On July 5, 2023, the Greek government evicted a Kurdish refugee camp in Lavrio, Greece. The camp had existed for many decades, serving as an important center of organizing in southeastern Europe. The Turkish government’s war on Kurdish people, the Greek government’s war on autonomous spaces, and the European Union’s war on migrants all intersected in this operation. In the following analysis, Beja Protner shows the connections between the various forms of systematic oppression involved here. For more information about ways to support movements for Kurdish liberation, you could consult Rise Up 4 Rojava and the Emergency Committee For Rojava.
On July 5, 2023, between 3 and 6 am, Greek state forces raided and violently evicted the self-organized Kurdish refugee camp in Lavrio, Greece. Located about 60 kilometers from Athens, the camp had been home to political refugees from Turkey and Kurdistan for decades. Without notice, more than 250 police officers, riot police (MAT), and heavily armed special police forces (EKAM) sent by the Ministry of Asylum and Migration evicted the residents of the camp—less than 60 people, a third of whom were young children. The refugees were forcefully transferred to the Oinofyta Refugee Camp, located in an abandoned factory in a deserted area far from any kind of urban settlement.
The eviction, which Greek officials called a “humanitarian intervention,” looked to the Kurdish and left-wing political refugees from Turkey and Kurdistan more like the sort of dawn raids that had forced many of them to flee from their homelands and seek refuge in Greece in the first place. The Greek forces broke the gate of the camp, stormed into people’s homes, pointed laser-sighted rifles at the people—including families and children—and dragged them outside.
“Even in Turkey [the state forces] don’t use that much technology in house raids,” commented Welat, a young political refugee from North Kurdistan (Turkey), who had lived in the Lavrio camp for five years after escaping persecution in Turkey. As Leyla, who had lived in the camp with her husband and three small children recounted, the residents were given only half an hour to collect their essential belongings before police forces occupied the camp and forbade entry. Some of those who resisted the eviction were violently restrained with their hands handcuffed behind their backs. Leyla tried to calm down her daughter by telling her it was toy guns being pointed at them. “But the child knew what they were, from back in Turkey,” Leyla said. “My children have seen many things that they never deserved.”
All 57 residents, including eight woman and nineteen children, were detained and transferred to the Oinofyta refugee camp, located in an abandoned factory far from any kind of urban settlement.
“Where are we? What is this place?” Layla asked when we met through the blue metal fence of the camp’s gate after the Greek guards denied me access to my friends. An elderly Kurdish refugee had just returned empty-handed from an hour-long search under the burning midday sun for a shop where he could purchase something to eat or drink. It was 2 pm, and the refugees had still not received any food since their forceful relocation at 6 am. “The children, hungry!” the elderly refugee tried to explain in a few Greek words to the security personnel sitting in a small cabin at the gate.
In stark contrast with the autonomous, self-sufficient, and centrally-located Lavrio camp, Oinofyta is a prison guarded by government-appointed security officials who control the entries and exits. Even when people are permitted to go out of the camp, the surrounding area is largely deserted, isolating them and rendering them dependent on the state’s notoriously poor provision of basic necessities.
“Why did they do this to us?” asked Diana, a teenage girl from Northeast Syria (Rojava), as she held my hands through the blue fence.
The lives of the Lavrio camp residents were turned upside down in a single day, depriving them of liberty and autonomy. On July 4, they were living in a free and safe self-organized political community that had existed for over 40 years. The next day, they were spatially and socially marginalized refugees, imprisoned and dependent on the state—while the state destroyed their homes in the historic buildings of Europe’s oldest refugee camp, closing a chapter in the history of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement in Greece. The destruction of the Lavrio camp is a historic moment at which European anti-refugee policies and the Greek right-wing crackdown on autonomous political spaces intersect with Greek and Turkish international relations and the war on Kurds, revealing their interconnections.
An Attack on Refugees and on Free Collective Life
Over the past four years, the right-wing New Democracy (Νέα Δημοκρατία, ND) government in Greece has placed two priorities at the top of its agenda: waging war on migrants and destroying autonomous political spaces. Since New Democracy came to power under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in 2019, police have evicted and sealed dozens of political squats in urban centers. Many of those were hosting refugees and other migrants who had no other access to dignified housing in Greece.
