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At Europe’s Threshold – Bangladeshi Migrants in Greece

By Jessica van Vugt.

This photo-essay is about Bangladeshi migrants in Athens, Greece. Using the case of the Bangladeshi migrants, I wanted to explore how the European discourse of strict immigration and asylum policies on the one hand and the growing deregulating labor markets featured by an increasing employers’ demand for cheap ‘flexible’ laborers, on the other hand, shapes the lives of economic migrants in Greece. The accounts of fifteen young Bangladeshi men together with my camera, which was always hanging on my shoulder, tell the story of how they experience, shape and navigate their lives. This photo-essay is based on that story.

Zakir and his kite.

The clouds wrap themselves together above the coast of Vouliagmeni just a few kilometers outside Athens. Zakir and myself, trying to get the kite we bought along the way into the air before the rain would make its entrance. Kite running is an art, and after repeated attempts and the perseverance of Zakir, the kite gently comes off the ground. Although doubtfully the dancing kite slowly rises higher and higher, to a remote place in the air until we only see spots of yellow, red and green against the gray sky. Zakir imagines himself as the kite. He would fly to other places: The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, or Bangladesh. Whichever place he wants. He would be free. Then the kite makes a dive, the wind forces it back towards the earth, and within a split-second, the rocks on the edge of the coast claim it’s mobility. It is stuck and pulling the strings does not help to get it moving again. Zakir groans: “Just like me, they do not let me go.”

The ‘stuckness’ of the kite, which Zakir uses as a metaphor for his experience as a migrant in Athens, applies to many other Bangladeshi migrants in Greece. While an aspiration of finding better economic opportunities abroad and escaping the unstable and sometimes violent political situation drove them to undertake the dangerous route to Europe, their travels became to a halt in Greece. There, they find themselves in a multi-dimensional precarious situation, often for many years.

Most of the Bangladeshi migrants who reach Greece apply for an asylum procedure and therefore will be given a ‘white card’ (International Protection Applicant Card). This ‘white card’ cannot be placed in a formal classified category of either legality or illegality but it generates a continuous liminal condition. While this may offer the Bangladeshi migrants opportunities since they are at least allowed to stay and work in Greece temporarily and are often able to get multiple renewals, this legal liminal condition also renders them highly precarious as they cannot travel further, nor integrate into the local society and they are constantly threatened to become ‘illegalized’.

A ‘white card’: Most of the Bangladeshi migrants in Greece travel in and out of semi-legality, not knowing whether and, if so, when they will lose their card.

Besides threats to become illegalized, constant threats are also coming from checks by police officers, like random stops and ‘pushy’ searches. In the streets of Athens, the police regularly force people with a ‘foreign appearance’ to prove that they have the right to stay in Greece. And even when they can show that they are legitimate, they are still regularly transferred by the police to a police station where they are detained for hours while awaiting verification of their ‘legality’.

While I met Ghadif and his roommates, at a bench in a park in central Athens, they continuously scanned their surroundings fearing to be stopped by the police.

In response, their legal status precarity pushes the Bangladeshi migrants into a grey area of the economy, which becomes further strengthened by a weak Greek state combined with a lack of government controls. On the one hand this offers the Bangladeshi migrants in Athens a considerable maneuvering space to find loopholes in the system. Some, for example, even manage to start their own business.

One of the Bangladeshi owned shops in Athens.

But most find work in low-prestige jobs in the construction, agriculture, the garment industry and the service sector. Or they end up working illegally as self-employed in the informal trade of street vending.

Aminul, selling selfie sticks near the Acropolis.

However, on the other hand, the weak Greek state and a lack of government control simultaneously enable employers to construct certain types of workers and enforce certain labor relations. Therefore, many Bangladeshi migrants in Greece, have significant experiences with labor exploitation, marginalization, discrimination, threats and assaults at work.

Working long hours in ‘hidden’ garment factories.

Although many of the Bangladeshi migrants experience the same struggles, this does not seem to lead to large-scale bonding with fellow Bangladeshis or collective mobilization. To the contrary, the condition of multi-dimensional precarity in the case of the Bangladeshi migrants in Athens leads to feelings and experiences of distrust and rivalry, and hence to an absence of supportive relations and a lack of integration. They often feel alone and ‘on their own’.











But, even though they feel alone, trapped in a multi-dimensional precarious situation, these often-young Bangladeshi men do not throw in the towel. They react to their situation with acts of resilience. Consciously or unconsciously they search for loopholes and create opportunities which enable them to reshape and give new meaning to their often prolonged precarious situation. Moreover, they all hope that one day their struggle will be over. It is the act of hoping that keeps them going.

For Zakir his hopes became reality. Last month, after almost nine years he received the right papers which allow him to travel back and forward between Bangladesh and Europe and he was finally able to see his parents again. But, while Zakir’s now feels free like a kite in the wind, many of the Bangladeshi migrants in Greece are still stuck in a precarious situation.

All names in this photo-essay have been changed for privacy reasons.

Jessica van Vugt was a master student Anthropology at the VU. She has written her thesis about Bangladeshi migrants in Athens, Greece.

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