Women Working in Solidarity: A Permanent State of Exception

Blog Article Graphics - new (32).png

In 2015, with the publishing of a photo of Alun Kurdi (The Guardian, 2015) the world was informed of a ‘refugee crisis’.  Some people now believe that this moment has passed. The ‘crisis’ is over.  If only this were the case.  In fact, 144,166 people arrived in Europe in 2018 and 2,297 people are known to have died whilst attempting the crossing (International Organization for Migration, 2019). In January 2019, at least 4000 people have arrived in Europe and over 204 people have died (IOM, 2019).

In response to this devastating photo, and the discussions it sparked about migration, many people from both Greece and other EU countries began working to support the people arriving from Turkey.  Three years later, some of those people, including myself, are still here. We have witnessed the continuous failure of large NGOs and the Greek state and EU apparatus (Al Jazeera, 2015), who instead of creating a holistic approach to supporting and welcoming those who have arrived as refugees, have failed to provide the basics such as accommodation, food, access to drinking water and safety (Amnesty International, 2018).  This affects all people who arrive, but for women there have been especially appalling consequences, including sexual abuse and harassment (MSF, 2018).

I came to Greece in January 2016.  At first I worked in a kitchen on Lesvos outside the notorious Moria refugee camp, and later I moved to Athens to co-start a community centre project.  Many of the people who have stayed to work in Athens throughout this period have been women, often volunteering with no financial or material support, to create or work with projects which continue to fill these gaps.  Women who realise that, while service provision is important, advocacy and systemic change are the only ways in which we can end this ‘migration crisis.’

The reasons for their initial involvement are varied.  For Nidzara Ahmetasevic, a Bosnian journalist from the Croatian NGO Are You Syrious? (AYS), the closure of the borders in 2016 (The Guardian, 2016) felt like history repeating itself. “At the beginning, it was a flash back to what I personally survived in 1992 when I left my country.”  This was also the case for Milena Zajović Milka, one of the founding members of AYS;

“I remember being at my father’s place, eating a warm meal after I’d returned from a vacation at the seaside. On TV we saw a live report from Idomeni, where Macedonian police tried to block people from crossing the border. Hundreds were stranded in the field, begging to be let further. Behind the TV reporters back, a woman fainted. A paramedic was screaming at her husband who was trying to help, there were children crying, everything reminded me of similar situations from our own childhoods. I thought: 25 years ago, this could have been my mother. And something just broke inside of me. I knew I had to do something.”

Even though, on a state level, it has been noted that the collective memory of the world wars and of displacement in the Balkans does not mean these countries will treat others in this situation preferentially (Žagar, Šalamon and Hacin, 2018, p.1), this does not seem to apply to individuals.  In fact, this can be exactly what prompts them to act.

On the Greek side of the border, where similar feelings arose, the memory of this previous conflict also motivated people to become involved in solidarity work.  An anonymous volunteer from the Greek Association, Khora Community Centre, remembers this time from her childhood in the 1990s, “…the previous thing that people called the refugee crisis was in Balkans, which I also lived, because I grew up in Northern Greece and we had Bosnian refugees staying in our school...”

Women who realise that, while service provision is important, advocacy and systemic change are the only ways in which we can end this ‘migration crisis.’

Other circumstantial factors in Greece, such as the legal prosecution of the Golden Dawn in 2013, the creation of a new law against hate speech in 2014 , and the loss of credibility for private TV stations after the 2015 referendum, have also been cited as creating a receptive environment for refugees in 2015/2016.  Yet this is again foregrounded in a collective memory of displacement as up to one-fourth of the Greek population is believed to be related to someone who has fled either to or from Greece as a refugee during the 20th Century (Kostopoulos, 2017).

Others came to Greece due to moral and political objections to the treatment of refugees.  “[When asked why I was in Greece] I always said as a fast answer, because when my children will sit in school in a history class I [want them to know I] was not a part of this…”, says Sara Vispi of the ANKAA Project, a Greek NGO set up by international volunteers.  Vispi, who lives in Luxembourg, but is of Italian descent, also saw worrying links to recent history, “…when I say in Luxembourg, ‘deportation’ [people reply], ‘Oh, no, no, no. We can’t use that word, we don’t deport people, we push them back.’ You know, they do the push back, because deportation has a connotation […] with the second world war, because the Jews were deported.”  Her testimony also invoked the collective memory of a traumatic past as a frame for current discourse and she highlights the concerning links which so many people have now made between Europe’s current treatment of migrants and some of the most disturbing moments in our recent history – the Holocaust and the wars which followed the dissolution of the state of Yugoslavia.

