On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece by Heath Cabot (review)
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Reviewed by
Heath Cabot, On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 272 pp.

inline graphic On the Doorstep of Europe is an intelligently written, theoretically informed ethnography of an original and important subject: the process by which undocumented migrants apply for asylum in Greece after what are often harrowing journeys from Africa, the Near East, and South Asia. Heath Cabot presents a perceptive analysis of the “regime of political asylum” in Greece, which draws on Victor Turner’s (1980) concept of “social drama” to explore how asylum seekers, members of humanitarian NGOs, and government bureaucrats attempt to negotiate the moral and legal dilemmas confronting them as more and more refugees from around the world seek safe haven from poverty, discrimination, and war. The result is a wonderful example of interpretive anthropology at its best—making sense of the way other people make sense of the world.

Cabot clearly sets out all the background information necessary for us to understand the detailed ethnographic analysis that follows. She points out that of all the countries in the European Union, Greece has the most illegal immigrants, the most cases of human trafficking, and the highest number of asylum applicants. It also has “staggeringly low refugee recognition rates” (4), with the highest number of rejections and the highest number of backlogged cases. Cabot describes the impact of the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, according to which asylum seekers are obligated to apply for protection in the country where they first enter the European Union and are subject to removal to that country if they are apprehended in another EU state. Cabot also notes that asylum seekers who are apprehended by Greek officials on Aegean islands near the Turkish coast or along Greece’s land border with Turkey in Thrace are sent to Athens. [End Page 193] Athens, therefore, is one of the main focal points of the refugee crisis that currently faces the entire European Union.

The book is well-organized; its structure clear and effective. It is divided into three “acts:” Governance, Judgment, and Citizenship. Chapter 1 presents an overview of the problem of asylum in Greece and examines the country’s failure to manage its borders in ways that meet EU standards. Chapter 2, “Documenting Legal Limbo,” examines the material culture of asylum and citizenship, focusing on the written documents that play a central role in the social drama that is Greek bureaucracy. Grapheiokratia, the Greek term for bureaucracy, is a word whose etymology refers literally to the power of writing. Without written documents, asylum seekers in Greece simply do not exist.

Of all the documents involved in the asylum process—application forms, case files, appeals records—the one that is most revealing is the “pink card.” It is a perfect symbol of the asylum seekers’ liminality, a term that is surprisingly absent from Cabot’s analysis, especially in light of her use of Turner’s work on “social dramas.” The “pink card,” the first document asylum seekers receive when they enter Greece, is actually a deportation order. It states that the bearer must leave Greece voluntarily within 30 days. Many asylum seekers, however, view their “pink card” as a temporary residence permit that gives them permission to stay in Greece for a month. Some asylum seekers, in fact, ask if they can renew their deportation order (47). The irony here is a delightful example of the unpredictability created by Greek bureaucracy, which results from misinterpretations that arise in the interplay of official and unofficial meanings. At times, it seems, this social drama approaches perilously close to theater of the absurd. Cabot’s discussion of the Greek state’s concern with “documenting” its citizens would have benefited from a brief mention of the “files” (fakeloi) that right wing Greek governments kept on citizens suspected of left wing sympathies from the Civil War (1946–1949), through the Greek military dictatorship (1967–1974), until they were destroyed in 1989.

Chapter 3 explores the “tragic ethos” which, according to Cabot, characterizes the culture of humanitarian aid that social workers, NGOs, and the Greek state provide asylum seekers. Two “sites of tragedy” receive particular attention: 1) decisions...