Greece’s war on migrants rages on

Migrants stuck in overcrowded camps on Greek islands face Covid-19 infection, local anger, legal obstacles and a state that appears determined to make their life a living hell.

For many years, a silent war has been waged along Europe’s borders, but this war has left the majority of the continent’s population seemingly untouched. This contrast has become even starker in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which it has become clear that the sensibility to life that is being so widely touted does not extend to everyone; the thousands of migrants amassed on both sides of the European border are, apparently, exempt from it.

Those who manage to cross into Europe end up confined in modern day concentration camps. Subjected to appalling living conditions, they face complete uncertainty about the future and are, moreover, stripped of their most fundamental rights. At the same time, their presence is used by governments to push through policies that galvanise national(ist) unity and broader interstate competition.

Policies that are currently implemented as part of the global campaign against Covid-19 treat migrants as collateral damage. It is evident that protective measures against the “threat” of the virus are not concerned with the health of all, but rather just with the health of some. While public discourse is awash with ever more hateful and xenophobic rhetoric, authoritarian and repressive measures targeting migrants are being put in place.

4 May 2020: Migrants wear masks as they wait for a bus at the port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece. The authorities moved 400 migrants to the mainland to ease overcrowding in the Moria camp on Lesbos island. (Photograph by Milos Bicanski/ Getty Images)
4 May 2020: Migrants wear masks as they wait for a bus at the port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece. The authorities moved 400 migrants to the mainland to ease overcrowding in the Moria camp on Lesbos island. (Photograph by Milos Bicanski/ Getty Images)

The Greek state has a long track record of anti-migration policies. Located along the main eastern Mediterranean migration route, Greece has taken the lead in the dehumanisation and disciplining of migrants who try to cross into European territory. Despite the variety of policies that have been pushed by successive governments over the years, certain key aspects remained unaltered: the diversion of migration routes from the land borders to dangerous sea crossings, which has resulted in over 1 600 deaths since 2015; the incarceration and violent devaluation of the lives of those who manage to get across and their subsequent marginalisation in camps and urban ghettos; the creation of divisions within migrant populations through legal or other categorisations (refugee vs migrant, vulnerable vs non-vulnerable, skilled vs unskilled worker, etc) and finally, the practice of dealing with migration as a security, rather than a social issue.

The EU-Turkey Agreement of March 2016 allowed for vast resources to be funnelled to the Greek state and businesses, to turn the five islands of the eastern Aegean – Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros – into sites for the territorialisation of anti-migration border policies. The land border with Turkey at Evros was fortified as part of the same strategy, and a large number of military and police forces were deployed along the naval borders.

The Greek Coast Guard and navy, together with Frontex and NATO forces are conducting border patrols and actively deter boats carrying migrants trying to reach Greece. At the same time, Turkey has been offered political and economic incentives in exchange for curbing migration and for readmitting some of those who had managed to cross into Greece.

This agreement, however, constitutes yet another instance of diplomatic arm wrestling between Greece and Turkey in which migrants continue to be instrumentalised in the interminable conflict between the two states searching for increased benefits from allies and international organisations.

The crisis at the Greek-Turkish border

In late February, border tensions between Greece and Turkey peaked at dangerously high levels. The government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transported thousands of migrants to the border with Greece, under the false promise that the crossing to Europe was open. This led to violent clashes in the border zone which resulted in at least two deaths from gunshot wounds, a child drowning in the Aegean and dozens of injured migrants. Large contingents of military and police forces, with the backing of armed militias, took up positions “to protect the borders”.

Greek security forces used tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition to “restrain” the crowd trying to cross the border in the Evros region. At the same time, the Greek army announced that for the first time in many years it would be using live rounds of ammunition as part of a training, from both light and heavy weapons, in the sea between the Aegean islands and Turkey.

