‘What are you doing these days?’, was the question I was asked during lockdown by my interlocutors, refugees staying in Greek reception centres. A simple question that caused me discomfort due to the asymmetries informing our relationship that were traced in our answers. In this article I will discuss how the pandemic further highlighted these asymmetries.
Explaining ‘what I do’ to my interlocutors has mostly been complicated, as doing fieldwork research for my PhD is starkly different from what constitutes the usual ‘options’ for them in regard to labour. In other cases, complications have occurred as ‘academia’, the path I’m currently following, is one that some had to quit because of wars and persecutions, and it’s uncertain if and when they will be able to resume.
The emergency lockdown caught me amidst fieldwork. Doing fieldwork research usually involves ‘moving to’ the field of research, wherever this may be located. For me, this movement occurred from Northern Ireland where my university (Queen’s University Belfast) is, back to my ‘home’ country, where the ‘field’ is located. Furthermore, moving all around Athens has been integral to fieldwork, as this was the only way I could meet with my interlocutors in places convenient for them.
Emergency lockdown ceased individual freedom to move, in order to limit the spread of the pandemic. Daily (offline) life froze, interactions with other humans were assessed as potentially harmful for health. Inevitably, my (offline) fieldwork was disrupted, and I was trapped at home away from my family. While I was caught in the field, I was unable to interact with my interlocutors. Yet, while fieldwork was put on hold, I was able to continue working (online/‘from home’).
The uncertainty of the 'new normal'
For my interlocutors though, immobility disrupted their efforts to claim a new ‘normality’. Many have been working or have been attending classes outside the camp and in the city, urged to compensate for the lost time due to wars, persecutions, and waiting in limbo, and fully aware of the imperative to develop skills that will enable them to find a job, as well as to save money to resume their life (wherever this may be). After all, the outcome of the application process for asylum is always uncertain.
Leaving the camp has always been challenging, given the locations of refugee reception centres, at a considerable distance from the urban settings. Restrictions on movements to the ‘absolutely necessary’ were applied on 23 March for everybody living within Greek territory, in order to limit the spread of the virus. Severe fines applied for those who breached the measure. Residents of the reception centres, additionally to texting or having in written their reasons for going out, had to pass the gates of the camp, mostly involving further checking.
‘For me it’s the same. I just can’t go out’, one of my interlocutors told me. Yet, how could it be ‘the same’ for someone whose work-training lessons have been interrupted, and who previously never missed the opportunity to explore the ‘city out of the camp’? For this person, not being able to go out was a major change. What was ‘the same’ was the sense of immobility, pertaining subtly to daily life. A sense of immobility suggested by the restrictions to someone’s options, and the inability to make plans for the future, because the only parameter known is the long waiting for the different stages of the application process to be granted refugee status.
For people who just obtained work permits, the prospect of working regularly was put on hold. Having fled from their home country without any certificates of studies or work experience, and having spent years in limbo in different countries, navigating bureaucracy in Greece consumed more time. Subsequent applications involved a reduction of reception conditions, increasing vulnerability. ‘Now, that I got my work permit, I can finally work. I will not live on my mates’ help. If you see any job advertisement, please tell me….’, they told me last time we met, right before the lockdown, adding ‘but perhaps I will need to wait until this situation ends…’
Other interlocutors were working in unskilled and undeclared job positions. This kind of labour is common among refugees due to the considerable delays and the uncertain outcome of the application process for asylum and in order to better support themselves and their family right here and now (especially in cases of subsequent applications and reduction of reception conditions).
Waiting and more waiting
The right to apply for international protection upon arrival in Greek territory involves a long and uncertain process. The reported mismatch between the capacity of competent authorities for the asylum process and the increasing number of asylum applications in 2016 and 2017 has put at stake the prompt examination of asylum applications. More specifically, the average time between the applicant’s expression of intention to apply for asylum and the interview in 2018 was 8.5 months. The average processing time between pre-registration and the issuance of a first instance decision was 8.6 months. Furthermore, for the 80.5% of the applications pending as of 31 December 2018, personal interviews had not yet taken place and were still scheduled to take place after 2019. Further waiting for the outcome of the interview, in cases extended by appeals and where subsequent applications may be added, as well as waiting for the reception of asylum documents.
The recognition rate of asylum seekers is estimated at 49.4%. In the event of a negative decision, the asylum seeker has the right to appeal. Moreover, the asylum seeker has the right for another examination of the case, submitting a subsequent application. The registration of a subsequent application in practice may be further suspended for as long as two months according to the standard process. Furthermore, the applicant loses the reception conditions.
Material reception conditions comprise accommodation and UN cash assistance. Eligible recipients are those who have arrived after 1 January 2015; have been registered by the Greek authorities and continue to reside in the country; hold either a pre-registration or full registration document or any other valid official document issued by the Greek authorities; are above the age of 18; live in designated sites or in rented accommodation, thereby excluding refugees living in informal settlements; are not employed by an NGO or UN agency; and are not employed and receiving a salary. In addition, an adult asylum seeker in Greece should not have an income exceeding 2,440€ per year in order to be eligible for reception conditions (the reasonable costs for survival for an adult in Greece are estimated up to 6,448€). The amount of UN cash assistance is distributed proportionately to the size of each household and ranges between 90€ monthly for single adults in catered accommodation and 550€ for a family of seven in self-catering accommodation.
Refugees need to work. The urge has increased as a result of further constraints imposed by the new asylum law in Greece. Undeclared/unskilled labour is the main ‘option’ refugees have, given their need not to lose any benefits and find a job in a challenging and crisis-ridden Greek labour market with high unemployment and where newcomers face structural disadvantages compared to Greek nationals. Undeclared/unskilled labour notably thrives in agriculture, construction, distributive trades, hotels and restaurants and among domestic workers.
The working conditions of unskilled and usually undeclared labour usually do not meet minimum standards, increasing risks. Employees (in declared labour) were free to commute to their work during lockdown – as long as they carried their employers’ written confirmation. Unskilled and undeclared workers, though, if they did not lose their job completely (e.g. in the tourism sector), had to move irregularly. Unskilled/undeclared workers risked their wellbeing during the pandemic by working in unsuitable working conditions (and paying the high fine if they were caught commuting for ‘unnecessary’ reasons) and remaining in the cramped living conditions of the camp. If they did not work, they lost a vitally necessary income.
The ‘options’ my interlocutors and I had with regards to labour during the pandemic are suggested by the structurally asymmetrical positions we have as citizens occupying a certain social position [related to work and education], and refugees occupying one of the most vulnerable positions marginally to what constitutes the host society. These asymmetries were identified before the pandemic. Even if I was recognised by them as sharing the experience of living away from family and friends, and the emotional burden this may have, we didn’t face the same degree of precarity, simply because I ‘have a passport’ and I’m ‘from Europe’, as all my interlocutors used to say. The emergency of the pandemic highlighted exceptions experienced by refugees as these are structurally shaped and enhanced by applying policies.
Restrictions of movement are not implemented equally rigidly. Neither do they affect equally all humans. The vulnerabilities due to a certain social position were increased by the imposed immobility. If mobility enhances identifications of ‘shared’ experiences, imposed immobility highlights the structural asymmetries that define the different options each one of us has.
Chrysi Kyratsou is a PhD student in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast. Her academic interests are in musicking, migration, encounters, cultural flows. Chrysi’s fieldwork research into refugees’ sheltering in reception centres explores how refugees’ aesthetic agencies are informed by their shifting backgrounds in which they live, and how they shape their sociality.