international analysis and commentary

The Greek nexus in the refugee crisis


There are things we knew going into the refugee crisis in Greece and the things that took us by surprise.

Starting with the things we knew and expected: irrespective of the motives and sensitivities of the SYRIZA administration, the issue was never really under the control of the Greek government. This does not only apply to the border issue and to how neighbouring states unilaterally proceeded to close them. The Greek state has also been largely absent from the care for refugees, which has been taken over by thousands of volunteers and NGOs, both Greek and non Greek.

It is true that if New Democracy (the main conservative opposition party) were to handle this crisis, the state would not be just absent, it would be overtly hostile. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the President of New Democracy, is a free-market-enthusiast, but as is often the case, this does not stop him from the occasional nationalist outburst. The post of Vice President of New Democracy has been given to Athonis Georgiadis, an extreme-right politician who started his political career in the openly anti-Semitic LAOS party. His influence is increasingly showing in Mitsotakis’s statements on the refugee crisis. For example, the increase in the number of Syrian refugees is presented as a direct consequence of the “open borders” policy pursued by SYRIZA during the past year.

The wider international context, e.g. developments in the Middle East, the fact that the UN has stopped financing refugee camps in neighbouring countries, seem to become secondary when it comes to scoring some points with right wing voters through occasional xenophobic remarks. This would be an unimportant point of partisan politics, if it were not the case that this sort of antagonism only shifts the agenda to gradually more anti-immigrant views for the Greek society as a whole.

SYRIZA has been more humane in terms of policing and its ministers have refrained from the xenophobic rhetoric that is now so common throughout Europe. Its actions, however, have been more or less constrained by the country’s and Europe’s political decisions and realities. A communiqué signed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the opposition leaders on  March 4 clearly shows that Tsipras has little room left for manoeuvre. The communiqué asks the European Union for financial aid; it agrees that NATO (despite traditional and recurring misgivings about the full participation of Greece in the military alliance) and the EU agency FRONTEX will be patrolling the Greek borders; that refugees will be held in “pre-removal detention centers” – even though neither stopping refugees from seeking safety nor building (de facto) prisons is a solution that corresponds to the ideals that SYRIZA is supposed to aspire to.

“Prisons” is not a misleading term for what awaits some of the refugees in Greece. It has been repeatedly noted by a number of international organizations – such as for instance Doctors Without Borders – that the living conditions in detention centres are inhumane. The more recent proposal by Turkey  (Mainly resettling one Syrian refugee in Europe for every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Greek islands; see here for more details) has been celebrated by the Greek prime minister as very interesting, even a diplomatic success, though Amnesty International, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and UNHCR have condemned it as immoral and illegal.

Those who hoped that Greece’s left wing government would push back against such an approach are sorely mistaken. Striking out illegal immigrants as outcasts, dealing with the refugee crisis as if it were an invasion to be treated with military measures are the consequences of SYRIZA’s “down to earth” politics, or Realpolitik. It will not be the first time for SYRIZA. Its capitulation in the Greek debt negotiations and resulting austerity policies have showed that this is a very flexible political force when it comes to principles.

As for the unknowns that are still out there: Greece is in the grip of a severe crisis that  manifests itself in all areas of social and political life. Not least, in the presence of a neo-Nazi organization that came third in the latest elections despite the alleged criminal connections of its most prominent politicians, who are now on trial for them. New Democracy has also veered towards the extreme right under the leadership of its former head Antonis Samaras. Thus, there are strong signs that a xenophobic attitude permeates Greek society.

Indeed, we have seen racist arguments – “Why don’t Syrians stay there to fight, as our parents and grandparents did?!” – and episodes of cynical exploitation of refugees: they were sold overpriced bottles of water and were forced to pay to charge their mobile phones. At the same time, there has been a widespread movement of solidarity and support towards the refugees across the country. This is so far the predominant attitude –  starting with the inhabitants of Lesvos, the island hit by the biggest inflow of people. In a number of Greek cities, ordinary citizens have come together to help migrants with everything from clothes to medicines, most prominently in Athens’s central Syntagma Square.

Despite the moral panic that is sometimes voiced by officials and/or Greek citizens, we are talking about slightly more than 30.000 refugees trapped in Greece at the moment. This number might soon quadruplicate. In any case, given that almost half a million immigrants have left Greece during the last five years of the Greek crisis, this number is far from devastating.

The problem is that Greece simply cannot manage the challenge on its own, especially because trying to do so in the face of European indifference or intransigence would generate resentment and stir the very nationalistic reactions that we all need to contain. In fact, Greece can help show that the callousness that has become so common in many European countries is not the only way to handle the migrant “crisis”. There must be a politically sustainable way to enforce a humane solution, and Greece has become a key testing ground of Europe’s ability to find such a solution.