By Stuart Richardson
In 2015, the popular, Greek island of Lesbos in the east Aegean Sea was overwhelmed. That summer, in addition to the seasonal flow of city slickers and foreign tourists, a new group of guests — refugees — arrived on the island in droves. In total, some 13,000 refugees made the short journey from Turkey to Lesbos by August of that year; many more crowded along the Turkish coast intent on following close behind on smugglers’ ships.
With an emerging humanitarian catastrophe on its hands, Europe struck a deal with Turkish authorities to stymie the arrival of refugees. A stopgap solution to an erupting problem, the EU-Turkey deal succeeded in reducing the number of refugees in Lesbos, but it did not end the emergency altogether.
Today, the waves still lap the shores of Lesbos, but the smuggler ships are few and far between. The island, once ground zero for a humanitarian crisis that was imperiling Europe, has seemingly returned to its idyllic, languid homeostasis. But further inland, just a few kilometers northwest of the capital — Mytilene — a functioning vestige of the disaster remains atop a hill.
Moria, a refugee camp which still houses some 5,000 refugees stranded in Lesbos, is the setting for a new documentary portraying Europe’s lingering migrant crisis. In “Inadmissable,” Paris School of International Affairs alumni and filmmakers Cristina Orsini and Aghiles Ourad explore the consequences that the EU-Turkey deal has had on the lives of refugees and migrants now caught in diplomatic limbo under frightening conditions.
In Lesbos, where refugees living in ragged tents subsist for months on meager rations, Moria camp has effectively become a detention center. For Ourad and Orsini, the conditions of the camp, which remains closed to outsiders, were shocking.
“We weren’t aware that the deal created what, for me, was an open-air prison,” Ourad laments.
The duo had originally come to the island as representatives of Thrǣdable, a social enterprise they created in 2016, to host an art workshop with the non-profit Legal Centre Lesbos, which represents refugees on the island. However, when the pair realized that the humanitarian crisis there was still raging, they chose to stick around and capture the despair on camera. As Ourad puts it, the journalists-cum-activists “felt almost obliged to do the story.”
Thrǣdable seeks to bridge gaps in information and understanding between the world’s most marginalized populations and the rest of the globe.
“The mission is to raise awareness and inform about social issues that are not covered in the mainstream media or that are covered in a way that we feel is stereotyped,” says Orsini.
The organization’s approach is unique. In addition to documenting the many crises troubling the world today, Thrǣdable also partners with local non-profit and advocacy groups to organize art workshops. At these events, participants have an opportunity to create images that the team intends to print onto t-shirts and bags and eventually sell online. Half of the profit from these sales will funnel back into the coffers of Thrǣdable’s partner institutions so that they can expand their operations as needed.
Together, Ourad and Orsini have plied the Mediterranean, collecting stories and designs from those who exist at the margins of society. Before Greece, the two traveled twice to Sicily and once to Tunisia to document human smuggling and the struggle for democratization. After each excursion, the pair shared its experiences in online articles and video featurettes that often glanced topical issues in unexpected ways. For example, in Sicily, Orsini was able to sit down with a detained human smuggler to get a glimpse at the migrant crisis through the eyes of one of its most despised actors.
In Lesbos, however, the severity of the crisis could not warrant a cursory look. “Inadmissible” is a veritable evolution in Thrǣdable’s work. Far from the thoughtful prose and light-hearted videos that the organization usually produces, the 37-minute documentary weaves together harrowing accounts of life as a refugee with the insights of legal representatives at the Legal Centre Lesbos. This odd juxtaposition of personal narrative and bureaucratic jargon portrays life in Moria as a chronic nightmare. Reports of listless days, fires, police brutality, political obstruction, and inter-ethnic fighting offer few glimmers of hope to Thrǣdable’s interlocutors. In truth, “Inadmissable” masterfully conveys this sense of despondency to its viewers, who are left wondering how such a miserable place could exist in Europe.
To be sure, Orsini and Ourad experienced similar bewilderment on their journey, particularly with regard to the EU-Turkey deal.
“It is absolutely shameful what is going on there,” says Orsini, who condemned Europe’s agreement in a recent article. “If anything, the situation is much worse because this is the EU,” Ourad adds. “The EU is complicit in sending people back to danger [in Turkey].”
After it came into effect in March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal became Europe’s most recent crowning achievement. European leaders and heads of government almost invariably lauded the pact as a paragon of supranationalism, a needed victory for a foundering EU. In its simplest terms, the deal grants Turkey’s EU membership bid a new lease on life in exchange for stemming the flow of refugees and irregular migrants who were once reaching Europe’s borders en masse. In practice, the agreement has benefited national powers at the expense of already vulnerable refugees. Turkey has yet to explain how it treats refugees who are transferred from the Greek islands, and outsiders have very few ways of knowing: once out of Europe, refugees often disappear into Turkish prisons.
Thrǣdable hopes that its projects will help to restart a dialogue on the refugee crisis which supposedly ended last year. Already, the team has found that its art workshops and a subsequent exhibition have worked to unite the local population of Lesbos and its long-term guests by gathering them for cultural events.
“The project was touching for us because a lot of times the refugees have their own spaces,” says Orsini. “There’s a kind of separation of space on Lesbos. And I think the exposition was an occasion to break the separation.” Now, with “Inadmissable”, Thrǣdable aims to bring a wider audience into this conversation.
“Inadmissable” will premiere Friday, 14 April, at 7pm at 27 rue Saint-Guillaume in Paris. A short Q&A with the filmmakers — as well as with Carlos Orjuela, the founder of the Legal Centre Lesbos and Norma Jullien, a representative from the Legal Centre — will follow the screening. Attendees are kindly asked to register for the event beforehand.