Zoe Gilchrist


“They [evicted them] because they, the police, wanted to be in control again . . . to disempower this strong community that started to grow”  – Mira, German activist from Orfanotrofio

In early December 2015 an abandoned orphanage in the Toumpa district of Thessaloniki, Greece, was squatted to house migrants and activists. The squat, known as Orfanotrofio (Greek for orphanage), became an important location for migrant resistance and support in Northern Greece. At any time between forty and fifty people were staying there and everyday hot food was served to about one hundred people and basic needs such as clothes, shoes, hygiene items and backpacks were supplied to whomever needed. This paper intends to focus on the notion of ‘migrant resistance’ and examine the situation of Orfanotrofio in the context of this notion.  Orfanotrofio, it will be argued, was more than just a form of housing and humanitarian support; it was a space of migrant resistance against dominant political and social structures.

To begin with, this paper will define some of the key terminology used throughout, including ‘migrant’, ‘squat’ and ‘resistance’. Then follows a background and history on Orfanotrofio and the situation for migrants in Greece at the time Orfanotrofio was squatted. What follows is an attempt to situate Orfanotrofio in the context of migrant resistance through an analysis of ‘alternative citizenship’ and migrant ‘in/visibility’. Lastly, this paper explores the circumstances surrounding the eviction of Orfanotrofio in the context of state repression and violence.

 Key Definitions

Much of the terminology used in this paper has indistinct definitions or multiple interpretations, however for the purpose of this study I will give a brief definition of the key terms. Firstly, a migrant is generally understood as “a person who is moving or has moved across any international border or within a state, away from his or her habitual place of residence” (IOM, 2017). However, the term ‘irregular migrant’ is often used to further define a category of migrants. Irregular migrants are people who are affected by, or subject to, the immigration controls of the country they are in or trying to enter and are therefore often legally “not entitled to reside there”  (Migration Observatory, 2017). In the context of this paper, a migrant is referred to as someone who is affected by the immigration control of the area they are trying to enter; namely ‘Fortress Europe’.

Squatting’ is commonly understood as the occupation of a dwelling “without the consent of the owner” (Mayer, 2013: 1). However, the act of squatting is also recognised as more than just dwelling, it is a “unique form of protest that holds a potential of unfurling energies” (ibid: 2) and “underlining . . . political aspects” of a situation (Bouillon, 2016: 68). Squatting by migrants is often done as a means to accommodation, not necessarily a choice, but a necessity for survival. However, “squatting . . . reasserts people’s rights to an autonomous and dignified life” (Calais Migrant Solidarity, 2016). Squatting Orfanotrofio was both a means to accommodation and, as this paper argues, a protest activity that served as a tool for/of resistance.

‘Resistance’ has been defined as actions of ‘political mobilization’ (Tyler and Marcinak, 2012). However, resistance is understood to come in response to repression and/or structural and institutional inequality. In the context of migrant struggles, acts of resistance tend to revolve around the “rights to movement” and “advocacy for human rights” (Ataç et al., 2016: 527-527). Orfanotrofio was a tool, performance and space for actions of political mobilisation from migrants and solidarity groups fighting for the right to movement for all, human rights and ‘No Borders’ (Anderson et al., 2009).


In the summer of 2015 the Aegean islands of Greece became a main arrival point for people migrating to Europe. The UNHCR estimated that in 2015 851,319 people crossed into Greece from Turkey (UNHCR, 2015a; 2015b). The majority of people continued straight towards Northern Europe via the so-called ‘Balkan Route’ (Appendix, Figure. 1). However, migrants relied on freedom of movement and open borders. Growing unrest in much of Europe over an ‘influx’ (European Commission, 2016a) or ‘flood’ (Daily Mail, 2016) of migrants influenced the closure of the borders.

On the 18th November 2015 new restrictions to migrant mobility were put in place and the border of Slovenia closed to all migrants who were not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan (S.I.A. migrants). Mounting pressure on the rest of the Balkan Route meant the same restrictions were soon put in place in all other countries (Moving Europe, 2015). Under these restrictions thousands of non-S.I.A. migrants became stuck on the Greek- FYROM (Former Yugoslavic Republic of Macedonia) border, the first official land crossing on the Balkan Route. Many migrants stayed in the border region in the hope of crossing towards Northern Europe and because there was nowhere else for them to go.

