THE TASOS MARKOU AND his fiancé, Maria, were on their sofa avoiding Greece’s summer heat when a video of a man carting a toddler in a green wheelie bin turned up in their social media feeds. The place looked familiar: a Mediterranean coastal village, a street sign in Greek.
‘Lesvos!’ said Maria.
The clip showed the man climbing a steep road in the midday sun. The child was alive. More people were walking the roads, or slumped against buildings, or laying spread out on verges and shading themselves with jackets or thin cotton sheets.
Refugees had been making the sea crossing from Turkey since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but this was something bigger. In the summer of 2015, tourists on Greek islands began sharing videos of people landing on beaches or wandering into town from the mountain roads. An internet news channel compiled the mobile-phone footage.
Tasos put his laptop down and turned to Maria. ‘I need to go there,’ he said.
In 2015, more than eight hundred thousand refugees crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece, up from forty thousand the previous year. News media showed images of discarded fluoro-orange lifejackets and PVC boats bulldozed into massive piles on the island of Lesvos. Greek freelancer Tasos Markou was one of the first photographers to share those dramatic images with the world. His photos were published in major British papers and across Europe.
LIFEJACKETS SAY SOMETHING about how it feels to live in these times. You can buy a factory-direct child’s lifejacket online for US $4.14 apiece. Shipping is free to most destinations. Some Turkish apparel shops have switched to selling lifejackets exclusively. Even kebab vendors saw an opportunity, and started hanging them above their counters. The orange colour is a signal for help; it communicates the courage and desperation of people on the move, hopes dashed at the borders while the rest of us watch on feeling powerless.
Lifejackets also allow us to think through global political and material circumstances. The strategic desire for control of fossil fuels in the Middle East gave rise to colonial interference, to new borders and conflicts; the burning of those fuels has increased the volatility of the climate, which influenced the severity of the drought preceding the uprising against Assad in Syria. The industrial use of petrochemicals and the globalised workforce made plastic lifejackets cheap enough to be used in sea crossings by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.
Populist fear and anger are fuelled by more than economic and cultural insecurities. For more than a decade, experts have issued warnings about resource scarcity and the disruptive consequences of climate change. I want to try to consider our anxieties and fears, displacement and migration, with the social and the environmental combined.
A concept in the natural sciences offers a way to bring these strands together: the Anthropocene. Some scientists argue that humankind’s activities – deforestation, soil erosion, chemical pollution, species extinctions and greenhouse gas emissions – have altered Earth’s systems so much that we have entered a new geological epoch. The concept pushes our imaginations to think in vast timescales and expands debate beyond climate change to include the many other environmental pressures we face. However, the Anthropocene narrative makes political claims that flatten historical difference, casting all people as responsible for problems the privileged created. If we can return contingency to the Anthropocene it will be a richer concept for thinking about our current circumstances.
I want to think about a place, its people and the situation – about lifejackets, nationalism, economic globalisation and resource exploitation – and consider these histories as part of one context.
MAKING A LIVING as a news photographer was tough for Tasos in austerity-ravaged Greece. He’d worked for the major international press agencies covering riots, the war in the Ukraine and the ongoing consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesvos presented him with an opportunity to freelance on a matter he cared about in his own country. I first emailed Tasos last year when I sought permission to reproduce one of his photos. We began corresponding, and when I learnt he was continuing to document the plight of refugees in Greece I asked to interview him. We spoke regularly on Skype over several months.
In June 2015, Tasos flew from Thessaloniki to Lesvos with five-hundred euros in his pocket. He and Maria had been saving the money for a holiday. It was more than Maria earned in a month as a home-care nurse, but she urged him take his camera and go. Tasos hired the cheapest car available, a 1000 CC Dimitriadis, and headed north to the closest point to Turkey.
It took Tasos two hours to drive the winding and mountainous roads to Skala Sikamineas, a fishing settlement at the coast. By then night had fallen.
‘It was a ghost village,’ he recalled.
