Since 2012, Greece has undergone a significant restructuring of its migration management system, focusing on curbing irregular migratory flows and boosting its asylum services. Migrants of Afghan origin are one of the main groups on the receiving end of these policies. The second highest nationality in irregular arrivals in Greece in the last five years, Afghans were termed ‘transit migrants’ from early on. This paper looks at Afghan migration to Greece and specifically the issue of asylum, both how it is understood and access to it. The study examines how Afghans perceive asylum and their chosen destinations, as well as how they responded to the policies in place in Greece during the period 2012–2014. The paper takes particular note of the policies of systematic detention and how it impacted access to asylum and returns, drawing from qualitative interviews and fieldwork in the framework of the irma project.
Since the 2000s, Greece has been — and to this day remains — a critical pathway of entry for migrants crossing from Asia and Africa. The Greek-Turkish sea border initially (2004–2009) and eventually the land border (2010–2012) bore the brunt of arrivals. Excluding the Albanians that have dominated apprehension figures in Greece for more than a decade, since 2008 Afghans are the second nationality in the apprehension data. Despite various policies deployed by successive Greek governments, the maritime border has been the main entry point since 2012. Though the majority of arrivals were of Syrian origin, Afghans accounted for 20 per cent of arrivals.1 Throughout the ebbs and flows, they remain an important nationality entering Greece, usually in transit to another final destination.
There is a wealth of literature available on Afghan migration (for example see Monsutti, 2006, 2008; Koepke, 2011; Schuster, 2011; fra, 2011; Donini et al., 2016; Kaytaz, 2016) and return (for example see Braakman, 2005, 2007; Schuster and Majidi, 2013; Kuschminder et al., 2014). This paper seeks to contribute to the growing literature on Afghan migration with a focus on Greece: arrival and the impact of select policies on the stay and return of the Afghans during the period 2012–2014. The purpose is not to discuss recent developments in Greece, but rather to attempt to understand the Afghan migratory movement through Greece, the reasons for Afghans’ continuous mobility, their destinations, and the drivers behind their choices. The choice of destination and the route, in this context, are determined by the migrants’ motivations and capabilities, with asylum being the defining factor for choosing certain destinations. The informants’ feedback on how asylum is understood, the countries that emerge as destinations, and the aspirations and capabilities exhibited by the migrants to undertake the journey are discussed.
Beyond the issue of asylum, which significantly colours Afghan movement and choices, two policies applied by the Greek government during the period of the research greatly impacted the migratory journey: internal ‘show your papers’ operations (henceforth Xenios Zeus) and detention. The Xenios Zeus operation immobilised the Afghans in urban centres, while detention facilitated return to countries of origins of undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers. Detention deterred many, including Afghan detainees, from the asylum process but also pushed them towards return.
This paper draws on field research conducted between 2012 and 2014 in the framework of the irma Research project (Governing Irregular Migration: States, Actors and Intermediaries)2 and focuses exclusively on that period as regards policies and events in Greece. The author conducted 43 qualitative semi-structured interviews with Afghan asylum seekers, predominantly in Athens. Most participants were single young men between the ages of 17 and 25. Eighteen participants were either married with children or recently widowed with children. Only five women were interviewed for this study. Women were exceptionally difficult to approach and often noted that they had no information to offer as throughout the journey, the decisions were taken by a male member of the group (son, husband, distant relative). Afghans in Greece are not a homogenous group. According to information provided by the two official Afghan communities in Greece,3 until 2012 most Afghan migrants originated from Iran (for Afghans in Iran see also hrw 2002): members of the Afghan diaspora are predominantly Hazara (roughly 50% of our sample). Since 2013, there has been a noticeable increase of direct migration from Afghanistan and a steady influx from Iran. Although Pakistan is a critical hosting country for Afghans, only one case in the sample originated from there.
The interlocutors roughly made up two groups: those who had recently arrived in Greece irregularly (30 interviews) and participants in iom’s voluntary return program who were about to return to Afghanistan. The individuals in the first group were accessed through personal contacts in the community and through other participants. The overwhelming majority in the second group had been detained at the facility in Amygdaleza, where access was provided by the Hellenic Police. Participation was voluntary; interviewees were informed first about the research and how it would be used, and their verbal consent was recorded. At Amygdaleza, arrangements were made to ensure interviews took place in private, away from other detainees but also without police presence. All interviews across all sites took place in the presence of interpreters. Participants answered questions on the journey, their decision-making process (who decided, why, how, when), aspirations for arrival to Europe, choice of destination, experiences living in Greece, detention, and prospect of return.
