Greece has emerged in recent years as a critical transit site for irregular migrants and asylum seekers that wish to continue to Northern Europe. Due largely to its geographical location, Greece has been and remains a critical entry point to the EU, particularly since the 2000s. From the maritime to the land border and the sea once again, the numbers of migrants have fluctuated, and the nationalities have shifted. Amidst the worst economic crisis of its recent history, Greece is called upon to function as a gatekeeper to the EU, while at the same time respecting migrants’ human rights, as its international obligations and history call forth.

In response to the rise in irregular migration to Greece, the government in 2012 announced two objectives: deterring arrivals and increasing the returns of those who are irregular. Both would be achieved through the build-up of the border fence in Evros, the indiscriminate and prolonged detention of almost all nationalities and groups of arrivals in conditions that often fell below minimum requirements, and through extensive ‘show your paper’ police operations entitled Xenios Zeus, named after the god and protector of foreigners, xenos, in ancient Greece. The results of these policies were dubious at best, and the election of the a new leftist government promised radical changes to the asylum and reception system of Greece, to meet the vastly growing needs of the refugee population arriving via the maritime border.

In contrast to previous years, the majority of arrivals since 2013 are Syrians, a non-returnable and fundamentally refugee population. The second largest population is Afghans, another complex migratory group that continues to flee due to conflict and absence of a homeland. These groups, comprised of asylum seekers, refugees, forced migrants, and vulnerable individuals, are seeking hospitable spaces and the opportunity for a better life. The notion of hospitality is intrinsically linked with the notion of asylum; indeed, the latter is a form of hospitality that encompasses protection in the spirit of the ancient laws that protect the stranger upon arrival to a foreign land. Since hospitality cannot exist without a sovereign space over which the host exercises control, the xenos can invoke the right of hospitality from the moment that space is crossed. But that hospitality is neither open-ended nor unconditional. The host, in this case the state, allows the entry to its territory with certain conditions; for instance, that the foreigner gives his or her name, nationality, and reason for entry. By putting forth these demands, a relationship begins between the xenos and the state, one that should be based on reciprocity. Both sides lay forth demands, and both sides should meet them. What happens when this reciprocity ceases? What would the impact be of the host inquiring but not offering, of the foreigner answering but not receiving?

We can see the effects of this broken relationship if we look to Greece. The host assumes the hospitality to be temporary; hence the discourse around transitory flows. The latter are perceived to be in passing, entering to then leave. However, transit is much more complex and often a lengthy process. Instead of a quick crossing, arrivals tend to remain in limbo and overwhelm the host. Let us look at the critical question in the relationship, the question of ‘who are you,’ which in the contemporary setting is essentially the screening process undertaken during arrival and first reception points. On the islands today, screening takes place to less than half of arrivals, according to a recent press report. The rest are left on their own to linger in the airports, ports, and abandoned buildings, waiting for the state to find and register them. The migrants don’t resist registration, rather they welcome it because it will result in a level of recognition from the state in whatever form it comes: screening, travel documents, asylum. In a reversal of roles, it’s the host that falls short of its role; it’s the host that’s unable to receive and care for those arriving.

Considering this context, this themed week offers a glance at migrants’ lives at the margins of Europe. The aim is to illuminate the hospitality migrants’ experience, its failure and its implications. What should the host offer and what is missing? Transit to other EU member states isn’t a result only of geography, existing networks, and/or an imaginary life. The journey to the north is largely shaped by the experience upon arrival to the south. Polar opposites in terms of practices, both are grounded (at least in theory) in a common European asylum system that prescribes minimum standards. Both are also part of a European community anchored in the respect for fundamental and human rights. Yet the north is in general proving to be, despite its many failings in the absence of a common migration management system, a better host to the foreigner who seeks protection than is Greece. Thus, from the host and hospitality, we shift to transit and the desire to continuously move forwards, until a desired and appropriate host is found.

In the second installment of the themed week, Stella Nanou places the contemporary situation in the Greek islands in a broader framework of global crises. She argues that the growing numbers in Greece, a country at the external borders of the EU and very close to regions of crisis and conflicts, echoes the sharp escalation of displacement at a global level, where mobility is a result of necessity rather than choice.

Katie Kuschminder, who was in Greece during the peak of the crisis, offers her insights and observations in the third installment. Having visited the largest reception center in Lavrion, she describes the gradual collapse of a response system that’s unable to meet the rising needs and links it to the desire of migrants to continue their journey to the north.

The forward movement is ever present in the life and existence of Afghan migrants in Greece. In the fourth installment, Alessandro Monsutti takes us through his journey to Patras and the Afghan men he encountered aspiring for a better life in the north. His informants exclaim that this wasn’t how they imagined Europe to be. Despite the new asylum system in place, Afghans tend to avoid it, because it doesn’t offer them the life they envisage.

Do the migrants know this prior to arrival? And perhaps more crucially, is it relevant, or is arrival to Greece the only route available? Upon landing in the Greek islands, they will encounter the hospitality on offer, which is conditional on capacity, the size of arrivals, migrants’ nationalities, and whether NGOs and civil society have managed to engage on the ground. Nowhere is this more evident than on the islands. For the final installment of the themed week, we turn to the island of Kos, the island of Hippocrates, which was made famous more recently by the Daily Mail article that described how the continuous arrival of asylum seekers end up ruining the holidays of tourists. Hospitality is conditional, on the acceptance and tolerance of the host. Yet as Stathis Kyroussis from the MSF Mission on the island shows, the migrants are neither welcomed nor rejected. They are, in fact, abandoned, set aside, in spaces geographically distant from the local population as in the case of the Captain Elias Hotel. It’s the kindness of strangers that allows them to pull through.

This themed week provides a glance at migrants’ lives at the margins of Europe and in a receiving place at a time of crisis. The latter isn’t a singular experience. Migrations originate because of global crises. Upon arrival to Greece, migrants encounter a different kind of crisis, and attempt to continue their journey to the north amidst obstacles that range from border patrols to fences. It’s a journey in search of hospitable spaces, in an inhospitable world.

This article was published on Border Criminologie website. It was the first installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on the Migrant Crisis in Greece organised by Dr Angeliki Dimitriadi