Since 2015, Greece has served Europe as a “container” for unwanted migrants and refugees. According to the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers are required to apply for protection in the first European Union country of their entry; alongside the closing of the internal EU borders in 2016, this clogged the asylum systems in the countries on the margins of the EU like Greece. The slow, incomprehensible, and constantly changing Greek asylum system has made the process of acquiring legal status into a living hell for countless people.
Most people have to wait for several years for their asylum interview, during which they have limited or no access to housing, financial assistance, healthcare, or education. During that time, their temporary documents continuously expire and they are forced to live as sans papiers [undocumented people] due to delays at the Asylum Service. This administratively induced legal precarity renders people vulnerable to “sweep” operations in central Athens, in which police kidnap people without valid residency documents and take them to prison-like camps and detention centers where the living conditions are abominable.
The migration and asylum policies of the New Democracy government constitute a war on migrants. Doing the dirty work of European anti-migration racist hysteria as the “shield of Europe,” the Greek-Turkish land and sea border has become the site of illegal pushbacks—an unofficial but systematic strategy of returning incoming migrants to Turkey without any possibility of applying for asylum. This includes those fleeing from political persecution of the Turkish state.
The Greek police, Frontex, border guards, coast guards, collaborating gangs, and local vigilantes carry out such pushbacks every day on a massive scale, violating a number of international laws and conventions. In addition to violating the right to apply for asylum, they consistently inflict police brutality, enforced disappearance, torture, sexual abuse, and unofficial detention in overcrowded cells with no access to food, water, or toilets. In the Evros region of northeastern Greece, in addition to carrying out pushbacks near the border, they have also kidnapped people from the streets or from camps in areas as far inland as Thessaloniki. After being subjected to multiple forms of mistreatment and humiliation by masked border guards and collaborating gangs, migrants have been brought to the Evros river, forced into rubber dinghies at gunpoint, and transferred across the border to Turkey. In some cases, people have been abandoned on small river islets without food, water, or medicine, exposed to the elements.
In the Aegean and Ionian Sea, the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex have been responsible for countless pushbacks and deaths. Boats in distress are routinely refused rescue and left to sink or towed towards Turkey. In some cases, the coast guard has deliberately damaged the engines of boats before leaving them adrift in the open sea near the Turkish waters. In other cases, people have been abandoned at sea in rescue boats without engines. The Greek government seeks to legitimize these actions with a discourse about “security,” playing on racist anti-immigration sentiments in Greece and across Europe. Consequently, the Evros river and the Aegean Sea have become open graves for those fleeing from wars, persecution, economic devastation, and climate catastrophe.
In the context of the criminalization of migrants and migration, Greek refugee camps have become high-security prisons. While the living conditions in these places are notoriously horrific, they are also spatially and socially isolated, far from any urban centers. Most of the camps near urban centers that afforded residents some access to employment (even if precarious and exploitative), healthcare facilities, and education for children have been forcefully evicted. In the isolated camps like Oinofyta to which refugees are forcefully transferred, they are rendered dependent on the state’s inadequate provision of basic necessities.
The border and camp policies of the Greek state both follow a genocidal logic of “cleansing” that resembles the processes involved in the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and similar events in several ways. These include the idea of getting rid of an unwanted population by any means available; gradually escalating discourses and practices of dehumanization, which become normalized; the “banality of evil,”1 apparent in the attitudes of police and border officers, bureaucrats, and camp employees; and finally, the choice of the vast majority of citizens to accept these practices so as not to see migrants around them or in their country. In effect, many citizens of Greece and other countries within the European Union have adopted the basically genocidal idea that these people should not be here, that they should be prevented from being here or made to disappear by any means. At the same time, these citizens refuse to acknowledge the means being used and the things being done to people subjected to a regime of annihilation.