Across the sea, mountains rose from the horizon, dark against the sky. The twinkling lights at the foothills belonged to Turkey. The wind blew hard and Tasos thought he could hear voices on the sea. It was only the waves. He was about to head for a guesthouse when he looked down and saw traces of arrivals on the beach and rocks. Shoes, passports, backpacks, T-shirts, plastic water bottles and lifejackets. Hundreds of lifejackets.
‘I realised this was not just rubbish,’ said Tasos. ‘Each jacket meant a human life, a story of a crossing.’
The next morning, Tasos drove the rough roads along the northern coast and into the mountains. He saw people emerge from parks, fields and roadsides. Refugees and migrants had to walk sixty kilometres south to the port of Mytilene, where they could be assessed and issued with papers before boarding a ferry to mainland Greece and, from there, into northern Europe. Some journalists and Lesvos locals were offering rides to the walkers. Tasos asked if he could help. Drivers were supposed to call the police and register their name, car make, licence plate, car-hire company, pick-up point and destination – a procedure designed to prevent smugglers exploiting refugees.
‘My car was filled with people, against the roof, out the windows,’ said Tasos.
The little Dimitriadis crawled up the hills. By the time he made it to Mytilene it was 36 degrees. There were queues of men in their underwear at the public shower. Families sat under trees or statues or beside walls. Some tourists wound down their car windows, took a snap and drove on. Others handed food and water to exhausted people. Tasos followed the example. He spent the next three days buying water, interviewing and taking photos across Lesvos. Most of the refugees were from Syria; many were from Iraq and Afghanistan.
After three days Tasos’s money was gone. This was something you couldn’t understand in a single news article, thought Tasos. He was determined to follow the story.
THE FIFTEEN-YEAR DROUGHT in the Levant that preceded the Syrian civil war was likely the worst in nine hundred years, according to NASA. Since the beginning of the conflict, some scientists and media have overstated the link. ‘Drought helped cause Syria’s war,’ declared a 2013 Washington Post headline. This has led to misguided conclusions about people, climate and migration.
In March 2017, ABC’s Four Corners aired an American documentary titled The Age of Consequences, which was billed as The Hurt Locker meets An Inconvenient Truth. It posed climate change and migration as risks to United States national security. The film warned of more terrorism and hordes of climate change refugees overwhelming countries and causing the collapse of states. It interviewed military generals who treated population displacement as a security threat that requires militarised solutions.
Refugees and migrants have often been represented as dangerous for wealthy nations and as ‘agents of chaos in the Middle East’, wrote Alex Randall of the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition. The standard narrative for Syria is that the drought forced farmers off the land, food prices rose and competition for resources among rival groups led to violence. Some campaigners on climate change have used populist fears over refugees as a tactic to try to build support for action on emissions.
Randall pointed out that drought and social grievances in Syria didn’t cause people to turn on each other – it united them. Different groups began mingling in urban centres in a way that Assad’s regime had tried to prevent. This led to protests and co-operation, which Assad’s authoritarian government responded to with violence.
To avoid ‘reducing our future to climate’, in the words of Mike Hulme, professor of climate and culture at King’s College London, the concept of the Anthropocene could serve as a shorthand way for introducing broader ecological changes and historical timescales. The idea has been reported enthusiastically in The Economist, The New York Times and The Guardian. Scholars say the collapse of the Enlightenment distinction between human and nature, and the convergence of geological and biological time, forces us to reconsider our place on the planet and the very foundation of what ‘human’ means.
The problem with the Anthropocene narrative is that it strips the social causes from ecological disruption. Not everyone is responsible for the Anthropocene and not everyone will experience it equally. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist who popularised the term, suggested the invention of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution should be considered the start of the new epoch: the switch to fossil fuels ‘shattered’ an energy bottleneck. Humanities scholars approach this from a different angle: human ecologists Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg asked what the motivations were for investment in steam. Only the very wealthy could afford steam engines, and they ‘pointed steam power as a weapon’ at colonies in Africa and the New World, extracting material resources and labour in plantations, mines and factories, completely reorganising ecological and social relationships. The Anthropocene was founded on global inequity. Some have suggested ‘Capitalocene’ as a more accurate moniker.
