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Along the Route

Moira camp, 2016, photo by pantxo ramas.

Looking at the sea from the beach of Mytilene, one can either see a border or a route, a limit or a threshold, a fortress to be controlled or a space of encounter. It could be said that trespassing a border is constructing a route, where the route itself is much more than just transgressing the regime of borders. Instituting the route is not only escaping the imposition of a border but also a practice that realises a different form of living together, a continuous experience as Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson and Vassilis Tsianos put it. And nonetheless, this practice is permanently under seizure, hijacked and constrained by the instituted terms, by the regime of borders, by attempts at regulation, by the reduction of hegemonic narratives: "border as method", to quote Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson's research.

Late January at dawn on the sand of Lesbos, some disembarked looking for their kin and their belongings; others were there to greet those disembarking, paradoxically welcoming them both on the island and to the continent; some stared at the line of the sea looking for more boats to come, for somebody to arrive or just to acknowledge what had happened; others looked for dry vests and socks, for trousers and drinkable water; some undressed, others asked for privacy. Myriads of gestures, of objects, of points of view, beside the border, along the route.

Suddenly, in this space of encounter, a border emerged: demands were made for a protocol to be applied, for a queue to be formed, for a bus to be filled; different statuses were represented by the logos on the jackets of the volunteers or on the disposable waterproof caps of the refugees, through the imposing tones of those entitled with the responsibility of law enforcement, and the enquiries of those carrying cameras, microphones, and notebooks. After the bus: the identification camp, the registration, the fingerprints, passports. Queues by nationality, by gender, by age. Frontex, the Greek Police, UNHCR, mingled with NGOs from different countries, with different aims, different goals, different ethical and economical values1.

Losing the route, when these borders emerge, would make us powerless. Indeed, there are forms to be filled in at the Lesbos hotspot, queues at Piraeus harbour, protocols in the asylum offices in each European capital city. And yet, in all these instances of the border, a series of transgressions defy its logic and enact a concrete possibility for instituting, in and against the frustration of violence, through the frightening experience of precarity, where encounters can happen or be organised.

The graffiti stating "Welcome Refugees, NGOs fuck off", written on the walls inside the Moira camp, is one visible layer of an imperceptible palimpsest: signs and practices that challenge the border and institute the route. The Social Kitchen in Moria and the autonomous camp of Pikpa in Lesbos, as well as many initiatives scattered in Greek cities, not only provide a collective cooking practice but also, very importantly, a different menu than the emergency provision of ready-food by UNHCR. It quickly became a site capable of monitoring a series of abusive institutional practices, limiting them somehow, threatening denouncement or enacting it; it was a place to access and exchange information about the route to take: Where to go next? What is the border with Macedonia like? Is it really so cold in Denmark?

Beyond any idealist conception of a political space "outside of the border", these practices radically engage with the "effect of the State" on people's lives, as indicated by Timothy Mitchell, and produce counter-powers, moments for a life in common, as Bue Hansen, Manuela Zechner and I proposed some months ago. They happen everyday along the route, they institute the route.

Along the route, these instituting practices encounter another series of gestures and experiments that attempt to defy the logic of border, challenging their own institutional limits. Some municipalities are proposing different policies: instituting a network of refugee cities, as promoted by the Mayor of Barcelona with regards and against the relocation policies of the European Union, and enacting another welcoming through personal accompaniment practices in Leipzig. This is also occurring in universities: through the design of mechanisms of open-access to knowledge at KASK School, or the activist challenge against the protocols of control and European governance at Roma3 Legal Clinic. It is happening in many other smaller institutions who are constituting moments of encounter, like the social lunches of the local healthcare system of Trieste.

It is through these fragile practices that the route becomes a plural reality: a composition of points of view that affirms mutual engagement against the regime of borders.

1 — Marc Comas, Bue Hansen, Manuela Zechner and I wrote a report for the City Council of Barcelona. Discussions have arisen from this data compilation and reflection. In January, Bue and I researched and discussed a possible municipal policy on migration and refugees with several actors in Greece, namely in Athens and Lesbos. Many questions and experiences defined those days, but there is one I recall in particular. In the Moira camp, fences and barbed wire surround the barracks reserved for the weakest among the passers-by. When asked, those in charge of order explained that the fences pre-existed the new camp, since they were built when the same site was a detention centre for illegal migrants. But it is not possible to dismantle them, however desirable that would be for the people living in the camp everyday or for those passing by, because they were financed by transnational institutional aid: destroying the fences would imply having to pay for their destruction as well as the debt left by their construction, for "disrespecting" European Union budget protocols, which is something the Greek State is not keen to do in a moment of economic turmoil.

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