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Between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass, Part 2: More Details on Italian Activists and Anarchists in spring 2016

April 10, 2017

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: exactly one year ago today, the Greek-Macedonian border was attacked by migrants at Eidomeni. This, the second part of our analysis of that event, draws on exclusive new interviews with Italian pro-migrant activists present there at the time. (The first part of the analysis, which reveals the specific Italian anarchist and activist groups that actively supported the migrant cause, is available here).

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

In early spring 2016, Albania and Italy strengthened security measures regarding migration in the Balkans. Their increased initiatives and force deployment was done in case migrants tried to go via Albanian territory (north by land or west by sea to Italy). This occurred after the closure of the main Balkan Route from Greece to Macedonia.

By blocking a possible Albania corridor, the action contributed to factors that left the central and main Balkan Route crossing at Eidomeni the major one for migrants hoping to get to Northern Europe. The latter would erupt for the second time in a month on April 10-11, 2016, when angry migrants stormed the border, battling Greek and Macedonia, creating what looked temporarily like a war zone along the border fence separating the two countries. It would be the largest single attempt to breach the Balkan Route to date, but failed due to strong policing on the Macedonian side.

Cooperation between Italy and Albania to Patrol Borders

Before moving to cover that central event, we will first consider the peripheral but important efforts made further east under Italian direction, on the Adriatic coast.

In March 2016 Albania intervened along its border with Greece thanks to a deal stipulated by Angelino Alfano, then-Italian Interior Minister and his Albanian counterpart, Sajmir Tahiri. The deal comprised a set of border management, control and patrolling stations in the most sensitive areas along the Greek-Albania eastern border. Albanian officials decided where Italian forces needed to be deployed, up to a few kilometres from the borderline.

Around 450 Albanian border agents were deployed to carry out patrolling operations together with Italian policemen, according to a preventive strategy meant to control and if necessary to contain migration flows. Among the Italians, there were police instructors and anti-terrorism experts who brought modern tools for control and surveillance. Further, Italy would help record biometric data of migrants entering the country and to electronically share information on their identities. This cooperation was considered particularly significant, as Italy feared illegal infiltration by radicalised individuals. The Trans-Adriatic Route had been already well known for many years for contraband smuggling, and the main Italian priority was to ensure it not become a migrant one as well.

Italian State Actor Involvement on the Main Balkan Route Corridor

This operation raises the more general question of Italian state involvement in troubled areas of the Balkans during that period. Italian officials had already been in the field for quite some time, most probably since the end of 2015. As the migration crisis intensified, with more and more refugees getting stranded in Greece, Italian officials specifically studied the situation at the border with Macedonia to better understand what could happen if the Balkan Route was closed, for national security reasons.

Tommaso Gandini was one of the most prominent Italian activists present in the Balkans for a long time during the period in question. In a new interview for Balkanalysis.com, Gandini affirmed that there had been a rumour that Italian Frontex troops had been spotted near the border. However, he added that he had no way to confirm this as fact.

Regarding the same issue, an Italian official with contacts close to the Ministry of Defence commented for Balkanalysis.com that the main reason for the Italian presence in the border area was the perceived importance of the region for Italy, as Rome’s interests were to keep the area stable and safe.

“The Balkans is still a fragile and fragmented area,” the Italian official stated. “Furthermore, lately it has been the breeding ground for many foreign fighters and home to some dormant jihadi cells which could potentially spill over into Italian territory.”

“Adding to this fear, in spring 2016 there was an ongoing refugee crisis,” the official noted. “Therefore, despite being unapproved, the visit by Italian officials and security experts was a commissioned study of a critical area to later outline possible outcome scenarios.”

From the Italian perspective, one worrying scenario at the time was the possible diversion of uncontrolled flows of migrants to Italy and its already overcrowded reception facility centres, our source confirmed. (Although he did not mention it by name, the ‘commissioned study’ was no doubt the Impressione di Macedonia revealed by Balkanalysis.com last summer).

The ‘March of Hope’ River Crossing (15 March 2016) and German Activism

After the first week of March, the Balkan Route was no longer accessible to migrants following the decision of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Macedonia to close their borders. It was a coordinated policy officially accepted by the EU (with support from Austria and the V4 countries, despite opposition from some EU countries and political blocs). Thousands of people coming from the Greek islands via Athens began piling up at Eidomeni, creating a chaotic make-shift camp along the Greek-Macedonian border.

