Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Access to a Hot Field: A Self-Reflexive Account of Research in the Moria Camp, Lesvos



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8 Minutes

Guest post by Katerina Rozakou. Katerina is an anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Since 2014 she participates in the research project “The social life of state deportation regimes: A comparative study of the implementation interface” (ERC-Starting grant 336319) where she studies the Greek deportation arena. This is the fourth post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Accessing the Migration Apparatus’ organised by Damian Rosset and Christin Achermann  

Researchers face many obstacles in gaining permission to study migration governance sites as governments seek to avoid accountability. In this post, I reflect on my experience of gaining access to the Moria camp in Lesvos – its denial, its negotiation and its achievement. The importance of the Moria camp and the entire Lesvos island in the emergent geography of the EU border regime as a site of bureaucracy, control and humanitarianism has turned it into a popular field for researchers. Researchers have many stories to share about failed attempts, emails that remained unanswered and less about the methodological and ethical implications of access that is granted. In this short piece I consider the effects of over-researching and the voyeuristic and even opportunistic features of research in such sites, even as I recognise the enduring need to shed light on the workings of this popular fieldsite.

Throughout this text, I will use the term Moria camp to refer to a fragmented and heterogeneous assemblage of diverse agents and jurisdictions. The Moria camp comprises various sections that fall under the authority of several departments or entire ministries. Thus, there is not one formal chief of the entire site. As employees in the First Reception Service emphasized during my last visit in late September 2017, contrary to a common belief, the Moria camp is not the hotspot. The hotspot is merely a unit within the camp. The camp also hosts a pre-removal detention center where deportable people and asylum seekers are held (under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection) and the Asylum Service (an autonomous body of the Ministry of Migration) supported by EASO officers. Inside the hotspot itself there is an array of agencies that operate: state (the First Reception Service under the Ministry of Migration, the Alien’s Police Department under the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection), supra-state (Frontex), inter-governmental (IOM, UNHCR) and non-state ones. Despite this fragmentation of authorities and jurisdiction, I see the Moria camp as one assemblage that, exactly due to its disjointed character, largely produces illegibility and disorder. Furthermore, these elements of the Moria camp affect any attempts to gain research access.

The hotspot inside the Moria camp during the first days of its function, 22 October 2015 (Photo: Katerina Rozakou)

In the summer and autumn of 2015, I conducted research inside the (then) Moria registration and identification center. When I was given permission for fieldwork in the spring of 2015, a rise in arrivals was expected but nobody predicted the magnitude of the phenomenon in the next months. In October 2015, the Moria hotspot was inaugurated. After March 2016 and with the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’ the Moria camp entered a (proclaimed) new phase in the EU border regime. Between 2015 and 2017 and while I carried out fieldwork in other administrative detention and migration governance sites in Athens, I attempted to reenter the Moria camp either unsuccessfully (April 2016 and July 2017) or successfully (late October 2015, July 2016, and late September 2017).

Access denied

14 April 2016. Approaching the Moria camp, I was struck by the traffic. I parked my rented car in the first available spot, a few hundred meters away from the main gate among other rentals used by reporter crews, EASO and Frontex officers, mini vans embellished by the logos of humanitarian organizations, the private cars of police officers, civil servants and NGO/IGO workers and a riot police bus. Besides this busy crowd, the two sides of the road were occupied by border-crossers. Men, women and children walked to the neighboring villages and to the capital of the island, Mytilene, or hang out waiting for their registration procedures to be completed in order to leave the island. These were the lucky ones who had arrived before the 21st of March and the implementation of the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’. Other border-crossers who had arrived to Lesvos after that would remain under administrative detention in the Moria camp and, after 28 days, on the island for an indefinite period.

The aim of my visit was to record the changes that had occurred after the implementation of the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’ and to catch up with my research participants, civil servants, IGO and NGO workers, but mainly police officers with whom I had spent the summer of 2015. For several weeks, I had repeatedly asked for official permission to visit the Moria camp in vain. Different authorities –the Ministry of Migration and the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection– either did not reply to my emails or claimed that they had no jurisdiction. Of course, my experience was far from exceptional. Yet, as I stood facing the wall of the Moria camp, I could not avoid wondering about the purpose of my visit.

My feet refused to take me to the front gate so I wandered between the two canteens that served drinks and sandwiches to their diverse clientele. I sat on a wooden bench facing the gate and I observed as journalists negotiated their entrance with two young police officers only to receive a repeated denial of entrance. After several failed attempts, the reporters asked to take photos of the interior, but again the police officers replied that it was prohibited. The frustrated journalists started looking for interviewees.

This was a special day since two days later Pope Francis would visit the Moria camp. The preparations were hectic. Inside the camp, an awning with the UNHCR logo was being placed outside the hotspot. Pakistani men were transferred tothe top of the hill, as far away as possible from the place where the Pope would be. The exterior wall of the Moria camp was being painted in blinding whitening lime and the razor barbed wire was temporarily removed. A vacuum truck was hectically pumping sewage out of the congested facilities. Allegedly, 400 journalists were on the island in order to document the Pope’s visit. The hotels were packed, car rental agencies had run out of vehicles, and the restaurants and the cafés on Mytilene’s quay were constantly full.

