“I feel I'm a stranger. You?” Photo of graffiti in Athens, 2012.
Though the surge in support for the neo-fascist Golden Dawn has gained considerable attention in the international media, this phenomenon is better understood within the context of developments affecting society as a whole. It is Greek society in economic depression and its attitudes towards the other – the migrant or the foreigner – that will be the subject of this article.
Modern Greek history will be read as a history of migrations, both international and internal, older and newer migrants finding themselves in competition as they seek to renegotiate their position in society and their identities. It is in the light of these previous migrations that an effort will be made to comprehend contemporary policies and current attitudes towards immigration. European legislation on migration is increasing the instability of the Greek state at this crucial juncture, and, as a result, contributing to the magnitude of the crisis.
Migration is not new to the region. Nicholas Purcell and Peregrine Hordern have chronicled how variable microclimates in the mountainous Aegean rendered movement and hence migration a necessary technique for survival. Population hubs on islands or peninsulas were linked by sea to distant hinterlands, relying on them for nutrition and much else.
Against this backdrop, climatic, economic or political disturbances led to population movements on an even grander scale: the flow of migrants from the Balkans to the northern Black Sea coast (increasingly part of the Russian Empire) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or migration in waves from the western to the eastern Aegean, from Greece to what is today Turkey and to Egypt in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - to cite two examples from the recent past. Unlike the nation-states which followed in its wake, the port cities of the Ottoman, Russian and British Empires provided a suitable framework for such movement, and not a few Greeks grew wealthy trading throughout the Black Sea and the Levant, even as far east as Calcutta.
Two further migrations, however, have left an indelible mark on Greek society in the twentieth century. First, the forced migration of Orthodox Christians (some Turkish speaking) from the newly constituted Turkish state, and Muslims (a large number Greek speaking) from Greece, both prior to and following the treaty of Lausanne of 1923. Their story has recently been re-narrated by Bruce Clark in his poignantly named “Twice a Stranger”.
Ethnic cleansing on this scale was justified by the requirement of creating homogeneous and hence functioning nation-states, the resulting homogeneity being primarily religious. Despite efforts to settle migrants and provide them with gainful employment, these migrants, some 20% of the total population (and over 45% in Greek Macedonia), became the determining factor in Greek politics. With little allegiance to the royalist status quo, and denigrated as an inferior underclass by the bourgeois of old Greece, urban refugees provided the backbone of the Liberal and, slightly later, the Communist party, KKE.
Already in the 1920s KKE was arguing in manifestos for the imposition of a “workers' and peasants' and refugees' government”. Though it is important to take into consideration the effects of depression in the 1930s when support for KKE surged, a direct line connects the migrations of the 1920s to the Civil War of approx. 1943-1949.
Greek migrants, 1922.
An equally significant migration from the 1950s up until the 1990s saw millions leave their homelands for Athens (and, to a lesser extent, Salonica and western Europe). These were the boom years of “Build, Build, Build”, the disarmingly earnest title of a book by a trusted Minister in the elder Karamanlis' administrations. The construction sector did serve as the first job opportunity for a large number of internal migrants, and a significant part of the industrial sector was vertically integrated into construction. However, this construction-based development model led to a combination of low productivity and labour-intensive methods of work. What is more, illegal housing in urban peripheral areas constituted the main form of construction in Greek cities. The combination of construction, environmental degradation and disregard for law remains a dominant development paradigm to this day, despite the crisis.
Internal migration linked to urbanisation is not unique to Greece, of course. In the Greek case, however, two elements stand out: firstly, this development can be closely correlated to the swelling of a centralised state apparatus (from the 1980s on, reliant on EU financial support); and, secondly, migrant allegiances largely remained in their regions of origin, real or idealised, being transferred to the country as a whole only following further migration overseas.
Though different in many respects, migration from overseas and internal migration fed common myths. Popular songs of the period tell the story more effectively than other media: “My father Batis / came from Smyrna in 1922 […] in this world those who love eat dirty bread […] and their desires follow / underground paths”. This smash hit from the 1972 album “Dirty Bread” in fact contains two stories: a traditional zeibekiko (partly quoted above) sung by Sotiriou Belou and an electric-rock commentary narrated as a backdrop by the singer-songwriter Dionysis Savvopoulos. Whereas the older generation are the migrants, the younger are in search of their father, Georgos Batis, a classic figure of the rebetiko genre (with its antecedents in the musical traditions of Asia Minor). And yet the younger are also migrants: “I will get lost / in the world like a refugee”, sings Savvopoulos' destabilising second voice, while simultaneously slipping away from the patriachal order it purports to be seeking.