On 15 March, a migrants’ ‘march of hope’ was triggered not only by the deteriorating conditions at the camp but also by an Arabic-language leaflet which urged refugees to illegally cross the Greek-Macedonian border. The document, supposedly distributed by some activists on Monday 14 March, provided a map and instructions on how to best reach an unfenced part of the border, delineating a river crossing (the Suva Reka, or ‘Dry River’ in Macedonian, near Eidomeni). However, while the flyer promised the river was dry, it was actually very full and three migrants drowned while trying to cross it.

According to The Guardian, German activists had been behind the flyer. German newspaper Bild added that it had been signed by Kommando Norbet Blum- the name of Germany’s former Labour Minister, who spent a week at the camp in ‘solidarity’ with refugees. There were also some activists and journalists who documented this act of defiance and who were later stopped by Macedonian authorities, but soon released and sent back to Greece. Among them there was Paul Ronzheimer, author of the Bild article, who published a video on social media showing the crossing of the river.

Italian activist Tommaso Gandini was not physically present at Eidomeni on that day, but many of his Italian friends were. Based on the accounts of that day available on the MeltingPot.org blog, around 1,500 migrants decided to cross the river as they hoped it would be a good moment to tempt fate.

One goal was to reunite some of the migrants with their families. They had been warned by some people providing aid that the attempt would be dangerous and useless, but they nonetheless tried to cross the border. However, the Macedonian police soon stopped them and sent them back to the Greek police.

According to the blog post, the flyer indicated the way to illegally get into Macedonia, adding that “those who remained at Eidomeni would be deported to Turkey.” Italian activists there tried to persuade refugees that the crossing was a bad idea and that they could be arrested or detained, but they were determined to try as they had nothing to lose. Therefore, volunteers, activists and journalists finally helped these migrants in their impossible mission.

On behalf of his friends who were in the field then, Gandini confirmed for Balkanalysis.com that the flyers, which put thousands of lives in jeopardy, were in fact handed out by some German activists who had arrived at the camp a few days earlier. After that episode, they soon left the site, he added.

This German involvement was strongly condemned by those providing aid at the camp, including the British association Aid Delivery Mission. As proof of this, the press release written by Aid Delivery Mission clarified that after the drowning of 3 Afghans, volunteers had tried to dissuade migrants from crossing the Suva Reka and informed them about the dangers of the illegal crossing.

However, when volunteers realised that the flow of refugees could not be stopped, they followed the march on mountain paths and formed a human chain to make their crossing safer.

Italian Activists and Other Groups at Eidomeni: #overthefortress and the Lawyers from Bologna

One initiative that Italian activists from the #overthefortress group took was to create an ‘info tent’ structure at the centre of the camp. They did this to inform migrants of the general situation in Greece. They also informed migrants about how to make an asylum application in order to be moved to other countries in a reasonable period of time.

At the tent, an Italian legal team from the Bologna-based Associazione Interculturale Le Mafalde soon started cooperating with #overthefortress activists and the ‘info tent’ so that their legal knowledge and expertise was at the disposal of migrants. This legal team consisted of women only, more precisely, three lawyers and two translators of English and Arabic.

After receiving an update from other humanitarian operators regarding how legal cases were normally dealt with at the camp, the Italian lawyers took responsibility for disseminating information and answers at a jurisdictional level, such as the right to family reunification. The lawyers clarified (in a video interview on MeltingPot.org) that they were also the point of reference for some serious cases.

For example, in one case, 24 migrants had tried to cross the border to get to Macedonia but soon reckoned it was not a good idea, and decided to call the police, who brought them back. On this occasion, one man went missing and his wife asked for help from the Associazione Le Mafalde, which went to 4 police stations in Macedonia to report the missing person. However, according to that interview, ‘they turned a deaf ear,’ said an Italian lawyer by the name of Alba.

Therefore, the Italian lawyer got in touch with the Italian Embassy in Skopje, and the Greek police to report the disappearance. Eventually (the lawyer named Alba said), the deputy at the Italian Embassy in Skopje contacted the lawyers from the Milanese association to say the person had been stopped for specific enquiries but that he would soon be released.

