This is not a refugee camp

I can’t see what is going on in Idomeni, the sprawling tent city on the Greek-Macedonian border. Nor can you. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see in the newspaper and on the evening news, or how diligently you monitor your social media feed. We are inundated with visuals of the refugee crisis, to the point where one could receive a wire photographer’s reel, frame by frame, in real time if one chose to. Even we you try to opt out, newspapers will print them in full colour on the front page (“see p.5 for the report”) and people will retweet them or post them on Facebook with comments like “the picture says it all”. But it doesn’t. We still won’t see a refugee camp, because we will be seeing photos of a refugee camp.

Policy on the refugee crisis has been driven by images. 350,000 people had already crossed the Mediterranean by sea and 2,600 had died in 2015 but it took a photo of a drowned toddler to mobilise national leaders to start confronting the problem. Images are powerful, but there is a simple principle we fail routinely to apply:

This is not going to be a blog post about how photos are posed or faked or fabricated to serve political agendas. Errol Morris who wrote the tweet above is not given to throwaway statements. He is the director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line (uncovering a miscarriage of justice long before Netflix’s Making a Murderer), Standard Operating Procedure (about those Abu Ghraib photos) and The Unknown Known (in which he slowly and methodically dissected Donald Rumsfeld); as a student he antagonised his way out of Thomas Kuhn’s classes in history of science at Princeton University (him of “paradigm shift” fame). A few years ago he wrote a fascinating book called Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). In it, he researched famous and controversial photographic images to demonstrate how false the sense of objectivity is that they convey, and how easily they lend themselves to distortion – without the aid of photoshop, and often without real intent. All photos, even the most trustworthy ones, from war photography to holiday snaps, are always framed by the photographer and constrained by the circumstances in which they are taken; they never tell the whole story.

In one example, Morris considers a well-known photo showing a Mickey Mouse toy in the ruins of an apartment block in Tyre after an Israeli shelling, which was accused of being fake or staged. He interviews the photographer and together they dissect forensically the circumstances under which the photo was taken, the decisions the photographer took, and the reason why it was seen to be so appealing and so controversial. The photo has an emotional appeal – it suggests that a child may have been made homeless, injured or killed in the shelling – but no such event can be confirmed from the interview. The photographer insists that he only included the toy to convey the fact that the the photo was of a residential area. It was not staged or faked, but the subject matter was chosen and framed, despite the pressurised conditions in the midst of a war zone. Whatever its maker’s original intent, the photo escaped it once it hit the wires. The same image was used to support anti-Israeli arguments (for shelling residential areas without regard for children’s lives) and anti-Hizbollah arguments (for using civilians as human shields), and to argue for the mendacity of the media (by suggesting that and similar photos were staged to support particular agendas). I recommend reading the investigation in full because I can’t do its thoroughness justice here.

The compulsion to produce a meaningful image that will have real impact is what drives their makers to grapple with the practical, moral and emotional challenges involved in crafting them in crisis situations. Here is a statement from one of the leading photographers covering the refugee crisis today: “I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action.” Could it be though that the image overload is stopping us from seeing?

Now consider a photo closer to home. The image of a man and a woman bathing a newborn baby by the entrance to a tent in muddy terrain was tweeted by photographer Iker Pastor on 6 March with the caption “… And life goes on in #Idomeni”.

When it was published in the press a few days later it was captioned along the lines of “a woman has just given birth to her child in a small and dirty tent”. According to the Daily Mail (12 March), it was The baby born in hell: Tragic migrant mother gives birth in the squalor of Idomeni’s tent city and washes the child in a PUDDLE . On 12 March, the Spanish newspaper El Español published the background story, having interviewed the Basque photographer and tracked down the Syrian family featured in the photo. Pastor himself had not had time to speak with the family, he had just taken the photo on the fly and moved on. It turns out the baby was 20 days old when the picture was taken; by the time they were interviewed they had thankfully been moved to better accommodation. A further article, this time in the German newspaper Bild revealed that the baby had been born on a beach in Turkey after his mother went into labour and had to abandon the boat they had boarded to go to Greece. Perhaps because this background information was published in Spanish and German, it did not make the rounds of the internet as quickly as the photo. Some news websites corrected their online copy (but hey, who goes back to re-read old news?), the TV news did not revisit the story. No one corrected the bit about the baby being washed “in a PUDDLE”, such is the power of suggestion that it caused people to ignore the water bottle clearly visible in the photo.

