite the fact that Palestinian refugees from Syria have been denied entry to the country since May 2013 – or fled further afield to Europe or Asia. As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, most of those attempting to cross to Europe go through Greece, as it is the major gateway to Europe from Turkey.

While Jordan and Lebanon maintain a slightly more open policy towards Syrian refugees fleeing the country, they have closed their borders to Palestinians. In this way, Palestinians are facing multiple forms of discrimination being double refugees. Both Jordan and Lebanon already host large numbers of Palestinian refugees and have fears of growing numbers of Palestinians entering their territory. According to Amnesty International, in “Lebanon, tighter border controls have been reported since August 2013” with Palestinian refugees living in Syria and seeking to flee the conflict being denied entry.[31] There have been instances of Syrian and Palestinian refugees being forcibly returned from Jordan to Syria, in clear violation of international law.[32]

As a result, Palestinian refugees from Syria are forced into arduous journeys, risking their lives on boats or across land, to seek safety and protection in Europe. Those interviewed for this study took small rubber boats from Egypt or Turkey or tried to cross by land, in the hope they could claim asylum in Greece. Because Greece is considered a main entry point to Europe, in its 2013 policy brief, Frontex specifically outlines the steps it has taken to curb migration by land to Greece through Turkey and the Mediterranean. According to the Frontex Annual Risk Assessment report for 2013:

In 2012, the nationality with the most dramatic change in the number of detections were Syrians, both in terms of relative growth and absolute number, from 1,616 in 2011 to 7,903 in 2012 (+389%). A large majority of all detected Syrian migrants were reported from the Greek land border with Turkey.[33]

Although these numbers are for Syrian refugees only, they highlight the crisis for millions of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing Syria and attempting all routes to reach Europe.

Seeking asylum in Greece

The way the Greek state has chosen to handle incoming irregular migration across its borders is a combination of policies to curb migration and bureaucratic mechanisms making it difficult to claim asylum. Asylum seekers in Greece are not able to access proper procedures to determine their status, leaving them at the mercy of police sweeps and xenophobic gangs.

It was not until 2008, after Spain and Italy had made entry routes to their countries nearly impossible to navigate, that “Greece became the main gate of entry into the European Union”.[34] The EU’s Dublin II Regulation (2003/343/CE) stipulates that processing asylum applications must take place in the initial EU country of entry. Previously this meant that if refugees left Greece for another European country they would be returned, essentially transforming Greece into a large warehouse for migrants who become trapped in the Greek system when they are unable to claim asylum. It was not until two 2011 rulings by the EU’s Court of Justice determined that Greece’s detention system posed inhuman and degrading treatment that EU countries stopped transferring refugees back to Greece.

On their part, Greek authorities have gone to great lengths to curb migration, although it must be noted that there have been strong initiatives at the grassroots level to show support and solidarity to asylum seekers. The EU land border between Turkey and Greece is 203 kilometres, and to the south is the sea border on the Aegean. 2012 saw the completion of a fence marked with barbed wire along the land border with Turkey. There are now foot patrols along this fence and watchtowers equipped with thermal vision cameras. Also in 2012, the Greek government launched Operation Aspida (Shield), deploying 1800 police officers on the border with Turkey. According to Frontex:

The situation changed dramatically in August 2012 when the Greek authorities mobilised unprecedented resources at their land border with Turkey, including the deployment of 1800 additional Greek police officers. The number of detected illegal border-crossings rapidly dropped from about 2 000 in the first week of August to below 10 per week in October 2012.[35]

But this drop only meant that asylum seekers were now finding even more precarious ways to get to safety. In its Annual Risk Report, Frontex states that after the land border was largely closed off “detections in the Aegean Sea, between Turkey and Greece, increased by 912%. This increasing trend started after September 2012, as migrants considered sea crossing as an alternative to the land route to Greece”[36]

Detention is a central pillar of the Greek state’s immigration system. A 2013 Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) explained: “Greece has focused on reinforcing its external borders and started a policy which relies too heavily on detention. Despite the Greek authorities’ determination to improve the asylum system and detention conditions, which in many instances remain deplorable, much still needs to be done.”[37] Greek law allows for detention for deportation from 6 months to a maximum of 12 months. However, since October 2012, detention could be extended to 18 months. In 2014, new changes by the Minister of Public Order and Citizens’ Protection made it so  “that irregular migrants could continue to be detained pending his/her return beyond the 18 month maximum period of detention provided by law if they were deemed not to be cooperating with the execution of a return order.”[38] In other words, they could be held indefinitely.

