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How Greece Became Europe’s “Shield” Against Refugees

Five years after Alexis Tsipras proclaimed his government’s solidarity with migrants, he has joined European Union leaders in calling for Greece to “close the borders.” The narrative of migrant “invasion” has mainstreamed far-right ideas — turning nationalist rhetoric into violent attacks on refugees.

Asylum seekers are seen in the Moria Camp as they continue to wait to reach Europe in Lesbos Island, Greece, on March 09, 2020. Ayhan Mehmet / Anadolu Agency via Getty

Greece is again at the epicenter of a refugee crisis. But if back in 2015 and 2016 the Mediterranean country took a leading role in providing refuge for the victims of war, the situation today is quite the opposite. Now we’re seeing an outbreak of violent xenophobia against the refugees who’ve been stranded on Greek territory over the last four years — and, indeed, those attempting to cross the border from Turkey. Given the country’s recent record of solidarity with migrants, this severe cultural intolerance may seem surprising. Yet this is just the symptom of a deeper transformation of Greek society — one in which xenophobia risks becoming the organizing principle of national politics.

The last week saw a number of worrying developments in this regard. This particularly owes to protests on the islands of Lesbos and Chios, where the bulk of refugees have “provisionally” been settled for the past four years. With capacity on the islands exceeded four times over, the New Democracy government elected in July 2019 has sought to decongest the islands, moving the refugee population to camps in continental Greece. Yet local authorities on the mainland have fiercely resisted this with demonstrations and occasional roadblocks. Fearing a loss of its electoral base, the government decided to cut its losses and site new detention centers on Lesbos and Chios instead of in continental Greece.

The crisis accelerated on February 25, as riot police dispatched from Athens to guard the sites of these future detention camps were attacked by islanders. The following day, an angry mob burst into a hotel used by riot police, beating up officers and throwing out their belongings. This show of resistance gained the protesters many sympathizers among the Greek public, especially after there were reports of frustrated police insulting the locals and footage emerged of officers ruining local property. Yet this wasn’t just a local community’s resistance against state authority: their protest was directed not against the detention of refugees but against the presence of refugees as such. They read the government plans as further consolidation of the refugees’ presence on their land — and they were determined not to let it happen.

Opened Border

This tension was soon heightened by a sudden but not totally unexpected development on February 28, as Turkey declared it would open its land border with Greece. This brought to an end the outsourcing agreement Ankara had signed with the European Union in 2016, agreeing that it would step up efforts to stop the flow of refugees into Greece and Bulgaria in exchange for European funding. The opening of the border has driven a fresh wave of migration: according to United Nations estimates from March 3, at least fifteen thousand people have now gathered at the Greek-Turkish frontier in Evros, hoping to cross into the EU.

This has had a snowball effect — with likely lasting impacts on European and global attitudes toward refugees. In reaction to Ankara’s move, Greece closed its own borders; not only did it deploy the military along the frontier, but it sent text messages warning people gathering at the border not to cross and, moreover, announced summary deportations. It also suspended the registration of asylum claims from people entering the country irregularly, despite the UNHCR statement that “neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications.”

New Democracy prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis took a hard line, insisting that Greece was protecting itself from an outright migrant invasion. He declared that “this is no longer a refugee-migration issue but an asymmetrical threat at the eastern borders of Greece, incidentally, the eastern border of Europe too.” Such language sought to justify a state of exception — and a suspension of asylum rights without precedent in recent years. Yet even this did not trouble European authorities — rather, they backed Greece’s move.

Visiting the Turkish border with other European leaders, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for being “our European shield” and promised €700 million in aid to help Greek authorities. The EU’s border agency, Frontex, is now preparing a “rapid border intervention” team to help Greece patrol its borders. In the latest turn of events, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, now in opposition, stated that “the government was right in closing the borders” and that Greece is “facing a geopolitical threat by Turkey.”

Violent Attacks

These official political reactions each pointed in the same direction, shifting the focus from asylum rights — and the conditions of the refugees themselves — toward dire warnings of outside “threats,” “invasion,” and the need for “border protection.” Unsurprisingly, this was coupled with a series of xenophobic incidents on the ground. Local armed vigilante groups started to patrol the border, attacking those who made it to Greece; worryingly, the German left-wing party Die Linke reported that neo-Nazi organizations from its own country are trying to reach the Greek border in Evros for similar purposes.

This anti-immigration talk has erupted into outright violence. In Lesbos, migrant and refugee boats were prevented from reaching the shore, while a pregnant women on a boat was insulted by locals; a temporary reception center (which functioned under UNHCR auspices until January 31) was set on fire to prevent it from being used to host newcomers; a warehouse on Chios used by NGOs to store materials for aiding refugees was also torched. Not only have members of NGOs working with refugees been verbally abused by locals, driving them to leave Lesbos, but even journalists have had their equipment destroyed. Worryingly, footage also emerged showing Greek coast guards firing into the sea near a migrant dingy, shoving it around as they attempted to force it back toward Turkey.

