Analysis of a ‘borderzone’: the case study of Polykastro and its surrounding area

Written by Sandra Diaferia, short-term at OCC Greece.

In recent times, heightened border control techniques, security policies and expedited deportations  have been implemented not only at the EU’s external borders but also within the Schengen Area of the EU (f.e. Adepoju, Van Noorloos and Zoomers 2010; Schapendonk, 2011) (Sciabaca & Oruka, 2021), where freedom of movement is denied to a specific group: undocumented migrants, including asylum seekers. However, the securitization of borders perpetuates the sense of insecurity, promoting calls for further securitization (f.e. De Genova 2011b, 2012b, 2013b; De Genova, 2014). The EU’s approach to migration has led to the construction of almost 1,000 kilometers of fortified land barriers over the past two decades, along with the deployment of digital surveillance systems at sea and on land (Van Houtum & Bueno Lacy, 2020). This demonstrates the EU’s prioritization of securitization techniques over creating a system that addresses the needs and vulnerabilities of these individuals.These measures have included the establishment of several asylum-seeker camps in Central Macedonia and Greece, including Anagnostopoulou Camp in Daviata, Armatolos Camp Kokkinou Imatheas in Veria/Veroia, G. Pelagou Camp in Alexandria, and the new Serres Camp in Kleidi/Sintiki (Google My Maps). Some of these camps are very close to the borders with North Macedonia, such as Nea Kavala Camp which is located 6 kilometres from Polykastro, where Open Cultural Center (OCC) Greece operates (OCC Greece, 2023). This area exhibits complex dynamics, serving various purposes and holding different meanings for different people (Laine, 2017). Polykastro can be seen as both a symbol of hope and a site of repression for different individuals (Van Houtum, 2021). Local citizens, asylum seekers, humanitarian NGOs, and tourists experience this ‘borderzone’ in distinct ways. Passing through Polykastro only allows for a superficial perception of the area. Some local residents seek to strengthen their national identity by fostering a sense of fear of the unknown and emphasizing identity distinction (Bigo, 2007). On the other hand, asylum seekers residing here encounter various forms of exclusion, immobility, and injustice. This ‘borderzone’ serves as both a ‘marker of belonging’ for local citizens and a ‘site of becoming’ for asylum seekers (Brambilla & Jones, 2020), as it represents their initial encounter with European society.

How I perceive borders VS how asylum seekers perceive borders

I perceive borders with a sense of romanticism, viewing them as areas distinct from others due to geographical factors. I am deeply intrigued and drawn to ‘borderzones’ because of their proximity to other countries, which instilled in me a sense of freedom and the ability to easily traverse nations, reflecting my restless nature. ‘Borderzones’ fulfil my desire for constant transit, a need that would not be satisfied if I were situated in the heart of a country. I am captivated by the rich cultural intersections and relationships between diverse cultures, identities and ethnicities which unfold across time and space in the everyday life of these areas (Brambilla & Jones, 2020). Additionally, my fascination with ‘borderzones’ arises from the air of mystery they exude. While often perceived as marginalized areas with scattered small urban centres devoid of activity, in reality, these places are arenas of violence, struggle, and resistance, defining alternative subjectivities and agency (Brambilla & Jones, 2020). Here, there is much to observe regarding the transit of asylum seekers and the intricate workings of EU border migration management.

In contrast to my perception of borders, some asylum seekers, attending activities at the OCC Center, have expressed that being at the border with another country is not significantly different from being in any other geopolitical location, especially if one aims to regularly move to another EU country. However, each asylum seeker experiences this period of physical immobility during transit (Schapendonk, 2012) in a distinct manner. Common themes emerging from my interviews point to a dichotomy between friendship and isolation. The camp serves as a space for building networks but is also a place of marginalization due to its geographical position. Some asylum seekers do not harbour complaints about their time in Nea Kavala Camp and Polykastro because they have the opportunity to establish numerous friendships along their routes and once within a camp. Through these connections, they do not feel alone. Nonetheless, their desire is not to remain in Greece, as it is challenging to find employment without proficiency in the Greek language or to find people of the same ethnicity. Their aspirations lie in moving to Northern European countries such as the Netherlands or Germany to reunite with their families and close friends, find better opportunities, or support their families back home, for instance, through remittances. 

Other asylum seekers have expressed the ability to find happiness in the camp, despite the suboptimal facilities and services, including the food provided by an external catering service. However, they also experience feelings of marginalization, isolation, and being trapped due to the camp’s geographical location. Even the nearest town of Polykastro is relatively small, predominantly inhabited by the elderly, with limited activities available, aside from those at the OCC Center. Many Nea Kavala Camp residents highly appreciate the work of the OCC because it provides them with the only opportunity to connect with the broader society through participation in cultural and educational activities during their stay. The camp is often seen as a monotonous place that merely offers the essentials of eating and sleeping. 

Other asylum seekers navigate this period by focusing on specific aspects of their lives, such as work, studying English or German at the OCC, and trips to the supermarket, as they feel constrained by the absence of their families and friends. Overall, these young people wish to be like the rest of their peers, able to visit places in Europe or go out at any time in a big city without having restrictions.