With their differing historical perspectives and lived experiences these women all feel there have been major failures at a policy level, with states continuously refusing to follow their own laws as well as international ones.  Milka saw this in 2015 in Croatia;

“At the beginning of the crisis, the then liberal Croatian government was following the ‘quick forward’ policy of the organised, safe and free humanitarian transport of all refugees through our territory. They were transported from Serbia to Slovenia by trains and buses provided by the Croatian government. However, in trying to move them forward as soon as possible to the next country on the route, they deliberately forgot to mention the possibility of asking for asylum in Croatia, thus avoiding parts of their responsibility for those people.”  

The right to ask for asylum is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention (UNHCR, 2011).  

This policy, of moving people quickly through the Balkan Route (from Macedonia to Slovenia), ended with the closure of the borders in 2016.  For Vispi this was a profound disappointment, “Schengen for me was a big success in Europe and suddenly a group decided to close the border.”  In Croatia this also led to illegal push backs (OXFAM, 2017).  “People on the move ended up in a much worse situation after a right-wing government was elected in early 2016,” states Milka,

“At that time we saw an almost instant shift of the paradigm: they stopped publishing numbers of the new arrivals, they eagerly followed the domino-chain of border closures started by Austria, and they manipulated data in order to help Macedonian officials to close the Idomeni-Gevgelija border crossing for good, effectively cutting off the main legal passage for the people of the move. Soon we witnessed the big surge in the push-backs from Croatia.”

2016 was also the year that the controversial EU-Turkey deal came into effect; from the outset it was widely discussed as breaking international law (The Independent, 2016).  

“Instead of listening to the real needs of the people, finding sustainable and truly humanitarian solutions, they’re playing human ping-pong with Turkey and Libya and proclaiming deadly deals to be great successes just because numbers of arrivals have been temporarily reduced. Externalisation and militarisation are dangerous trends. They can’t be seen as the model to continue further,” states Milka.

Both the closure of the borders and the EU-Turkey deal have had repercussions for Greece.  “It was not like things were good here and all of a sudden refugees came and we had a crisis,” states the volunteer from Khora.  “What we have here is a permanent state of exception, this is how I would describe the situation and it touches everything, from austerity policy, to unemployment, to the rise of nationalism…”

With their differing historical perspectives and lived experiences these women all feel there have been major failures at a policy level, with states continuously refusing to follow their own laws as well as international ones.

Nonetheless, there are ways to move forward. Camilla Lynge from the Athens Legal Support Team, an information sharing network, believes, “I think we have to start with the rhetoric, I really do believe that we have to stop talking about migrant crisis or refugee crisis.  We’re talking about a humanitarian crisis for our planet, for our earth. […] the real crisis is that we are not seeing each other as humans…” As for Ahmetasevic, she thinks the next steps are relatively simple, “First, to leave the borders open. Second, to talk about solidarity and not security.”  A message which all of those working at AYS agree on.

“When governments fail, citizens must act. Because Europe painfully remembers what fascism feels like. But it also knows the power of inclusion and solidarity” (AYS, 2019).

Emma Musty is a writer, activist, and independent researcher based in Athens, Greece.


Al Jazeera. (2015). Migrant crisis a failure of European policy, UN says.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

Amnesty International. (2018). A scar on the conscience of Europe: Letter to Greek Prime Minister on conditions facing refugees in Greece.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

Are You Syrious? (2019). Letter to citizens of the EU from the “periphery”: Politics of the closed borders are bringing us closer to fascist rules. Accessed on February 16th, 2019.

International Organization for Migration. (2019). Flow Monitoring Europe, Accessed on January 25th, 2019.

International Organization for Migration. (2019). Missing Migrants Projects, Accessed on February 16th, 2019.

Kostopoulos, Tasos (2017), ‘From Collective Memory to Frontline Reality: The Greek State and Society Confronted with Migrant and Refugee Question(s), 1980-2016’, History of Global Arms Transfer, 3, pp.41-50

OXFAM. (2017). A DANGEROUS ‘GAME’: The pushback of migrants, including refugees, at Europe’s borders.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

MSF. (2018). Moria is in a state of emergency.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

The Guardian. (2015). Shocking image of drowned Syrian boy shows tragic plight of refugees.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

The Guardian. (2016). Balkan countries shut borders as attention turns to new refugee routes.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

The Independent. (2016). 'A dark day for Europe': EU reaches agreement to send refugees back to Turkey despite legal concerns.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

UNHCR. (2011). The 1951 Refugee Convention.  Accessed on November 29th, 2018.

Žagar, Igor Ž., Neža Kogovšek Šalamon, and Marina Lukšič Hacin (eds.)(2018), The Disaster of European Refugee Policy: Perspectives from the “Balkan Route”, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Editorial CFFP