ON 20 AUGUST 2015, Tasos drove to Idomeni, a Greek town near the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and a gateway to the ‘Balkans route’. It’s from here that refugees and migrants followed train tracks into Macedonia, northwards across the Balkan countries, and finally into Germany. Tasos saw hundreds of people gathered on the rail lines. The Macedonian government had called a state of emergency and rolled barbed wire across the border. It wanted to slow the flow of people. Military and anti-terror troops stood at the border next to armoured vehicles. Tasos said they aimed guns and yelled, ‘Go back to Greece.’
One woman told an Amnesty International worker: ‘This reminds me of Syria. I never expected to find that in Europe. Before the war, life in Syria was paradise…then both sides started taking our children to fight and bombs started falling on our heads.’
People jumped with every new explosion and burst of gunfire. It began pouring rain and some sheltered under cardboard while families climbed under thin summer tents and tarps. Tasos was afraid. He hadn’t seen the crowds angry and confused before. He was covered in mud and his lens was destroyed. Stun grenades cracked in the distance.
A young man from Kashmir took Tasos’s arm and offered him shelter under a concrete railway culvert. The men gave him biscuits, water and cigarettes.
‘The guys gave me everything they had,’ said Tasos.
The photos that agencies and newspapers wanted were of human drama in extreme moments: people falling from boats, pulling children from the sea, landing on the beach with tears of fear and joy. Tasos began to wonder if these images helped. He wondered how he could convey moments such as the hospitality under the culvert.
In October Tasos returned to Lesvos. The small island was now receiving two hundred thousand people per month. The cemetery in Mytilene was running out of space. Camps were over capacity.
‘People slept in boxes, old fridges, whatever they could find,’ said Tasos.
Remarkably, international and Greek volunteers, authorities, locals and refugees collaborated to hold it all together. Fishermen in the northern village of Skala Sikamineas spent every night in their boats, guiding refugees to the shore, diving into the water and rescuing people. Women handed out sandwiches and fruit. They washed clothes and looked after children. They hugged and kissed those who made the crossing.
Tasos drove volunteers from Skala Sikamineas to a cape at the northernmost point of the island. There, beneath the Korakas Lighthouse, the beach gave way to sharp rocks and cliffs. It was the most dangerous place to land on Lesvos from the sea. Many died in the attempt. Tasos worked with two American volunteers who wore wetsuits and dragged lifejackets from the ocean and shoreline. The older one, Jeff, had holidayed on Lesvos with his parents in the 1980s. When he saw reports about the crisis he came over to help. The other American, Max, was trekking in Nepal in 2015 when the earthquake struck. He helped in the aftermath and it changed his life.
‘We spent the days collecting lifejackets, and the nights helping people arriving on the beaches,’ said Tasos. He saw a man collapse with hypothermia. He saw a hand rise from the ocean, waving for help.
Jeff and Max told Tasos to stop feeding the daily news and follow his own path. Tasos began to question whether he could continue as a photojournalist. Previously, some papers had used his photos out of context. News stories appeared one day and were gone the next. He wanted to be able to provide more depth.
‘I decided it wasn’t enough to just be a good person. You have to act. Lesvos changed me. It would change anyone who comes here.’
Thinking about the different reception these refugees and migrants would have received in Australia or the UK, I asked Tasos why Greece, suffering as it is from austerity measures, was so generous. He said, ‘In Greece, we all have a story.’
Tasos’ great-grandfather was injured fighting the Germans in World War II. When a Nazi officer was killed, the Germans began massacring whole villages in the north. They burned the hospital where Tasos’ great-grandfather was being treated. Tasos’s grandfather was left an orphan; a family took him in, and when he was older he worked in Germany illegally, saving enough to build a house back in Greece – the house in which Tasos’ father was raised.