We tend to think of ourselves as dedicated researchers engaged in a noble and strenuous quest of knowledge production. Thus, we are often shocked by our research participants’ aggressive responses or their unwillingness to participate in our endeavors. It is unquestionably different to be rejected by an over-researched vulnerable group than by a state agent who safeguards a migration governance site. It is different to be kicked out of a village by people whose life has been misrepresented by ethnographers than by a migration agency that fears that revealing its actual practices would threaten its humanitarian façade. However, as anthropologists we remain devoted to the ethical principles of a discipline that bears the burden of its past colonial affiliations. We thus need to be alarmed about reproducing neo-colonial research attitudes even when we do fieldwork with agents of the state who work in migration governance sites.

“People come and say ‘I am writing an article’. They just appear on the front gate and they demand to enter. Everybody uses the same excuses: I want to see how the space has changed; I am not like the others [researchers, journalists]; I have a different approach; I am not visiting the zoo”.  The thirty-five-year-old head of the Moria hotspot was visibly upset. She was a former activist who had been assisting border-crossers on the island for years. In the past year, she had turned into a high rank employee of the Ministry of Migration. She was initially in charge of the Moria hotspot and later of all hotspot facilities on the Aegean Sea islands; these migration governance sites in-the-making where diverse sovereignties (state, supra-state, non-state, private) cooperated and collided and where the world seemed to have turned its gaze.

As I stood at the gate of the Moria camp listening to her accusations, I felt frustrated and angry. My adrenaline rose and I felt numb. I was less upset about my unsuccessful ERC-sponsored trip to Lesvos than by the moral overtones of her accusations. In her eyes, I was just ‘another’ researcher, similar to the detested journalists who craved for an easily digested account and a simplified image. According to her, I was just there in order to ‘do my job’. Her defensive attack stemmed from her contradictory position as a former activist who now safeguarded a site notorious for its undignified living conditions. In my subsequent visits, other Moria camp employees were less blunt in putting me within the same framework as the voyeuristic and opportunistic crew of the ‘visitors to the zoo’. Yet they all scrutinized the unproductive character of such visits – including my own.

Access granted

28 September 2017. ‘I am well aware of the kind of job that people who visit Moria [sic] do. They come here on one occasion and then they are gone. They write a report or a newspaper article. They can easily criticize the living conditions’. The First Reception Service employee has been working in the hotspot for the last year. Four months ago –after her request– she became the head of the minors’ sector. Her disapproving comment came only two days after the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published a critical report on the detention of unaccompanied minors.

In my visit to the Moria camp on 28 and 29 September 2017, I heard myself repeatedly drawing upon the period I was ‘inside’ the Moria camp in 2015 less as a means to legitimatize my research authority and more as a way to situate myself within the same universe as my interlocutors. Of course this only raised condescending nods from suspicious Moriacamp employees, as they told me they were used to receiving multiple visitors a day: journalists, academics from (almost exclusively) foreign institutions, human rights groups’ researchers, and EU officials. Despite the dominant impression, it seems that access is actually given fairly frequently. Yet this is mostly a partial access, is limited in one or two-day visits. The visitor-researcher is a burden, who requires personnel to show her around.

Other researchers have raised important methodological, ethical and epistemological issues that pertain over-researched and migration governance sites. Such research is valuable and I believe that we should fight for as extensive access as possible. We need to try to bring to the fore the experiences of the people involved –as state, supra-state and non-state functionaries or as border-crossers detained, illegalized and deported. Both politically and cognitively, (if we can separate the two), what is vital is a research on the mundane aspects of bureaucracy, humanitarianism, policing, and the production of illegality (to name a few).

During this visit, I was struck by the advanced role and unhindered access that volunteers had. Eurorelief was one of the few voluntary groups that remained in the Moria camp after the implementation of the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’. Since then this Evangelical organization has found fertile soil in the border regime in Lesvos and it has blossomed. Hundreds of its volunteers have served in the Moria camp in the last two years and they are still responsible for crucial functions such as the settlement of newly arrived border-crossers in containers. A young Eurorelief volunteer opened and closed the gate of the hotspot. The gate was a threshold of power. Sovereignties were reversed and overlapped; access was defined by a new humanitarian and surveillance industry that worked hand in hand.

The asymmetries of power are particularly disturbing when we consider our (researchers’) close affinity with other privileged mobile subjects such as EU agencies’ officers and IGO/NGO workers and volunteers, compared to the immobility of the border-crossers. In this dominant hierarchy of mobility, it seems that everybody craves to enter the Moria camp apart from the border-crossers themselves. In lack of official permission or due to the restrictions that come with it, researchers resort to entrance through the humanitarian field whereas others attempt to access the workings of the migration apparatus as workers in migration and asylum services. A humanitarian’s vest is certainly not a neutral outfit. In fact, apart from affecting the initial way people in the camp receive the newcomer, such strategies often reproduce a total disregard of informed consent. Of course, a one-time visit is far from enough to produce an ethnographic study or any informed account of the hotspot. The term ethnography is abused and merged with witnesses that resemble the moral narratives produced by the humanitarian field. Instead of aspiring to illuminate the perspective of specific actors, our visits merely serve as the validation of an account that could simply be written from a distance.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Rozakou, K.  (2017) Access to a Hot Field: A Self-Reflexive Account of Research in the Moria Camp, Lesvos. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/11/access-hot-field (Accessed [date]).

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