City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.


Migration Knots: crisis within a crisis

by Sarah Green, University of Manchester

Athens, 1963. A vibrant city, cosmopolitan city, a city full of tensions, rumblings of revolution, or at least a sense that people were beginning to have enough of the right-wing rulers who had been pushed into government by the powers that be in the 1950s – by the USA mostly, which was following the Truman Doctrine, trying to ensure strong, conservative government to prevent the communists getting in.1 But it was not only the Americans; others had an interest in Greece, whether that interest was based on romantic ideals, cold war ideologies, or realpolitik. It was an edgy space in 1963, one that had been built, in its modernist guise, on a tangle of partly contradictory, and thoroughly cosmopolitan, aims and ambitions. Bastéa2 says the core architecture of Athens built during the 19th century reflects a mixture of transnational and nationalist ideals of what Greece and the Greeks should be, and it would be interesting to ask, today, in the 21st century in the midst of crisis, whether those ideals were ever realised in any meaningful sense. Yalouri, who closely studied the variety of uses to which the Acropolis has been put, both symbolically and otherwise, also noted the strongly transnational influence on Athens, from the moment of Greek independence right up to the present day.3 Many others have said the same about the whole country. Athens is a transnational city par excellence - which is to say that transnational political interests have had exceptional levels of involvement in the way the Greek state has developed over the decades. That holds today as well, but the way in which that involvement, or interference some might say, has manifested itself, is rather different now. But I am getting ahead of myself.


I arrived in Athens in 1963 at the age of two, with my English family: father, mother and two older brothers. There were many foreigners like us there at the time: people who somehow felt a little uncomfortable in their own country, whether for social, political, economic or legal reasons. Such people often found their way to Athens. It was not an easy city, but it was easy enough to exist there as a foreigner without too many questions being asked. Athenians were used to foreigners, transients who came and went, and who lived mysterious lives doing who knows what. Nobody much cared, really. Certainly not the police or any government types.


Even during the military regime of 1967-74, there was not much interest in these transient migrants, the people passing through, or even settling in, for a time. That included the poor migrants as well as the more wealthy and highly educated political refugees and ex-patriots (note that wealthier migrants are usually called ex-patriots). The Greek authorities owed nothing to these foreigners, who knew better than to expect anything from the Greek state in any case; the foreigners in those days were really a matter of indifference in all senses of the word. So long as they were not committing crimes, and in particular, selling drugs or getting up to any other kind of behaviour defined as troublesome by the Greek police, foreigners were allowed to just exist in Athens, and do what they liked. That is not what the law said, of course; it is not what the bureaucratic system required, either; but it’s how people lived. It was even relatively easy to live without the right visas and other paperwork. So long as you did not get in the way of anybody powerful, life went on.


My family first stayed in Piraeus in 1963, for a few months before we moved to the island of Lesvos for several years. Piraeus, as Renée Hirschon richly reported in her ethnography, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe - a book title that may well be needed again for another population of Greeks in the coming years of the 21st century - was one amongst many areas in and around Athens that had experienced a huge influx of refugees from the Asia Minor crisis in the 1920s.4 Prosfiges. That was the period when the Greek word for ‘refugees’ began to carry particular weight and significance in the country. As Hirschon records on the first page of her ethnography, land was put aside for these refugees in the outskirts of Athens and in Piraeus. These people were officially defined as ‘coming home,’ in a sense: Greek Orthodox peoples sent to Greece when the Ottoman empire, their former home, ceased to exist, as a place. But as Hirschon also records, Greece felt foreign to the newcomers, and they confronted significant levels of prejudice. This was not for the first time, of course: Bastéa reminds us,5 as do both James Faubion and Michael Herzfeld in different ways,6 that in the early period of the Greek state in the 19th century, there were heated disagreements about who counted as a Greek and who did not, which was based as much on how recently people had migrated to Greece, and what part they played in the war of Independence, as it did on any concepts of blood or soil. The 1920s arrivals were something of a repetition, then, of migrants who are, to a greater or lesser degree, Greeks.


That 1920s period marked two things about the relation between Athens and migrants. The first is that it established a material, embodied link between the city and other parts of the world, as well as between the city and transnational organizations such as the League of Nations, which oversaw the compulsory movement of populations between Turkey and Greece.7 And second, it established a social context in which strangers arrived in the city in very large numbers, all at once. The sheer quantity of people was a major characteristic of the migration during that period. Much the same is also true today: a perception of the sheer numbers of the new arrivals to Athens, particularly of people who have no safe place to go, has taken many people’s breath away.