1 February 2020: Lifejacket Graveyard is a landfill site on Lesbos island for migrants’ boats and life jackets. Greece aims to build a maritime barrier to stem the flow of migrants from Turkey. (Photograph by Ivan Romano/ Getty Images)
1 February 2020: Lifejacket Graveyard is a landfill site on Lesbos island for migrants’ boats and life jackets. Greece aims to build a maritime barrier to stem the flow of migrants from Turkey. (Photograph by Ivan Romano/ Getty Images)

These operations at the border were broadly supported: Greek businesses provided material and financial support, civil groups and churches offered their “blessings” and sympathetic media referred to them as a legitimate response to an asymmetric threat Greece faced by in the context of a “hybrid war” with its “timeless foe”, Turkey.

Arguing that the organised transfer of a large number of migrants to the Greek border was an attempt to violate both the country and the EU’s territorial sovereignty, the Greek government wasted no time to suspend parts of the Geneva Convention for a month, and to refuse any new asylum applications by newcomers – a decision which later had to withdraw due to the strong opposition from solidarity and legal groups.

Meanwhile, it received full political, economic and operational support from the EU, which pledged €700 million in financial aid and immediately deployed Frontex’s rapid intervention team (RABIT) along the land and sea borders. Turkey however, was also handsomely compensated, receiving substantial political and economic rewards in exchange for a commitment to de-escalate tensions at the border and remove the thousands of migrants who have set up makeshift camps along its land border.

The conflict on the islands

These escalations at the border came at the right time for the Greek government. Weeks prior to these events, a decision by the government to push ahead with the construction of new migration detention centres on the islands caused a complete rupture with the communities there. When the government requisitioned areas destined for the construction of the new centres, local discontent turned into violent unrest as the government sent in police to ensure construction could advance as planned.

Three days of unprecedented clashes ensued between islanders and the police, forcing the government to temporarily suspend the construction of new detention centres on the islands of Lesvos and Chios, as well as to open a new round of consultations for possible alternative solutions.

These confrontations caused a serious rift in the relationship between the government and the island communities on which it depends for the smooth implementation of its authoritarian border policies. It became a priority for the government to fix this broken relationship as soon as possible, and the border crisis that was soon followed by the Covid-19-induced health crisis provided ample opportunity to do so.

2 March 2020: Migrants gather around fires on the coast of Lesbos island after far-right extremists had set up barricades blocking the way to the Moria refugee camp. (Photograph by Ayhan Mehmet/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
2 March 2020: Migrants gather around fires on the coast of Lesbos island after far-right extremists had set up barricades blocking the way to the Moria refugee camp. (Photograph by Ayhan Mehmet/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The resistance of local communities may have been large-scale and intense, but it proved too reactive and fleeting to constitute a meaningful milestone on the road to social emancipation. Furthermore, the language used by many locals showed that their priority was to get their islands “back” from the migrants; their opposition to the new centres was based on the perception that they would increase the number of migrants on the islands.

Despite the presence of a diverse international migrant solidarity movement on the islands, especially on Lesvos, which participated in the “three day uprising”, the unrest was marked by conservative, racist and xenophobic overtones. Moreover, migrants themselves were blocked from participating in the struggle, and there was a turn against any prior protest by migrants for their release from the island.

Conditions on the islands

As border areas, the islands have always been “sensitive zones” in which daily life is permeated by different forms of militarisation. Faith in the nation and its interests are compulsory, and whoever questions this state of affairs must be prepared to face instant ostracism and persecution as a foreign and hostile member of the homogeneous national body.

Migrant solidarity struggles against borders and nationalism are red flags, both for official bodies and their civil allies. Attacks on migrants and solidarity activists are not a new phenomenon in Greece. Political, police and judicial tolerance and cover-ups of attacks, as well as the support that attacks enjoy among wider parts of the society, offer fertile grounds for raid groups to grow in strength and operate without restraint.

The profit generated by the vast industries of border surveillance and protection and the management of migrant populations, provide a strong incentive for the compliance of local island communities with anti-migrant policies. However, in such small and closed communities, things are more complex. The poor living conditions in the camps also started to affect the surrounding communities in negative ways.