Thessaloniki, 50km to the south, is the closest big city to the border and the point of connection for buses and trains coming from Athens or the island ports of Kavala and Piraeus. When the borders closed to non-S.I.A. migrants, thousands ended up living precariously in and around Thessaloniki. Often migrants in Thessaloniki had nowhere to go and many were sleeping outside in the middle of winter around the university campus, in the train and bus stations, or around the Agiou Georgiou Square. Raf, a migrant from Morocco, told me for a week he was sleeping outside, “too cold . . . but what else do I do?’” (Interview, 2016).

Although The Constitution of Greece claims that regardless of legal status “[a]ll persons . . . shall enjoy full protection of their life honor and liberty” (Papastergiou and Takou, 2014: 11) the reality is the opposite. Papasterigou and Takou (2014) note that there is a ‘non-policy’ in relation to migrants who have entered the country irregularly and fundamental rights are not provided. Except for detention centers or military camps there is no accommodation or social support available to migrants (ibid: 26). Orfanotrofio was squatted in response to the lack of housing and social support, but also in resistance to the situation of “exclusion, hostility and rejection” (van Houtum and Aparna, 2016: 47) lived by migrants in the face of state policies.

On 5th December 2015 migrants and international and Greek activists squatted Orfanotrofio. The building was owned by the church but had not been used by anyone except squatters (the building was originally squatted and evicted in 2013) for decades (Squat Net, 2016). Although there was almost immediate pressure to evict from the police, government and the church, the squat remained open and active for over seven months.

Orfanotrofio provided accommodation in the city for between forty and fifty (up to seventy at its busiest) migrants and activists. Many people stayed for just a few days to rest and gather information, energy, food and supplies before moving on. However, many people ended up living there for months. Otis, a Moroccan migrant said it “really became a home”, and Rabs, an Algerian migrant said Orfanotrofio was “like having a very big family . . . even away from your [real] family you are never lonely’” (Interviews, 2016).

The squat, however, was more than just a home or resting place. In the statement of occupation the assembly of Orfanotrofio publicised their intent and political stance from the beginning. The Declaration of Assembly announced the “practical, political and material takeover [of Orfanotrofio]” (Orfanotrofio, 2015).  They claimed a political stance of resistance against the “fences of fortress Europe” and called for a world of “No Borders” (ibid). They also affiliated the takeover with similar movements of solidarity and resistance from around Europe in the “struggle for open borders and free movement” (ibid). Orfanotrofio became a central space for the movement of migrant resistance in Northern Greece, with meetings for collective self-organised structures, demonstrations and solidarity events such as fundraisers and parties.

Although (or because) Orfanotrofio became a well-known space of migrant resistance it was evicted and demolished. On 27th July 2016 at 5:30am, riot police entered Orfanotrofio with bulldozers and tear gas, and evicted all the residents and guests. Everyone was taken to the police station while the squat was being demolished. By evening much of the building had been raised to the ground (Appendix, Figure. 3), and many people’s personal possessions were buried under the rubble. Upon release, Ebbs, a Syrian refugee, said he was left with only the clothes he was wearing and his phone (Interview, 2016). Furthermore, most people ended up living precariously on the streets again, sleeping in the university, bus and train stations, or public squares.


Much of the research for this paper comes out of direct participation observation in Orfanotrofio. Many different groups were active in the area around Thessaloniki and the border supporting migrants in Greece. I was part of a ‘collective kitchen’ working close to the border but frequently visited and stayed in Orfanotrofio between December 2015 and July 2016. We shared resources, joined demonstrations, fundraisers and parties, held meetings and plenaries and used the space for networking with other solidarity and support structures (see Featherstone, 2012).

During visits I would engage in informal conversations with migrants and activists. Furthermore, I undertook five informal interviews after the eviction with international activists and migrants from Morocco, Algeria and Syria. Taking interviews with migrants was essential to this paper. Often the voice of the ‘other’ or affected population is “systematically silenced” (Kenway and McLeod, 2004: 530). However, through bringing in the voice of migrants this paper aims to explore forms of resistance that come from sub-alternate voices. This further added distance to my perception and reflections on the situation.