Where this was possible, citizens even continued voting in the regions of birth: their idealised politiai being constantly juxtaposed to the dystopia of urban Athens. In Athens and elsewhere hundreds of organisations sought to connect Greeks to their origins: over five hundred exist for the Greeks of Asia Minor alone. The chasm between belonging to a local community and the foreignness of Athens' labyrinth was bridged through the patronage of political parties and, also, increasing access to consumer goods.
Essentialist discourses of a three-thousand year old nation separated Greeks from their Balkan and Ottoman neighbours while projecting an ideological construct that could not and cannot be lived by the majority of Greeks in any meaningful way; these discourses did however serve a unifying purpose, while linking Greece to a similarly idealised vision of Europe.
Migrations to Athens from its Balkan hinterlands and from the former Soviet Union in the years following 1990 provided cheap (un-unionised) labour, crucial for the GDP growth rates of the Simitis years. This high GDP growth served, in turn, as a catalyst for Greece's entry into the Euro. Despite widespread racism against Albanians, these were populations that might have creatively coexisted, or even been assimilated (many parts of southern Greece were Albanian speaking only a generation or two back and the central role of Albanian-speaking areas in the War of Independence of 1821 is well known), a process that was under way prior to its reversal in the current crisis.
In short, though there has been much talk of migration in an age of globalisation, the interplay between the immigrant/emigrant and the resident has been a constant factor in the creation and recreation of a Greek polity. This should not come as a surprise. After all, Greece's indented coastline and crossable northern borders render it an ideal gateway for migrations both eastward and westward. The nature of this migration explains some of the weaknesses that are endemic to the Greek polity: the lack of trust between groups, and the lack of allegiance and non-payment of taxes to a state that is almost universally viewed as the fiefdom of a kleptocratic elite. As will be argued further on, contemporary attitudes towards migrants in Greece are in large part a consequence of the interplay between feelings of alienation related to previous migrations and a sense of estrangement from a discordant modernity. With the post-Junta generation, its democratic rhetoric and visions of Europe, seemingly discredited, essentialist narratives are the only official ideology left standing.
One further element is, however, increasing the pungency of this brew, and that is Europe. Though the ideal of Europe has repeatedly been used to differentiate Greeks from their neighbours on an ideological level, European legislation has achieved the same result in fact. With entry into the EU and, in particular, with the Schengen Agreement, Greece negotiated for itself the pulling power of a modern-day European Empire. The Dublin II Regulation and, more particularly, the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, however, have left it with the absorption capacity of a peripheral nineteenth century nation-state. It is this imbalance between pulling power and absorption capacity in a part of the world prone to migration that renders the current situation in Greece so perilous; and, also, given the series of conflicts triggered by various actors in a broad ark spanning from Afghanistan to Libya – and the population movements that inevitably ensue – so unjust.
False dawns and black nights
Golden dawn of the regime of Ioannis Metaxas,
4th August 1936.
Image: Metaxas Project website.
The neo-fascist party Golden Dawn is dominating discussion of racism in Greece. A glance at the web-site of the party is instructive. Narcissism is writ large in the glorification of ancient Sparta, Thermopylae, Alexander of Macedon, the dictator Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek Junta and such like. But scraps from Plato, the Church Fathers, William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ioannis Makriyiannis (who launched a revolt aiming for constitutional monarchy in 1843), the philosopher Panagiotes Kondyles and others also find their niche.
Further articles denigrate constitutional democracy, international capitalism, cosmopolitanism and the Greek left, casting the left-wing politician and leading member of the resistance Manolis Glezos as Soviet / Stalinist and the leader of the opposition, Alexis Tsipras, as a latter day Avraam Benaroya, the Jewish Salonikan who played a prominent role in the founding of the Greek Communist party. A piece by party leader Nicholaos Michaloliakos champions his version of ‘Hellenism’ which is, “not a body of ideas and of cultural achievements […] but a term with racial content”. The overall impression is of a party of the deracinated and the deranged grasping at fragments. Tormented by the absence of clear meanings in their post-modern condition, it is “blood” and “violence” that inevitably have the last word.