Migration and refugeeism4 are not new concepts for the Afghans. For 30 years, they were hosted primarily in Iran and Pakistan; until 2001 they were treated as prima facie refugees known as mujaherin (religious migrants) in Iran (see Abbasi-Shavaz, 2008; Bathaïe, 2009) or under the pashtunwali code in Pakistan, which includes the offer of asylum between Pashtuns (areu, 2005, 2006; Bialczyk, 2008;). To this day, Afghanistan is one of the most important source countries of asylum seekers. Not all are refugees or economic migrants, and the inadequacy of the refugee category to describe them has been noted before (Scalettaris, 2012). Afghan migration is not attributed to a single reason but to a complex web of socio-economic, political, and personal factors that impact each individual differently.
The renewed flow originating directly from Afghanistan but also from the traditional hosting countries in the region since 2012 is attributed to multiple factors. The migration of the Afghans to Greece is part of a broader mobility pattern and quest for a host country. Today’s migrants are turning to new destinations, aware of the changes taking place in the reception and hosting policies of traditionally preferred destination countries:
When the deportations began from Iran, most people who had lived for years in the country were forced to leave; they could not return to Afghanistan because of various problems. They were forced to leave Iran and this is why Greece received a great number of Afghans.5”
Many of those arriving in Greece have migrated for the first time, whether in search of protection or security or even for financial reasons (Dimitriadi, 2017). Interlocutors repeatedly told stories of siblings being targeted by the Taliban either due to their association with the local police force or for having collaborated with the Allied Forces. Migration, thus, was firstly a survival method and secondly a way of achieving a specific goal (income maximization, education, etc.).
The French army was there. My brother was working with them and one day the Taliban sent him a paper asking him to stop or they would kill him. And they did kill him a month later. I was at school that day. My mother said I had to leave ‘30 years we have war, you need to go and make a life elsewhere’ she told me. So I left. I went to Pakistan and then Iran and now here, Greece.male, 21 years old, Athens, December 2013
Second-generation Afghans from Pakistan and Iran who can neither remain in their host countries nor return to Afghanistan are also leaving these places in greater numbers. The reasons differ depending on country of departure. For some, it is fear of deportation and for others unemployment. Most interviewees cited the explicit racism encountered in Iran as a critical push factor along with their irregular status and limited labour opportunities.
We lived [there] for 12 good years. My home was Iran . . . in the old days, when a foreigner lived there, the police did not ask ‘where are you from and what do you do’. They asked nothing. But these were Hatami’s years and then Ahmadinejad followed and it was difficult for foreigners, police would just arrest and deport you. I didn’t want to leave but the police arrested me and deported me to Afghanistan, and I could not stay there.male, 28 years old, Athens, 2013
The different points of origin — and the often multiple motives for leaving (see also Monsutti, 2006; Dimitriadi, 2017) — mean that Afghans often elude the distinctions between refugee and migrant despite the fact that most self-identify as refugees. There was a gap between how my interlocutors saw themselves and discussed their arrival in Greece and Europe, their expectations (which also largely determined their destination), and how they were received by the Greek State.
For the Afghans, asylum is a critical driving force behind their mobility to Europe and a critical factor behind their (attempted) transit from Greece (see also Dimitriadi, 2017). It is also a status that most interviewees felt they merited. Irrespective of their reasons for migrating, interviewees overwhelmingly noted that they were refugees since Afghanistan was a country embroiled in war (only two interviewees described their movement as exclusively economically motivated). Even those interlocutors who arrived from Iran noted that it would not be possible to return to Afghanistan since the conflict continues and thus moving forward towards a destination country was the only option. Interestingly, Afghanistan is not necessarily considered a war country since many eu member-states undertake forced returns. Instead, it is seen as a country with unsafe areas.