Without the support of the association, this would have never been possible, the report said. (Since Alba did not specifically name the Italian Embassy deputy, it is not clear whether he was in fact the then-deputy Filippo Candela, already discussed last summer by Balkanalysis.com in relation to AISE activity in the country).

A ‘Cultural Centre’ and other Ventures at Eidomeni

However, #overthefortress members were not alone at the camp, as there were other groups providing migrants with support and assistance, carrying out activities in which they were specialised. This was occurring even as the general living conditions continued to deteriorate sharply amidst bad weather and overcrowding.

One of them was a group of Spanish bomberos (firemen) which managed to build an independent makeshift hospital facility, offering medical care and aid to those in need. Spanish, German and Italian activists and volunteers also decided to ‘found’ a ‘cultural centre’ where they could teach in an improvised school for children and adults too.

Like many such facilities, this was a structure that acted independently. One #overthefortress member explained that “independent volunteers were those most attacked by the governments which considered them as instigators of migrant’ protests, to finally isolate them and to deny them access to the camps where only NGOs were allowed to operate.’

Finally, a Wifi area (installed by Italians) allowed a certain Mustafa and other Syrians to manage a communication program called Refugees.tv. It also had a Facebook page which recounted facts about life in the camp, problems and protests there, both in Arabic and English, in order to make refugees’ voices heard.

Another Italian Witness from the Eidomeni Camp

Another Italian activist on the field was Luca Mistrello, who wrote about his experience. This is an excerpt of his story: “the very first day that we got there some operators of UNHCR recommended that ‘not under any circumstance should they ever tell migrants that the border was going to open again,’ which was something that we never affirmed anyway.”

On the contrary, they said that the border would never reopen and that the only way migrants could survive was to accept being moved to other camps being organised by the Greek government, with the promise that within 2 months they would be relocated elsewhere in Europe.

“However, many wanted to stay at Eidomeni because at least in that place their condition was in the spotlight and volunteers, journalists and NGOs were speaking about them. Had they been in other informal camps in the inland they would have been forgotten,” Mistrello noted.

Eidomeni Escalation of Tensions (10 April 2016)

As previously reported in the first part of this analysis, on 10 April 2016 many migrant families were the protagonists of a sit-in protest against both Greek and Macedonian officials. Refugees had gathered in front of the Greek police barricade at the Eidomeni border crossing to Macedonia by 9 a.m. on Sunday. Those at the front held up paper placards with peaceful-sounding slogans as they faced down a Greek police deployment. For the first couple of hours, the protests were calm.

Tommaso Gandini is one of the most prominent Italian activists of the #overthefortress march, was present at Eidomeni for a long period (between February and May 2016). He also took part in the Brenner Pass demonstration on 3 April that was covered in the first part of our report.

Gandini recounted his experience there for Balkanalysis.com and clearly expressed his point of view. “The attempted criminalisation of activists and volunteers is a constant phenomenon of the last few years, from Eidomeni to Athens and from Udine to Ventimiglia,” he stated.

“On 10 April I wasn’t there [at Eidomeni], but I know exactly and personally who organised the protest,” he says. “They were all Syrians, and not only did I speak to them, I also saw various videos that showed the reality of the facts. Thousands approached the border and a delegation of migrants had a dialogue with the police: ‘we would like to enter and we are going to enter today. We will remove these fences of barbed wire and thus enter, but we don’t want to hurt anyone. Please let us in, we don’t wish to hurt anyone,’ they said.”

Gandini made a further claim- that there were no international activists there who intervened, but only some journalists documenting the facts. For this reason, he concluded, “this means that there are no elements to say that the protest was coordinated or prompted by activists. It was completely self-organised.”

Further Italian Activist Testimony Regarding the April 10 Border Attack

With regards to this episode, another Italian activist of the #overthefortress campaign – who was actually at Eidomeni on that day – wrote on the activists’ website that on 9 April rumours were spreading all over the camp that migrants would organise a peaceful sit-in against the authorities on the following day.

However, the young Italian student-activist denied that Italian activists informed migrants to break through the border on 10 April (neither by flyers nor by word-of-mouth). He also denied that these Italians could somehow have been involved in prompting migrants to act against Macedonian officials.