Of course, a crucial difference between the 1920s mass migration and the current period is that in the 1920s, the influx of population was carried out by transnational agencies as an official policy agreed within the Lausanne Convention of 1923, which had the explicit aim of exchanging large portions of Orthodox and Muslim populations between the new Greek and Turkish territories. In the current period, there are no coordinated transnational policies that are intended to move populations from one place to another. Rather, there is a post-Bretton Woods chaotic scramble for resources and power, an ongoing battle, just about everywhere in the world. Some people call that chaos the outcome and clear logic of neoliberalism (and in anthropology, Chris Gregory and David Graeber are two of the better known ones who call it that).8 This neoliberal, no holds barred, scramble for resources has created multiple regions in the world where life has become so harsh, either because of ongoing violent conflicts or because of extreme lack of resources or opportunities, that people are driven out to look for something else, some way to survive. Many of them head for Europe. And as an outcome of a range of border control programs deployed in recent years around the outer edges of the European Union, the vast majority of undocumented people trying to enter the EU from these troubled places have been trying to enter through Greece over the last five or six years. The majority of those people end up in Athens, one way or another, at least for a time. As in the 1920s, the sheer numbers of migrants has made it feel like a crisis, piled up on top of the financial crisis. And the media helps to encourage that sense, reporting it as a crisis within a crisis. The European Union has made the migration crisis worse in Greece, many say, through its Dublin II Agreement, which requires undocumented migrants to be returned to the country of first entry into the EU.


Unsurprisingly then, the majority of the Greek border police have been deployed in Athens in recent years, for that is where the migrants are. It is not really possible to fully patrol the borders at the edges of the territory, neither in the Evros region in the northern mainland, nor the multiple areas of access to Greek territory by the sea. Even with the additional work of Frontex, that EU-commissioned border security organization which carries out various operations at the edges of the EU’s territories, huge numbers of undocumented travelers still make it onto Greek territory. In truth, most of them do not think of it as Greek territory, but as EU territory. That does not matter to the people in the Greek population who regard the issue as an ‘invasion’ of foreigners on their national land, but it does matter in understanding what kind of border work is being done in trying to manage this influx of people: it involves the management of a transnational border (an EU border) that has had pressure put upon it by peoples driven out of their own places by the chaos created by a political economy that has little respect for borders of any kind - political, social, environmental, economic. In any case, both for political and pragmatic reasons, the border police have to be in Athens, and have to look like they are doing something.


It was different in Athens a few years ago, in 2008, just before the financial crisis changed things dramatically. In Sintagma Square in August 2008, the police were the ones who dealt with the undocumented migrants. They were dressed like police as well, rather than dressing like armed military, and there were not very many of them. The illegal traders would put out their stalls to sell their goods - handbags, umbrellas, children’s toys, cigarette lighters, household crockery and cutlery, all kinds of things. And the Athenians would browse these stalls, looking to see if there was anything interesting in amongst all these things that were made in China and arrived into the hands of the migrants, who were not from China, by mysterious routes. Then the police would arrive, the traders would pack up within 20 seconds and run away at high speed. When the police were gone, the traders would come back, and the whole thing would be repeated again in a little while when the police patrol returned.


That’s how it was just five years ago. It’s hard to remember Sintagma Square in that way now. Omonia was a little harsher, there were already quite a few tensions developing there, and in Exarheia too. But the harshness with which the border police now deal with the issue is something else again: an order of magnitude different from the earlier period to such a degree that it has become a different kind of phenomenon. The cat and mouse game of 2008 allowed a mutual recognition that everyone involved had a job to do. The dynamic in more recent years seems to be based on no recognition at all: the perceived sheer scale of the problem has made it impossible, it seems, to see any of the people involved in it as people. They are migrants or they are border guards, and neither category appears to recognize the other one as anything other than a category.