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Local communities surrounding the camps as well as the island population in general were discontented with changes that they perceived as having a negative impact on their daily lives. But rather than realising the common grounds they share with migrant communities in this context, islanders instead identified them as the source of the problem. Over the years, a simmering anger has been cultivated, finding fertile ground among localist, populist and far-right circles.

During the three days of conflict between islanders and security forces, this rage was a driving force, and it was soon redirected from the police to migrants, solidarity activists and journalists. NGO workers were among the main targets, because they were held responsible for the deteriorating situation on the islands.

“Professional humanitarianism” has played a key role in normalising detention centres’ exceptional conditions. From the “crisis” of 2015 until today, NGOs have increasingly played an active role in the management and operation of detention centres. Many have assisted the EU and the Greek government with their anti-migration policies.

Yet, at the same time, many provide much-needed medical and legal support for migrants, as well as food and shelter. Apart from that, a significant number of NGO workers and volunteers participate in and strengthen the solidarity movements that are active in these remote islands. These seem to be the reasons why NGO staff have been targeted by both state institutions and various far-right groups.

12 March 2020: Moria is extremely overcrowded, with 22 000 refugees living in an area meant for fewer than 3 000. Residents and health officials fear an outbreak of Covid-19 in the refugee camp. (Photograph by Guy Smallman/ Getty images)
12 March 2020: Moria is extremely overcrowded, with 22 000 refugees living in an area meant for fewer than 3 000. Residents and health officials fear an outbreak of Covid-19 in the refugee camp. (Photograph by Guy Smallman/ Getty images))

Emboldened by the political support from the local government on Lesvos, actions by local far-right groups since the start of 2020 have intensified. In Moria, there have been roadblocks and attacks preventing migrants and NGO workers from passing through areas adjacent to the detention centre. At the same time, migrants protesting against confinement and their poor living conditions have been met with severe repression, both by the police and “outraged citizens”.

The climate of “emergency” that originally formed around the protests and later the “border crisis” with Turkey, provided local far-right militias with the necessary space and time to further strengthen themselves and to continue attacking both migrants and solidarity structures. More roadblocks were set up between the detention centre and the city of Mytilene, targeting anyone perceived as “foreign”. Exhausted migrants who reached the islands’ shores by boat were prevented from disembarking, and in Chios and Lesvos, there were arson attacks against buildings and structures belonging to NGOs as well as the UNHCR.

The material damage caused by these attacks was significant and hindered the distribution of aid to migrants. But the subsequent climate of fear had an even more devastating effect. Public space and discourse was dominated by racism and xenophobia, exerting considerable pressure on solidarity movements. Many organisations were forced to suspend their operations and many workers left the island. The detention centres, which “host” many times more people than their official capacity, found their already inadequate services and infrastructures further weakened. The migrants were, as always, the victims.

As a large number of workers and volunteers are forced to leave the islands as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Migrants in the line of fire

For the migrants on the islands, the situation is becoming increasingly worse. Many thousands already spent the winter in hellish conditions, facing shortages of food, medical services, security and sanitation. Despite many reports that have raised the alarm about inhumane conditions in the Moria detention centre on Lesvos, there has not been the slightest improvement in the situation, nor any reduction in overcrowding. In the last year alone, 12 people have lost their lives in the Moria centre, five of them minors. Indeed, the Greek government seems to be using this dystopian situation as a means of deterring new arrivals and exerting pressure on migrants and local communities to accept additional new centres.

At the institutional level, a series of measures have made it difficult for migrants to assert their rights to international protection. Problematic from the very outset, these procedures did not provide applicants with the basic prerequisites, like information and examination procedures in their spoken languages and dialects or access to legal support.

3 February 2020: Clashes break out between refugees and anti-riot police on the Greek island of Lesbos as the former protest against the conditions in which they have to live at the Moria refugee camp. (Photograph by Ivan Romano/ Getty Images)
3 February 2020: Clashes break out between refugees and anti-riot police on the Greek island of Lesbos as the former protest against the conditions in which they have to live at the Moria refugee camp. (Photograph by Ivan Romano/ Getty Images)

The new asylum law, which has been in force since January 2020, is of an unambiguously punitive and deterrent nature. Its basic provisions accelerate the investigation of asylum claims at the expense of adequate research into the essence of the applications. At the same time, changes in the criteria for recognising vulnerability essentially exclude a large number migrants from special protective provisions. PTSD is not recognised, for instance, and obstacles are put in the way of examining victims of torture.

