The first step in acknowledging how Black asylum seekers experience racism, in the most hostile and inhumane living conditions of Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, and why they are the constant victims of abuse and neglect, is an understanding of what racism and anti-blackness are and how they manifest on the ground. We must interrogate how our institutions, and the supporting structures within them, are inherently shaped by racism.
People often conceptualize racism as a problem of the individual; mean people that marginalized individuals constantly have to deal with. But the lived experience of racism in a Greek refugee camp is much more than this, particularly in the context of a political crisis within Europe, often misleadingly characterized as a refugee crisis or a humanitarian crisis when it is, in reality, a political crisis. And in overcrowded Moria camp, this crisis is silently allowing the killing, abuse, and neglect of Black refugees.
To understand this iteration of a global racist structure, we need to question and interrogate histories and institutions. Why are Black asylum seekers, who are already subject to such gross violations of human rights in hostile European settings, also have to deal with racism? And why is there such misunderstanding and lack of documentation of the harsh realities of this community within the hell that is Moria camp?
Institutions of oppression are important in understanding racism
History is essential in understanding racism, and foundations of western society (institutions), such as schools, governments, states, court systems, organisations, or in other words, formal and informal rules that organize social, political, and economic relations (North, 1990), play a significant role in perpetuating and shaping racism. Thus, our lived experiences and social interactions within these societies are established and maintained in the disfavour of Black communities. And paradoxically, it is within those same institutions that organisations and laws are created to protect and support asylum seekers. Social institutions operate in all fields of life. When you are a Black refugee, these centres of power control your access to the little support and aid available for the refugee population, but also to economic, legal, political, and social rights, and opportunities. The structures that were designed to protect refugees and asylum seekers perpetuate racist ideologies since the institutions in which they are being created are racist, providing relative inequality, discrimination, and inequality for Black refugee communities.
This problem exists even within non-profit and aid organisations or groups of people formed in our society, working together on the same mission in an organized way for a shared purpose and bound by common goals: they are still shaped by the same institutions that wish to further marginalize Black asylum seekers. I am talking about organisations that have the power and resources to help victims of conflict, persecutions, colonialism, imperialism, poverty, torture, environmental disasters. Organisations that have the ‘reputations’ of doing so, but who sadly follow the same principles of racist and oppressive state institutions.
Racial discrimination on the ground
I have been an advocate for human rights, more specifically for refugee’s rights, for over a year now. I first came to Lesvos and started supporting asylum seekers from the Black community last year. I went to the camp, randomly started talking to people, and quickly realised the importance of the discussion we were having; the importance for me to understand the day to day reality of the Black community in Moria camp. A community that is often treated like parasites, economic migrants coming to Europe to steal our jobs, when in reality they are victims of colonialism, environmental disasters, conflict, persecution, torture. Since then, I have been trying to support individuals by connecting them with the resources to help themselves and others. I work to put asylum seekers in touch with organisations that will send them small amounts of money (100euro) to buy themselves food or organise small food distribution amongst the most vulnerable in their community. Other times, I send money that I earn working small jobs in London, for them to do the same.
Here in Moria camp, there is no documentation, and a larger institutional denial of what is happening to refugees. And the experiences of Black refugees have been particularly ignored. A week before I came back to Lesvos in July, one asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast was stabbed to death, another one from Congo was stabbed three times and critically injured, another one was stabbed in his leg, and another one just above his eye, all in the same night and for over a phone. Following the incidents, the assaulters were arrested and released two days after because the police said, “there is nothing they could do about that really”.
Throughout this journey, especially since I have been living on the island of Lesvos, I have been mistaken for a refugee due to my skin colour. I have recognized and experienced the importance of defending and supporting the Black community within the camps and the importance for people to understand how institutional racism is affecting and further marginalizing Black asylum seekers. Black communities within European refugee camps are most certainly some of the most abused and neglected peoples on the continent. And this experience is exacerbated by the lack of Black humanitarian workers and surplus of white saviour complexes within the aid sector. I was struck by the realization that after the tangible and flagrant racism that they have to endure, they also confront discrimination and denial of support by humanitarian organisations in the hostile environment of the camp.
In addition to language and institutions, racialized stereotypes and imagery can have a big impact on the life of an asylum seeker. And being a black refugee or migrant can itself be a risk in many aspects of life.
Since returning to the island with the aim of supporting and documenting the day to day life of the Black community in the Moria camp, I have gone through police brutality and objectification. I have been pushed by humanitarian workers from the UNHCR while trying to support Black asylum seekers inside the camp. I have been shouted at by nurses at the hospital and have had doors closed in my face by white volunteers. I have been asked to leave restaurants because of people not wanting to, “have people of my skin colour seated in restaurants as it may scare away their clientele”. I have been asked by old Greek men if I wanted to come by to their house. The aggressors within these experiences were all assuming that I was a refugee. I have been treated by white volunteers and humanitarian workers like a stupid child until they realized that I was not an asylum seeker.
For the last month that I have spent here, I have had a lot of trouble documenting as much as I was planning to. I have had to rush and run everywhere. Either to translate, serve the role of a social worker, advocate for increased support, provide guidance, assist with referrals, defend cases, or visit lawyers. All because of the lack of institutional support for the Black asylum seeker community.
My experience has felt like that of a doctor, alone and overwhelmed by the long-ignored cries of patients in an over capacity emergency room. I see individuals in a critical state and in need of help. And as I work to operate and dress the wounds of each patient, I myself am stabbed by the same assailant. Within this intensity, I forget that indeed I am alone, and there is only little someone on their own can do. But how can I retract, when I remain in a position of privilege and they are not? While confronted with the deepness of their wounds and their urgent need for care, it is hard to step out and realise that rather than trying to help them each on my own, I should burst out of the doors of the emergency room to find more doctors to help them. To help us.
Through this analogy, I do not mean to imply that I am here to save anyone. This is not it. I am here to use my privileges and re engage with them, use the resources that I can access to ensure that their voices are being heard. As a Black woman, who is experiencing constant racism on this island, I need the support of the community just as much as they do. But my circumstances, however, are better. I have the privilege of a French passport, which is why I have a duty to re-engage with my privileges.
In earnest, this is a call out for Black movements and communities in Europe to realise that our brothers and sisters within Moria camp need our help. Their stories mirror ours: the same tragic tale of a broken and discriminatory system. I am here trying to connect those narratives and show the need for changes.
There is a lack of focus on the Black lives suffering from colonialism and environmental disasters within refugee camps. We are experiencing a period of heightened attention in regard to Black lives in the Western world however many Black communities are still being relegated to the margins of mainstream consciousness.
There is a need for action from Black communities and the larger public, a need to document experiences and raise awareness about the conditions of Black asylum seekers in Moria camp.
Black lives matter, especially of those who tolerate the inhumane conditions in refugee camps or the one drowning in the Mediterranean.
We need more experienced doctors in the room.
But also, for the unheard to be heard.