What makes Polykastro and the area around it a ‘border zone’?

Polykastro beyond its geographical location near North Macedonia, embodies a microcosm characterized by transit migration and the implementation of border control strategies (Levy, 2010). Here, the Greek and EU migration border management decisions intersect, for example through the presence of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex).

An additional feature commonly found in a ‘borderzone’ is its militarized nature. In fact, this small town houses a large military base on its outskirts, enclosed by fences, and photography of the area is prohibited. In the city centre, one can regularly spot soldiers. 

This small town, known for its harsh winters and scorching summers, is connected to the border checks with North Macedonia via a single main road. Despite being located 40-50 minutes away from Thessaloniki, there are only a few daily bus services to the nearby villages and Thessaloniki, contributing to its geographical isolation. Some local residents exhibit a lack of tolerance toward the presence of asylum seekers in the town, and the local police do not consistently uphold the rights of asylum seekers (Border Violence Monitoring Network, 2023)

Figure 1: The area around Polykastro (author’s own picture, 2023)

1. Nea Kavala Camp

Nea Kavala Camp serves as an archetypical example of a long-term accommodation centre (OCC Greece, 2023) situated within an EU country. Simultaneously, it functions as a political disciplinary device, enforcing forced immobility upon asylum seekers, leaving their lives estranged and in a state of uncertainty (Van Houtum & Bueno Lacy, 2020). Those who manage to enter the Schengen area of the EU, find themselves living in a state of ‘limboland’ (Ferrer-Gallardo & Van Houtum, 2013) characterized by a static existence due to the prolonged verification process for asylum approval. This period is spent in an area geographically segregated (Van Houtum & Bueno Lacy, 2020), marginalized and isolated in the countryside far from major urban centres (Eleftheria Dodi, OCC Project Coordinator, personal communication, 2023). The marginality experienced by asylum seekers is juxtaposed to the marginality of camp (Gatta, 2011), purposely kept away from public view, serving as a strategy to conceal procedural irregularities, potential human rights violations, abuses, and infringements of  EU and public international law (Van Houtum & Bueno Lacy, 2021). This location is permeated by an atmosphere described by Derrida (2000) called ‘hostipitality’, a blend of hostility and hospitality (Van Houtum & Bueno, 2020). Indeed, this place of care is utilized for hosting and assisting undocumented migrants, yet it also functions as a centre of control. It represents a space where the Greek government moves away in terms of care structures (Gatta, 2011). As a matter of fact, it is slightly financed by the Greek government, as the infrastructure was funded and managed primarily by IOM and UNHCR (Eleftheria Dodi, OCC Project Coordinator, personal communication, 2023). Exclusion and immobility are employed because irregular migrants are perceived as a threat to the social order (Broeders, 2007). Consequently, asylum seekers find themselves confined within two cages: the first being the geographical location of Polykastro, intensifying the sense of exceptional confinement (f.e.Mountz, 2011; Dines, Montagna & Ruggiero, 2015). The second cage is the camp facility itself (Border Criminologies, 2021).

Nea Kavala Camp is visible on the route from Thessaloniki to Polykastro, covering a total area of 54,925 m2 and accommodating up to 1680 people through 280 containers, each spanning 24 square meters, with a maximum occupancy of 6 people. These containers consist of two rooms each, capable of hosting two families who share a kitchen and bathroom (OCC Greece, 2023). Presently, the camp is overcrowded. The lack of legal, social, material and psychological support within the camp is compensated by a network of organizations operating inside (A Drop in the Ocean) and outside the camp, such as OCC. These vital services are essential as the residents endure mental, physical, and emotional hardships due to the perpetual uncertainty of their situation, coupled with the post-traumatic stress resulting from their arduous journey (Border Criminologies, 2021). However, medical services are provided by a single doctor within the camp (Eleftheria Dodi, OCC Project Coordinator, personal communication, 2023).

Located in an isolated zone, Nea Kavala Camp is surrounded by abandoned facilities including an airport, a warehouse, and supermarket, nestled among arid fields often shrouded in morning fog. There are also a lot of people close to the warehouse on the runway where they light fires. 

Figure 2: Asylum seekers walking and in the background Nea Kavala Camp (Photo by Alice Ugolini, 2023)

The only means of reaching Polykastro from the camp is via the bus organized by OCC, which some asylum seekers sometimes use for shopping rather than participating in OCC’s activities. Others utilize bikes provided by OCC, or acquire their own or utilize taxis. However, in general,mobility is limited and consequently their lives happen in-between the camp, Polykastro, some close villages and Thessaloniki. As one approaches the camp, the sight of numerous individuals walking or cycling along the road in front of the camp is common. Children are also a prevalent sight, growing up or being born in this transient environment. At the entrance to the camp, a private security agency working for the government checks the residents’ documents before allowing them entry. Residents are required to be away from the camp for no more than seven consecutive days to maintain their residency status (OCC Greece, 2023). Notably, the prevailing conditions reflect extreme poverty, influenced by what is termed ‘politics of exhaustion,’ which strips individuals of their autonomy, agency, well-being, and self-efficacy (Welander, personal communication, 2020) (Ansems de Vries, personal communication, 2020). Asylum seekers receive meagre financial support, with adults receiving 75 euros per month, 2 to 3-member families receiving 160 euros, 4 to 5-member families receiving 210 euros and families with more than 6 members receiving 245 euros (OCC Greece, 2023)