Nonetheless, Afghan migrants’ self-identification is important because it feeds their movement and choices of destination. I stress the term choice because regardless of whether they are fleeing persecution or seeking economic opportunities, they exercise agency throughout the entire journey. The discussion on agency is typically seen as problematic in the context of forced movement. As Bakewell noted, “to go too far towards explanation and ascribing any agency to such people may undermine their case for refugee status” (Bakewell, 2010: 1690). Agency, in its basic form, is defined as the “capacity to act” (Charrad, 2010). However, that capacity is exercised within a broader framework influenced by structural factors. Agency refers to human actors (Morawska, 2011), whether individuals or groups and organisations; in this instance, however, I am referring specifically to individuals and what motivations encourage them to be mobile. Who will migrate, when, how, what the outcome will be, and the different experiences all vary but partly depend on the individual and their ability to aspire, the capability to do so (economic and social capital), and, critically, the structures within which the movement will take place (see also Bakewell et al., 2011).
One must have, what Sandro Mezzadra has coined a “right to escape” — an individual motion of desertion from the field (Mezzadra, 2004: 270). Without it, there can be no mobility. The individual needs to have the capacity to hope (Appadurai, 2004) but also the ability to transform that hope or aspiration into a reality, i.e., to a migration project (de Haas, 2011). Carling posits that it is important to “distinguish between people’s aspiration to migrate and their ability to do so” (Carling, 2002, 2014). Capabilities at their most basic are the socio-economic capital that facilitates migration. Since migration is nonlinear and often transitory (i.e., with in-between stops of indeterminable length) at each stage of the journey, the balance between aspiration and capability has to be re-examined. Lack of capability to move results in immobility, and this is particularly important in the context of transit migration (Dimitriadi, 2016). Transit can perpetuate due to absence of capability to move onwards. For the interviewees, significant capital had been mobilized to ensure they reached Greece, as the first entry point to the eu.
Based on collected data, the journey from Afghanistan to Europe costs on average between 3000 and 4000 dollars per person. Prices vary for children and women, as well as according to the departure point, complexity of the journey, and border crossings. Almost all (99%) of respondents crossed to Turkey and Greece with the assistance of smugglers, paying different sums at various stages (see also Triandafyllidou and Maroukis, 2012). The “ability” to migrate can also translate into van Hear’s concept that forms of migration “vary greatly in cost, and therefore access to resources — principally money and social capital — shape the migration strategies that can be pursued” (van Hear, 2004: 28). For the Afghan informants in this study, the main source of social and economic capital was the family, immediate or extended.
The Afghans are emblematic of the agency/structure relationship in the context of mixed migratory movement. Participants voiced specific expectations around asylum and explained that it was those very expectations that guided their choice of destination. What were those expectations? These included integration into a system of social protection and assistance through the offer of accommodation, food provisions, language training, employment, and access to education for children.
The link between asylum and a broader notion of protection is not necessarily exclusive to the Afghans. However, it is one that is increasingly raising questions in Europe with regards to sustainability and effectiveness. The eu framework of protection also envisages assistance to those recognized as beneficiaries of international protection: material assistance as well as education and integration. Amidst the “refugee crisis” of the past two years, policymakers in Germany, Denmark, and France, often cited the issue of whether the offer of assistance (material and otherwise) or the benefits act as a pull factor for migrants. While the offered social benefits do not influence the decision to migrate, it is true that they are a pull factor for choice of destination. Interviewees cited both practical and ethical dimensions to this. On the one hand, they recognized their need of assistance to settle in a new country. On the other, they perceived that assistance as something taken for granted, a part of the framework of host/guest and refuge/shelter (see Dimitriadi, 2017). Their movement to Europe was permanent. Seeking thus to establish a new life rather than temporary residence, their expectations around asylum in Europe were remarkably close to what was on offer in some eu member-states — at least until 2015. This is a model unavailable in Greece, where international protection is not accompanied by any form of assistance unless offered by ngos. As a result, Greece was already viewed as a transit site en route to countries with more tangible asylum systems. However, it was also clear that the interviewees assumed access to this system by virtue of being Afghan rather than because of individual circumstances. Respondents also showed limited understanding of the process and length of time for the procedures or of the variations between systems.