The Kurdish refugee camp of Lavrio was one of the last places that resisted this system of incarceration and annihilation with the values and practices of “free life together”(hevjiyana azad/özgür eş yaşam) arising from the Kurdistan Freedom Movement. In Lavrio, revolutionary refugees from Kurdistan and Turkey lived for decades in the center of the coastal town alongside locals and tourists. In contrast to the state-run prison camps, the Lavrio camp has been entirely self-managed since the withdrawal of the state seven years ago, surviving with the support and donations of local and foreign charities, NGOs, solidarity groups, and philanthropists. International and local activists, researchers, journalists, and photographers frequently visited the camp and were warmly welcomed as guests.
The Lavrio camp was a lived utopia, a world-to-be put into practice. Life in the camp was organized according to the principles of Democratic Confederalism, a system of self-organization into communes, committees, and assemblies, described by the leader of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement Abdullah Öcalan as a way of collectively creating a peaceful, safe, and harmonious communal co-existence between humans and the environment as an alternative to the logic of the nation-state.2 Relations of gender equality, comradeship, mutual aid, respect, and care for other people, animals, and the environment characterized everyday life in the Lavrio camp. It was a place where individuals, youth, families, and children from Turkey and all four parts of Kurdistan (occupied by Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria) found safe haven and a home after escaping from war, political persecution, torture, imprisonment, and the threat of life. As many of the residents noted, it was “like Kurdistan,” a piece of homeland abroad; a Kurdistan that was free from violence and patriarchy, where Kurdish and left-wing political exiles could recover from traumatic experiences of violence, express their culture and politics freely, and rebuild their community. Many residents chose to continue living in the Lavrio camp after gaining asylum in Greece, in order to continue taking part in this project of “free life together” and because they felt safe in the camp and in the town of Lavrio.
Erasing a History of Struggle and Solidarity
The Lavrio camp was one of the oldest refugee camps in Europe. It was established in 1947 with the official name of “Lavrio Center of Temporary Stay for Foreign Asylum Seekers” in order to host refugees of Greek origin (“expatriates”) fleeing from the Soviet Union.3 According to a research report from 1950, the camp hosted about 300 people, including families and individuals of different nationalities from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania who fled persecution in their countries of origin. The needs of the refugees were addressed by the International Refugee Organization (IRO), the United Nations Mission in Greece, in collaboration with the Greek authorities. Over the following years, it was inhabited by asylum seekers from various countries, chiefly from the Balkans and the Middle East.3 Political refugees from Turkey became the most numerous residents of the camp in the 1980s after the military coup in Turkey on September 12, 1980, when Turkey came under the rule of a Sunni-nationalist military junta that tortured, imprisoned, killed, and forced into exile tens of thousands of Kurdish and left-wing people.
While the Greek state was technically in charge of the camp, leading asylum procedures and providing food, medical care, and basic necessities, the revolutionary refugees organized themselves via communes and assemblies. A political community of exiles was built, based on the collective experience of self-organization of collective life in the political prisons of Turkey. The Lavrio camp was not only a space of refuge but also one of the most important spaces of political organizing in exile in Europe.
It was also a space of international solidarity and comradeship. Since the 1980s, various Greek left-wing organizations, unions, and solidarity groups have visited the camp and publicly asserted the revolutionary refugees’ right to asylum, political work, employment, healthcare, and better living conditions. The refugees also built connections with Greek left-wing parties and organizations, and engaged with the wider population by producing and distributing leaflets and magazines in Greek explaining the situation of political oppression in Turkey and calling for a wider Turkish-Greek solidarity.
In the 1990s, large numbers of Kurdish refugees, especially families, arrived in the Lavrio camp due to the political violence in North Kurdistan (in Turkey). In the context of the growing popularity and mobilization of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Kurdistan in the 1990s, the Turkish state’s attacks in Kurdistan increasingly targeted civilians, with campaigns by the Turkish army and paramilitary organizations that included mass murder, enforced disappearances, torture, and mass imprisonment. It was during this period that the camp acquired its Kurdish-majority character and became centered around the PKK-led Kurdistan Freedom Movement. Thanks to the solidarity between the Kurdish and Turkish refugees and Greek left-wing groups, the refugees regularly organized cultural events across Greece, which were widely attended by locals. They also participated in local festivals, sharing music, food, and informative materials.
