Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Confine to Protect: Greek Hotspots and the Hygienic-Sanitary Borders of Covid-19



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6 Minutes

Guest post by Martina Tazzioli. Martina is Lecturer in Politics & Technology at Goldsmiths. She is the author of The Making of Migration. The biopoltics of mobility at Europe’s borders (Sage, 2019), Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015) and co-author with Glenda Garelli of Tunisia as a Revolutionised Space of Migration (2016). She is co-editor of Foucault and the History of our Present (2015) and Foucault and the Making of Subjects (2016). She is part of the editorial board of journal Radical Philosophy.

On the night of September 8, 2020, the hotspot of Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos was caught in a devastating fire. Refugees’ tents have been completely destroyed, and about 13,000 women, men and children were forced to flee, while the Greek police was blocking NGOs from bringing aid and refugees from reaching the city of Mytilini by using tear gas. The Greek government declared a state of emergency on the island.  This happened few days after the first case of Covid-19 was found there. On September 1, a 40-year-old Somali refugee was tested positive and the Greek authorities responded by putting the whole hotspot population in quarantine for two weeks. Many asylum seekers protested against the strict lockdown by organising a collective food boycott action.

The NGO Refugee Support Aegean commented on the decision stressing that after multiple “extensions of confinement in the hotspots, the Greek government uses this to push for closed centres policy”. In fact, the sanitary protocol of isolating those who are tested positive to Covid-19 should be analysed in the frame of an escalating politics of migration containment, backed up by the European Union. Indeed, the increasing confinement of asylum seekers justified as a sanitary measure against Covid-19, is actually part of a state strategy of transforming hotspots into closed centers that the Greek government officially declared in November 2019.

In this post, I investigate how in the context of the pandemic, the politics of containment has been inflected by a hygienic-sanitary logic and justified in the name of both migrants and citizens’ protection. In so doing, I draw attention to a shift in the humanitarian-security discourse on migration: that is, migrants are not seen (only) as subjects ‘at risk’ nor as ‘risky subjects’; rather, they are spatially confined and hampered from getting access to asylum in the name of safety. This is what I call hygienic-sanitary borders, the bordering mechanisms which enact forms of racialised containment predicated upon health and safety. More than enforcing a state of exception, the pandemic has worked as an accelerator of an ongoing escalating politics of containment.

The Moria hotspot, 2019 (Photo: Martina Tazzioli)

Containing mobility and taking them out of sight

Asylum seekers on Greek islands have been subject to discriminatory and protracted lockdowns, being confined in the hotspots for months - while tourists and Greek citizens could freely circulate from May onward. This differential measure was taken with the twofold official goal of preventing migrants from becoming vehicles of contagion and, at the same time, not exposing them to infection. Instead of emptying the crowded hotspots and relocating refugees in the mainland, during the lockdown, the Greek government often announced that people from the islands would be transferred to closed centres and it opened a closed camp in Serres, in Northern Greece.

Moria, August 22, 2020. Men, women and children are walking in and out the main gate of hotspot without any restriction, although they are obliged to wear face masks all the time, otherwise they can get fined with 150 euros. Thus, until the first Covid-19 case was confirmed, asylum seekers’ mobility was not fully restricted. This is also because the actual hotspot exceeds by far its fences and expands in the surrounding olive groove. The heap of makeshift barracks and tents around the hotspot has ultimately transformed it into a kind of slum-area.

Yet, about half a mile after the last tents along the road that takes to the main town of Mytilni, a police check-point has been put in place: two policemen stop all buses: they get on and check that migrants have the authorisation given by the police inside Moria, to leave the hotspot-zone and go to Mytilini. Those who do not have it, are taken off the bus and need to walk back to the hotspot. Importantly, only up to 120 authorisations are given per day, and as a lawyer from the organisation HIAS confirmed to me “they are allowed to come in town only for medical reasons and if they can prove they have an appointment with a lawyer”. Therefore, asylum seekers have not been fully immobilised nor detained in the name of Covid-19; rather, they have been forced to stay within a delimited area, which is by all means cramped

“Why are asylum seekers locked down in the hotspot-zone?” I asked Greek officials at the Reception and Identification Service. They replied that the measure had been taken to safeguard both asylum seekers and the rest of the population of the island. Thus, “confine to protect” appears to be the formula which encapsulates the politics of containment in Covid times. However, in practice, instead of being protected from exposure to the virus, asylum seekers have been forced to share a cramped space, living in unhealthily conditions.