Human rights organisations have reported the inhumane conditions in Greek detention facilities. For instance, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants found that:

In some of the detention facilities, the migrants had limited access to toilets; some facilities had no artificial lighting so that during the winter, migrants were in the dark from early afternoon. Most of the detention facilities visited lacked heating and hot water and the detainees complained about insufficient amounts and poor quality of food, lack of soap and other hygiene products, as well as insufficient clothing, shoes and blankets. The medical services offered in some of the facilities by KEELPNO (Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) were highly insufficient. Some of the centres had no permanent medical staff, and relied on daily visits by KEELPNO only.[39]

In addition to increasing border surveillance and mass detention, Greek authorities began in 2012 to intensify sweep operations in central cities. Operation Xenios Zeus (Hospitable God) constituted a series of sweeps of the streets in major areas of Attica, Evros, and Patras. Between August 2012, when Operation Xenios Zeus began, and February 2013, the police forcibly took almost 85,000 people to police stations to verify their immigration status. No more than 6% were found to be in Greece unlawfully.

These sweeps round up thousands of people who have travelled to Greece with the intention of filing asylum claims, but there is very limited access to asylum procedures. When individuals go to file such claims, to receive the “pink paper” that will allow them to remain in the country while their file is being processed, they find that only 20 of the coveted pink papers are issued once a week – the applications for which are only accepted on Saturday mornings.[40] Asylum seekers line up days in advance and fights often break out in the crush to access the building. NGOs have monitored the terrible conditions and the aggressive police behaviour at these lines, the results of which are detailed in a 2012 report, put together by a group of lawyers, AITMA, the Greek Council for Refugees, and the Ecumenical Refugee Program, along with other groups and NGOs. The report noted that: “the longstanding practice followed by the Asylum Department of the Attica Aliens Directorate, the competent authority to receive, register and examine asylum applications in Attica, is to allow submission of a small number of asylum applications and only in the early hours of every Saturday morning”.[41]

After much international condemnation of Greece’s detention conditions and its asylum processing system, a newly established civilian body, the New Asylum Service, began operating in 2013. Previously, claims were dealt with by the police. Since 7 June 2013, they are being registered by the New Asylum Service, but all previously filed applications continue to be handled by police.

Economic crisis and rising xenophobia

These policies towards migrants and asylum seekers are occurring in the context of a sharp economic crisis in Greece, where, in return for an international bailout, the state has implemented severe austerity measures, including major spending cuts, privatisation, and tax hikes. The high unemployment rates and cuts to social services have led some sectors to scapegoat the increasing number of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. The far-right Golden Dawn (Chrysí Avgí) party has opposed the austerity measures, but is also viciously opposed to migrant rights. The party statutes explain that Golden Dawn stands “against the demographic alteration, through the millions of illegal immigrants, and the dissolution of Greek society, which is systematically pursued by the parties of the establishment of the so-called Left”.[42] The party explains that for them people within a nation are “not just an arithmetic total of individuals but the qualitative composition of humans with the same biological and cultural heritage.”[43]

Golden Dawn members regularly target migrant communities and physically attack them. In September 2012, for example, Golden Dawn MPs George Germenis, Elias Panagiotaros, and Constantinos Barbarousis led a group of Golden Dawn members in Rafina and Mesologgi to destroy the stalls of migrant street vendors. Wearing black shirts, Golden Dawn supporters descended on the stalls, destroying them. MP George Germenis explained their actions: “we took a walk around the bazaar and listened to the problems of small goods sellers here and we noticed some illegal immigrants trying to sell their stuff without the appropriate licenses. We told the police and then we did what Golden Dawn must do” (euronews 2012).[44] In another overt sign of heightening racism against migrants, Golden Dawn has several times organised food hand-out days for “Greeks only.” Importantly, thus far police authorities seem to step back when members of Golden Dawn attack migrants, and in cases where the police are called for protection, it is the migrants that risk imprisonment and deportation.

There were some positive indications when the radical left coalition Syriza was first elected to power in January 2015, that it would counter the daily levels of harassment facing refugees and asylum seekers. However, in the final analysis, a fundamental shift in the status quo on migrant rights in Greece has failed to materialise.