It made me wonder about the stories behind photos such as these, also depicting children in varying states of distress and discomfort.

The photo of the crying girl (top left) standing in the middle of a busy highway in the rain in a flimsy makeshift poncho was also shared widely on social media. Without context, many assumed the girl was lost and started a campaign to identify her and reunite her with her family. It turned out this was not the case; her isolation was an artefact of the way the photo was framed. The photo of the little boy carrying a bag, also seemingly walking alone along the the highway (top right) was used in many media sources to illustrate a Europol report revealing that 10,000 unaccompanied minors who entered Europe as migrants were missing, and vulnerable to exploitation by criminal networks. A different shot shows him walking as part of a group. The photo of the children in the Idomeni camp holding up signs is clearly staged, and it is unclear who provided the signs in matching handwriting and idiomatic English. Though the situation is new and specific, these images fit easily into the well-established genre of “images of refugees” which has trained our eye to “read” these situations in generic ways and seek generic solutions.

You might object, with some justification, that this pedantic quibbling over details does not alter the fact that a newborn has been living in a tent in a muddy overcrowded field; or that over one third of the approximately 13,000 people camping in the (undeniably real) mud in Idomeni are children, many of whom are ill or at risk of illness; or that children are at risk of trafficking on the migrant routes, and even the ones posing for the cameras are living in miserable conditions. But since the baby photo and its original (faulty) story has taken on a life of its own, it has become a symbol of the heartlessness of Europe and the inhumanity of the Balkan countries who have sealed their borders. The photo has come to stand for Idomeni, and Idomeni to stand for all the refugees stuck in Greece, and those beyond waiting to enter Europe. It might be worth asking what this and photos like it are actually showing, and what they are hiding. Here are some relevant facts that the photos won’t tell you.

Almost two thirds of the estimated total 45,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece at the time of writing are not in Idomeni (UNHCR provides daily updates here). Idomeni, along with Piraeus, where migrants arrive by ferry from the islands after crossing from Turkey, are informal camps that have sprung up at natural “choke points” on the route north. They lack facilities because the Greek government does not want to encourage staying there long, if at all (Deputy Immigration Minister Mouzalas stated recently in a TV interview that became notorious for other reasons, “we did not want an official state facility on the border to facilitate and establish that route”). The same was the case with Victoria Square in Athens, which hosted an informal encampment and muster point for people-traffickers, before it was evacuated overnight by police. This “arm’s length” approach is not due to lack of funds or resources or organisation, it is conscious policy choice. Resources are being withheld from Idomeni in the hope that its occupants will abandon it for less contentious locations.

The government is committed to evacuating Idomeni too, but has ruled out using force to do it. This is justified on humanitarian grounds (though police have been used on a small scale on previous occasions), but at the back of their minds must also be the reaction that the French authorities have provoked by forcibly clearing the “jungle” at Calais. The milestone that both the government and the migrants are holding out for is an anticipated EU agreement on managing migrant flows: the migrants are hoping it will result in open borders; the Greek government is banking on their disappointment from the more likely opposite decision, to abandon the camp. Until then, they try and dissuade people from travelling to the border by issuing official entreaties and providing transport to official reception centres, without much success. In Idomeni, the residents would rather believe disinformation encouraging them to break the law with potentially fatal consequences, than be guided by official advice, which in any case appears to be sparse and confusing; three Afghanis drowned trying to cross a swollen stream following a rogue leafletting campaign earlier this week.

There are official hosting facilities for migrants established by the Greek state. Most have been thrown up in the last couple of months, in decommissioned army camps and municipal facilities scattered across the country (a map with the locations and numbers of people hosted can be seen here). Officially, Greece will have 50,000 places in migrant hosting facilities this week (UNHCR reported Greece’s reception capacity at just 11,865 at the beginning of February) and want to encourage migrants to move from the open camps to these sheltered facilities. The authorities were slow to act on this front, and the reason was not just the dire state of public finances; there were policy choices here too (we have documented the Greek national politics of the refugee crisis in previous posts, here, here and here). For a variety of reasons, either because the government did not wish to encourage migrants to stay, or to avoid providing political ammunition to the opposition by appearing to encourage migrants to stay, the local policy impetus was against providing official infrastructure. In addition, the governing Syriza party had been vocal campaigners against immigration detention centres in opposition, and therefore the optics of a camp of any sort went against their political instincts.

