Can Europe Make It?

Greece's migration policy: what's next?

The election of Syriza brings hope to those who have been fighting for an ethical migration policy in one of Europe's least immigrant-friendly states.

Christina Psarra
9 February 2015

Protests against poor conditions at a migrant detention centre in Corinth, Greece. Demotix/Nikolas Georgiou. All rights reserved

Migrants’ rights in Greece are in constant violation. “Facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored,” as Aldous Huxley wrote or, I would add, just because they don’t appear on the headlines. Fundamental rights are questioned everyday and access to essential services is still considered a gift from the sky.

For a long period Greek society has been absorbed into discussions on austerity,  unemployment and debt relief. The pre-elections period was also dominated by this agenda and the pro and anti – austerity debate overshadowed the ideological differences of the parties. The parliamentary elections of 25 January brought a milestone result, giving power to the left wing Syriza in the promise to bring “an end to the vicious circle of austerity”. Syriza though did not muster the parliamentary majority on its own and formed a coalition with the right wing party Independent Greeks.

In an all-or-nothing positioning of the EU over Greece’s debt relief, many of Syriza’s supporters defend this choice as a dead-end option. This eerie coalition came as a result of the absence of another possible alliance, the decision to avoid the dual risk – for Syriza and the economy - of undergoing a second round of elections and the decision of not reaching the point where, due to constitutional provisions, Syriza would be forced to deliver to the third highest vote shared party - the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn - the mandate to form a government.

Syriza’s victory has raised expectations for restoring lost dignity and was also celebrated by migrants. Not without a reason. Just a few days after her appointment as the new Alternate Minister of Migration Policy, Tasia Christodoulopoulou, stated that Greek citizenship will be granted to all migrants’ children that were born and raised in Greece, and even those that came to Greece very young, and who have attended and finished school in the country.

During 2014, Greece’s borders remained the second most used route for migrants crossing into the EU. That year also saw a record 155% increase in the numbers of people reaching the territory.

Former government’s migration policy was developed over a strategy of systematic arbitrary detention, deportations and police brutality. The devastating consequences of prolonged and systematic detention on the mental and physical health of detainees have been repeatedly exposed.

The totally unacceptable living conditions not only within detention centers but also inside police establishments all over the country where migrants are often held have been repeatedly denounced by the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT).

CPT has clearly stated that the situation is not improving in the course of time and “there is little evidence that allegations of ill-treatment are investigated promptly and thoroughly, leading to some police officers believing they can act with impunity”.

The risks of detention and deportation are also faced by the persons who do not manage to file an asylum application. The measures announced for the improvement of the current asylum system are still on paper. Only five out of the eleven Regional Asylum Offices prescribed by law have been created and the central Asylum Service is staffed at 75 per cent.

At present, the number of asylum seekers stands above 43,000 and the accommodation places – offered to the documented population - number just 1,063, mostly comprising places for unaccompanied minors.

At the same time, xenophobia persists in the society which has demonstrated a high level of “passive participation” in racist violence.

Violent incidents, some of which have been fatal, also entailed the targeting of children and pregnant women. Many of the documented racist crimes have taken place in public places, before idle eyewitnesses, confirming tolerance if not complicity within the Greek society.

Impunity seems to reign

The way the Greek judicial system treated the notorious case of Manolada, - where thirty five migrant workers were shot after demanding six months of unpaid salaries - that shocked the international press and human rights organizations, is phenomenal. The owner of the farm and one of his foremen were cleared of any wrongdoing and the two other foremen were exonerated in the end.

In November 2014, a court in western Greece cleared Golden Dawn deputy C.Barbarousis of any involvement in an incident where he and a team of followers wearing black t-shirts marched in an open market, as part of a self – appointed inspection squad, smashing up migrant traders' stalls with thick poles carrying Greek flags and asking traders to display their permits.

Shehzad Lugman, a young asylum seeker from Pakistan, was cycling to work when stabbed to death by two young Greeks in a central Athenian neighborhood. The Mixed Jury Court of Athens maintained that the murder was the result of an altercation; despite the fact that the means perpetrators used, as well as their readiness to act, are similar to the modus operandi found in racist attacks committed by the so-called “organized hit squads”. 

In September 2014, the parliament voted in a much-delayed anti-racism bill. The new anti-racism legislation strengthens penalties for racist incitement and violence, criminalizes the denial of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, such as the Holocaust, but some fear it may curb free speech and freedom of expression.

The present Minister of Interior Affairs has metaphorically called this bill “an empty tunic”.

The need to protect victims and witnesses remains neglected. There are still no guarantees for the majority of victims who lack legal documents and who always risk being arrested for this reason if they approach police authorities to denounce a hate crime. Needless to say, perpetrators often choose their victims after confirming their lack of legal documents, so as to make sure that the way to courts or the police is blocked and thus impunity remains guaranteed. 

Hopes for change and a message from justice have now been entrusted with the forthcoming trial of the jailed Golden Dawn MPs, accused of running a criminal organization. Following the closing of the investigation, the public prosecutor demanded in a 700-page argument that all sixteen Golden Dawn MPs, two former lawmakers and dozens of members face criminal trial.

Syriza’s officers and MPs have had a strong advocacy role in the past demanding changes to numerous issues related to migration, detention centers and racist activities. They have protested with the victim’s of Farmakonisi tragedy and called for grassroots solutions. Today’s Prime Minister has publicly acknowledged that “No Frontex force and no fence could stop a phenomenon which is partly a result of the crisis in the countries of origin” and has asked the European Council to “review the overall EU institutional framework for immigration and asylum”.

What’s next? Will the present government bring forth new paradigm in the country’s migration policy and effectively allocate funding received by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund in order to finally set standards for reception and integration?

Faced with this situation many migrants have chosen to escape from Greece. This escape doesn’t mean a decrease in migrant population numbers in the country. Every day the Aegean shores still welcome dozens of people who flee from war, violence and poverty and who have the right to seek a better future.

Thus far, implemented migration policies have resulted in humiliation, despair, and anger for migrants in Greece. Hopefully, the election of such a pro-migrant party in Greece will signal a sea-change for these previously downtrodden people.  

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