Hunger Striking for Rights: the Alien Politics of Immigrant Protest

From the Series: Beyond the "Greek Crisis": Histories, Rhetorics, Politics

Photo by Georgios Giannopoulos, licensed under CC BY SA.

Statement of the Assembly of Migrant Hunger Strikers

We are migrant men and women, refugees from all over Greece. We came here to escape poverty, unemployment, wars and dictatorships. The multinational companies and their political servants left us no choice but to repeatedly risk our lives to journey towards Europe’s door. The West that is exploiting our countries while benefiting from much better living conditions is our only chance to live decent lives, to live as human beings. Whether by regular or irregular entry, we came to Greece and are working to support ourselves and our families. We live without dignity, in the dark shadow of illegalness. Employers and State agencies benefit from the harsh exploitation of our labor. We live by the sweat of our brow and with the dream that one day we will have the same rights as our Greek fellow workers…

We do not have any other way to make our voices heard, to raise awareness of our rights. Three hundred (300) of us will go on hunger strike in Athens and in Thessaloniki on the 25 January 2011. We risk our lives because, either way, there is no dignity in our living conditions. We would rather die here than allow our children to suffer what we have been through.

Assembly of Migrant Hunger Strikers, January 2011

Based on current estimates, migrants with long-term, temporary or illegal status comprise more than 10% of the country’s population. Migration has mainly been illegal, not only as a symptom of Greece’s supposedly “porous” borders, but also importantly because of the lack of a comprehensive migration policy. This lack was both unintended (it is widely claimed that “Greece was unprepared to deal with the large influx of migration”) and cultivated, to the extent that illegal migration fed into and sustained, if not enlarged, the country’s extensive informal economy. Given that the presence of migrants in Greece was tolerated on the basis of economic rationalizations, the current crisis has turned the tables against them. As the economy sinks into ever deepening recession, their presence is increasingly imperiled; they are targeted by state agencies and attacked by public opinion and far-right political groups. Racist violence involving physical attacks against individuals and families on the street as well as places of residence and worship, refusals to service immigrants in local stores, and deportations (so-called “broom” (skoupa) operations) have risen exponentially. Government policy wavers between, on the one hand, enforcing deportations, pursuing a zero-asylum policy, exerting pressure on migrant communities to discourage influx, announcing plans to build a (12.5 km, 5 million Euro) concrete wall in the Evros-Turkey border zone and, on the other, granting some citizenship rights to long-term residents and second-generation migrants and lowering the criteria for renewal of residence and work permits, which have systematically been used to keep migrants hostage at the brink of illegality.

In the context of this tense but also stagnant situation, in January 2011, 300 migrants from North African countries, who had been long-term residents in Greece (some for over ten years), but had not yet been able to secure, or had lost, their residence and work permits, decided to go on hunger strike in order to force the government to recognize their just demands for rights and grant them legal status. The hunger strike, the magnitude of which was unprecedented by Greek but also European standards, required a significant mobilization of social and political resources, drawn mainly from the Greek leftist, anti-racist and anarchist movement, which was, however, not only unprepared for dealing with the demands of the situation but also split as to the appropriateness and timeliness of the strike.

In Athens, where 250 of the hunger strikers assembled, the hunger strike was initially organized, for practical and political reasons, as an occupation of one of the empty buildings of the Athens Law School, which as a public university was granted, under Greek constitutional law, asylum from police intervention.

The occupation of a public educational institution by a group of migrants was received with great ambivalence if not outright hostility by mainstream public opinion, including large parts of the parliamentary Left, because it was seen as an abuse, if not desecration, either of sanctified national institutions (the university representing a national achievement), or of the public good (the public university as national university representing a social good of/for the Greek people), or of hard won and inalienable civic freedoms (such as university asylum) by subjects who were considered not entitled to (or worthy of) staking a claim on what was considered the Greek people’s property, right and legacy. After only three days of failed negotiations and repeated ultimatums, the government staged an overnight police siege of the occupied university building, threatening to apprehend and immediately deport all migrant hunger strikers as well as press charges against Greek activists. The hunger strikers were evicted from the premises of the Athens Law School.