This paper does not claim to make direct statements about migrant resistance; it draws only on the situation of Orfanotrofio in the context of the closed borders in Greece. However, to engage further this paper draws on other academic research, blogs, newspaper articles and social media sites. There are limitations to this research, as interviews from other sources such as Greek activists, local residents, government officials, the police and the church would have added greater contextualisation.


 Much of the scholarship and media surrounding migrants represents them as invisible, ‘non-citizens’ living a precarious life (Mountz, 2011; 2015; Zembylas, 2010). This lends them “vulnerable to deportation and state violence, exclusion from public services and basic state protections” (Paret and Gleeson, 2016: 5). Moreover, Giorgio Agamben (2005) argued that refugees and migrants are in a ‘state of exception’, where they can be regulated and governed by their lack of legal status. He claimed, through methods of regulation, especially the creation of camps and detention centres, the life of a refugee or migrant is reduced to a ‘bare-life’: a life exempt form political freedoms and voice of resistance (also see Agamben, 1995; Owens, 2009)

However, recent scholarship around migrants has observed mobilisation of resistance from within migrant communities creating political voice (see Bhimji, 2016; Ellermann, 2009; Featherstone, 2012; Owens, 2009; Paret and Gleeson, 2016; Rigby and Schelembach, 2013; Tyler and Marciniak, 2013). This paper will explore the situation of Orfanotrofio as a space for/of migrant resistance in Thessaloniki by exploring the in/visibility of migrants and (non)citizen position, before finishing with a brief look at the circumstances around the eviction.


Historically, migrants have been subject to invisibility (van Houtum and Aparna, 2016) and classed as ‘social undesirables’, excluded from public spaces (Grohman, 2016). Alison Mountz (2015) notes that spatial regulation pushes migrants out of sight and has formed exclusionary material geographies. In Greece, policies for the securitisation of borders and exclusionary regulation and governance from state powers and the European Parliament have in many ways made the struggles and possibility of migrant resistance invisible. Around the country military camps for migrants and refugees are often in rural or unpopulated industrial areas and have been described as ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ (Lohmueller, 2016). Furthermore, isolated spaces of detention which Mountz (2011) called the ‘enforcement archipelago’, such as Xanti and Paranesti in the North of Greece, are complicit with “‘invisibilizing’ the violence” of migrant struggles (Mountz, 2015: 184).

We took trips to the Paranesti detention centre to visit a migrant from Orfanotrofio who had been detained. From this location methods of exclusion through material geographies and spatial regulation were obvious. The detention centre, outside a small rural town and Thessaloniki, over 200km away, is the closest city with a support structure for migrants. The center itself is constructed of square concrete buildings with small barred windows and is surrounded by high cement walls and fences topped with barbed wire. Moreover, communication between migrants and visitors was continuously monitored and our visits could be cut short, without reason, at the discretion of the guards.

Paranesti has been condemned by international activists for “the dehumanizing living conditions, the isolation and the life without dignity” (Moving Europe, 2016) being lived by migrants. Rabs was in detention in Paranesti for three months for trying to cross the Greek-FYROM border. He mentioned how “alone” and “powerless” he felt whilst inside, he said it was like “no one knew we were there” (Interview, 2016). In this situation migrants become subject to exclusionary geographies and an existence of ‘bare life’ where their lives are governed within detention and resistance or political mobilisation, yet remain invisible.

Migrants are made invisible not only through methods of exclusion within a country but also by pushing borders further away (Mountz, 2011). When the ‘Balkan Route’ closed to migrants Greece became the focus of European border control. Greece was recognised as the “new southern border . . . of ‘Fortress Europe’” (Arbutina and Bogdanic, 2015), and consequently new controls and enforcements were put in place to prevent migrants from crossing into and out of Greece. The European Commission granted Greece €214.7 million in Internal Security Funds for border management (European Commission, 2016b) and Frontex (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member Sates of the European Union) deployed 734 personnel, 13 vessels and 50 readmission (read deportation) experts to Greece (Frontex, 2015). By pushing migrants further away, Europe is concealing the struggles, dehumanising migrants and preventing the possibility of resistance. Kartik Varada Raj called methods of governance and border control, which make migrant resistance invisible, like those in practice in Greece, “symbolic instance of violence” (2006: 521).