This is the result of multiple factors, including past experiences and social networks. Iran, in the present research, was a common referral point irrespective of country of departure. Afghans from both Iran and Afghanistan referred to the hospitality of the Iranians and the new, more hostile policies towards Afghans. They had either experienced or heard of the initial reception extended Afghans who had held a protected status in Iranian and Pakistani societies, particularly during the period of the Soviet invasion. Protection at that time was linked to access to various services and the labour market. Afghans’ eventual transformation from muhajir (refugee) to migrant (see Safri, 2011) was critical in generating mobility but also in establishing a memory of what hospitality towards refugees looked like. Thus, it is likely that their own experiences as well as stories about life in Iran were partly responsible for my interlocutors’ understanding of asylum. Their other source of information was the social networks (family and friends) already in Europe. Having undergone the process of filing an asylum application and receiving protection, their success and satisfaction of life in countries like Germany or Sweden confirmed a preconceived notion of asylum as holistic protection. The overwhelming majority of participants sold their land, their house or furniture, jewellery, cars, and other property in order to raise the requisite sum that in some cases, albeit rare, reached as high as 10 000 dollars per adult. By contrast, policymakers6 tend to discuss asylum more in terms of protection. This is not limited to the Afghans. The image of the refugee conjures vulnerability and the need for protection from persecution and harm. The alternate image is the migrant, a category associated with economic motives and deportable. As Carling (2015) notes, it is not uncommon to flee war, seek employment, or even migrate for the purpose of family reunification. The challenge arises with the blurring of these motivations. The more they overlap, the more they fall outside existing categories.
All informants were asked to name their original destination. Germany and Sweden were by far the most popular destinations, followed by the uk. Greece was only a choice of destination for four informants, three of whom had been in the country for an extended period of time. Most interviewees originally referred to “Europe” as their final destination. “Europe” is almost always defined as Scandinavia or western Europe, from Austria and Germany to Norway. Greece, Spain, and Malta do not form part of this asylum space, a delineated area where the ‘right’ kind of asylum is offered (see Dimitriadi, 2017, 2017):
Actually our goal when we leave our country is to build a future . . . But for people who go to Germany they have to wait a year or two years to get the permission to work, and then Sweden or countries like Austria they have the chance to get accepted sooner. That’s why I am planning on going to Sweden, to get acceptedmale, 22 years old, Athens, 2013
Temporary international protection is an inadequate status. It is the refugee status they seek, though many admitted that any form of protection that allows them to acquire travel documents in order to visit home would suffice. There is thus a contradiction in how they understood international protection and how the system is designed. The recipient of international protection will never be able to return home (barring exceptional circumstances) unless the situation changes in the country to enable return. But under such circumstances, one also no longer requires protection. Nonetheless, in many of the interviews, the provision of travel documents enabling one to visit home was understood to be part of the status of the refugee.
In this framework, where nationality is seen as the key to the asylum process — which in turn should result in a holistic framework previously discussed — Greece is not a destination country for the majority of the Afghan arrivals. Greece is, in fact, a transit country for the Afghans, and the idea of transit can be found in the informant discourse.
In Afghanistan I had heard there was a country called Greece and it is like a door, you go through it to get to Europe.male, 36 years old, Amygdaleza detention facility, 2013
Greece is, in fact, a door to Europe, with Europe denoting a specific geographic area that excludes its southern countries on the Mediterranean. Like a door, it opened on occasion and allowed passage through insufficient border controls. Transit from Greece, until 2012, was feasible through the ports of Patras and Igoumenitsa. Like a door, it has now closed, leaving thousands stranded in Greece (for a detailed discussion, see Dimitriadi, 2017). There is extensive literature available on past Greek migration and asylum policies (see, indicatively, Antonopoulos, 2006; Papadopoulou-Kourkoula, 2008; Triandafyllidou, 2009; Cabot, 2012, 2014; Lafazani, 2013).
Before early 2013, asylum in Greece was a highly bureaucratic and centralized process with the Attica Aliens and Migration Bureau at Petrou Ralli street in Athens the only designated place for lodging asylum claims (see Cabot, 2014). Due to short-staffing, only 300 applications could be filed per week. Human Rights Watch, as early as 2008, described the process as a “cattle call” (Human Rights Watch, 2008: 90) that disrespected asylum seekers and deterred many from applying for asylum. The delays in second instance decisions (appeals process) could take as long as six years, with some cases stretching over a decade. This was one of the paradoxes of the system; it appealed to those who wanted to remain in Greece and had no other venue for legalizing their stay, while discouraging those who wanted to apply for protection — like the Afghans — because they feared their claim would take a long time to be processed (Dimitriadi, 2017). Between 2007 and June 2010, a total of 5938 claims were filed by Afghans. A significant reduction in the number of Afghan applications was observed in 2011 and 2012 which could indicate a tendency to explore ways to leave the country for other eu member-states.