After the civil war in Syria (2011), the Islamic State attack on Kurdish regions in Syria (2014) and genocide against Yazidi Kurds in Sinjar, Iraq (2014), and Turkey’s invasions of Kurdish-majority areas in North Syria (starting in 2018), large numbers of displaced Kurdish refugee families from Syria found refuge in the Lavrio camp. In 2016, owing to political pressure from Turkey, the Greek government wanted to close down the camp, but hundreds of residents resisted. Subsequently, the Greek state withdrew all services and abandoned the camp at the peak of humanitarian need. From then on, the camp was entirely autonomous. The residents collectively organized and shared responsibilities for cleaning, cooking, basic medical assistance, repairs, and distributing the donations such as food, cleaning and hygiene products, and clothes that were provided by the various charities, NGOs, philanthropists, and solidarity groups that frequently visited the camp.
In the last years, especially following the Rojava Revolution in North and East Syria after 2012, the Kurdish movement has enjoyed increasing attention and support of the international(ist) community in Greece and elsewhere. Like the refugee camp in Maxmûr in Iraq in the Middle East,4 the Lavrio camp became a center of Democratic Confederalism in Europe, implementing the model of self-organization centering women’s self-liberation, grassroots democracy, and ecology practiced in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava). Sometimes seen as a miniature of Rojava, the Lavrio camp gained its international significance as a center for new transnational connections and a place of political education and practice built on more than 40 years of revolutionary struggle in Kurdistan and political organizing in exile.
For four decades, the Lavrio camp was not only a space of refuge, but also a center of Kurdish and left-wing political organizing, international connections, comradeship, and intercultural encounter. Every year, the Lavrio camp hosted the celebrations of Newroz on March 21, the New Year for a number of West Asian peoples and the Kurdish holiday of resistance and renewal. The event was visited by a wide range of refugees, Greeks, and international youth, joining them—literally through govend, the traditional Kurdish circular dances—into a circle of mutual recognition and solidarity.
Just like the eviction of dozens of self-organized squats across Greece, the New Democracy government’s decision to destroy the Lavrio camp constitutes an attempt to eliminate the transnational solidarity that the camp hosted and facilitated. At the same time, it was an attack on the revolutionary history that the camp contained. The camp’s buildings were almost a century old; every inch of them bore traces of the revolutionary determination, communal labor, and comradeship of the tens of thousands of people who had passed through the camp, grown up in it, participated in repairing it, and made it home for themselves and for their successors. With the destruction of the Lavrio camp, a part of this collective history is deliberately erased.
Another NATO Gift to Erdoğan
The Kurdish refugee journalist Vedat Yeler has called the eviction and destruction of the Lavrio camp a “NATO gift to [Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan.” The eviction took place only a few days before the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on July 11 in Vilnius, Lithuania, where both Greece and Turkey were to be present. The two NATO members have wrangled over the Cyprus conflict and territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea for many decades. In mutual populist slander, Turkish politicians have been accusing Greece of harboring “terrorists” in the Lavrio camp and pressuring the Greek state to close it down for years. However, since the re-election of both Erdoğan’s Sunni-nationalist regime in Turkey and Mitsotakis’ New Democracy government in Greece in May and June, 2023, respectively, there has been a shift in bilateral relations between the two countries. During a visit in Cyprus a few days before the eviction, the Greek Foreign Minister expressed a commitment to improve relations with Turkey. The attack on Kurdish political refugees in Greece can be understood as an attempt to showcase these efforts before the NATO summit.