Although migrant resistance is often invisible, Mountz (2015) notes that in certain contexts migrants are ‘hyper-visible’, albeit this still acts as a tool of repression (Colombeau, 2016). Within public discourse, Mountz (2015) sees narratives as representing migrants as ‘a racialized other’ or ‘dehumanised mass’ and therefore voiceless as political individuals (2015; see also Anderson, 2013).   Migrants are constructed, through media images (Appendix, Figure. 3) as a ‘threat’ to Europe, or as voiceless victims of their situation (Malkki, 1996). These hyper-visual images serve to rationalise methods of border control and violent means of exclusion as migrants are dehumanised and seen as politically voiceless. In the face of these tools of repression a visible space of migrant resistance such as Orfanotrofio is highly valuable.

Migrant visibility helped transform Orfanotrofio from an occupied building into a space of resistance. Fazila Bhimji’s (2016) research around migrant/refugee resistance connects Lefebvre’s (1991) theory on ‘spatial politics’ to ‘visibility’. Lefebvre called for attention to the “politics of space because space is political” (Bhimji, 2016: 434) and Bhimji acknowledged that migrant visibility in space enhanced and politicised struggles. She noted the presence of refugees or migrants in an illegally occupied space is in itself a political action. Therefore, visible spaces of occupation and resistance are ‘intertwined’ and buildings become an important part of the ‘ideological struggle’ (Bhimji, 2016).

Orfanotrofio was an obvious space, visible as a space of migrant resistance from both the street and online. Online information and events were shared and support gathered through independent media outlets such as squat.net, indymedia and Facebook. From the street, Orfanotrofio was conspicuous, hung with banners and graffiti calling for ‘Freedom of Movement for All’ and ‘Open All Borders’ (Appendix, Figure. 4). A stall was also set up on the street to provide information on the squat, actions and the situation for migrants in Greece. Through being a visible space, migrants and activists transformed Orfanotrofio from an abandoned building into an active political space of resistance. Mira, a German activist, acknowledged that “we felt the connection to this place, to the people and to the project . . . its very powerful, people like us” (Interview, 2016). The connection between the people and the struggle came through having a visible space through which it was possible to facilitate acts of resistance.

Moreover squatting provides motivation as a ‘visible source of ideas’ for performing resistance (Cattaneo, 2013). Sociologist Ervine Goffman (1959) saw performance as a method of identity formation, which represents values and ideologies (personal or socially constructed). Within migrant resistance the ability to visibly perform resistance is vital for creating a political identity, as migrants are often excluded and vulnerable to violence at the hands of dominant social and political structures. Furthermore, Goffman (1959) acknowledged that the social stage could be used to emphasise a performance or shape an identity. Orfanotrofio acted as and offered migrants a stage to perform resistance and create a visible identity. Otis, a Moroccan migrant acknowledged that “the squat made me see that I can do some difference, change the situations [sic] . . . [and] fight for our rights”(Interview, 2016). Orfanotrofio was a stage to perform resistance and a source of inspiration for migrants and activists.

Alternative Citizenship

Migrant resistance is at the “heart of debates around citizenship” (Tyler and Marciniak, 2013: 154). A traditional understanding of citizenship operates as a ‘wall’ to marginalize or exclude migrants (ibid: 145). Citizenship is understood as a “state of democratic belonging or inclusion” (Bosniak, 2006: 1), therefore through its very nature it is also constructed as ‘bounded and exclusive’ (ibid) dividing between citizens and non-citizens. However, migrant resistance offers an opportunity to ‘chink’ this wall to explore what lies behind or beyond citizenship (Papadopoulos and Tsianos 2012).

