The brutal cost of 'normal life'

Invisible from the public eye, people on the move face more human rights violations than ever. As we are celebrating the International Migrants Day, today, we should not fall into a trap of disguise.

Dr. Begüm Başdaş

On the Greek island of Lesvos, many locals cherish a return to “normal life,” while unprecedented scale of human rights violations are taking place at Europe’s borders. The sense of the “normal life” granted to locals is made possible by the normalization of violence at the Aegean Sea and the invisibility of refugee lives through encampment.

The recent Netflix movie, The Swimmers, based on a true story of the deadly journey taken by two sisters Sara and Yusra Mardini (by Manal Issa and Nathalie Issa) from Syria through Turkey, Greece and the Balkan route to reach Germany in 2015, is a reminder of the duplicity and the cost of such politics of normalization at Europe’s borders today.

The Swimmers is a hard-won success story that ends with a glorious applause at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The Mardini sisters may claim to be lucky because they survived, but they also show persistence and endurance, because if you hesitate or get tired on the way, you risk deportation. The success of The Swimmers, like most other refugee narratives in Europe, is carried on the shoulders of the sisters, quite literally. The skills and talent gained back at home still require hard work to re-earn them, to prove that they deserve the positions offered to them. Yusra’s traumas of drowning in the Aegean Sea and the bullets pointed at her way return as flashbacks when her butterfly strokes race through the pool in Rio, giving her strength to swim for the people who died on the same journey. The heroic narrative in the movie is dismantled as Sara says, “what we went through is not special.” But still, there is nothing “normal” about two young women swimming across the EU borders tied to a shabby dinghy carrying vulnerable people. Or when the women who traveled with them opened their covers because it is “better not to look so foreign” to cross the Balkan borders. None of this should be normalized.

The depiction of Lesvos and its local people in the movie at the time of the sisters’ arrival should be contested but on the other hand, now there is an emerging truth to that politics of denial and normalization of violence, which Sara with sheer naivete said “they have no idea people are dying in that sea.”

Lesvos, at the edge of EU’s external borders was once internationally acclaimed and received the UN Nansen Award in 2016 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its solidarity with refugees. Many of those people, including locals in solidarity are still on the island, doing the work that gets darker each day. However, as Lesvos became the laboratory of EU migration policies after the EU-Turkey Deal and the entrapment of people in abhorrent camps, the main representation of the island became a “warehouse” of gross human rights violations framed with the graveyard of life jackets. In the absence of any dignified solution by the EU, the Deal was a dealbreaker for many locals that riled the anti-refugee reactions on the island and now as the only laud and powerful voice represented in the mainstream media, it is becoming normalized with the full collaboration of Greek and EU authorities.

This summer, I talked to the locals in Lesvos to understand how their everyday lives changed since 2015. Myrto,* a woman in her 40s and who works in public service on the island, still had the fear of uncertainty and suffering of people in her eyes as she described the crowds of refugees in the streets of Mytilene, the town center of Lesvos in 2015. When I asked her how things are today, she relaxed, smiled, and said “we are back to normal” with joy as we sipped our freddo espressos in a café filled with the sound of crickets at a park, where I participated in my first protest against the pushbacks at the Aegean Sea in 2013. Almost a decade after, the violence at the sea borders has become the norm and the local life now feels detached from it.

Many locals I talked with shared the sense of “normalcy” on the island as they now encounter less refugees in their everyday lives due to pushbacks that almost never came up in the interviews. In February 2022, UNHCR noted almost 540 reports of “informal returns” of asylum seekers across the borders since 2020 and the Hellenic Police just published data reporting at least 230,000 people were “prevented” from entering Greece so far in 2022. The pushback cases reported by NGOs and investigative journalists point to higher numbers, with many shipwrecks causing people to die at sea. Despite the OLAF report on how the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, was involved in covering up these human rights violations, impunity and silence remains the norm.

Dimitris, a young business owner in Lesvos, said “we [locals] do not ask much. We ask for a normal life. Now the last year is moving towards there” as the number of refugees, who he said were different from the locals due to their religion and other bodily practices, decreased. Two years ago, most locals protested against the construction of a new closed and controlled center for refugees that will now be completed before April 2023 in Lesvos, but Dimitris has come to terms with it as a necessity as long as it does not host “too many” people that would shift the population balance on the island like before. MSF recently reported about how such high security centers funded by the EU Commission on other Greek islands are “prison like” and exacerbate the psychological traumas of refugees held in these hostile environments.

Today, if people arrive the island, they are not greeted by volunteers. Most of the humanitarian organizations celebrated in The Swimmers left Lesvos because the Greek government pushed them out through arbitrary regulations or trumped-up criminal charges, just like Sara and her friends who are facing imprisonment. The story of the Mardini sisters should indeed be celebrated and embraced, because The Swimmers represent the extraordinary migrant struggles against such normalizing forces that fail people on the move and try to make them invisible at the borders every day.

* Pseudonyms used to protect the privacy of the interview participants.

*Begüm Başdaş is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Fundamental Rights at the Hertie School Berlin. She received her PhD in Geography at University of California Los Angeles and her MA in Art History from UCR. Her research “In the Making of New Europe: Embodied Politics of Borderlands” studies the reconstruction of EU borderlands, focusing on the Greek hotspot islands. She worked as a Human Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Turkey. She produces a TV program titled “On the Move with Begüm Başdaş” on current migration issues.