In early March, Greek-Turkish tensions began to rise as refugees from Turkey made their way towards Greece. Angry with the EU for not siding with him in Syria, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan decided to make good on his frequent threat to begin sending Syrian, as well as other, refugees from Turkey into Europe via Greece. While Turkey has taken in over three and a half million Syrian refugees—more than any other nation—it has also played a key role in creating such refugees through Erdoğan’s attempt to live out his neo-Ottoman fantasy by invading Syria, as well as by sponsoring terrorist groups in the Arab nation. So it should not be surprising that he would try to use innocent refugees as a bargaining tool against Europe.
Yet, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s reaction to the refugees coming from Turkey matched Erdoğan’s behaviour in terms of its disregard for human rights. In March, when refugees began making their way to Greece from Turkey in the thousands, Mitsotakis’s government quickly militarized the Greek-Turkish border, and refugees were sent text messages telling them not to attempt to enter the country. Moreover, the EU, which in 2016 had agreed to pay Turkey 6 billion euros for its role in “protecting” Europe’s borders, sided with the Greek government on the issue. Brussels even dispatched the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to Lesbos in order to show its “solidarity” with Greece.
Unsurprisingly, the results of all this were, and continue to be, tragic. Scenes of desperate men, women, and children attempting to cross into Greece through razor wire while being teargassed and shot with rubber, and in rare cases live, bullets by border police and soldiers were shocking examples of Athens’s disregard for human rights and international law. Moreover, such violent scenes were coupled with Mitsotakis and his conservative New Democracy party’s portrayal of the refugees as “invaders.” Of course, this message was meant as a sort of “dog whistle” to rally far-rightists in the country, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, to go on the attack. In fact, fascists worked side by side with the Greek police in harassing and assaulting refugees. While many on the right in Greece like to pretend that the refugees from Turkey are some sort of proxy army, video footage of obscenity-hurling fascists preventing refugees, many of whom were women and children, from disembarking from their docked dinghy shows that the driving force of many rightists is not some sort of fear of a Turkish invasion, but rather that of racial and religious hatred.
While stories of Greece’s mistreatment of refugees began to be noticed by the media worldwide earlier this year, a recent article in The New York Times has made further unsettling claims against the current Greek administration. The article entitled Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them at Sea claims, as the title suggests, that Greece has secretly rid itself of over 1,000 refugees by sailing them in, at times overcrowded, boats to the edge of its waters before abandoning them to fate. Lastly, the authors state that their piece is based on evidence derived from “three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard.”
However, the Greek government denies The New York Times’s allegations against it. Prime Minister Mitsotakis even agreed to be interviewed by CNN, where he claimed that the newspaper had based its article on Turkish propaganda against his country. While it may very well be true that the Turkish source faked information about some of the incidents, since it is certainly not beyond Erdoğan’s regime to do such a thing, the evidence of Greece’s continual mistreatment of refugees and migrants is undeniable. In fact, back in March, a video surfaced online that showed the Greek Coast Guard firing live rounds near a refugee dinghy.
The truth is that the Greek government’s behaviour is designed to capitalize on the rise of xenophobia and racism among the population by putting the blame for Greece’s struggles on “invading” refugees, while the government itself continues to kowtow to the EU. This strategy perhaps seems foolproof to the current administration, since there are a number of contributing factors already helping to stoke the rise of bigotry in Greece. For one, many Greeks believe that refugees and migrants are being given a “free ride” by the state. They complain, for instance, of hospitals being overburdened by the influx of newcomers to the country. Moreover, the situation is further exasperated by the fact that a disproportionate amount of the 50,000 refugees and migrants currently living in Greece have been stranded by the inactivity of the government, both the current and the former, on a few islands near the Turkish border, and this has had an obviously detrimental effect on some elements of local infrastructure. Yet, these refugees, who are often fleeing countries that have been torn apart by war, are certainly not living lavish, or even average, lives in Greece. Refugees on the island of Lesbos, for instance, are forced to live in the vastly overcrowded, and now infamous, Moria Camp, which resembles something more akin to a concretion camp than anything one would expect to encounter in contemporary Europe.
