Shut down Pagani! Azadi!

Another evaluation of the no border camp in Lesvos. By transact!, October 2009. Published in german language in ak – analyse und kritik.


Never before have we experienced a noborder camp on the outer borders of the EU at which political protests and social struggles for the freedom of movement were as intertwined as they were in Lesvos. International press coverage about the detention centre Pagani was considerable and we return with many new impulses for transnational networking. Even if meetings were characterised by strong disagreements, our evaluation of Lesvos is overwhelmingly positive.

Tomorrow when we continue our journey, we will be refugees again. But till the last minute we will be just people here tonight, friends celebrating together. Who would’ve thought that on this island we wouldn’t have to hide in the woods and that we would get the gift of a night of freedom amongst friends!

These words speak volumes. They are the words of a young Afghani man on the last night of the noborder camp that took place near Mytilini, the capital of the island of Lesvos. True words they are, given the impressive events of those days, in particular at the infopoint which was set up along the harbour right from the start. There tourists could get information about the situation of refugees, whilst (silent) supporters from the island brought blankets and food. Some of the locals also shared the experiences they had had with refugees. Within a few days, this self-organised “Welcome Centre” became the central meeting point for (paperless) newcomers and released detainees; a space to rest, a space to exchange information and a space for collective action.

As we expected, both time and place of the noborder camp were well chosen. Lesvos is a key site in the external border regime of the EU: Each night new refugee boats arrived and the detention centre at Pagani had been suffering from overcrowding for weeks. Greek border guards and Frontex were on patrol around the clock. Around 600 activists from many different countries had travelled to Lesvos for the week of protests. Aside from the Greek activists, most of them were from Germany, but also from many other countries. Five days before the noborder camp began, 150 young people detained in Pagani went on hunger strike to demand their release. This set the tone and what was about to unfold. The first solidarity actions then began, producing the kinds of images that would cause stirs in the international media in the weeks to come: refugees smuggled a camera into the prison to document the inhumane conditions forced on them inside. With a slight delay, these even made it onto CNN and some of this material was also broadcast in the German media. However, both press work within Greece as well as on an international level could have been even more effective if engagement with mainstream media hadn’t been such a controversial issue.

The first contentious issue that emerged was a familiar one to activists in Germany: 40 hunger strikers had fought their way out of Pagani and were waiting for the crossing to Athens with nowhere to stay and without any resources. The places on the ferries were all booked and they couldn’t leave, so they were invited to join the camp. Immediately people began to worry how to continue to do political actions when hundreds of refugees needed to be cared for. Many – especially local activists – feared getting lost in individual support work and being instrumentalised by the state in the process. What was at stake here was the possibility of connecting practical solidarity with political demands. Unfortunately though, it remained a theoretical debate in meetings as to how dynamic resistance could unfold through joining together social (survival) struggles and political initiatives. This was why the Infopoint was such an astute compromise.


At the Infopoint, noborder activists wanting to confront the border regime politically could come together with those whose journey to Europe was a practical challenge to those borders. Through this process, refugees and activists were able to break through language barriers and organise mutual support as well as collective (political!) action. The kitchen collective brought food and noborder activists offered medical assistance, legal advice and practical help for people continuing their journey. Experienced migrants translated and shared what they had learned along the way, those who were more rested helped the exhausted newcomers. New arrivals participated in farewell parades for those embarking on their journey towards Athens. Setting a precedence, an Afghani family fought and won the ability to register without detention! For the Frontex action day, refugees and activists painted a huge multi-language ‘Freedom of Movement’ banner and hung it up at the Infopoint. It’s not always easy to get the balance between care and activism or negotiations and street actions right, and so everyone’s emotional and physical boundaries were constantly being pushed to their limits. Yet it was precisely this process that appeared to us to be one of the most powerful aspects of the noborder camp.