It would be naive to consider this as a series of isolated incidents. In fact, far-right radicalization has been spreading in Greece ever since the breakout of the financial crisis in 2010. The collapse of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in the July 2019 elections may have provided some hope that this wave was coming to an end. Yet faced with the rise of these vigilante forces, it seems that the far right’s greatest success lay less in a neo-Nazi party’s electoral scores than in the normalization of its ideas — notably xenophobia and the scapegoating of migrants and refugees.

Such a shift can partly be explained in terms of the growing frustration of locals. Refugee camps have been mostly concentrated on the islands of Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Kos, and Leros, the five main entry points facing Turkey, and reception facilities are under strain given the constant flow of refugees onto the islands’ shores. Nonetheless, total refugee numbers are estimated at no more than fifty thousand, and many migrants have left Greece since the economic downturn. Yet when it comes to far-right propaganda, reality and perception are two different things. Dire warnings about migration have proven the most effective rhetorical tool in European politics in recent years, as ethnonationalism makes its strongest comeback since the postwar era; and Greece has been no exception.

Mainstreaming of Anti-Migrant Sentiment

Indeed, this spread of xenophobic ideas didn’t just fall from the sky. One reason for this response is the historic reluctance of Greek governments to integrate migrants: since the first wave of migration to Greece in the 1990s, no systematic integration policy was implemented, it being largely presumed that migrants were not here to stay.

The Syriza government had its own responsibilities in this regard. Entering government in 2015, it created a Ministry of Migration Policy that was outwardly committed to helping migrants. In fact, it was strictly geared toward the immediate management of the refugee crisis of 2015–16. Hence, it was Alexis Tsipras’s administration that created the camps on both the islands and the mainland — initially as temporary accommodation to face the urgent crisis situation, but also responding to the imposition of border restrictions after the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016. Most of these camps have remained in use, despite their known unsuitability as long-term accommodation.

The imposition of “geographical restrictions” on migrants by the EU-Turkey agreement moreover led to a significant overcrowding of these reception facilities, in particular on Greece’s islands. Even as media and public attention toward the crisis waned, refugee flows toward the islands receded without ever actually stopping. No significant effort was made to decongest the islands and allow refugee movement to mainland Greece, nor were any notable funds or resources channeled toward improving or expanding the existing facilities.

Any notion of solidarity with migrants fell victim to a wider shift in Syriza during its time in office. As part of its transformation from a “radical left” force to a party of the “center-left” after it accepted ongoing austerity in 2015, its leaders decided they needed to shed other supposedly “extreme” elements of the party — including support for migrants.

This lack of solidarity is visible in wider society. In recent years, the Greek public has registered largely negative views toward migration and the extension of citizenship rights. Efforts to integrate refugee children into the Greek school system sparked sometimes violent reactions by parents, in certain cases occupying schools and refusing to let refugee children enter.

In short, the attitudes we are witnessing today did not emerge out of nowhere: Greek society has been undergoing a process of far-right radicalization for some time now. The rise of a neo-Nazi party was only the most blatant expression of this development. The worst effect, though, was yet to come, and we are experiencing its effects today: namely, mainstreaming of hate rhetoric and the view of refugees and migrants as enemies.

Defending Europe from “Invaders”

These considerations about Greek political developments should not make us miss the bigger picture: the overcrowded and appalling conditions in the camps make up part of a wider EU-backed policy aimed at deterring new arrivals and keeping the door shut to refugees and further waves of migrations.

The rhetorical shifts that have occurred in recent days are disturbing symptoms of the eroding effects of far-right normalization across the continent: refugees and migrants have been systematically described as “invaders,” as a threat to Greece’s and Europe’s borders, as scroungers living off the generous benefits at the expense of the locals, and as agents of an alleged Islamization plot. The latest shift in such rhetoric — not incidentally endorsed by the EU — is the projection of Greece as a victim that needs help in confronting the threat at its borders.

Overlooked here is the utter vulnerability of the refugees stranded in Greece at a time when xenophobia is on the rise —as well as the defenselessness of the people stuck in the middle between the Greek and Turkish armies. Xenophobic ideologies are becoming hegemonic; whatever inhibitions may have prevailed up till now are falling away, and what was once aggressive rhetoric is turning into the violent incidents we have seen over the last few days.

The convergence between left and right over migration is, ultimately, a process that dehumanizes the vulnerable. We are seeing a confluence of the securitization of the borders, the collapse of Europe’s postwar consensus, and the disappearance of what once looked like universal conventions, such as the right to asylum. The new refugee crisis in Greece looks like a harbinger of dark times for human rights in Europe.