‘We know about displacement,’ said Tasos.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, populist nationalism tore Europe apart. National identities were imagined into being through the literature, arts and revolutionaries of loosely connected ethnic groups. Religious and aristocratic allegiances were in decline and the idea of the nation-state bounded to territory emerged. German states began to federate, Polish people sought independence and, in the south, Serbians, Greeks, Montenegrins, Bulgarians and others revolted against the Ottoman Empire.
Violence broke out as nationalists tried to overthrow the ruling elites, and as new nations sought to define who did and didn’t belong. This caused some of the largest mass migrations in history. European Muslims in the Caucasus, Crimea, the Balkans and the Mediterranean were massacred and millions were forced to flee to Anatolia. The Ottoman regime violently suppressed nationalist uprisings in the Balkans. At the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire had lost most of its European territories. Turkish nationalists saw Armenians in Anatolia as a threat to their vision for an independent and homogenous Turkish nation. The Turkish armies began massacring Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, and forcing the Armenians on death marches into the Syrian desert – actions we now call genocide.
In 1919, Greece launched an attack on the Turks to gain territory in Anatolia. The Turkish nationalists defeated the Greek army in 1922. Most of the Anatolian Greeks had fled to Greece and Russia. Those who remained were forced to migrate in a compulsory population exchange under the 1923 Lausanne Convention. Experts thought enforcing ethnic groupings into bounded territories would ensure peace. Around 1.2 million Christian refugees were sent across the Aegean to Greece, while four hundred and fifty thousand Greek Muslims were sent to the new nation of Turkey. No one who was expelled could return. British foreign secretary Lord Curzon described this period as the ‘unmixing of peoples’.
Many Greeks, including the villagers on Lesvos, say, ‘We are all refugees.’
IN MARCH 2016 the European Union, alarmed by rising popularism and right-wing nationalism, signed a controversial deal with Turkey to prevent further refugee and migrant crossings to Greece. Anyone who arrived after that date would be sent back to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would receive more assistance for the nearly three million refugees it was hosting. The Balkan route was closed permanently.
Tasos was in Idomeni volunteering. ‘When we told the guys that the border was closed they didn’t believe it. They refused to leave.’
More people arrived at the bottleneck, swelling the makeshift camp to twelve thousand. Portable toilets overflowed. The Greek military delivered firewood but couldn’t meet demand. Refugees burned whatever was at hand to keep warm. They searched fields for food. Children shivered in the wet. A UN spokesperson described the situation as ‘misery beyond imagination’. Fences went up in Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Hungary and Germany. Journalists dubbed it the ‘rise of the mesh curtain’.
‘We weren’t the European Union anymore,’ said Tasos.
Volunteers and NGOs set up a network of storage facilities in the area, paying cheap rent for empty farm buildings. Tasos packed boxes, distributed food and translated from Greek to English. Greek authorities began transferring people to better-equipped camps in the cities. Around fifty thousand displaced people were stranded in Greece after the EU–Turkey deal.
On Lesvos, people continued to take selfies to let loved ones know they’d made it to Europe.
‘They didn’t realise they hadn’t made it to Europe,’ said Tasos. ‘They made it to Greece.’ No one knew how long they would be stuck there.
The series of photos that Tasos did sell – the aerial shots of half a million lifejackets piled up on Lesvos – provided enough money for him to continue volunteering. He thought a photography workshop might help occupy people during the wait. French photographer Lois Simac had a similar idea, so they partnered to run a twelve-week course in Thessaloniki. The camp there was set up in an abandoned paper factory from which it derived its name, Softex. Petroleum fumes drifted from the nearby oil refinery.
Only Syrians could pitch their tents inside the Softex building while Moroccans, Algerians, Eritreans and others slept in nearby disused train carriages without power, water or heating. Just over a thousand people stayed at the site.