This is not the first time that the Kurds have been used as a tool in regional geopolitics and in the management of the relations within NATO. One previous occasion in which the Greek state played a crucial role was the February 15, 1999 international conspiracy that led to the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Kurdish movement had enjoyed public support from the Greek mainstream and left-wing politicians and public. When Öcalan was exiled from Syria, he sought refuge in Europe and was harbored by the Greek intelligence service. However, under pressure from the EU and NATO, he was refused refuge in Greece and transferred to the Greek embassy in Kenya, where he was handed over to Turkish intelligence. As a result, with Greece’s direct complicity, Öcalan was imprisoned for life on the Turkish island of İmralı in complete isolation.
In 1999, Kurdish refugees and other revolutionary refugees in Greece joined thousands of local supporters in protesting what many older Greeks recall as one of the most shameful actions of the Greek state. Today, with the eviction of the Lavrio camp, the Kurdish movement has seen once again that they cannot trust any state, but must rely on the solidarity of people.
For many years, NATO has backed Turkey’s political violence and war crimes in the Middle East. With the second biggest army in NATO, the Turkish state has been waging an unequal war against the PKK guerrillas in Kurdistan, committing acts of political violence and war crimes against the guerrillas, the local population, and the environment, including ecologically devastating fires and chemical weapon attacks. Turkey has also materially and logistically supported ISIS and other jihadist gangs in Syria and Iraq in their fight against the Kurds. Moreover, Turkey has shelled, invaded, and occupied a number of Kurdish-majority areas in North and East Syria, where it has employed jihadist mercenaries to terrorize and abuse the local populations, causing thousands to flee. As things stand today, geopolitically, a member of NATO can do all this without any meaningful reaction from international institutions.
Recently, relations between Turkey and other members of NATO have resulted once again in violence against Kurdish refugees and other political refugees from Turkey abroad. In 2022, when Finland and Sweden decided to join NATO in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey targeted Kurdish refugees as a bargaining chip in negotiations. Turkey vetoed Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership and was only willing to agree to it on the condition that they hand over political refugees residing in their countries to be imprisoned (or worse) in Turkey. This trafficking in humans indeed took place, with Sweden extraditing a number of political exiles to Turkey.
The European Union and NATO have continuously collaborated in the criminalization of the PKK and (pro-)Kurdish activists, adopting the “terrorism” discourse that Turkey uses to legitimize massacres, the use of chemical weapons, the mass persecution of political dissidents, journalists, and lawyers, and military invasions that have forced millions of people into exile. The discussions leading up to the NATO summit of July 11 have resulted in developments that further threaten the Kurdish political community at home and in exile. For example, Erdoğan met with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and agreed to forward Sweden’s accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly for ratification on the condition that NATO pledges to appoint a “special coordinator for counterterrorism” and that Sweden collaborates in addressing Turkey’s “security concerns” (in other words, the existence of politically organized Kurds) under a new bilateral Security Compact. This can only mean more persecution of Kurds in exile and more extraditions of political refugees who try to find safety in Europe.
It is not clear whether Erdoğan and Mitsotakis discussed the Kurdish and Turkish political community in Greece at their meeting during the NATO summit on July 12. However, the eviction and destruction of the Lavrio camp sent the message that the Greek state is siding with Turkey in its century-long project of annihilating Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere.
The Refugee Issue and the Kurds
When we consider the position of Kurds in NATO geopolitics alongside the European Union’s racist war on migrants, in both of which the Greek state sides with the oppressor, it becomes possible to see how the integrated systems that Öcalan and the Kurdish movement call the “forces of Capitalist Modernity”2 are waging a war against free life.
While the Turkish government continues to displace millions of people from Turkey and Kurdistan, many of whom seek asylum in Europe, the EU guards its borders with genocidal methods and discourses, pouring billions of euros into Turkey in order to block migration from the Global South. According to the so-called EU-Turkey Deal of 2016, the EU paid the Turkish state 3 billion euros in order to accommodate and contain migrants and refugees from the Global South who try to reach safety by traveling through Turkey. As a continuation of this deal, Greece has in 2021 declared Turkey a “safe country” for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, people from these countries have no means to gain asylum in Turkey, due to its outdated asylum legislation. They have limited access to residence rights, housing, and legal employment, and are increasingly exposed to deportations and refoulement [the forcible return of refugees to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution], economic and sexual exploitation, and racist attacks and murders, legitimized and encouraged by racist anti-refugee discourse. Kurds from Turkey are familiar with these forms of systematic violence, which have been normalized through decades of discrimination against non-Turkish minorities.