Journeys of dispossession

The intersection of dispossession, precarious escape routes, and rising xenophobia is perfectly illustrated in the cases of Palestinian refugees from Syria who have recently made their way to Greece. In the following three interviews, conducted by the author with refugee women in Athens in January 2013, the interviewees all spoke of their experiences in coping with the rising violence and the attacks on their refugee camps in Syria, as well as the ways in which their flight from Syria – and their experience of borders – was fundamentally shaped by their Palestinian identity. As Palestinians, their journeys reflect not simply the immediacy of the Syrian crisis, but also the historical reality of decades of collective and multiple dispossession. This reality was further compounded by the exclusionary and racist encounters with both the Greek state and xenophobic organisations in Greece following their arrival in the country.

Amal, a Palestinian elementary school teacher, made the trip to Greece through the Aegean sea while pregnant and with her now two-year-old child. She came on a rubber boat with twenty-five others. Previously she had lived in Damascus, but when the fighting began fled to the Yarmouk refugee camp to be with her family. Once the violence reached the camp, however, her brother was seriously injured and they all recognised it was not safe to stay in the camp. Her family went to Lebanon, but she attempted to go with her husband to Jordan, with both of them thinking they had better options there. Though she was denied entry to Jordan because she is Palestinian, her Syrian husband was able to make it through.

Having to go back to Syria, Amal opted to try her luck through Turkey. She attempted to attain a visa to the EU in Turkey, but was refused due to her lack of funds. Through contacts with other Syrians in Turkey, she was able to find a smuggler who “guaranteed” her entry to Italy. However, the boat she was in tipped over near Greek waters. Amal and her young daughter nearly drowned, but another person in the boat helped her to shore. She explained:

I didn’t want to take a small boat with one small girl and while pregnant, but I had no choice – if we go back to Syria we will die and I wanted my children to have a future. I didn’t know the smuggler would put us in such a small boat, but I had already paid him all my money and he said he would leave me and my child if we didn’t get on the boat.

Amal was in Greece for a full year before being able to file her asylum claim. She attempted to lodge a claim dozens of times, but was not able to because the authorities would only take 20 applications per week. She remains unable to register her second child, who was born in Greece, because the authorities insist that the father must be present. The father is, however, in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Amal is considered one of the lucky ones to have been able to lodge her asylum claim and get the pink paper. She was able to get to the front of the line only because others saw her struggling with a newborn baby. She described in detail how terrified she was for the first year before having the pink paper. Having paid all her money to smugglers, she said that she still often spent nights in the park with her daughters and that she was afraid of the mass sweeps by the police. She explained:

sometimes young men from that group that wears black shirts, Gold Dawn would come and ask me questions in the park, but I did not speak Greek. Once they tried to search me, but I started screaming. The problem is I couldn’t do anything because I don’t want the police to come either because they will then put me and my children in prison.

Amal was not able to get medical checks before giving birth for fear of being reported to the police. When it was finally time to deliver, she waited until the last minute and went to the hospital emergency room because she could not afford the medical bills. She was only able to leave the hospital when members of the Palestinian community in Athens donated money for her expenses. At the time of her interview, she was surviving in Greece largely through aid from a church in her neighbourhood because she did not have a place to leave her children while she looked for work. Amal added at the end of her interview, after a pause:

I would have never left on my own like this – but my brother was with my parents in Lebanon and they had no money for hospitals. I was hoping if I came to Europe I can find a job and send him money and bring them to safety. But my family called me two days ago to tell me my brother died. Now I cannot seem to go forward or to go back.

A very similar narrative repeated itself across all the women interviewed. They wanted safety for themselves and their families. Innas, a thirty-five-year-old Palestinian school teacher from Syria, went to the Greek authority offices 10 times to attempt to apply for asylum. Each time she waited the entire day, only to be told they were no longer taking applications for the day. She went with her two daughters, both minors and one with a disability, but this did not make her chances any better. She said she could no longer afford to take the bus journey with her two daughters to the offices to apply for asylum as she had no income. A church service was providing her with modest necessities for her two daughters. However, neither of her daughters could register in school without the necessary documentation. Innas insisted:

I only want my daughters to go to school, we left Syria because we had to, not out of choice. I applied to all embassies to be able to travel legally, but no one accepted us. In Lebanon we didn’t have enough food, so I just wanted to come to Europe so my daughters can go to school. But now I am trapped here and everyone tells me the best option is to smuggle them to Sweden. But they are children, how can I send them alone?

