This article was co-authored with Philippa Metcalfe, who researches Data Justice and Migration at Cardiff University
Thousands of people across the world are showing their solidarity with a small, independent refugee camp on Lesvos threatened with closure by the authorities. The #savepikpa campaign hopes to stop the eviction of around 100 people deemed particularly vulnerable. But with an eviction notice served and a court decision due this week, time for the Pikpa camp and its community might be running out.
Pikpa isn’t what you imagine when you think of a refugee camp. Contrary to reports of squalid, overcrowded and dangerous conditions in the main Lesvos camp of Moria, Pikpa’s calm, green and safe environment, on the site of a former children’s summer camp, is home to a solidarity movement where people work together to show that an alternative is possible. Established by local residents in 2012 to express solidarity with those facing economic hardship in the face of severe austerity, Pikpa has evolved into a safe haven for the most vulnerable refugees in Lesvos. Since its inception, the project has provided support to over 30,000 people, and has become a symbol of solidarity and hope for the diverse communities that now coexist on the island and beyond.
Today Pikpa hosts the most vulnerable people on the island, including those with medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes and complicated pregnancies, and others who have survived torture and trafficking or are still mourning loved ones who drowned in shipwrecks. Here they receive not only accommodation but also medical, psycho-social and legal support from a team of paid staff and volunteers. And ever conscious of the project’s roots in the local community, many of the services are open to both camp residents and the local community, such as the kindergarten ‘Mikros Dounias’ where children from the camp and the local area learn together.
But the project is now threatened by a court case filed against the camp by a few local hotel owners and individuals, and an eviction notice from the regional government.
This latest eviction threat began when, during a recent emergency, the Pikpa camp hosted around 350 extra people in a space which normally houses 100. After a particularly violent episode in Moria on25 May 2018, Kurdish families and individuals left the camp and congregated in the park in Mytilene, the capital of the island. Fearing that the situation would escalate, given the violent attacks on Afghan asylum-seekers who had protested in the square the month before, the police were reluctant to allow them to remain while recognising the dangers of sending them back to Moria. Without an emergency plan for such a situation, the police requested that they be allowed to stay in Pikpa for the night with an assurance that a solution would be found the next day.
But with no viable alternative given the dangerously stretched capacity of the island, many of the people transferred that night, and others who left Moria in the following days, remained in Pikpa for three weeks. During that time, the new arrivals, existing residents, volunteers and local organisations worked through the days and nights to try to maintain the high standards of the camp and to ensure that everyone had adequate food and shelter.
But during this time a few local hotel owners and individuals lodged a complaint against the camp in the local court, seeking its closure and compensation for their alleged loss of business. And at the same time the camp was subject to a series of inspections - first by the forest authorities, who went away satisfied that no trees had been cut down on the site, and then by the health and safety inspectorate, whose report a few days later identified three minor issues. While the community at Pikpa worked quickly to address the report’s recommendations, it nevertheless received a notice on 28 June from the Governor of the North Aegean Region that stated that the camp posed ‘a danger to public health and the environment’ and should be closed within 15 days.
These developments come at a time of increasing intolerance, even criminalisation, of expressions of solidarity in Europe. From measures to frustrate rescue operations in the Mediterranean to national laws that criminalise assistance to people without documents such as the prosecution of the French farmer, David Mallon, for taking a woman who was giving birth in the snowy mountains of the French Alps to hospital, there’s a clear agenda directed at undermining the provision of solidarity.
The impact of these policies is already being felt in the Mediterranean as the number of deaths soar in the absence of sufficient search and rescue provision, and across Europe as people struggle to reconcile their motivation to help with a fear of breaking the law. And as Lesvos becomes an increasingly precarious landscape for both asylum-seekers and locals, with the number of people contained on the island in the context of the EU-Turkey deal far outstripping the capacity of the ‘official’ camps, the necessity of solidarity-driven initiatives such as Pikpa becomes ever more acute.
In recognition of that, solidarity for Pikpa is being expressed across the world by former residents of the camp, the local community, volunteers and other supporters. One said on Facebook that Pikpa was a ‘safe haven of humanity in a sea full of suffering’, while another called for everyone to ‘stand together with our friends in Pikpa… who defend and protect the most vulnerable among us’. The Director of Amnesty International for Greece said that ‘anyone who is silent now will be partly responsible’, and described Pikpa as ‘the most emblematic space of solidarity and hospitality with and for refugees’.
The #savepikpa campaign celebrates the camp community’s achievements and the project’s commitment to solidarity between locals and refugees on the island. It is a reminder of the creativity and generative potential of projects that work outside the traditional NGO or humanitarian funding framework to provide support and solidarity at a time when those principles are increasingly tested, and contested.