The restructuring of the asylum service and a first-reception service introduced in 2013 did little to reduce the accumulated mistrust in the system due its inefficiency over the years. Lack of human and financial resources continue to significantly limit the ability of either service to perform as envisaged. During the research phase, both services faced the daunting task of gaining the trust of asylum seekers and new arrivals that the previous decade of mismanagement had destroyed. Without the capacity to handle the volume of asylum cases and despite efforts made to mobilize the system, within a year both the asylum and appeals services faced backlogs in applications and significant delays in registration. This was exacerbated by the European refugee crisis. The overwhelming number of Syrian arrivals to the Greek islands throughout 2015 refused to apply for asylum, while also expressing concern about the Greek state’s inadequate ability to care for them. The fundamental issue remains that Greece was, and is, severely limited in its protection system — not in terms of granting protection but in ensuring that those waiting for their application to be processed or whose application is successful receive sufficient support in integrating, from shelter to education, employment, training, and subsistence.
The Afghans’ route to northern Europe, by virtue of geography, requires crossing through Turkey and then Greece. While en route, and especially while in Greece, the Afghans continuously evaluate and calculate their migratory journey, progress, difficulties, as well as obstacles and how to circumvent them. It is important to acknowledge that there is a significant gap between the mental process and the reality — not everyone advances and many remain in transit for years. Although they are aware when they arrive that the asylum process is long and tedious, and despite being mentally prepared to continue to other destinations, a significant number lack the financial capital to do so. At the time of research, this was even more crucial because they were stranded in Greece and being forced to adapt to the policies in place. For many, this resulted in completely reimagining the journey. Thus, it is equally important to consider how, in the context of forced movement, the Afghans in Greece responded to the structural obstacles in place, specifically to the broader policy of deterrence. For example, most of the interlocutors knew of the Dublin Regulation and the possibility of being fingerprinted and returned to Greece as a first country of arrival. Many also knew that Dublin had been suspended for Greece, which was in fact a reason for choosing to cross through the country. Even if apprehended and identified as having entered from Greece, they could not be returned to it.
Deterrence took many forms at the Greek border and inside the country (see also Dimitriadi, 2015). The Xenios Zeus operation and the policy of detention were of particular significance for Afghans. Their importance lies in the outcomes they produced; whereas the Afghans sought to transit, the aforementioned policies immobilized them and sought to encourage their return to Afghanistan.
Operation Xenios Zeus consisted of daily police patrols known as sweeps to identify irregular migrants, who would then be detained and eventually returned or deported. Stories circulated about men being grabbed off the street, police raiding buses and pulling out migrants, as well as about raids on flats occupied by migrants. Most of these incidents were true (see hrw, 2013), cultivating fear and insecurity — which was the policy’s purpose. Deemed successful, similar smaller operations quickly spread across the countryside.
Before, it was ok to be without papers but now if you don’t have documents they send you back.male, 23 years old, Paros island, summer 2013
While such practices created fear, they also allowed for strategies of survival to emerge, particularly amongst male informants who were the most likely also to be stopped. Two methods discussed in the interviews showcased the degree of migrants’ adaptability to state policies. One was men moving around urban centres with children (their own or a friend’s) in tow to avoid being stopped for identification by the police. Though not applicable to everyone, this was the most widely circulated strategy among Afghans at the time of the research.
The second — and more costly — method emerged as a response to the obstacles of transiting from Greece. Marriage is one of the oldest forms of legalization used by migrants. In the eu context, marriage to an eu citizen offers access to Schengen. According to one informant, alongside real marriages, an underground industry providing counterfeit marriage documents emerged and expanded.
Do you know how a lot of Afghans managed to get papers? They paid 2500 euros and got married but you know; fake marriage . . . I would do it, for fake, so I can bring my wife. You don’t marry for real, you pay and they give you a paper, it’s not real.male, 45 years old, Athens, 2014
What is interesting in the aforementioned strategies is the exercise of agency. In the face of structural obstacles, individuals continue to seek ways of overcoming them and essentially continue making choices. Thus, they remain active participants of their migratory project and seek ways to overcome the structural obstacles (legal, physical, economic) in place.
