Sunday, 26 May 2019

"I am not safe" by Clara Caldero Delgado

"I am not safe" by Clara Caldero Delgado exposes the reality of sexual exploitation of young refugees and migrants in European cities

Thierry Geoffroy Colonel, "I am not safe" at Victoria Square, April 8th 2017. Part of the contemporary art exhibition Documenta 14 in Athens.

Life unfolds as usual in Victoria Square, a public space in central Athens, next to Pedion tou Areos Park. Passers-by rush home, to the shops that surround the square or to grab their diary caffeine dose at Coffee Island. A woman takes her dog for a walk, young refugees sit in a bench awaiting for an old man to offer them money or food in exchange for sex, and kids play football all around. Business as usual, nothing outrageous to highlight, right?
This article will try to bring some light to how it has been possible that abuse and sexual exploitation of young refugees and migrants have been naturalized as part of the city life,  rendering this outrageous form of violence invisible in the eyes of diary witnesses (and of politicians who receive reports about it sitting behind  their bureaus in other capitals).
In Athens, Victoria Square and its surroundings have been the epicentre of the so-called “refugee” crisis (“political will” crisis would be a far better name) since refugee and migrant arrivals peaked in 2015. By November 2018, 67,100 refugees and migrants are stuck in Greece, being 3,400 of them unaccompanied children (93’5% boys). A huge shortage of accommodation leaves 2,363 children without official shelter, and forces hundreds to live in the streets.
As the Greek asylum system remains collapsed, and the European Union’s (EU) relocation system cracked due to EU member states unwillingness to take in refugees (last data on relocations can be accessed here), refugees and migrants face eternal bureaucratic procedures while they do not have any means at their disposal to ensure survival. Some of them do not even have hope to be granted protection nor relocation: The 2016 EU-Turkey agreement put all those who arrived after 20th March 2016 at risk of deportation. The same is true for all those considered to come from ‘’safe’’ countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, from which most of unaccompanied children in Greece come from.
No shelter. No food. No school. No work. No way to move forward. Nothing but their body to get the money they need to pay smugglers and reach another European country. Many of the unaccompanied children living in the streets of Athens, as well as those in official shelters, are facing commercial sexual exploitation. It is taking place in open public spaces, mainly Victoria Square and Pedion tou Areos Park, in a way that its made self-evident to local authorities and Athenians, while academics, UNHCR, local NGOs and social workers point at it repeatedly in their reports. Last January 2017, Harvard Center for Health and Human Rights published a throughout study on the topic. However, political responses remain absent.
In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Fillipo Grandi, ‘’there is a lot of survival sex that is happening, there is sexual harassment and sexual abuse. I think that this is something we cannot tolerate, in particular in the European Union.” But we do. At this point, estimated reader, I would ask you to just Google ‘’male refugee sexual exploitation greece’’ to navigate through some personal accounts of the tragedy, so numbers become to you actual people, with a name, a face, a story.
The first reaction: How can this be happening, nowadays, here, in the daylight, in front of us? How can this have been happening since 2015, or even before? This article argues that the normalized presence of this form of violence is not circumstantial, exceptional, or something to be isolated from the rest of social interactions and norms, but constitutive of Greek (and may we say European?) society. In order to do so, we will use two simple conflict analysis tools: Galtung and Riches’ triangles (to find more about them, just click on the links!).
Galtung’s triangle of violence is useful to our analysis because it allows us to realize that the acts of sexual exploitation are just a manifestation of deeper structural and cultural violences, which are invisible. In our case, structural violence would be refugees and migrants’ deprivation, caused by the failure of asylum seekers’ protection system and the socioeconomic conditions that make for them impossible to find a job. Cultural violence would have to do with the value system that nourishes this sexual violence, such as racism, xenophobia or classism, a dehumanization of “the other” mixed with specific gender understandings.
In Victoria Square and its surroundings, the three types of violence come into play and their interaction results in a very particular outcome. They can help us explain why even if sexual exploitation of young refugees and migrants is a well-known secret, there is no general public nor governmental response to it. Even if young boys are seen to engage in transactional sex with old men, it is not perceived as violence. Structural and cultural violences have not only fed, but also made invisible direct acts of violence in the eyes of the public.
Here is where Riches’ triangle of violence enters the scene. Perception is essential to the understanding of violence because it is what constitutes a violent act as legitimate or illegitimate, or as our case proves, going even further, as violent or non-violent. In this particular case, the witnesses are not able to see the act as violent because, in their biased perception, being subject to sexual exploitation is part of victims’ identity, having sex with old men is something they are used to. As it is natural for them, they are not actual victims (See outrageous interview to UNCHR consultant regarding the myths about Afghan boys).
Finally, it is also interesting to apply Riches triangle to this particular case because it allows us to see beyond the perpetrator as the individual who engages in transactional sex, and point at the Greek state as the actor enabling the conditions for this violence to take place. Going even further, we can also claim responsibility to the European Union for the imposition of austerity policies that weakened welfare provisions of Greece, as well as the all-encompassing securitization of migration flows and borders that resulted in the protracted “refugee” crisis in countries of arrival.
In short, the fact that sexual exploitation of refugee and migrant children has been integrated in daily life routine in a European capital raises important moral and political concerns. Looking at it throughout the lens of conflict analysis helps us to identify issues of perception and responsibility. What remains now is only the hope that understanding brings consciousness, and consciousness, social change.

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