From the moment the hunger strikes happened shortly before noborder09 began, it was clear that the detention centre would become a main focal point. Pagani was completely overcrowded with at times 1000 men, women and children locked away in appalling conditions lacking in hygiene as well as access to food and water. Nearly every day, larger and smaller actions took place with calls of “Freedom! Azadi!” resounding from inside and out. Protesters shook the gates of the prison, occupied the courtyard and in the end even the roof. A source of long and bitter debates was whether and how to have forced a mass break-out and close down the prison. Wouldn’t that have been the only appropriate action (and technically possible)? However, people inside were clear that they didn’t want to break out like ‘criminals’, they wanted to be released (people also feared still having to encounter the authorities at the ferry port, a chokepoint if you want to go further). And so – at least for the duration of the noborder camp – the strategy was to put continued pressure on the authorities from inside and outside, to shorten the time refugees were physically detained and to transform the prison into an open centre.

This debate led straight into inextricably linked discussions about action repertoires, repeatedly surfacing in all meetings and working groups. Already in advance, intense conflicts had ensued within the Greek networks: anarchist groups weren’t participating because they couldn’t work with the “network for political and social rights” (Diktio). Autonomous and anarchist groups from other countries expected more direct actions and consistently felt like they were being restricted when they made concrete proposals for actions. It’s true that many ideas for actions were blocked, either because of fears that these wouldn’t be carried out responsibly, or because these might endanger other (in some cases actually also questionable) negotiation tactics. Additionally, huge communication problems existed that had to do with different protest cultures as well as (often non-transparent) decision-making processes. Also, the riot cops brought in from Athens did everything but make any of the actions easier. Completely at random they would use their batons to demonstrate that civil disobedience wouldn’t be met with any kind of civil response. Another difficulty were conflicts around different sensitivities in given situations. A good example here was the attempt (thwarted by other activists) by a few small groups to break out of the demonstration in the inner-city harbour area to do a militant action – against clear agreements within the incredibly heterogeneous preparatory group that had organised the demo, along with repeated pleas by local activists. Overall, lamentably (and this is directed at everyone), we weren’t successful at carrying out self-organised and well-prepared actions that directly confronted the infrastructure of Frontex, Coastguard & Co.

There was quite a buzz on the Frontex-action day when activists in 50 paddle boats attempted to surround the Coastguard. Of course the Greek coast guards were ‘nice enough’ to display their finesse in making waves that push back refugee boats at high sea. At the same time as this was going on, the demo against Frontex started, led – amongst others – by activists from Mali and Mauritania, who in West Africa are also faced with EU border agency operations. In workshops it was possible to strengthen transnational networking with them as well as activists from Eastern Europe and Turkey, meaning that more joint initiatives against Frontex and illegal deportations (‘refoulements’) along the EU’s outer borders are planned for the future. More than ever before, noborder09 left behind sustainable structures on a local level. The week of protests invigorated and strengthened the local support group which continues to raise public awareness of the scandalous conditions in Pagani, not least because new detainees continue to rebel. Clearly motivated by noborder09 events, the following weeks saw more protests which have now led to the re-instatement of an open centre. Newly arrived families should be registered there without being detained, a small but real shift from the existing practice of deterrence. Additionally, the ‘Voices of Pagani’ have made Dublin-refoulements more difficult, and against the backdrop of the successful fast-track appeal at the German Constitutional Court, it’s no coincidence that [the German interior minister; l09.a.i] Schäuble has complained about Greece endangering the whole Dublin-system.

Via the infopoint, noborder09 came into contact with an estimated 200 Sans Papiers and was able to undermine the existing registration and internment system during the days of the noborder camp. The contacts established have been maintained beyond Athens and refugees who have made it to where they wanted to go have already been in touch! For a few moments, the infopoint allowed us to gain a glimpse of what a self-organised “Welcome-Centre” could look like. The words of a young woman from Somalia leave no doubt at all:

I am most thankful to have learned that there is more than one journey. When I left Somalia, I started my journey to find a safer and better place to live, because I wanted to support my family. I can now see more clearly what Europe looks like and how it isn’t the safe place I hoped to reach. We are thrown into terrible prisons and Europe sends its troops to fight us at sea. I have never learned so much in such a short time. It was difficult to learn, but I learnt even more. I began my second journey here, seeing all the others who sit in the same little boats and fight for survival and to get further. In the last days together with you here in this tent in Mytilini I have been able to see what it would be like if we all go on the journey together. Maybe to another place that might exist somewhere in the future.

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Voices from the Inside of Pagani (2009)

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