Given the lack of transparency in the corrupt Turkish state, it is difficult to say how much EU money has been used to accommodate the 10 million refugees there, most of whom live in deplorable living conditions. At the same time, Turkey has exponentially expanded its stockpiles of weapons and military, repression, and surveillance technologies. Surely, the EU “refugee money” has been used to intensify the war against the Kurds both at home and abroad, driving millions more to seek refuge in Europe and the rest of the Global North.
In addition to money, the EU has also been supporting Turkey in its silence regarding the systematic mistreatment of refugees and political dissidents in Turkey, as well as Turkey’s political violence, sponsoring of jihadists, military interventions, and war crimes. Erdoğan has answered every tentative critique from EU officials with the threat of “releasing” refugees into Europe. Driven by systemic racist xenophobia, the EU remains complicit in face of Turkey’s violence against Kurds, left-wing revolutionaries, political dissidents, women and sexual minorities, and unwanted migrant and refugee populations, despite the fact that Turkey itself produces millions of refugees.
In short: wherever the European “issue” with migrants and Turkey’s “issue” with Kurds intersect, people are killed, displaced, violently deterred, incarcerated, stripped of rights and, as a final act of dehumanization, used as tokens in blackmail, bargaining, and human trade between states.
I undertook this essay to try to answer Diana’s question, “Why did they do this to us?” after she was evicted from her home with her family and the rest of the residents of the Lavrio camp. I have sought to show how NATO imperialism, the European war on migrants (including those fleeing from Turkey and Kurdistan), and Turkey’s war against Kurds and political dissidents have been intertwined in regional and global power relations. Those suffering oppression, political violence, and economic exploitation—and resisting them by seeking a freer life through migration, autonomous self-organization, and self-defense—are under attack at every step.
Today, the ruins of the Lavrio revolutionary refugee camp, which was a safe haven for political refugees and a cradle of internationalist solidarity for decades, attest to the violence of what the Kurdish Movement calls Capitalist Modernity—an integrated system in which life is devalued, exploited, and extinguished. In the face of such a massive force, which has impacted the residents of the Lavrio camp directly but threatens all of us, the only way to persist is by establishing international solidarity and a common struggle against all the borders and injustices of today’s world.
Those of us who hope to act in solidarity with Diana and with all who are oppressed and struggling must ask what are we going to do to defend the sort of “free life together” that we learned about in Lavrio. Without its inhabitants and their politics, it is just an old wrecked building. We must not let its ruins become an image of the future.
We can do this by speaking out and taking action in response to systematic state violence, and by organizing with oppressed populations against the criminalization of those who seek freedom and better life, whether at home or in exile. Let us honor the history of the Lavrio camp by building alternative spaces of “free life together” that connect revolutionaries, migrants and refugees, locals, and all the oppressed. Let the legacy of the Lavrio camp live on in many new self-organized spaces of comradeship, internationalist solidarity, and struggle.
The header image shows the self-organized camp for political refugees from Kurdistan and Turkey in Lavrio, Greece. Photo: Beja Protner, March 2023.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), Hanna Arendt discussed the “banality of evil” in the Holocaust in regards to the case of the Nazi official Adolph Eichmann, who was responsible for transferring people to concentration camps. With the concept of “banality of evil,” Arendt argued that bureaucrats participating in atrocities are “normal people” working within an ordered system, disengaged from the consequences of their acts, rather than inherently evil sadists. ↩
Dirakis, Yannis (2019). “Claiming the right to the camp – An ethnography of the squatted Lavrio Center of Temporary Stay for Foreign Asylum Seekers” Unpublished master’s thesis. Maastricht: Maastricht University. ↩ ↩2
See Dirik, Dilar (2022). “Mexmûr: From displacement to self- determination (Ch. 23).” In The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice. London: Pluto Press. ↩