The hunger strikers were then relocated to a private building in the center of Athens below Omonoia Square, Megaron Ypatia, its use granted for the occasion by a “personal friend” of one of the members of government because no other appropriate or available public building could be found in the whole city to house the group of hunger strikers. A “familial” (domestic) solution was sought to an obviously thorny and potentially compromising national political issue.

The house owner gave permission for the use of the ground floor only; as a result 2/3 of the hunger strikers had to be accommodated in the courtyard in tents, provided by the Red Cross or donated by individuals, in the bitter winter cold without proper heat or sanitation.

The hunger strike continued under extreme adversity and duress, which put the survival of the 300 men in danger. Many of them had to be transferred in critical condition to hospitals where they were administered IV feeding and, occasionally, intimidated into accepting proper food and revealing their identities. Faced with the government’s intransigence, 7 of them decided to refuse water as well as food. After 44 days, the government conceded to partially accept their demands, granting them temporary residence and work permits and allowing them to travel back to their countries of origin. On March 13th the Assembly decided to end the hunger strike.

The hunger strike sparked furious debates as to its legitimacy, efficacy, and “independence.” Mainstream media as well as different politicians accused Greek activists of opportunistically “staging” the strike. The Assembly of Migrant Hunger Strikers issued numerous statements to the contrary, claiming full authority over their decisions and actions.

"We stress once again that the nationwide hunger strike is our struggle, that we take the decisions on all issues, and we demand the lies and slander to be stopped." - The 300 hunger strikers in Athens and Thessaloniki, March 4, 2011.

As an event and a particular performance of a struggle for rights it produced intense popular discomfort and split not only the mainstream public, the Left, and the anti-racist movement, but migrant communities as well, all of which contested, but also were confounded by, what was considered the audacity, folly, or resolution of the 300 migrant hunger strikers and, in particular, the way they put their life on the line. Indeed the symbolism of the 300 hunger strikers who like the 300 Spartan warriors fought a heroic but unequal battle against the Persian army of Xerxes at Thermopylae in the 5th century BC was not lost on the anti-racist movement. As a political act that involved confrontation with the state through the medium, and on the site, of the body, in fact through the deprivation and emaciation (of the robustness, physical strength and health/integrity) of the body, the hunger strike was hailed as both outrageous and courageous. In effect, it was apprehended as a largely alien and mostly unintelligible (even reprehensible) act, implicitly constituting an affront to, or disregard for a culturally, and religiously, upheld reverence for the sacredness of life and, thus, a caricature of heroic (militant) anti-statist struggle. On the one hand, the migrants were seen as usurping the hunger strike from political prisoners (ironically, of course, the hunger strikers, as illegal migrants, themselves had been incarcerated in Greece, albeit through state indifference rather than state persecution). On the other hand, they were seen to be engaging in a more “passive” form of resistance. Paradoxically, even though as men they were presumed to fight not only for themselves but also for their women and children, their struggle was often criticized as representing a “feminized” performance of a “non-rational” and “desperate” act marked by fragility and weakness. For yet others, their struggle was seen as motivated by a religiously-inspired impulse to self-sacrifice, since as Northern Africans they were presumed to be Muslims. The implication here was that they were adhering to religious rather than political precepts, in spite of the fact that many of the hunger strikers invoked the Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia and Egypt as a source of inspiration and hope that strengthened their resolve to fight for their rights even at the cost of their lives. In the hunger strike, thus, much was at stake in cultural, political and gender relations. Its significance and value is not to be sought so much in the immediate political gains accrued, which are disputed, but precisely in the disruptions of “normal” and “proper” politics, practices and bodies that the affective and semantic dissonance of the strike engendered. The hunger strike manifested the illegibility and incommensurability of cultural practices and the impossibility of cultural translation, a condition which defied and disturbed identification, laying bare the workings of power, as it is culturally and materially encoded.