'The Only Good Thing':

Citizenship and Vulnerable Bodies

27 December 2023

Christos Chrysanthopoulos University of Patras and National Hellenic Research Foundation

‘The only good thing, then, is that we have not lost any human life, apart from those poor 18 people who died in the forest of Dadia’ (at the time of writing, the number has been confirmed as 19 deaths). With this contradictory statement, the public television presenter Alexandra Douvara reported the news about the charred bodies of migrants caught in the wildfires in the north-eastern border region of Evros in August 2023. As the statement makes clear, the vulnerable bodies of people on the move are seen as ‘less than’ human life. Such an acknowledgment reveals the diffusion and normalisation of racist discourse in the Greek public sphere (after the reactions on social media, the journalist was forced to apologise with a public statement about her announcement in the news presentation). Following suit, the Prime Minister, speaking in Parliament, attributed the environmental tragedy in Evros to the migratory movement itself, without providing any proof to back this accusation. He insisted that the fires started close to the ‘routes of migration’, in an argument that ran against the official fire brigade analysis that most probably the fires arose as a result of lightning.

Those same days, while the huge fires were still raging in Evros, videos of self-appointed ‘border guards’ arresting migrants were released. They also accused them, falsely, for having started the fires. That same summer, more than 600 refugees died tragically in the Pylos shipwreck – under as of yet unclear circumstances. The ‘safety of human life’ is at the heart of the rhetoric employed by the country’s power structures. It is the central slogan after every disaster. Yet, which lives and which bodies matter? Τhe question once posed by the philosopher Judith Butler, as well as the concept of liveability (and non-liveable lives), becomes especially poignant in this context. The rhetoric of safety does not seem to cover the moving, ‘foreign’ bodies of migrants and refugees; indeed, most of the rhetoric of safety in Greece is built on biopolitical statements that regularly remind us of their necropolitical sidekick: ‘our’ lives are safe while ‘others’ are not.

At the time of writing (September 2023), Greek social media are filled with anger and rage over the death of Antonis Karyotis, a young man who drowned in the port of Piraeus, having been thrown in the sea by crew members as he rushed to board a ship headed for Crete. The information that is gradually being published reveals the victim to have been a vulnerable person of low economic and social status. Were it not for the video of his drowning, made by bystanders and then circulated on both mainstream and social media outlets, it is possible that we would have continued our daily lives undisturbed. It is also probable that we would have just believed the initial announcement that Karyotis fell in the sea on his own, having failed to properly board the ship; that his death was another collateral damage in the fight for ‘our’ safety. My mind goes back to the death of transqueer activist Zak Kostopoulos (Zackie Oh) in September 2018, and the video documenting their murder in broad daylight. Another vulnerable body, who would have been presented as responsible for their own demise, had it not been for the videos documenting their death at the hands of members of the public and police officers.

It is high time that we picked up the thread from the start and demanded that all bodies matter. Developing and broadening the debate around citizenship also means taking care of vulnerable bodies. It means protesting against any assertion of ‘our’ safety that tacitly excludes, divides and disenfranchises; it means taking to task and unmasking any form of ‘safety’ that celebrates the ways in which it makes us live, while constantly letting others die.

*This is an edited extract from a piece first published in the Journal of Greek Media and Culture in December 2023, as part of the debate 'Acts of Citizenship in Present Day Greece'.