To understand the importance and effectiveness of City Plaza as a squat and broader movement, you have to consider it in the context of the larger ‘refugee crisis’ in Greece (I put crisis in quotations here because the sheer number of refugees isn’t the issue, it’s how it has been handled by the European Union). So, before I talk about City Plaza, I want to try and quickly build up some context without over simplifying a complex situation.
Who remembers that time snapchat had a live story on Greece’s referendum vote? Back in 2015, the Syriza government held a referendum that allowed the greek people to vote on the newest debt package presented by the troika (the IMF, ECB, EC). It was the last of three bailout packages extended to Greece during its, and the greater eurozone’s, sovereign debt crisis. The first bailout, of 110 bn-euro, came in 2010 following the drafting of austerity measures aimed to decrease Greece’s budget deficit and immense public debt which had just been recalculated to be 13.6 and 113 percent of its GDP respectively. The second, of 109 bn-euro, followed more austerity measures in 2011. And finally, the third came in 2015 with even more austerity measures to which the Greek people decisively voted NO. However, Alexis Tsipras–current Prime Minister and leader of the Syriza party–quickly ‘renegotiated’ the terms of the memorandum, preventing Greece from defaulting on its debt and keeping it in the eurozone (I use quotations again because renegotiations still ended in more austerity for Greece).
All these austerity measures are key to understanding Greece’s response to the ‘refugee crisis’ (I’ll drop the quotations from here on out, y’all get the point). Many people are critical of Greece’s handling of the crisis. However, although the government’s overall sluggish response has led to failures–including human rights violations in detention centers in Athens and hot-spots on greek islands which should not be overlooked–in the end, the government is made up of individuals and many of these individuals want to help but simply can not. Because a coordinated European response is lacking and its neighbors have closed their borders, Greece has been left to handle a lot of the crisis alone, and crises typically cost. From emergency respondents to camp construction, managing the flow of refugees is not cheap and Greece has very little room in its budget to increase its response. Austerity does not allow for more search and rescue crews and asylum personal (i.e. no more public employees when Greece has just agreed to cut down its bloated public sector in exchange for an 86 bn-euro bailout package–the one snapchat covered). Refugee relocation operations and funding measures specifically for the crisis are technically underway within the EU but are both moving extremely slow (to the point where, as of now, nothing said above is different).
Many NGOs have intervened where the Greek government has not, however, they do not have full autonomy to act as they see fit so funds directed towards them end up sitting unused. After all, even if the government has its failures, Greece is still a democracy with a better voter turnout than the US so NGOs can not just act unilaterally within its borders. Unfortunately, the refugee influx has been accompanied by a rise of extremism in Europe and Greece has not been exempt–Golden Dawn, a fascist, xenophobic party which held 0.3 percent of the vote in 2009, has surged to gain 7 percent today. This opposition to immigration, along with political sluggishness in general, prevents any quick response from NGOs that may have more funds to work with than the Greek government.
So far I haven’t mentioned the EU-TU deal agreed upon this past March and to get on with the good part of this (City Plaza!), I won’t. As far as I know, its potentially illegal under EU law and hasn’t been game changing in anyway besides de facto reinforcing the Dublin Regulations, forcing Greece to process everyone who arrives rather than letting some move on into other parts the EU.
City Plaza has been so effective because it operates outside the context of Greek politics and EU negotiations by empowering refugees to take hold of their own situation (a solution completely overlooked by the savior-victim hierarchy of most NGOs). City Plaza is an abandoned hotel in Athens that has been occupied by the Economic and Political Refugee Solidarity Initiative. As a member said when I visited this week, it has two parts: the physical space and the idea it carries. The physical space is the seven story hotel that has been repurposed to host over 400 people from tens of countries, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. The idea is the political community that is growing from City Plaza–a movement away from the victim centric view of refugees which often disables them in the society they move into by portraying them only as helpless and vulnerable. As my guide, a migrant from Afghanistan now living in Greece for 12 years, said: “breaking away from migrants as refugees that are solely vulnerable needing help means viewing them as individuals not defined by their vulnerabilities”. City Plaza is also reinventing the refugee acceptance process, moving away from only selecting Syrian war refugees whilst turning away Pakistani economic refugees for instance, in an effort to better support diversity in its camp (e.g. various nationalities, equal gender division, families and single migrants, minors and adults).
City Plaza reminds me of John Steinbeck’s government camp in The Grapes of Wrath. The code of conduct is the same–no alcohol on the premises, no violence, mutual respect–and sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if some Golden Dawn member tried to sabotage it by starting a fake fight. More importantly though, it is a people driven response that is creating change now while larger institutions still struggle in transition. Although migrants from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Pakistan had absolutely no role in creating their current situation (look to the illegal invasion of Iraq or even further back to imperial deals that divided the Middle East between Euro powers like Sykes-Picot for the cause), they are the best at fixing it. Given the opportunity of self-determination, in just a few months they have created something more effective in managing the refugee crisis than the EU has in the years up till this point.