As Xenophobia Sweeps Greece, Migrants Face Harsh Government Crackdown
A crackdown on irregular migration has entered its fourth week in Greece. The government is shutting the Greek-Turkish northeastern border across river Evros, and removing massive numbers of undocumented migrants from big urban centres into makeshift detention camps.
On Aug. 2 police deployed 1,881 new police officers along the river Evros in an attempt to seal the border. Greek Police spokesman Christos Manouras told IPS that the deployment “has effectively stopped new arrivals…When we become aware through our infrared cameras or our patrols that someone attempts a crossing, police officers form a human shield against them and prevent them from entering.”
Meanwhile in Athens alone the police have apprehended 12,900 migrants and arrested 2,100 who resided in the country illegally. About 400 are kept in a new detention camp in Amugdaleza on the outskirts of Athens. The rest have been sent to two police academies turned into makeshift camps in Xanthi (500) and Komotini (800) in northern Greece.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) members visited both these camps last week and described conditions as substandard. “Our team registered serious deficits regarding the infrastructure and conditions of detention, despite the obvious efforts of authorities to improve the situation,” director general of MSF Reveka Papadopoulou told IPS.
“We will monitor the situation further but we will not get involved in a way that will prevent the government from dealing with responsibilities that occur from a political choice of implementing a policy of large-scale detentions.”
Authorities do not allow journalists to visit detention camps, and access to the border is limited in coordination with the Greek Border Guard.
The European Commission has not ruled out financing for such measures. The Commission “organises regularly technical missions on the ground to discuss with the Greek authorities eligibility of actions under the EU co-financed programmes,” the Commission told IPS by email, referring to a Commission mission to the border.
Last week authorities opened a makeshift camp at the site of old military barracks in Korinthos, 75 km south of Athens, that can host another 2,000 detainees. Currently 400 people are detained there.
“Detentions will last for up to one year” as authorities try to send people back to their countries of origin, Manouras said. “Many of them could opt to return through the programme we implement together with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).”
Co-financed by Greece and the European Union Returns Fund, the programme has already sent 5,000 people back. At the end of July IOM and Greece signed a 10 million euro 12-month agreement that will offer assisted voluntary return to countries of origin for some 7,000 irregular migrants.
Since 2005 Greece has become the main influx point for undocumented migrants, with more than 80 percent entering Europe coming from Turkey through the Aegean Sea or the Northeast mainland boundary of the river Evros.
The vast majority of these migrants hope to move towards Northern Europe. However, the distance to other European countries as well as clauses in the Dublin II regulation that dictates the return of asylum seekers to the European country they first entered, have effectively condemned scores of immigrants to remain stuck in limbo in Greece.
This has transformed the country, and Athens in particular, into a depot of hundreds of thousands of irregular immigrants and asylum seekers, who survive on below-subsistence incomes in a vast black market.
The new migration policy of the coalition government of the right-wing New Democracy, the technocrat PASOK and moderate leftist DEMAR is being implemented at a time when many international organisations are expressing concern about the failure of authorities to protect the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and to offer them protection from a rising tide of racist attacks.
The policy is being implemented in the midst of an economic crisis. Since 2009 debt insolvency has translated into a full-blown economic crisis for Greece, and driven the country into borrowing heavily in order to avoid disorderly default. The country is undergoing a fourth consecutive year of recession, with unemployment climbing to 29 percent.
In the economic collapse, xenophobic sentiment has swept through society. Racist attacks have increased on the streets of Athens and are spreading fast throughout the country.
On Jul. 23 the rape and attempted murder of a 15-year-old girl on the island Paros by an irregular Pakistani worker outraged the public. In a wave of attacks against foreigners that followed the event, an Iraqi migrant was beaten and stabbed to death by five hooded youngsters Aug. 12.
“You know this might happen to you every time you go out of the house,” asylum seeker Ramadan Sah who fled the Taliban in Afghanistan tells IPS in fluent Greek. “One might stop you and ask you where are you from. And then many more appear and attack you. It is really dangerous out there.”
Sah has been stuck in the asylum system for more than a decade. A couple of months ago the appeals committee reviewed his application. He is about to finish a degree in political science, but he faces renewed fears.
“It’s like when we hid in houses to escape the Taliban. Then they called us leftist, now we are the foreigners.”