Twelve participants signed up to the photography workshop. They named it Crossroads and decided to develop an exhibition. One of the keenest students was twenty-year-old Mohammad from Syria. Tasos said that after each lesson Mohammad would be the first to email his assignments and results of experiments with the new techniques he’d learnt. Previously he’d spent a lot of time keeping to himself and drawing allegorical pictures about war. Now he was interacting. Tasos was impressed with his photographic work.
‘I draw it first in my heart, and then I take the photo,’ Mohammad told Tasos.
Mohammad was from a city in northern Syria that had expanded in the 1920s as a French military post. It was home to many Kurds, as well as Armenians who had fled the genocide, and Assyrians who fled Iraqi nationalists in the 1930s. Since the Syrian conflict began, the city had been the site of four major battles and control changed between Kurdish, ISIS and Assad-government fighters.
Tasos couldn’t help thinking about the people in Europe saying, ‘Why don’t they stay and fight?’
‘Fight for what?’ asked Tasos. ‘And for whom? There is no point dying for someone else’s war.’
THE DYNAMICS OF the Anthropocene can be traced in the context of the Syrian conflict. The Anthropocene was made possible by dispossession, extreme inequality and the extraordinarily rapid expansion of technological and political control over natural resources and labour. The Anthropocene can’t explain causes, but it is useful for establishing connections across multiple histories.
Before the end of World War I, when it was clear the Ottoman Empire would be defeated, the British and French Empires agreed to carve up most of the Ottoman’s territories between them. This became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named after the two lead negotiators. The French promised what would become Syria to the British after oil was discovered in Mosul, east of the Syrian provinces. After the war, with the Ottomans gone, Damascus declared itself an independent kingdom. The French feared this would threaten its deal with Britain, so it invaded Syria and made it a French mandate.
The ancient cities of Syria were home to people of diverse ethnicities, languages and religions. The French thought it would be easier to control these populations if they divided them, and when that didn’t work, it brought them together under two main administrative centres based around Damascus and Aleppo. The decades of French rule were violent. Former diplomat and historian William R Polk wrote in The Atlantic, ‘The French bombarded Damascus, which they had regime-changed in 1920, in 1925, 1926, and 1945, and they pacified the city with martial law during most of the “peaceful” intervals.’ The Syrians didn’t achieve independence until the British invaded the Middle East in World War II to secure oil supplies.
Animosity towards the French gave rise to Syrian nationalism, but the movement was left searching for a strong basis for a Syrian identity. The Syrians hadn’t carried out ethnic homogenisation like the Europeans. Polk described Syria as a ‘sanctuary’ for leftover peoples who were cast out of other territories. For years Syria struggled to recover from the legacy of colonialism. Political parties were militaristic and leaders overthrown in coups. In 1970, the Ba’ath Party’s Hafez al-Assad, a strongman and former air-force commander, took over as prime minister and then president, until he died in 2000.
Assad’s secular, socialist government tried to ensure authority and support by providing social services such as education and healthcare (but not democratic autonomy). Agriculture had been the largest sector of the economy in the mid-twentieth century, but by the time Assad came to power it was in decline. In the 1980s, with assistance from the Soviets, the government made massive investments in agriculture to intensify production. The result was overgrazing, soil erosion, groundwater depletion and vast irrigation projects that failed to fulfil expectations. Farmers flocked to the cities. Bashar al-Assad continued the agricultural intensification after he took over the presidency in 2000. His aim for agriculture was to feed a rapidly growing population. The number of groundwater wells jumped from around fifty thousand in the late 1980s to two hundred and thirty thousand in 2010. The water table plummeted. Syria had also built a hundred and sixty dams with a total storage capacity of fourteen million megalitres. Further stressing the region’s river systems, Turkey and Iraq pursued their own dam-building projects on the Euphrates, with tensions almost sending Syria to war with both at different times.