We see no photos of the official hosting facilities because as of 29 February the government has barred all media from those sites, ostensibly in response to requests from staff and managers dealing with overcrowded conditions. Less understandable is their reluctance to give access to observers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. We simply don’t know how well-run these hosting facilities are (conditions in some of the new camps are reported to be very poor, but earlier volunteer visitors to some of the first centres in Athens reported that they were well organised and well provisioned). Migrants often walk out of them to return to Piraeus or Idomeni on foot, blaming their remoteness and lack of facilities, but mainly because they fear missing out on the opportunity to continue their journeys northwards. The result is unbalanced coverage: the unofficial camps where conditions are poor and doomed to worsen are crawling with media and NGO reporters, the official ones might as well not exist. The politics (and particularly the national policies directly relevant to the specific situation at Idomeni) remain hidden, we see only a “humanitarian” crisis for which a distant, faceless “Europe” is to blame.

There is another thing. At this point it does not look likely that the borders will re-open. The fate and well-being of those waiting at Idomeni does not actually depend on the outcome of this EU summit or the ones that will no doubt ensue, as their focus is on the treatment of the migrants that have not yet entered Europe, not the ones that are already in Greece. However, back in September European leaders agreed (reluctantly in some cases) on an internal relocation scheme for 160,000 refugees to be shared between European countries. This scheme is a drop in the bucket compared to the total numbers, but more importantly it has been painfully slow to implement, apparently due to bureaucratic hurdles and local politics (only 569 out of the allocated 66,400 refugees have been relocated from Greece, and only 0.4% of the EU-wide target overall, according to the latest European Commission figures). The relocation scheme could (in theory) provide a safe way out for a significant number of the people stranded in Greece that does not necessitate camping in squalor and risking their lives further, if governments could only be made to honour these existing political commitments. Every time they fail to do so, they chip away at what little trust the migrants have in “official” solutions and push them towards the razor wire and the people traffickers rather than towards a more hygienic stopping place and a safer route. So while it helps in the short term to make donations and send blankets and shoes, it would help more if MPs and local authorities across Europe were held to account by their own constituents (i.e. us) for their inaction.

The art historian John Berger, writing at the peak of the Vietnam war disputed the received wisdom that shocking images spur their viewers to act. In a short essay entitled “Photographs of Agony” he argued that their real effect was to cause a feeling of moral inadequacy and powerlessness. Confronted by a photograph of agony,

“Either he shrugs off this sense of inadequacy as being only too familiar, or else he thinks of performing a kind of penance – of which the purest example would be to make a contribution to OXFAM or UNICEF. In both cases, the issue of the [event] which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.”

It is becoming more and more clear that there is no silver bullet that will “solve” the refugee crisis, and that we will be living with its effects for some time to come (Greek officials are now speaking conservatively of two years but it will probably be much longer). A massive coordinated solution is still required to tackle the problem at source, but the local complexities also need to be appreciated and dealt with to manage what is already happening. The deluge of decontextualised images that pushes us to cry “oh the humanity” and makes us feel impotent before the inhumanity of governments, actually prevents us from “seeing” what is going on, does not encourage nuanced or critical thinking and may be blinding us to actions we can take that lie closer to our reach.

Images: Photo of girl in the rain: Yiannis Behrakis (Reuters); photos of boy on the highway (Eurokinissi); photo of children holding signs (Getty Images).

Since its original publication, this post was improved both factually and substantively by feedback via Twitter from @damomac@fly_dervish and @versendaal, for which I am very grateful.



This is not a refugee camp

One thought on “This is not a refugee camp

  1. I enjoyed reading this. It was clear and concise. The benefit of being online makes it so easy to reference via links. Very relaxed and readable and of course informative and importantly looks at the concept of truth. Thank you


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