The key structural component affecting Afghan mobility was detention (for a detail discussion, see Dimitriadi, 2017). Those apprehended during Xenios Zeus were transferred to pre-removal facilities where they could either apply for asylum or volunteer to return home. Thus, the pre-removal facilities functioned as screening sites separating those who applied for asylum or were non-deportable from those eligible for deportation or return. In theory, asylum can be launched anywhere, including detention facilities. But while technically asylum was possible, those who applied from detention were perceived as “bogus refugees” trying to delay their expulsion. Even more problematic were the conditions of detention that in some cases prevented individuals from applying for asylum.
Return is a complex idea, especially when discussed in the context of Afghan migration. The Afghans in the research sample rarely discussed returning to their homeland. This is likely due to various factors. Many Afghans in Greece do not consider their journey as concluded but still see themselves in transit to another destination. The question of return also raises the question of home, which many of the would-be returnees addressed indirectly. Afghans from Iran cannot return to that country, which will not accept them but also seeks to deport them. For those raised outside Afghanistan, return does not accurately describe the situation. Indeed, what does is re-migration to a new country since many of the interviewees explained that they had never even visited Afghanistan in their adulthood. Braackman (2007), in her discussion of return to Afghanistan, notes that those who have lived abroad for years or were born outside the country have no direct links with contemporary Afghanistan. They do not necessarily have an actual place to which to return. The feeling of belonging to Afghanistan is often based on the ties cultivated through social networks — friends and relatives from the same area. Returning to Afghanistan is not needed for one to feel at home. Similar issues exist with return to Pakistan. Traditionally a hosting country, Pakistan in recent years has hardened its stance towards the Afghan population. Discussing both countries, the president of the Afghan Migrant and Refugee Community in Greece noted that: “We had millions of refugees who returned, especially from Pakistan and Iran. They went back in 2003–2004 because of the promise of development and change [in places like] Kabul. But the situation was not handled properly, and from 2009 onwards people started leaving again. There is no hope and that is why families are now leaving [. . .]”
Return, was equally problematic for those originating from Afghanistan. Familiar with what to expect and the pervasive insecurity, many feared that their return would only be temporary. It is, however, important to acknowledge that none of those voiced concern for their personal safety. Those interviewed in detention who feared persecution on return had stated clearly that they would not participate in a voluntary return program. For both cases, return had a third aspect: it was perceived as failure. A substantial amount of money had been spent to reach Europe, thus their detention and potential return was perceived as a waste of the investment made (Donini et al., 2016). In many cases, the family had sold personal belongings or borrowed the capital required to fund the journey. Return was thus seen as also challenging to the family.
Return is not always a feasible solution, as Afghanistan is still lacking in basic infrastructure, security, and employment opportunities for the repatriated population. Given the close social networking relations of Afghans and the preservation of contacts with both countries of origin and transit, it is not surprising that return did not seem attractive or practical, especially for families, which to this day constitute an important part of the newly-arriving population in Greece.
However, in the present research, return is also coloured by the context in which it takes place. During the period of research, there were three types of return programs based on the involvement of the International Organization for Migration or national authorities or both: voluntary without compulsion, voluntary under compulsion, and involuntary (which effectively amounts to deportation). The first two options apply to third-country nationals who do not fulfil the conditions for entry and stay in the country; third-country nationals whose asylum application is still pending or has been rejected; and third-country nationals who enjoy international protection but wish to return to their countries. In Greece, return — including voluntary return — is primarily managed by iom, but also handled by the Hellenic Police and frontex (for deportations).
Detention takes place in various facilities, including pre-removal facilities. These facilities serve the same purpose as prisons — to punish, exclude from society those posing a threat to it, and to deter. Detention for the purpose of removal transformed an administrative instrument of avoiding flight into a tool of punishment. Return was offered as the best option to leave the detention facility in a relatively reasonable amount of time. From research conducted at Amygdaleza, one of the first pre-removal detention facilities in Greece, a picture emerged of voluntary return as a way out of incarceration rather than as a desire to return to the country of origin. Interviewees reported high levels of confusion7 and a lack of information, along with the fear of time spent essentially in limbo. In a climate of uncertainty, voluntary return was presented as the appropriate option, when in fact if one considers the choice carefully, it’s not so much an option as a pre-determined end result. One way or another, the migrant will be returned: how this will be effected is what’s up for discussion.