Drought exacerbated existing problems before the civil war began in 2011. The UN estimated that up to three million rural people were reduced to extreme poverty. Extra pressure was placed on farmers when Assad carried out neoliberal reforms to open the economy, which included cuts to diesel fuel subsidies. Irrigators depended on diesel to power their groundwater pumps. The reforms might have slowed water extraction, but they devastated livelihoods. The cities had already absorbed millions of migrants from rural areas and refugees from the war in Iraq. When protests broke out, Assad directed his security forces to crush dissent. In April 2011, the world saw a video depicting the mutilated body of thirteen-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Foreign fighters joined the conflict. Some based their philosophies on an ultraconservative reform movement that its detractors call Wahhabism. Its teachings emerged in the aftermath of European and Ottoman imperialism, and grew substantially with billions of dollars of Saudi oil money. ISIS was anti-colonial, anti-nationalist and anti-pluralist (including in its list of enemies, traditional schools and branches of Islam). In 2014, ISIS released a video titled ‘The End of Sykes-Picot’, which showed the destruction of the border between Syria and Iraq.
THE WINTER IN Thessaloniki in 2016–17 was the most severe in thirty years. The pipes at Tasos’s apartment froze and burst. The city had to provide carted water. At the Softex camp, people warmed their hands around the building’s exterior vents. In the months since the closure of the Balkan route most of the Syrians at Softex had been relocated within Europe. Authorities allowed the Algerians and Moroccans to move from the abandoned trains into the Softex building.
I’d asked Tasos to question his workshop participants about Australia.
‘First, I must ask you something,’ he said to me, his face grave. ‘They say you turn boats around in the sea. Is this true?’
Tasos couldn’t believe it. Maybe it was because Greece is a seafaring country of many islands that this came as a shattering moral violation.
‘They say Australia is a no-go zone,’ said Tasos. ‘That it’s worse than Trump’s America.’ Our political parties would be pleased this message made it to Syria.
Tasos said the refugees he spoke with have no intention of travelling to Australia. They want to stay closer to family in Europe. Most hope to return to Syria if the country still exists.
A month later Tasos said he had bad news. ‘Mohammad was beaten. He’s been in hospital for days.’
The uncertainty was weighing on the migrants and refugees. Money had run out and there was no way of making more in Greece. It was unlikely that anyone who was not Syrian would be granted permission to stay in Europe. Some in the camps preyed on the vulnerable. There were reports women had been sexually assaulted at the Softex camp and elsewhere in Greece. Mohammad was bashed with an iron bar.
‘He’s such a sensitive guy,’ said Tasos. ‘He would never fight back.’
There were tensions within the workshop group over the future of the Crossroads project. They didn’t have enough money to hire a translator so had to rely on volunteers and friends. Tasos and Lois were spending their time writing exhibition proposals and seeking legal advice. They argued more.
On Lesvos, members aligned with the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn threw a Molotov cocktail at a café helping refugees. Unlike many parts of Europe, the Greek people hadn’t turned against the refugees and migrants yet, but they had started to ask how the government could manage. At a bar one night, a man told Tasos to ‘stick your camera up your arse’ because he was helping refugees. Golden Dawn was capitalising on these anxieties.
IN 2016, WRITER James Bradley gave a moving lecture, subsequently published in the Sydney Review of Books, on the role of the arts in an age of global ecological transformation. He said he is uncomfortable with the term Anthropocene because ‘its assertion of human primacy reiterates the blindness that got us here’. Whatever we call it, said Bradley, we must recognise that something is different and the world we are creating presents challenges to every aspect of our societies.
In recent years, when many around me were jaded, I kept my faith in politics. I kept handing out how-to-vote cards, I believed in public debate and that you could just talk things through. Now I worry like everyone else. I bond with colleagues at lunch critiquing the cynicism and destructiveness of neoliberalism, but then I return to my desk and I’m too anxious about keeping an income to do anything about it. I’ll be on my third contract this year for the same casual job and I’m grateful for the work.
