Crisis, Hot Spots, and Paper Pushers: A Reflection on Asylum in Greece

From the Series: Refugees and the Crisis of Europe

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna.

There is a tension in critically analyzing a crisis in a forum entitled Hot Spots, and I want to underscore at the outset two key points regarding increasing anthropological attention to the European refugee crisis. First, Europe has only recently become hot, i.e., interesting and attractive to the wider field of anthropology. Second, we largely have refugees to thank for making Europe hot. Europe is now exotic, situated on the front lines of culture clashes and humanitarian disasters—productive fodder for anthropological interest. While anthropologists certainly ought to seek new ways to speak on issues of political import, our designation of “hot spots” betrays a disciplinary politics of legibility that often replicates the very macronarratives we hope to critique or nuance. The contributors to this series researched these issues in Europe well before they became interesting for wider publics, but their insights are now legible in terms of an emergent crisis. Of course this is also the case for colleagues with lengthy experience in other places recently deemed hot spots, such as postearthquake Nepal and postdisaster Japan. I thus would urge us to reflect more critically on how topics or regions become subjects of worthy and heroic anthropological public engagement—hot, that is—and why.

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna, licensed by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

Refugee advocates have been talking about a migration and refugee crisis in Greece since at least 2005, when I began research there on the politics of asylum. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and with Greece’s economic boost following euro accession, Greece became a key transit and destination country for labor- and asylum-related migration. E.U. governance bodies and human rights advocates across Europe noted the large flows of migrants coming into Greece—and Greece’s apparent ineptitude in dealing with them. Previously, Italy and Spain had been deemed E.U. border countries with a migration problem, particularly with respect to people coming from Africa. But with violence in the Middle East after the attacks of 9/11, Greece’s exposed island coastlines and the Evros land border in the north became the new hot spots in Europe’s emerging border regime.

The dilemma at that time, for a European Union that still seemed both possible and worthy of aspiration, was how to bring all member states into "compliance" with a common European asylum system, across diverse geopolitical and economic positions. The Dublin System, inaugurated in 2003, demanded that asylum seekers request refugee status in the country where they first entered E.U. territory, and remain there while their asylum claims were processed. This was the new Europe’s attempt at “responsibility sharing”—effectively outsourcing the so-called migration problem to border countries. Challenged repeatedly by advocates since its inception, the Dublin System further marginalized border states in the name of an equitable, secure, and humanitarian Europe. Today we see its long-term bureaucratic and human consequences in the enormous numbers of those seeking protection in Europe who await processing at its borders. Meanwhile, the territorial profile of Europe itself is changing with the deal, initiated in March 2016, to deport rejected asylum seekers and those who are designated illegal migrants to Turkey.

Long considered a geopolitical and moral periphery of Europe, Greece—with an unwieldy, inexperienced asylum bureaucracy, violent policing methods, and a brutal detention system—became a site of crisis in the European asylum structure. Human rights discourse and practice was still somewhat nascent and mostly restricted to pockets of civil society. From 2005 to 2008, during fieldwork at a human rights NGO that was launched in the early 1990s, I watched governmental and civil society workers arrive from the European West and North. They descended on Athens and then fanned out to borders, detention sites, police departments, migrant encampments, and asylum offices. Greece was criticized in the E.U. Parliament and in advocacy circles for its inadequate human rights apparatuses and its failure to secure European borders, and it became a hot spot of concern for core E.U. powers.

In the meantime, social workers and lawyers at my primary fieldsite continued their everyday labor of trying to assist those who sought help at their offices. They were usually too busy for policy advocacy on a European scale. They made trips to the islands when boats carrying Afghan minors arrived. NGO workers sorted the many who waited at their doorstep in Athens (sometimes as many as 150 a day), formally supporting those who they deemed to have legitimate and workable cases for refugee status. However, workers also questioned and undermined the formal distinction between refugees and migrants (Cabot 2014), often helping even those whom they rejected to renew their papers, giving legal advice, and getting people out of detention. Within an overriding ethos of cynicism, disappointment, and frustration, partial forms of (dare I say it?) justice emerged through encounters between asylum seekers and workers. This work was essentially paper pushing: unheroic, carried out amidst drab fluorescent lighting, stale sweat, cigarettes, and files upon files of lost or doomed asylum cases. Nothing about this work was sufficient. Still, people fleeing economic and political violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and elsewhere were coming to that run-down office in Athens long before Syrian displacement on an unprecedented scale made the Euro-American world care about refugees.

Greece is now a hot spot not just in Europe but globally—and, specifically, in anthropology—thanks to economic crisis and the crisis of refugees (Papataxiarchis 2016). Even when this crisis becomes too tiresome to generate public scholarship, the systemic injustices of Europeanization and asylum politics will remain. As the limelight moves elsewhere, others will work quietly in unheroic and perhaps banal ways; some anthropologists may even find their lives and labors worthy of investigation. Our field, not unlike the media, does have a thing for hot spots: Europe is now full of researchers wanting to study refugees. On Facebook, people from places like California post their plans to fly to Greece to provide humanitarian support; they crowdsource their efforts on GoFundMe pages. But, frankly, this all seems to me to be coming a little late. I instead remember the stale gray insides of the crisis yet to come—and the paper pushers.


Cabot, Heath. 2014. On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Papataxiarchis, Evthymios. 2016. “Being ‘There’: At the Front Line of the ‘European Refugee Crisis’—Part One.” Anthropology Today 32, no. 2: 5–9.