Innas tried to stay in Yarmouk refugee camp as long as possible, but she feared for her two daughters, aged 13 and 16, when an explosion hit their neighbourhood. She left Yarmouk on 6 June 2012 to stay with her uncle in Damacus, however his house was hosting 22 people fleeing Yarmouk at the time. She decided to go to Lebanon, but once there found no work and had no income. The United Nations Relief and Works agency provided the family with one box of basic essentials every week, but the food could not last them the full week. She decided to head back to Damascus to attempt to make the journey to Europe through Egypt. In Egypt, through other Syrians trying to escape, she met a smuggler willing to take her and the children to Italy. She did not realise until they were at sea for five days in a small boat with 103 others (she counted) that this small boat she was on was due to meet a larger cruiser at sea and that they were meant to jump from one to the next. She said:

I knew this was dangerous, both boats are moving and we are meant to jump in the dark, but I had no choice, we were already at sea five days and the children were sea sick and we had no more food. Before my youngest was about to jump, another young man fell between the two boats and his body was severed right there. In a panic, the smuggler left him at sea, told us to be quiet and said we had to go back to Egypt.

The smuggler had already received $3200 for each person on the boat. For Innas, this was most of her savings from Syria after selling her house there.

Innas, unable to escape through Egypt, decided to try her chances through Turkey. To get to Turkey, however, they had to cross by foot. One of Innas’s daughters was born with a leg condition and thus cannot run very well. Although the group she was with had an agreement with the smuggler that he would be with them until they reached Turkey, at 11pm, he pointed them in a direction towards barbed wire and told them to just run for it. As they were stuck at the border, they ran, but were quickly spotted by Turkish coast guards. They went back and waited until 3am to try and make the run again, but in two smaller groups this time. At the second attempt, they were fired upon and were then picked up on the Turkish side. As Innas had two minors with her, the police fingerprinted her and let them go.

The next stage was to attempt to reach Greece by sea. Again they were in a small boat, but after four hours at sea, they were told to jump and just swim towards the lights. As Innas explained:

The smuggler had guaranteed me we would reach the shores of Greece, but mid-way they told us to jump and swim. We tried very hard and almost drowned until we reached the shores of a place I later learned was called Samos. My daughter lost her shoe and she [could] not climb because of her leg, I was dragging her across the ground because we had to keep moving with [the] others.

While climbing in that area, they were picked up by police, who placed 39 of them in a small room with one toilet. Innas explained: “two people from Frontex told me they were human rights people and that we should listen to the police.” When asked about Golden Dawn during her interview, Innas said, “we see them in the streets all the time and we know they don’t like us. But that’s why we walk in groups, so they don’t attack us.”

Both Amal and Innas’s journey to Greece illustrates the extreme hardships suffered by women fleeing Syria and the practical ways refugees and asylum seekers are finding to cope with the threat of groups like Golden Dawn. Popular discourse around the “threat” of migrants coming to “take jobs” and the need for “stricter border controls” obfuscates the reality of ordinary women fleeing conflict and/or poverty and confronting a myriad of border surveillance technologies and bureaucratic asylum procedures designed to curb migration.

Another interviewee, Leila, aged 45, went to Greece with her husband and four children. She explained that she was neither for nor against the Syrian regime initially, but that people around her needed help, aid and medication. Being trained doctors, she and her husband began to help the injured in their house and store medical supplies. Within a couple of months, neighbours noticed this and the regime’s Secret Service was alerted. Her husband’s brother was arrested first. When we spoke, the family still had not heard from him a year later, and they were unsure if he continued to be detained or whether he had been killed while detained by Syrian government authorities. Her two daughters had participated in a peaceful protest on their university campus in Damascus and had found out that other participants, including all the women, were suddenly disappearing and that their families could not locate them. Realizing their family was not safe, they all left for Lebanon. Once in Lebanon, neither Leila nor her husband could work, and for shelter they had only a small room that a family in a Palestinian refugee camp had made available for families coming from Syria. Wanting her children to attend school and university, Leila decided to take her children to Europe. They were also smuggled through Turkey on a small boat.