On the contrary, he said that the main reason for defying Macedonian authorities was the increasing frustration of migrants. They were angered over the worsening conditions at the Greek camp, and the closure of the Balkan Route. He and his other colleagues (named Andrea, Carmen and Sandro) also recorded the events live, documenting the unrest on Twitter and Facebook.

A seeming confirmation of this appeared on an Italian anarchist website called Hurriya (in Arabic, ‘Freedom’), which used the Italian slogan ‘senza frontiere, senza galere’ (‘without borders, without jails’).

The website reported that after the EU-Turkey deal, protests of migrants soared in many parts of Greece and everyday people expressed their intention to break through the border at Eidomeni and Evros (the Greek-Turkish border region). On 10 April, after weeks of latent anger, many of them were determined to break through the razor wire fence to get to Macedonia.

According to the website, the Greek government and the mainstream media considered that the uprisings were fostered by flyers handed out by volunteers and activists. Similarly to what had occurred in Calais at the ‘Jungle’ migrant camp, the website argued that “this is the way in which the media wanted to convey the distorted idea that migrants were ‘piloted’ by solidarity groups and volunteers.”

Hurriya also explained that in the wake of the tensions of 10 April, surveillance and controls were stepped up by Greek police towards aid groups and activists over the following days. On 12 April, the Greek police stopped 17 people (among them Germans, Austrians, Portuguese, Greeks, Swedes, one Palestinian and one Syrian) near a river bridge.

Towards the end of April and beginning of May, tensions skyrocketed and concern about repression was widespread among migrants. Those seeking to leave the camp had three possibilities. The first one was to go by bus to an inland-located militarised camp organised by the Greek government, even though they would not know in advance what the destination was. Alternatively, people from Eidomeni could try to cross the Macedonian border illegally by paying a smuggler. This would involve walking through mountainous pathways for hours- with a good risk of being spotted by police and sent back to the encampment. The third and last possibility was going back to Turkey, with all the uncertainties which that entailed.

Conclusion: The Invisible Bridge between Eidomeni and The Brenner Pass

When asked about the connection between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass, and thus activists’ presence in those places, Gandini made this comment for Balkanalysis.com: “Eidomeni and the Brenner both represent the unwillingness of Northern-Central European countries to take charge of migrants. Both borders were indeed closed because Austria, with its border closure caused a domino effect. Countries like Croatia and Slovenia had no problem letting migrants pass, as nobody wanted to stay in those countries anyway,” he said.

“However, with the closure of the Austrian border they worried about dealing with thousands of people stranded on their territory,” Gandini stated. “Austria is not the root of all evil, but it had to take decisions for all the other countries of Northern-Central Europe.”

The clear connection of the northern border pressure points in Greece and Italy in the activists’ minds made it seem logical for them to thus carry out provocations at both places almost simultaneously during spring 2016. This had a tactical, but also propagandistic aspect.

After being at Eidomeni, and operating as at the Brenner Pass, activists and volunteers made their voice heard. Their permanent presence in Greece existed along with their operation at the Brenner Pass, and their determination break through both borders.

Judging by their determination and solidarity effort, this was particularly important in their relationship with migrants, to instill in them the awareness that the activists were there not only to help them survive, but also to ensure that they were ‘fighting against the system’ and the mechanisms that closed the borders.

Although all of the details concerning the turbulent attempts to attack Macedonian and Austrian borders in spring 2016 may never be known, two important details emerge from this collective testimony. The first was that these cases (like many similar ones) were perceived and presented in a manner typical to the left-wing activist and anarchist movements, as a means of resisting state power and controls. This is a very old motivation for such groups, and the migrant crisis has thus represented another opportunity (or even, excuse) for such groups to mobilise.

The second important aspect of the activist-migrant encounter in spring 2016 was that it had the effect of further emboldening desperate people who were already angered by poor living conditions, EU political decisions, and a general impatience to reach the ‘promised land’ of Northern Europe. By instilling a sense of false hope in the trapped migrant population at Eidomeni, the perhaps well-meaning but irresponsible activists influenced a highly volatile situation in which migrant violence created a genuine security concern for affected states, while damaging relations between European states, parties and blocs.

In conclusion, we can say that while the history is still being written, the historic presence of migrant activists and anarchists played a key role in influencing political processes and security reactions that, while seemingly temporary in nature, will have effects for a long time to come.

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