As a pre-removal detention facility, Amygdaleza is used to hold migrants deemed eligible for return. Utilizing the exception clause in the Directive on Return, in 2013 Greece announced it would detain migrants for up to 18 months. The main argument was that the extended time period would allow the Greek state to complete the process of deportation for those it deemed eligible. Thus detention aimed at paving the ground for expedient and “voluntary” returns, which are considered “less costly and politically less painful than enforced removal” (van Houte 2014:99) to governments.
Upon arrival at the facility, migrants are, at least in theory, meant to be informed of the duration of their detention, the option of applying for asylum, and what happens in relation to their detention. In practice, interlocutors noted the absence of information, confusing and often contradictory announcements, and no knowledge of when they would be released — if at all.
The strategy of detention was also tied to asylum and the ‘bogus’ versus ‘genuine’ asylum seekers. When speaking with Afghans who had registered for the voluntary return program, they stressed the fact that they’d been told by various sources (detainees, friends, guards) that if they applied for asylum, their detention time would start from zero and they’d end up spending at least 18 months in the facility (see also Angeli and Triandafyllidou, 2014). This deterred many from applying, which in turn affected returns.
The police told me in a year they will release me but if I apply for asylum I have to stay for two years.male, 31 years old, Amygdaleza detention facility, Spring 2014
A different type of mobility emerged: an involuntary mobility. Instead of them moving forward to their original destinations — which for the overwhelming majority is an eu member-state like Sweden, Germany, and Austria — movement was backwards to the country of origin. This is crucial as regards the question of what happens post-return. Though not an aspect of the present study, it is important in terms of policy effectiveness. Voluntary returnees in detention are essentially forced returnees. This means they have not had the opportunity to prepare for their return, financially but also mentally. Most of my interlocutors did not have the opportunity to communicate their return to their families, unaware of when they would be returned. Thus the process is deeply disruptive from beginning to end. It also creates a desire to re-migrate, which was expressed by many interviewees who perceived return as a temporary strategy for overcoming the hurdle of detention. Similarly, Schuster and Majidi (2013) in their research on Afghan forced returnees note that some Afghans used their return as a way of planning for the future, visiting home and seeing friends and relatives but also strategizing their subsequent steps.
However, there is still an exercise of agency even in detention. Detainees opted out of the asylum process in an attempt to hasten their departure. Others attempted to defy the imposed restrictions and wanted to see what would happen eventually — aware or hopeful that at some point they would have to be released. And those who had applied for return and saw the process delaying, attempted (and some succeeded) to plead their case to the iom and urge for their immediate return, in many cases, according to informants, by making up personal family stories (health issues, death in the family) to speed up their release. The element of choice was present, albeit shaped less by positive desires and aspirations and more by structural constraints and negative experiences.
Nonetheless, it is worth noting that despite the Greek state’s emphasis on detention and the demoralizing effect on migrants, returns did not peak at the time of the research. In fact, returns have always been relatively low for Afghanistan. The overwhelming number of Afghans arrives without documents (many have never received any). The process of identifying and confirming one’s nationality through national embassies is complex, bureaucratic, and often incomplete. From 2009 to 2013, a total of 1578 persons were returned via the Hellenic Police voluntary return program. During the same period, the Hellenic Police registered 3603 returns of Afghans undertaken by both the police and the iom that include both voluntary and forced returns. Thus, a total 5181 Afghans were returned from 2009 to 2013, with overall apprehension figures for the same period exceeding 98 000 persons.
As mobility is embedded in the Afghan culture. It has also been a survival and betterment strategy for decades, and asylum is part of this. Afghan migration is not attributed to a singular reason but to a complex web of socio-economic, political, and personal factors that impact each individual differently. This was confirmed during the discussions with informants where motivations varied and were prioritized. The need for security (either from family or personal vendettas or conflict) was always put forth as primary factor, while education and employment were cited as secondary factors. In fact, all three aspects often come together under one status: that of the refugee.
Asylum, and specifically long-lasting protection which is the refugee status, encompass for the Afghans not only protection from return or deportation, but access to socio-economic security and welfare, education, and training. Asylum is thus holistic protection and the first step towards a new life. This does not negate their need for safety, but it does mean that they exercise a high degree of agency in pursuit of said objective. In lieu of this, their transit from Greece is discussed as a necessity in the face of the State’s inability (or unwillingness) to offer what other eu member-states do: an all-inclusive protection. Protection is not only viewed as protection from deportation, physical harm, or threat but also as laying the foundation for the individual to settle in a new home. Hence, a host of issues emerged for the Afghans around the notion of asylum: the exercise of agency in the context of forced movement, which links with the difficulties around the refugee/migrant distinctions, but also the question of return. Afghan migration to Greece and northern Europe is a good example for our effort to understand the complexities of human mobility and our attempts to categorize and respond appropriately.