In the news I see drone strikes and beheadings and refugees stopped at the gates. I see people blaming the most vulnerable for the state of the world. We feel like there’s nothing we can do because institutions have been eroded and the usual avenues of civic participation appear ineffective. Global forces kick on regardless. I read of our government’s plans for blackshirts demanding ID on the streets of Melbourne, stripping political enemies of citizenship, criminalising environmental protest and retaining and sharing our phone and internet data. I hear that our civil Department of Immigration and Border Protection spent hundreds of thousands on handguns and machine guns. They’ve used misery as an opportunity. Now, more than two hundred thousand Australians follow hate sites online. A friend said recently, if truth doesn’t matter, what’s the point? I think I’m slipping into the learnt helplessness that suits the status quo. I reckon there’s a heap of us who feel this ache in our chests.
I’m desperate for a label for our times around which people could recognise connections to a wider context and longer history than neoliberalism or climate change. I don’t know if we have a politics for this yet. Rather than fragmenting into tribalism, internet bubbles, polarisation and xenophobic nationalism, it might be possible to think about our grievances as part of the same set of problems and work towards a mutually beneficial future. Most of us are on the same side. We could seek solidarity with migrants and refugees instead of establishing elaborate exclusion zones for them.
I admire Tasos and his project. He hasn’t just supplied water and food and something to do. He has worked to humanise refugees in the eyes of others. He has brought companionship as a fellow person. He has provided some dignity.
By April this year, about half of the Crossroads participants had been relocated within Europe. Some of them met up with former Softex camp volunteers in France, Finland and the Netherlands. People have asked Tasos why he is helping twelve refugees when there are thousands stranded in Greece.
‘Ask those twelve people if their lives have changed,’ said Tasos. ‘If everyone helped one person we’d all be happy.’
In May 2017, the Crossroads exhibition began to tour major cities, including Barcelona, Copenhagen, Izmir and Dubai. The first showing outside of Greece was in Vienna. Mohammad and the other refugees weren’t permitted to travel for the opening night so they used Skype to participate in a forum with the gallery audience. I asked Tasos if the group was excited.
‘The guys had mixed feelings,’ said Tasos. ‘They saw their photos travelling to places they can’t.’ Their photos, they noted, moved faster than refugees.
BRIGHT-ORANGE LIFEJACKETS PROBABLY say more about our times than any other object of the twenty-first century. People making a few dollars an hour produce cheap knock-off safety vests and inflatable boats that are shipped around the world and resold at a mark-up to desperate refugees fleeing conflict, poverty and ecological disorder for the security of Europe, the US and Australia. The refugees come from places that the wealthy countries are bombing in wars that are, in part, a legacy of Europe’s late-imperialist carve-up of territory, of forced migrations, Cold War geopolitics, exploitation of fossil fuels and the rise of the privatised corporate war economy under the auspices of the ‘War on Terror.’
In the introduction to their book Environmental History of Modern Migrations (Routledge, 2017), Marco Armiero and Richard Tucker argue we are operating with ‘lifeboat’ ethics. In the affluent countries we pretend it’s possible to escape the social and environmental disruption of the Anthropocene in our lifeboats while the displaced clamour to get on board in their cheap lifejackets. Our nation states look like tools for controlling the movement of capital, commodities and labour for the advantage of a few. They appear incapable of solving cross-border challenges such as climate change, overfishing, over-extraction of water, wars, inequality and migration. Yet in response to these international problems, nationalist movements have increased in popularity.
Jane McAdam, professor of international human rights law at UNSW, reported that most displaced people remain within or close to their homeland borders. However, environmental and social pressures will continue forcing large numbers of people to move as a last resort. The Pacific nation of Kiribati has bought land in Fiji as backup for when the sea inundates its islands. The hundred thousand inhabitants don’t want to be environmental refugees, relegated to stateless people with inferior rights; they want to control the process of migration. If we saw the larger forces at play, it might be possible to treat migration as an adaptation to the challenges of the Anthropocene rather than as a security risk. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of the remixing of peoples.
POSTSCRIPT: THE DAY before I submitted this essay Tasos emailed with an update. Mohammad’s application had been decided, and he will be relocated to Norway.