In her seminal work on the carceral archipelago Alison Mountz has pointed to refugees “hidden from view” by being “contained farther offshore on remote islands”. In Lesvos, asylum seekers are confined within and removed out of citizens and tourists’ sight.  However, by concentrating women, men and children inside the hotspot-zone, they turned it into a potential Covid-19 hotbed. In order to discourage asylum seekers to leave the hotspot-zone, an ATM machine of the Piraeus Bank has been installed at the main entrance. As an NGO volunteer told me outside Moria “as you can see, people queue all the time in Moria: to get food, to access the rooms of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and now also to take money. Some people have been stolen and robbed in front of that ATM machine, and during the pandemic it is a paradox that asylum seekers need to queue more than before”.

Disrupting access to asylum and rights

During the lockdown migrants have not only been spatially restricted, they have also been hampered from lodging their asylum claim and getting access to humanitarian and financial support As Shahram Khosravi poignantly observed, “in order to limit people’s access to resources and power” migrants are “subject to differential inclusion not only spatially but also temporally through keeping them in a prolonged period of waiting, constantly delaying them”. In the case of Greek hotspots, migration containment also takes place by disrupting and delaying migrants’ access to rights, legal procedures and humanitarian support. Between April 1 and May 4 (when the lockdown measures were lifted for the rest of the population), the asylum application procedure was suspended in Greece due to Covid-19, following a one-month suspension in March. At that time, the Greek government unlawfully stopped accepting asylum applications due to Turkey’s decision not to stop migrants from leaving.

As far as financial support is concerned, in April, the prepaid card that asylum seekers usually receive from the UNHCR as part of the Cash Assistance Programme in Lesvos was blocked for about two weeks, upon request from the Greek authorities. The temporary suspension was enforced to prevent that “card beneficiaries could queue in front of the ATM machine in town, thus to protect them and Greek citizens at once”, as one officer involved in the Cash Assistance Programme told me. Even in this case, the pandemic accelerated latent and ongoing policy trends. In fact, the new asylum law implemented in November 2019 introduced new obstacles in asylum applications and appeals. As a result of that, asylum seekers are somehow forced to “navigate a mined-camp in order not to make a false step during the asylum procedure”, as a lawyer in Lesvos highlighted to me.  


The confinement of migrants in Greece should not be seen as an exception in the European context. On the contrary, it represents a laboratory of experimentation of the EU’s political agenda on migration containment. Indeed, during the lockdown, the politics of migration containment has escalated in multiple directions: migrants have been confined within - as in the case of the Moria Hotspot - and outside transit and destination countries - pushed-back at sea and hampered from landing -, and then have been increasingly obstructed from accessing the asylum system and humanitarian support. Indeed, asylum procedures have been temporarily suspended during the lockdown in most European countries, even if migrants continued to arrive. The Greek context is a case in point to observe how security and humanitarian policies have been inflected by hygienic-sanitary reasons: “confine to protect” designates modes of strengthening hierarchies between citizens and migrants, as well as new ways of enacting containment in the name of both migrants and citizens’ safety. In practice, as I have illustrated, hygienic-sanitary reasons are deeply intertwined with the politics of containment and do actually sustain it, while migrants are paradoxically kept in overcrowded and unhealthy spaces. Hence, I suggest, public claims about health should be disjoined from hygienic-sanitary borders which reiterate discriminatory access to rights and mobility. As the fire in Moria painfully suggests, the ‘protection’ of migrants in confinement institutions never actually protects. It remains to be seen where the 13,000 men, women and children are going to sleep tonight.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Tazzioli, M. (2020). Confine to Protect: Greek Hotspots and the Hygienic-Sanitary Borders of Covid-19. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/09/confine-protect [date]

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