However, they could not register their asylum claims in Greece. Her sons, both minors aged 13 and 16, were caught and placed in detention in Greece for months before being released because there was no country they could be deported to. After leaving detention traumatised, both sons insisted they needed to leave Greece. Leila’s sons hid on a boat heading to Italy on their first attempt. They hid underneath the cars until the boat reached Italian shores, but they quickly realised it was not a passenger boat when they were picked up and deported back to Greece. They pleaded with the authorities to fingerprint them so they could claim asylum in Greece, but they were only returned. Their second option was to attempt to go to northern Europe by land. They were smuggled through Serbia, and continuing their journey north, they were caught in Hungary where they successfully claimed asylum.

Leila said she hopes to be able to join her sons soon because they are minors.[45] The family is hoping their ordeal will be over once they can reach a place that has a functioning asylum process designed to aid people rather than repel them. Leila’s two daughters, on the other hand, were quickly married to relatives who reside in Sweden and Denmark. As she reflected: “I had no other way of keeping them safe. I wanted them to finish university and hopefully they will. But in Greece they were running from the police and these Golden Dawn members as if they were criminals. We deserve better treatment than this.”

The cases above illustrate the seriousness of the bureaucratic hurdles placed in front of asylum seekers and refugees; they also highlight the interplay between the Greek state’s policies and the EU policies of border management. Critically, the narratives help us to understand the shifts to, and operation of, regulatory border policies and the ways in which people experience and challenge them.

Throughout the interviews conducted for this research, it became clear that while the Greek state distances itself from the xenophobia of openly fascist groups such as Golden Dawn, in reality, when it comes to migration, the end goal of the state’s policies and these groups alike is to ensure that migrants are not welcome and that they are unable to integrate. Golden Dawn might have an overtly anti-immigrant rhetoric, but in practice the state holds the power and uses it to enact anti-immigrant legislation. Encouraged by the rhetoric of Golden Dawn, the state trumps up anti-immigrant sentiment with specific laws and xenophobic police sweeps.

It is important to note, however, that European Union officials and institutions also bear responsibility. Thus, they can no longer place the blame squarely at the doors of the Greek state, when they too facilitate an environment more invested in curbing migration than in supporting refugees and asylum seekers.


The challenges facing those interviewed for this paper are not unique to Palestinians alone. Unfortunately, these stories mark the journeys of dispossession that most of those attempting to seek asylum in Europe face. Rather than developing a functioning asylum system, the Greek state, and the EU more broadly, have thus far opted to curb migration and use police intimidation, racial profiling, deportation and detention as key mechanisms for dealing with refugees. Cosmetic improvements to the asylum system – putting it under civilian control rather than police control, for example – continue to be mired in bureaucratic hurdles, not least of which is the hiring freeze in the public sector due to austerity measures. In essence, this means that asylum seekers continue to have no protection and no support. It is imperative that a comprehensive asylum system be implemented, one that at least features minimal protections, including access to legal assistance and respect for the principle of non-refoulement. Detention, including detention of unaccompanied minors, can no longer be the linchpin that holds Greece’s immigration policy together.

Finally, studying the specific experience and work of the border tells us not just about what happens on specific migration routes, but also illuminates the full structure and complex web of regulations enacted against refugees and asylum seekers. The situation of Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria and waiting in limbo in Greece is not a simple question of Greek state failure. It is rooted in the ongoing trend of entrenching the border itself with its specific racialised hierarchies – making the border “work” as it is envisioned by EU policies.

European Union policies to externalise and militarise borders include the implementation of heavy policing by both Frontex and local authorities, as well as police sweeps and raids, and a web of detention centres to warehouse those who are unwanted. In this paper I have explored the intersections of immigration, detention, race, and gender, using the particular case of Palestinian refugee women entering Greece irregularly. Examining racialised and gendered spaces of managed inclusion and exclusion like borders is crucial to understanding and effectively resisting the violence of border policing and the war on asylum. Tracing journeys of dispossession from the standpoint of those subjected to border management policies is imperative to analysing the interplay between state-sanctioned violence and the rising violence of xenophobic parties in Europe. While outright fascist anti-immigrant groups are pointed to as an aberration by mainstream politicians, the reality is that these parties have thus far operated in a political environment largely accepting of their scapegoating of refugees and asylum seekers.