Another issue is the fact that many refugees are coming to Greece via its long-time rival Turkey. While the refugees themselves are not Turkish, and are in fact mostly Syrian, as well as peoples from other war-torn nations like Afghanistan, they are overwhelmingly Muslim, as well as non-white. Yet, even putting aside racial bigotry, the religious makeup of the refugees alone automatically disqualifies them from receiving any sympathy in the eyes of far too many Greeks, since Islam is associated with centuries of Ottoman oppression, along with the continuous threat represented by an aggressive Ankara. Moreover, misplaced anti-refugee sentiment also stems from the fact that Greeks have greatly suffered ever since the financial crisis of 2010, and consecutive governments have done little to nothing to alleviate the issues facing the population.
However, instead of standing up to Brussels by refusing to continue to keep the Greek people under the crushing boot of austerity, most Greek politicians have decided to use refugees and migrants as a scapegoat for the ills facing the country. Even former-Prime Minster Alexis Tsipras voiced his agreement with the right-wing government’s decision to close the borders by echoing the claim that refugees represented a Turkish threat. Although maybe it should not be surprising that Tsipras said such a thing, considering that after he overruled the results of the 2015 Greek referendum, in which the population voted to reject austerity, he really has little left to offer voters besides trying to piggyback off of popular xenophobic sentiment.
But all is not lost in Greece. There has been continual currents of pushback against anti-refugee trends throughout the nation. This has come in the form of Greek anti-fascist activists who have been willing to try and provide physical protection for refugees and migrants. For instance, when neo-Nazis from Western Europe arrived in Lesbos to “hunt down” refugees and migrants, they were met with a violent reaction from Greek leftists. Moreover, anti-fascist activists—some working anonymously due to credible death threats from far-rightists—have even been able to expose ties between fascists and government officials, besides the obvious ones with Golden Dawn, through the internet.
Even within the Hellenic Parliament itself, there are voices fighting against the status quo. For example, under the leadership of Yanis Varoufakis, MeRA25 has been a strong supporter of refugee and migrant rights. Varoufakis, who never shies away from accepting the role of Socrates on trial, has spoken and written about the mistreatment of refugees by the Greek government, and points out that the demonization of them by Mitsotakis and his party is intended to distract the public from the government’s misdeeds. In fact, he called the New Democracy government a “Troika-run regime”—in reference to the fact that it is little more than a puppet of the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moreover, Varoufakis has called for Greece to open its borders to refugees and migrants, and for the rest of Europe to follow suit. Such a position is certainly reasonable, since open borders throughout Europe would allow refugees who initially escaped into Greece to not have to remain stranded there in perpetual limbo.
In reality, while it is true that Greece has long faced a military threat from Turkey, and that this threat has only increased under the current leadership of Erdoğan, it is also true that the refugees and migrants have nothing to do with such a threat. The refugees trying to enter Greece are not a part of Erdoğan’s army—they are not even Turkish, let alone supporters of his mad neo-Ottoman ambitions. Instead, they are men, women, and children who were often mistreated in Turkey, only to eventually be pushed out of the country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Further, although it is also true that many Greeks cannot make ends meet because of the austerity forced upon them by Brussels and their own corrupt government, sending desperate people away, potentially to their death, will not improve the situation. Human history is tragically wrought with the examples of struggling people seeing other struggling people as their true enemies—often based on national, ethnic, religious, or linguistic differences—while their real oppressors, those who hold actual power, are given a free pass. The problems afflicting Greece at this moment in time are the result of the capitalist order, and the willingness of consecutive Greek governments to subject the population to crippling austerity. It is quite clear, therefore, that the real enemies of the Greek people are the ones sitting in luxury in Athens and Brussels, and not those desperately trying to cling to life on inflatable boats or in makeshift tents.