The perfect storm and the rise of xenophobia
Many of the undocumented migrants arriving in Greece over the last decade have been asylum seekers from conflicts in Asia and Africa. The system in place to handle migrants and claims for asylum, even prior to the economic recession, was not fit for purpose (Kanellopoulos et al. 2006). This situation has become worse since 2010. For example, on 21 January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece for the mistreatment of an Afghan immigrant. At the same time, Greece has been urged as part of the Dublin III Regulation, as well as the wider anti-immigration sentiment across Europe, to better protect its borders because of its geographical proximity to areas of conflict and instability, and to prevent third-country nationals from travelling irregularly across its borders which are also EU borders.
A crucial step to deal with the issue took place in April 2011, when Greece started receiving support from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). A new Asylum Service and First Reception Service became operational in June 2013. In addition, Appeals Committees have been set up to process asylum appeal cases in an attempt to clear the backlog.
Asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Greece are often denied access to basic public services resulting in high rates of social exclusion. At the same time, welfare state retrenchment and austerity policies have increased the numbers of vulnerable workers and the unemployed. As analysed earlier, the recent economic crisis has turned the lives of ordinary workers upside down in a matter of a few months. This was coupled with the acute emergency created by the upsurge of irregular migrants and asylum seekers.
In 2010, Greece was the EU member with the most undocumented migrants, accounting for 90 percent of all irregular border crossings into the EU, with over 115,000 migrants and asylum seekers apprehended, including 55,000 at the land border with Turkey. The numbers slightly decreased in 2011 (88,000) and 2012 (74,000), but rose again in 2013. Greece is now second to Italy in terms of irregular migration into the EU. Greek migration policies and the asylum system still suffer from systematic shortcomings, as thousands of irregular migrants apprehended at land borders, or at sea, are normally detained for several months in locations not suitable for long-term detention including police, border patrol and coastguard stations. Many asylum seekers find themselves trapped in what a Human Rights Watch report has called ‘a revolving door.
Since the launch of Operation Xenios Zeus, the Greek government has adopted a policy of prolonged detention of up to 18 months for undocumented migrants and refugees,3 even though the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned the policy of systematic detention and highlighted that this policy ‘appears to be a serious violation of the principle of proportionality which may render the deprivation of liberty arbitrary’ (Global Detection 2014). One of the main problems of Xenios Zeus is related to the disproportionately low capacity for asylum seekers in open reception centres, resulting in extremely poor humanitarian conditions for detained migrants, especially those detained at the Greece- Turkey border. Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) states that the detention centres are, in many cases, completely overcrowded and do not screen immigrants to determine their health needs (WHO 2014). Nevertheless, the government plans to build four additional first reception centres and pre-removal centres.
Greek law is unsympathetic to the interests of the migrants, the Council of Europe reports that ill-treatment of migrants ‘appears to be growing and there is little evidence that allegations of ill-treatments are investigated promptly and thoroughly, leading to some police officers feeling that they can act with impunity’ (Council of Europe 2014). Irregular migrants who report these crimes often risk detention and deportation (Палауешруюи Kai Такой 2014). At the same time, the presence of destitute migrants living on the streets has transformed the working class districts of Greek cities, in particular Athens and Piraeus, where Golden Dawn enjoys the most popularity.
Golden Dawn, a populist and extreme right political party, has experienced a meteoric rise. In the 2012 general election, the party went from 0.45 percent to 7.2 percent of the vote by taking advantage of antiimmigrant sentiment and the current economic despair. Furthermore, Golden Dawn managed to secure nearly 10 percent of the vote in the 2014 European elections, despite the fact that almost all Golden Dawn Members of Parliament, and many other party officers, had been in jail for several months after the murder of Pavlos Fyssas. The party’s share of the vote dropped back to 6.3 percent in the 2015 legislative election, although the drop in the share of the vote of other parties raised Golden Dawn to third place in the poll.
The political influence of Golden Dawn is perhaps more important than its actual electoral performance. All too often the Samaras government adopted heavy-handed immigration measures in an effort to win back voters. In the 2012 general election, Samaras campaigned, in part, on a pledge to reclaim Greek cities from immigrants: ‘Greece today has become a centre for illegal immigrants ... we must take back our cities ...
there are many diseases and I am not only speaking about Athens, but elsewhere too’ (HRW 2012).
To a significant extent, Golden Dawn has shaped the agenda and public discourse of migration over the last four years. Equally, it is important to note that according to media reports, Golden Dawn has infiltrated the police and army at various levels. For example, the popular political journal HotDoc recently published a recording of comments made by the Greek Chief of Police, Nikos Papagiannopoulos, to a gathering of top police officers: ‘we aimed for increased periods of detention ... we increased it to eighteen months . .. for what purpose? We must make their life unbearable’ (HotDoc 2014). Yet, there is some reason for muted optimism. The recent appointment of a specialised prosecutor for hate crimes in Athens and the enactment of a long-overdue hate crime bill, dismissed by Golden Dawn as a satanic plot and an insult to Greek history, provide a fragile basis for combating hate and racist crimes. Nonetheless, there is still long way to go to restore respect for the rights of migrants in Greece (Venitism 2014).
Following the legislative election in January 2015, called as a result of the failure of the Greek parliament to elect a new president, a new populist coalition government led by Alexis Tsipras, comprising his leftist Syriza party and the right-wing Independent Greeks Party (ANEL), defeated the incumbent coalition government, pledging to renegotiate the conditions of the troika’s bailout package and reverse some of the most stringent austerity measures imposed by the Samaras government. Just short of an outright majority, Tsipras was forced to seek a coalition partner, favouring ANEL as the most distinct anti-austerity party in the new parliament, despite its right-wing agenda including a staunch anti-immigration platform built on an innate nationalism and xenophobia.
Tsipras, seemingly, diagnoses the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Greece as a symptom of the despair brought about the extreme austerity policies of the last several years. During the election campaign Syriza advocated pro-migrant policy changes including accelerating the asylum process; repealing EU rules restricting migrants travel within the region; ensuring the human rights of detained migrants and facilitating the reunion of immigrant families (The Nation 2015). At the time of writing, Greece’s political and economic future remains uncertain, as does the fate of the migrant population and the direction of immigration policy.