Citizenship can be seen to have two conceptual foundations as a practice and a discourse. Borders, as a practice, are the legal limits or ‘territorial’ frontiers of a nation state and its citizens (Fassin, 2011). Whereas boundaries, as a discourse, are the ‘social constructs’ responsible for creating “symbolic differences . . . and producing identities” (ibid: 241). Fassin draws together these concepts as an articulation of governmentality. He prescribes to Foucault’s (2007) discussions on governmentality, identifying “institutions, procedure, actions and reflections” that underlie traditional concepts of citizenship (Fassin, 2011: 214).  These constructs work together to produce the ‘ultimate wall’ that excludes migrants from citizenship. However, when migrants act autonomously to resist structures of governmentality they can be seen to push beyond traditional representations of citizenship, forming an alternative citizenship.

Papadopoulos and Tsianos (2013) link migrant autonomy to resistance movements. They see migrant autonomy as a ‘chink’ in the wall of citizenship that offers an opportunity to “cultivate an imaginary and practical sensibility to what lies after citizenship” (2013: 179). They look specifically at migrant mobility and the sharing of information as a means of autonomy and therefore resistance against dominant structures of citizenship. They acknowledge that a migrant’s “movement itself becomes a political movement and a social movement” (2013: 184) affirming autonomy and subverting normative constructs of mobility established through citizenship.

Orfanotrofio, as well as a physical space, was a space that enabled resistance through mobility. Lynn Owen (2013) in her research paper Have Squat, Will Travel acknowledges that although squatting is about place, it also increases mobility saying “[m]ooring make mobility possible” (Owen, 2013: 190). In Orfanotrofio, although many migrants and activists stayed, many used the space to enhance their mobility through sharing information on possible routes, finding maps and travel companions and to rest. Raf tried to cross the Greek-FYROM border twice while he was staying in Orfanotrofio. After the first failed attempt he returned to Orfanotrofio and succeeded the second time after hearing of different routes through the Balkans from other migrants who had ‘made it’ to the north. Migrant autonomy through information sharing and mobility both unsettles and ‘exceeds’ (Papadopoulos and Tsianos, 2012) the dominant framework of citizenship.

Alternative citizenship comes not just through mobility but also through physical space. Spaces of resistance that are occupied by both migrants and activists, or, non-citizens and citizens are spaces of conflict for traditional definitions of citizenship. Rigby and Schlembach (2013) explore the various forms of collective resistance, which comes through constructing a shared space where both migrants and citizens join together against dominant structures of governance. They acknowledge the potential for resistance through a space where migrants as ‘bare life’ come into alliance with citizens as political subjects. A space where distinctions or binaries between ‘bare life’ and political subjects are blurred opens discussions for alternative citizenship.

Viewing Orfanotrofio as a space of ‘collective resistance has echoes to Rigby and Schlembach’s (2013) discourse around alternative citizenship. Political demonstrations, meetings and solidarity parties bought together people from the community, activists, refugees and migrants in what Rabs described as “like a big family”(Interviews, 2016). He further said coming together in the squat “show[ed] us how to fight for our rights, and this is really good” (ibid). Additionally when asked about political action Otis mentioned that he “learnt so much” from other activists in the squat (ibid). Otis also started his own political actions, blurring even more the distinction between ‘political subject’ and the ‘bare life’ of a migrant (see Agamben, 1995; Fassin, 2011).

Henri Lefebvre (1996) developed another concept of ‘alternative citizenship’. He recognised the urban landscape as producing a new type of citizenship based around the ‘right to the city’. He saw citizenship as constructed through “everyday experiences of inhabiting the city” (He, 2015: 674) therefore including anyone who resides in the city (Lefebvre, 1996 paraphrased in He, 2015; see also Purcell, 2002). Shenjing He (2015) expands on Lefebvre’s discourse and situates the “right to the city” as an “outcry for social justice” (ibid: 674) and a therefore a “powerful weapon to fight against any forms of unjust hegemonic power and polices” (ibid: 674). He acknowledges that through inhabiting the city anyone, at anytime, can affirm their political rights and perform acts of resistance. In itself the ‘right to the city’ is a powerful tool of migrant resistance as “through taking your own place in the city” you are denying the place that society has made for you (Vasudevan, 2015: 340).