The deportation of migrants is expected to accelerate, with the possibility of migrants being deported to third countries while their legal procedures are still ongoing.

New obstacles have made it even more difficult to get access to the labour market, health services and education. The law extends the limit for the administrative detention of asylum seekers and tightens the requirements for compliance with the authorities’ orders. Those who do not comply can be denied an examination of their asylum applications. In this way, the right to demand the fair processing and investigation of asylum applications gets penalised, and migrants become even more precarious in the face of the arbitrary actions of the authorities.

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The latest attack by the Greek state, however, is not only directed against the migrants trapped in detention centres. It continues to pursue those who, by means of various programmes, have been transferred out of the detention centres, and even those who have been recognised under international protection conventions. Under a recent law, all those migrants and asylum seekers with international or subsidiary protection status housed in apartments or hotel rooms through the ESTIA programme of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been called on to leave their homes within a month from the delivery of the asylum service’s decision.

In addition to the evictions, the payment of their monthly allowance will also be terminated. While the process of their integration continues to be painfully slow, access to the labour market is nearly impossible for the majority of migrants, resulting in even greater insecurity and the risk of exploitation.

Any form of self-organisation, protest or resistance by migrants is met with severe police violence and arbitrary arrests. Squats housing migrants in the centre of Athens have been evicted, with more than 900 former residents transferred to already overcrowded cells and detention centres.

Surviving under the Covid-19 state of emergency

The restrictive measures used to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have led to further restrictions of migrants’ rights and freedoms. It appears that within the “state of exception” there is room for still further exceptions. New laws reeking of authoritarianism are being adopted without anyone having the opportunity to challenge them. Migrants are confined to densely populated detention centres in which they cannot implement any of the preventative protection measures like isolation or social distancing. Meanwhile, they are being depicted as a threat to the public health on social media, in the mainstream press as well as in official public institutions.

The same narrative was also used to justify the abandonment of newcomers, who were forbidden to leave the beach and forced to remain on the island’s shores for more than a month with scant provisions and assistance. When a case of Covid-19 is identified at the various temporary accommodation centres in mainland Greece, it is used as a pretext to confine and lock in the migrants, while police and military forces are called in to ensure compliance. By recording cases among migrants and other marginal communities like the Roma as separate from those among the native population, the media is enforcing a narrative of separation and exclusion.

Migrants themselves appear terrified of the repercussions of virus transmission in the detention centres, as most are visibly exhausted and have underlying health problems. The information provided to them about the disease and prevention measures is minimal, causing fear and panic to spread. This fear is further exacerbated on the islands due to the understaffed and degraded health services there.

The day after

The changes that have already taken place and those that will likely be provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic are significant. The reinvigorated idea of the nation-state, the restriction of cross-border movements and the coming economic recession will all put even greater pressure on already precarious and vulnerable migrant populations.

Increased racism and xenophobia, at both the institutional and social levels, will restrict their rights and freedoms even further, raising important questions about the direction that solidarity movements should take.

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Time currently feels condensed, and movements must find a way to shatter the plaster in which they are encased. A broad international solidarity movement is active on the Aegean Islands which provide many services, from sea rescue and reception operations, to food, health and shelter – as well as antifascist and antiracist direct actions. The restrictions implemented under the Covid-19 “emergency situation” imposed even greater obstacles in the organisation and practices of such groups.

Support for migrants and solidarity groups in Europe’s border regions is vital. We ought to recognise their struggles as a key part of the broader internationalist struggle against creeping totalitarianism today, especially under the Covid-19 emergency regime.

Translation by Saskia Fischer

This article was first published by Roar Magazine.

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