1. On top of this, four to six million people had been internally displaced within the country, and almost seven million people were in need of humanitarian assistance as of the summer of 2013. Davis, Rochelle, and Abbie Taylor. “New Research Details the Plight of Syrian Refugees”.[↑]

2. ‘UNHCR – UNHCR Chief Urges States to Maintain Open Access for Fleeing Syrians’. [↑]

3. Wodak, Ruth. Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse. A&C Black, 2013. [↑]

4. Of this figure, 270,000 are displaced within Syria itself, while a further 70,000 have left the country. Most of those attempting to cross to Europe go through Greece, the major gateway to Europe from Turkey (UNRWA n.d.). ‘UNRWA | United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’.[↑]

5. Liz Fekete. A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe. (London: Pluto 2009) 22. [↑]

6. Ibid 21 [↑]

7. A. Sivanandan,  ”UK Commentary: Racism 1992.” Race & Class 30, no. 3 (1989): 85-90. In the case of Palestine specifically, Britain is largely responsible for the fate of Palestinians as the colonial power in control of the area after the First World War.  It was a British Lord, Arthur Balfour, who granted permission for the establishment of “Jewish homeland” in Palestine. After the Second World War European powers voted for a Partition Plan (UN Resolution 181, 1947) splitting historic Palestine into two entities and admitted Israel into the UN in 1949. European powers continue to this day to grant Israel military and diplomatic support, including an on-going Trade Association Agreement, which accords Israel’s products preferential treatment in European markets despite is track record of human rights violations. [↑]

8. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, “Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor.” In Transversal, online journal of the European Institute of Progressive Cultural Policies (2008 June). [↑]

9. Maribel Casa, Sebastian Cobarrubias, and John Pickles. “Stretching Borders Beyond Sovereign Territories? Mapping EU and Spain’s Border Externalization Policies.” Geopolítica(s). Geopolítica 2, no. 1 (2011). [↑]

10. Liz Fekete, 29. [↑]

11. Fekete, 24 [↑]

12. Casas, Maribel, Sebastian Cobarrubias, and John Pickles. “Stretching Borders Beyond Sovereign Territories? Mapping EU and Spain’s Border Externalization Policies.” Geopolítica(s). Geopolítica 2, no. 1 (2011). [↑]

13. European Commission, and the High Representative of the Union For Foreign Affairs And Security Policy. ‘Joint Communication To The European Council, The European Parliament, The Council, The European Economic And Social Committee, And The Committee Of The Regions.’ 2011  [↑]

14. ‘UNHCR – Mediterranean Takes Record as Most Deadly Stretch of Water for Refugees and Migrants in 2011’. [↑]

15. Khalidi, Rashid. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). [↑]

16. For a general history of al-Nakba see Khalidi, Walid. “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine”. Journal of Palestine Studies 18, no. 1 (1988): 4–33. Masalha, Nur. The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem. (London: Pluto Press 2003). [↑]

17. Salman Abu Sitta (2000) estimates a figure of 804,000 refugees and 531 towns and villages destroyed and/or depopulated. Abu Sitta, Salman. ‘From Refugees to Citizens at Home: The End of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.’ (London: Palestinian Land Society and Palestinian Return Centre 2001). The highest estimate comes from the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNPCC), which gave a number of 900,000 in a November 1951 report. UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNPCC). 1951. Progress Report. General Assembly Official Records: Sixth Session Supplement No. 18 (A/1985). [↑]

18. Soskin, Selig. 1937. “Memorandum to the Twentieth Zionist Congress.” Quoted in Masalha, Nur. Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948. Washington, D.C: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992, 81-82. [↑]

19. BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights. Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2010-2012, Volume VII. Bethlehem, Palestine: BADIL. [↑]

20. Figures calculated by author using BADIL’s Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2010–2012, Volume VII, 13. [↑]

21. An UNRWA study has determined that 72% of all Palestinians displaced in 1948 went from their original places of habitation together to a single location. Sitta, Salman. ‘From Refugees to Citizens at Home: The End of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.’ (London: Palestinian Land Society and Palestinian Return Centre 2001), 23. [↑]