Particularly for Afghans, pursuit of what they conceive as protection leads them to undertake a fairly dangerous and complex journey. Aware of the risks and loss of life, they may take longer time preparing or gathering information in hubs like Istanbul or raise money to cross by a different method or route. Yet, the policies in place do not deter inasmuch as raise hurdles along the way, often redirecting the journey or extending the transit stage with longer periods of immobility. It is the latter that was a prominent feature in Greece. The strategies and coping mechanisms developed by Afghans, from convenience or fake marriages to utilizing children as a shield from potential police apprehension, did not always succeed in ensuring mobility. In the end, many were apprehended and detained for shorter or longer periods of time.
During the period of detention, the individual is unable to work and send remittances, access family and friends, or move onwards to a final destination. In that sense, the investment in the journey is lost. The policy, and particularly its indiscriminate nature and length, deterred a number of migrants in detention as well as outside the facilities from accessing the asylum process — the former out of fear of extending their stay in the facilities and the latter out of fear of being apprehended and transferred to detention. Thus, without deterring entry, detention impacted routes, pushed migrants ‘into hiding,’ limited access to the asylum process, and imposed imprisonment on a population that had committed an ‘administrative’ but not a criminal offence. In short, a punitive solution was applied to a policy issue. To this effect, it is interesting to note the continuous exercise of agency; even in detention, the informants were not passive, but active participants in their migratory journey. They sought ways out of the facilities, either via return or through application of asylum or simply by waiting out the system. In fact, in this context, return was an effort to remain mobile. Although a result of detention — and with numerous psychological, health, and financial consequences for the detainee — return also offered a coping mechanism as many saw it as a better short-term solution.
Voluntary returns are undoubtedly a humane and necessary migration management tool designed to assist those who wish to return. However, the process acquires a different meaning when taking place in detention. It becomes more of an exercise of power over migrants, a way of re-establishing state control over detainees and pushing them towards involuntary mobility. There is still an exercise of agency on behalf of the detainees, as in almost all aspects of migration and return, yet the agency is shaped less by positive desires and aspirations and more by structural constraints and negative experiences. As a policy however, it raised questions around sustainability at the time. There is little knowledge about what happens to those who opt to return in an effort to avoid detention. If re-migration is an option, then the policy itself merely encourages the smuggling business, makes the journeys longer and more dangerous, and increases the cost of the journey while failing to alter the original aspiration of the migrants. Refugees, migrants, people on the move, the Afghans undertake a long and often dangerous journey to reach Europe. Their migration is both a survival and a livelihood strategy. The continuous gap between how they interpret their mobility and how it is understood by policymakers raises the question of whether the categories and policies in place are sufficient to adequately address contemporary movement.
1 For data (recorded entries, gender, nationalities) on Italy and Greece for 2015–2016, see the database maintained by unhcr, available online at http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php.
3 Interviews were conducted in Athens in January 2013 and in March 2014 within the framework of the irma project.
4 Refugeeism is a broad term attributed to the process and experience of refugees. It is used here specifically in reference to the “refugee condition” — an approach positing that “refugees move beyond a mixed category of people sharing a certain legal status; they become ‘a culture’, ‘an identity’, a ‘social world’ or ‘a community’ ” (Malkki, 1995: 11). Although Malkki is highly critical of such an approach applied broadly to refugee populations, it is nonetheless useful in relation to the Afghans for understanding how they assign themselves the refugee status, which appears to be embedded in the identity of their mobility, irrespective of the validity of their claim (which is very often real).
5 Interview with President of the Afghan Community of Migrants and Refugees in Greece, Athens, January 2013.
6 In Germany, for example, a new asylum law came into force in late 2015 that seeks to reduce incentives for economic migrants coming to Germany by slashing cash benefits and speeding up the review process for asylum applications. The initial countries of focus are Albania, Kosovo and Serbia; the list will be reviewed annually to factor in recognition rates in the asylum process.
7 See also Medecins Sans Frontieres (msf), Invisible Suffering. Prolonged and systematic detention of migrants and asylum seekers in substandard conditions in Greece, April 2014, available online at http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/node/55166.
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