The inhabitants of this delimited space exist in a ‘state of exception,’ a concept akin to that of a place of sovereign exception (f.e. Agamben 2003/2005; cf. Bigo 2006; Rosas 2006; Schinkel 2009; De Genova, 2013). With restricted rights compared to the nationals, the camp operates within the suspension of the normal rule of law, a concept elucidated by Agamben (Andrijasevic, 2010). These camps emerge amidst a context of emergency measures that have gradually become the standard (Miggiano, 2009), resulting in the exclusion of these individuals from legal protection and rendering them vulnerable within a lawless space (Dines, Montagna & Ruggiero, 2015) (e.g., Papastergiadis 2006, Perera 2002; Andrijasevic, 2010). Consequently, this particular time can be summarised under the term ‘a-legality’, meaning that the asylum seekers are waiting for legality while they are classified as illegal (Lindahl, 2014). Reception camps for asylum seekers embody a distinctive form of governmentality characterized by ‘permanent exceptionalism’. Unfortunately, the routine nature of this reality often limits public discourse. Indeed, the banality of such circumstances often leads the broader population to perceive these practices as normal (Bigo, 2007).
Nevertheless, the camp is not just a place of control, but it can also be seen as a space of care, community and resistance. Nea Kavala Camp, rather than being an endpoint of migration projects can be conceptualized as a provisional station along multiple migratory routes (f.e.Virilio; Andrijasevic, 2010) operating as a mode of temporal regulation for transit migration, facilitating the convergence of transnational trajectories (Andrijasevic, 2010) and the formation of transnational communities within a fixed space, fostering global-local dynamics (Schapendonk, personal communication, 2020) (de Haas et al., 2020). This multicultural and cosmopolitan macrosystem exists within the confines of the reception camp, where intricate social networks, friendships, and conflicts among residents are reproduced. These conflicts may arise due to religious differences or factors pertaining to the asylum procedures, with some asylum seekers expressing frustration if others secure asylum more swiftly. Within this context, it is essential to perceive undocumented migrants not solely as passive and vulnerable victims but also as agents of resistance and creators of social bonds during their border crossings (Rumford C., 2006).

2. Borders controls between Greece and North Macedonia

An approximately 20-minute car ride from Polykastro lies a border control checkpoint, serving as a physical representation of the ‘iron curtain’ and equipped with various security measures, including fences, passport controls, walls, and barbed wire, often overseen by uniformed personnel (Van Houtum & Bueno Lacy, 2020). At the Greek border check, visitors can park their cars and visit a nearby bar before proceeding to cross the border. However, at the border check with North Macedonia, a heightened sense of tension is palpable, and German police, likely affiliated with Frontex, can be observed (Alexis Gkatsis, OCC Greece Coordinator, personal communication, 2023).

Figure 3: Border control checkpoint between Greece and North Macedonia (Photo by Alice Ugolini, 2023)

Although both border checks are relatively small with limited personnel, under this apparent quietness a lot of unseen dynamics are taking place. In the surrounding areas between the fields near the border checks, there are a lot of irregular routes. These are under the management of smugglers and traffickers who operate among their communities inside the camp and generally, they are in pairs of two. One of them hides his role because he is in charge of dealing with money. For example, Syrian smugglers provide services just for Syrian migrants. These smugglers cooperate with the Greek and Macedonian police. Due to the frequent rejection of their asylum requests, people from Afghanistan, the Arab world,  and Pakistan opt for irregular border crossings into North Macedonia, facilitated by smugglers and traffickers. They traverse Greece within days to avoid fingerprinting and consequently circumvent the processing procedure in Greece (Alexis Gkatsis, OCC Greece Coordinator, personal communication, 2023). However, this approach entails significant risks and vulnerabilities, as they are compelled to rely on unauthorized means of travel, exposing them to potential violence at the hands of both smugglers and authorities (Mountz, 2011). Conversely, Kurdish individuals residing in Nea Kavala Camp await asylum approval in Greece before planning their move to another EU country, benefiting from an exemption from the interview process (Alexis Gkatsis, OCC Greece Coordinator, personal communication, 2023). This selective process delineates the distinction between those who can and cannot exercise mobility. As those eligible for asylum regain their mobility, those denied the privilege remain immobilized in Greece, enduring a form of forced mobility (Tazzioli & Garelli, 2020).

Figure 4: Fences as a representation of the ‘iron curtain’ between the Greek and Northern Macedonia border control checkpoint (Photo by Alice Ugolini, 2023)

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