Everyone knows it is not only the borders guards who are confronting the more recent migrants. Members of Golden Dawn are out on patrol regularly, wearing their uniforms that echo and borrow from the military style of past dictatorships. They go out in order to defend Greece and the Greeks, they say; they go out in order to ‘sort out’ the migrants, as an act of patriotism. Except for their tendency to valorize violence, they remind me of Harel Shapira’s account of the Minutemen of Arizona, in his book, Waiting for José.9 The Minutemen (named after the men who needed to be ready in a minute to defend America in the earlier period of that country’s history)are patrolling the US-Mexican border on behalf of their country, they say. The Minutemen (some of whom are actually women) are unpaid, unofficial, and their aim is to stop migrants from crossing into the United States. Shapira points out in his ethnography that many of the Minutemen are much like the rest of the population in their political and social views; the difference is not nearly as sharp as some of us would like to believe. A similar point was made by Douglas Holmes about the growth of the far right in Europe, in his book, Integral Europe.10 The reasons that the police, border guards and general population end up being harshly prejudiced against people who have left deeply troubled parts of the world and come to Europe in search of something better, is not a straightforward matter. It is full of moral, social, economic, and political knots and tangles that makes it actually quite difficult to disentangle from ourselves, to keep ourselves separate from it. Edward Said suggested a long time ago (in Orientalism)11 that many ideologies have a tendency to avoid confronting the negative, dark, side of ourselves by ascribing those characteristics to others, to the ones we can legitimately condemn for being in some way lacking - usually morally, but perhaps in other ways as well - for example, having some deficiencies in modernity or education. Of course, the ignorance of prejudice and bigotry must be challenged whenever and wherever possible; but there is an equal responsibility to examine whether elements of that ignorance and prejudice reappear in the way that the bigotry is challenged. It’s a knotty issue.


Besides the battles going on in the streets and in the ‘no-go’ areas of Athens, the areas that ‘decent people’ would never go, there are also other places where the migrants can be found, behind closed doors and away from the gaze of the heavily armed border guards. For example, there are care workers of all kinds working in the homes of the people who possess more money than time. Those migrants are protected by their patrons, some say; others say they are something between prisoners and slaves, having replaced their own family and home for somebody else’s, in the hopes of sending money back and making things better for the next generation. Those people might get out on a Sunday afternoon, to breath a little in the park, but not always. They are an invisible small army, keeping things going in Athens, despite everything else falling to pieces. In focusing on what happens in the streets between border guards and migrants, the less eye-catching aspects should not be forgotten.


Concluding remarks


There are three main points about this situation with migrants in Athens that this short intervention is trying to make.


First: it is not the first time there has been the sudden arrival of large numbers of people from elsewhere in this city. Deeper historical comparisons would be worth making. Both in the past and in the present, particular forms of relations and separations with other parts of the world are as important in understand what is going on with migration in Athens as studying the events in Athens itself.


Second: one distinctive aspect of the migration on this occasion is that it is part of a particular form of political economy, which some call neoliberalism, that is nowhere near as focused or organized in its movement of populations from one place to another as previous political and economic interventions have been.


Third: the scale of the arrival of migrants in Athens is a key element of the current perception of it as a ‘crisis’ . This has also changed the nature of the border guards’ response, as well as increasing its scale.


Finally: the implication of all of this is that the borders being both crossed and policed in this situation are different in quality from the 20th century model of state borders for quite some time. In particular, it is one example of how different parts of the world are entangled with one another (knotted, meshed) rather than being separate entities that are interrelated.



Bastea, Eleni. 2000. The creation of modern Athens: planning the myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clogg, Richard. 1986. A short history of modern Greece. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Faubion, James D. 1993. Modern Greek lessons: a primer in historical constructivism. Princeton, N.J.; Chichester: Princeton University Press.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: the first 5,000 years. New York: Melville House.

Gregory, C. A. 1997. Savage money: the anthropology and politics of commodity exchange. Amsterdam; London: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Herzfeld, Michael. 1986. Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece. New York: Pella Publishing Inc.

Hirschon, Renée. 1989. Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

—. 2003. 'Unmixing peoples' in the Aegean region. In Crossing the Aegean: an appraisal of the 1923 compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey (ed.) Renée Hirschon. New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 3-12.

Holmes, Douglas, R. 2000. Integral Europe: fast-capitalism, multiculturalism, neofascism. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Said, Edward W. 1991. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Shapira, Harel. 2013. Waiting for José: the Minutemen's pursuit of America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yalouri, Eleana. 2001. The Acropolis: global fame, local claim. Oxford ; New York: Berg.




Funded by

Partner Institution

About Us

City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...