Although migrant resistance found a voice and visibility through Orfanotrofio, dominant structures of governance can pull it all away. The eviction can be seen as a tactic by dominant structures of governance for migrant marginalization to “further the agenda of exclusion” (Hyndman and Mountz, 2007: 77). Imogen Tyler (2013: 128) recognized “the forced eviction of people from their homes . . . as a violent disturbing and damaging practice”. She further situated the eviction of minority populations in the context of “state racism and social abjection”, which serves to “strip people of their human dignity” (ibid: 140). These strategies disempower and marginalise migrant movements of resistance though criminalization and dehumanisation (van Houtum and Aparna, 2016) and through reducing migrants to a non-citizen in politically voiceless ‘states of exception’ (Agamben, 2005).

Orfanotrofio carved out a ‘space of resistance’ in the city, however when it was evicted and destroyed it highlighted the precarity of migrant’s situation. Paret and Gleeson (2016) explore the possibility for alternative citizenship through acts of migrant agency. However, they recognise that ultimately, institutional modes of governance and control can marginalise migrants and push them back on to the streets. Small acts of resistance often mean that “broader structures of domination and precarity, which heavily shape the everyday lives of migrants, are largely going unchallenged” (Paret and Gleeson, 2016: 282). National borders, citizenship and legality as well as geographies of exclusion and tactics of marginalisation ultimately are mechanisms of structural violence, which aim to control migrant’s lives. As Mira noted “they [evicted] because they, the police, wanted to be in control again . . . to disempower this strong community that started to grow” (Interview, 2016).


Although the evicting highlighted the precarity and exclusion of migrants from dominant ideas of rights and citizenship, this does not take away from the power that Orfanotrofio had in facilitating and creating migrant resistance. Orfanotrofio provided a space through which acts of resistance could be imagined and performed. Many migrants managed to cross the borders and also engage in the political mobilisation of ‘No Border’ or ‘freedom of movement’ movements. The space itself also acted as a form of resistance to dominant political and social structures and geographies of exclusion through tactics of political visibility, such as demonstrations, information sharing and solidarity events.

The act of squatting itself was also an important part of the resistance struggle. Many migrants found not only a place to stay but also a space to form protest movements and question dominant structures of authority. Squatting is a unique tool of resistance, opening up space for creating political voice and a means to subvert situations of marginalisation and exclusion. Furthermore, squatting created a platform from which to argue for alternative citizenship by asserting migrants’ ‘rights to the city’ and by blurring binaries between ‘non-citizens’ and ‘citizens’ and ‘political voice’ and ‘states of exception’.

Although Orfanotrofio did not dismantle borders or state structures it provided an effort and opportunity of/ for resistance. However, the struggle is still ongoing and many migrants are subject to violent forms of exclusion and marginalisation. Migrants all over Europe are being deported, borders are becoming more technologically difficult and harder to cross and efforts to criminalise migrant solidarity are making resistance ever more challenging.


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Figure 1: The Balkan Route (Arbutina and Bogdanic, 2015)

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Figure 2: Demolition of Orfanotrofio (Squat.net, 2016)

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Figure 3– Media Visibility (NPR, 2016)

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Figure 4: Orfanotrofio (Squat.net, 2016)

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  1. Otis – Moroccan Migrant in Orfanotrofio from December 2015 – the eviction July 2016.  Now back to Morocco.
  2. Rabs – Algerian Migrant in Orfanotrofio form December 2015 – the eviction July 2016, spent three months in detention (December – February).  Now living in Italy.
  3. Raf – Moroccan Migrant in Orfanotrofio from December 2015- the eviction July 2016. Now living in Germany with activists from the Orfanotrofio.
  4. Ebbs – Syrian Refugee in Orfanotrofio from December 2015 – June 2016.  Now seeking asylum in Holland.
  5. Mira – German Activists in Orfanotrofio on and off from December 2015 – the eviction July 2016.  Now back in Germany.

All names have been changed and pseudonyms used in their place to protect the identity of those interviewed.  All interviewees gave verbal consent and each interviewee was also asked to identify him or herself for example Moroccan migrant/Syrian refugee.

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