22. The centrality of the refugee camp experience and ongoing dispossession is reflected strongly in Palestinian cultural expression. For example, Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s most celebrated short story, “Men in the Sun,” tells of three Palestinian refugees smuggled in a water tank from Kuwait to Iraq, while Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “Passport,” stresses the significance of passports to a people who make up the largest refugee population worldwide. See Farah, R. “UNRWA: Through the Eyes of Its Refugee Employees in Jordan.” Refugee Survey Quarterly 28, no. 2-3 (2009): 392. [↑]

23. BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights. Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2010-2012, Volume VII. Bethlehem, Palestine: BADIL, 6 [↑]

24. BADIL,13. [↑]

25. BADIL,15. [↑]

26. Jacobsen, Laurie Blome, ‘Community Development of Palestinian refugee camps: Analytical support to Jordan’s preparations for the June 2004 Geneva Conference on the humanitarian need of Palestinian refugees.’ The Material and Social Infrastructure, and Environmental Conditions of Refugee Camps and Gatherings in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, FAFO Institute for Applied International Studies, Oslo, Table 1, 2004. [↑]

27. Laurie Brand, ‘Palestinians in Syria: The Politics of Integration.’ Middle East Journal 42.4, 1988:82. [↑]

28. Tariq Hammoud,, ‘Palestinian Refugees and the Syrian Revolution.’ Arab Center for Research and Policy Analysis (1013, February). [↑]

29. Rochelle Davis and Abbie Taylor, ‘New Research Details the Plight of Syrian Refugees’, 4. [↑]

30. Davis and Taylor, 4. [↑]

31.  Amnesty International. ‘An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis.’ AI Index: ACT 34/001/2013. (13 December), 4.
act340012013en.pdf. [↑]

32. Amnesty International. “An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis.” AI Index: ACT 34/001/2013. (13 December 2013), 4.
act340012013en.pdf. [↑]

33. Frontex Risk Analysis Unit. Annual Risk Analysis. Warsaw (April 2013). [↑]

34. Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Migration and asylum: mounting tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. (23 January 2013), 9. [↑]

35. Frontex Risk Analysis Unit. Annual Risk Analysis. Warsaw (April 2013), 5. [↑]

36. Frontex Risk Analysis Unit, 23. [↑]

37. Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Migration and asylum: mounting tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. (23 January 2013), 9. [↑]

38. This decision was repealed by the newly elected Syriza government in an announcement by Giannis Panousis, the Deputy Minister for Public Order in his first policy speech before the Greek Parliament. See New Government’s Announcement of Ending the Policy of Indefinite Detention a Step in the Right Direction by Amnesty International and Greek Council for Refugees. [↑]

39. SRHRM. Regional study: management of the external borders of the European Union and its impact on the human rights of migrants. 2013. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau. Human Rights Council, Twenty-third session, Agenda item 3 (17 April). [↑]

40. For more information on asylum system see: Cabot, Heath. “The Governance of Things: Documenting Limbo in the Greek Asylum Procedure.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35, no. 1 (2012): 11-29. [↑]

41. NGO Report. The Campaign For The Access To Asylum In Attica Area. 2012. Accessed 15, April 2015.[↑]

42. Golden Dawn. Καταστατικό του Πολιτικού Κόμματος με την Επωνυμία «Λαϊκός Σύνδεσμος – Χρυσή Αυγή» [Statutes of the Political Party with the name “Popular Association - Golden Dawn”], Athens. 2012. [↑]

43. Golden Dawn. Θέσεις: Ταυτότητα [Positions: Identity]. 2012 [↑]

44. euronews. “Greece’s Golden Dawn Attack Market Vendors.” (9 September 2012). Accessed April 15, 2016. [↑]

45. Most EU states will unite minors with their mothers. This also poses a serious problem, since it causes many families to send their children onward to northern Europe with smugglers as a way to leave Greece. [↑]

Rafeef Ziadah is a Palestinian academic and human rights activist. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at SOAS, University of London with the 'Military Mobilities and Mobilising Movements in the Middle East' project. She holds a Phd in Political Science from York University (Toronto, 2013).
All posts by: Rafeef Ziadah | Email

Share Post:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Technorati
  • StumbleUpon
  • MySpace
  • FriendFeed
  • blogmarks
  • Tumblr
  • Netvibes
  • SphereIt
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Yahoo! Bookmarks
  • Live
  • RSS

One Response »

External links to Post (Trackbacks/Pingbacks)

Comments are now closed.