The most recent but also effective rebuttal of the essentialist and racist ideologies propagated by Golden Dawn has come from within the Orthodox Church. Paul Metropolitan of Siatista (a small town in Greek Macedonia, its elegant mansions testimony to migrations as far north as Budapest and Vienna in the eighteenth century) launched a series of stringent attacks on Golden Dawn calling the party a “black night” for Greece. Bartholomew, the Istanbul based Oecumenical Patriarch, journeyed to Siatista to commend the Metropolitan. “The real causes of this crisis lie not in economics, but are spiritual and moral” he stated, praising Paul for his “spiritual guidance of his flock”. Hieronymous, Archbishop of Athens also condemned racism in general and Golden Dawn in particular. In a move redolent with symbolism, he presided over the funeral of Paul, Alexis Tsipras' father, who had been imprisoned by the Junta. Many other Hierarchs joined in this unprecedented (and it would appear coordinated) intervention by the Church into politics.
The actions of these Hierarchs are significant in part because the Church's flock is relatively conservative – and thus prone to nationalist discourses – but even more because essentialist views of Greek history cannot bypass the role of the Church as the only institution which existed throughout four hundred or more years of “Turkish yoke”. Though the Hierarchs' campaign received minimal coverage in Greece's liberal press, opinion polls do suggest that support for Golden Dawn dropped shortly thereafter. The Golden Dawn website itself hosted an article by a Member of Parliament, expressing the “surprise” of a true believer on hearing the Hierarchs' condemnations. Not all Church figures have been so enlightened, however. The role Church organisations played as a bulwark of support for the Greek Junta has been well documented. Drawing on this latter tradition, the Metropolitan of Piraeus and the Metropolitan of Kalavrita openly express extreme right-wing opinions. It remains to be seen whether the Hierarchs of the Church can keep up the pressure against the rising tide of racism in Greece.
The left for its part has long cast itself as the foremost ideological opponent of fascism in Greece. Anarchists and others have organised patrols in immigrant areas of Athens to challenge Golden Dawn's monopoly of violence on the streets. SYRIZA has also attacked the essentialism of Golden Dawn's narrative by pointing to links between the party and collaborationist Security Battalions during the Second World War. There is a clear correlation between those regions where the Security Battalions drew the mass of their support and recent electoral successes for Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn has replied by beating up left-wing politicians.
This focus on Golden Dawn as the locus of racism in Greece is however misleading. To a considerable extent it plays into discourses of two commensurate plagues, with SYRIZA and Golden Dawn both being censured by elements within the commentariat as peddlers of extremism and violence.
Rather it is racism institutionalised through the actions of the Greek state that is an even greater cause for concern. The support for Golden Dawn within the police force has been widely reported, a connection that constitutes one of the reasons for Golden Dawn's emergence as a substantial political force (the same does not seem to be true of the army, however). It also explains the impunity felt by those carrying out racist attacks.
Despite a front page article in the daily Ethnos listing instances of police use of indiscriminate violence, for the most part directed at foreigners, the use of such methods and even torture by sections of the police has not received the attention it deserves. During the course of research for this article, two migrants interviewed claimed that they had been at the receiving end of police violence. At the same time, the government is widely reported to be restricting if not terminating uninsured immigrants' access to basic health care. Mainstream politicians have been playing a dangerous game, gendering racism by giving prominence to “foreign prostitutes” purportedly bearing illnesses and contaminating Greeks. There can be no doubt that such stories play well on sensationalist TV channels. It remains unclear to what extent these tactics represent a conscious attempt to distract those suffering most as a result of the longterm maladministration of the country.
Tsistaraki Mosque, central Athens, 1759.
The lack of an officially functioning mosque in Athens is equally troubling. Though there are official mosques elsewhere in Greece, this absence is a side effect of the Treaty of Lausanne and the religious homogeneity that resulted. The government had promised to build a new mosque in time for the 2004 Olympics, and it is still promising to do so. Under pressure from the Church and other circles it has procrastinated however, and to this day Muslims in the capital pray in rented basements and apartments, easy prey for racist assaults.
With little police protection, both Bangladeshi and Pakistani places of worship have been attacked in recent months. The lack of an officially functioning mosque is all the more surprising, because two mosques do in fact exist in the centre of Athens. The first, the Fetiye Mosque, or Mosque of the Conquest, was originally built on the walls of a demolished Byzantine basilica in 1456-58, shortly after the capture of the city by Mehmet II. Its reconsecration as a mosque would therefore prove needlessly provocative. The elegant Tsistaraki Mosque (named after an eighteenth century governor of Athens) now functions as a museum. It could be reused as a mosque at no cost, at least until such time as the authorities construct a larger edifice. Foreign governments owe it to all Greeks to put pressure on the Greek state to right this clear instance of institutionalised racism.
If the lack of a mosque in Athens is a result of inaction by the state apparatus, a government decree freezing citizenship applications from second generation migrants represents a policy initiative. The citizenship law of 2010 had constituted an attempt to build virtuous cycles, creating a relatively inclusive citizen body and addressing Greece's demographic deficit (rendered even worse by the ongoing emigration of young Greeks since the onset of the crisis). The decree of 2012, which follows on from a decision by the Council of State, Greece's highest administrative court, for the most part affects second generation immigrants from the Balkans. That decree, together with any new more restrictive citizenship law that ensues, represents the antithesis of policies followed by the Greek state following the treaty of Lausanne, which aimed at maximum integration of new arrivals.
Less obviously, an overly restrictive citizenship law also undermines official ideology. For as Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer argued in his controversial study of the Peloponnese, the Greeks cannot, on the basis of any sound reading of the evidence, claim to constitute a racial continuity from the ancient world up until the present day.
Greek nineteenth century historians countered that continuities in Greek history were not racial but cultural. It is not for nothing that one of the main libraries in downtown Athens bears Isocrates' aphorism on the pedestal over its main entrance: “Greeks are those who share our common education”, alternatively translated as, “culture”. Citizenship through shared language and education is therefore the sine qua non for Greeks claiming connections to Byzantium and the ancient world.
In any event, the consequences of the message sent through the repeal of access to citizenship rights for second generation immigrants are being realised in Greece's educational establishments. With no avenues left open for integration, both resident and migrant school children are retreating into their cocoons, forming gangs along narrowly ethnic lines. A new generation, embittered and demoralised, is coming of age. If this decree represents the future of Greece, then it is a bleak future indeed.
The establishment of a chain of (initially) thirty “closed hospitality centres” for unauthorised immigrants is another unprecedented policy innovation for an EU country. These camps are meant to serve as detention centres for undocumented immigrants, rounded up as part of a police operation named “Xenios Zeus” (meaning “Zeus who looks after strangers”, a clear case of doublespeak).
Their numbers will more than double Greece’s total prison population, perhaps reaching 20,000 by June of 2013. Reports of human rights violations are already widespread. Given the defects of the state apparatus and the lack of resources, such reports are likely to multiply. Just as important, the amount of time migrants can be legally held in these centres has been increased from the original three to twelve months. By way of comparison, applications by migrants in the United States have to be processed within six months.
What happens to migrants that no country will receive after the twelve months are completed? Journalists are already naming them “concentration camps”; it is in fact likely that we are witnessing the initial stages in the creation of an Aegean Gulag Archipelago. Nikos Dendias, Minister of Public Order, remains adamant however. He has called large-scale immigration, “a bomb aimed at the foundations of society and of the state”.
To add to all the above, the lack of a functioning immigration system is a source of myriad injustices. Temporary papers are renewed every six months and rights forfeited as a result of delayed payment of charges to the state (a recurrent problem due to the economic crisis). Migrants requesting asylum are trapped in a waiting game that can last for years. As one migrant interviewed put it: “it’s like a stone thrown at night. You don't know where it will land. No one knows what is legal and what is illegal. Your fate depends on luck”. Demetris Papademetriou, President of the US based Migration Policy Institute, is even more categorical: “dealing with migration is all about developing systems that are functional and predictable. That means genuine political refugees, who are usually between five and ten percent of the total, but in some circumstances may be as much as thirty percent, have to be granted asylum. But there also has to be the political will and resources for repatriation, and stringent penalties for human traffickers to prevent flows from becoming uncontrollable”. He adds that Greece, acting alone, does not have the capacity to accept even the genuine political refugees. “The numbers are simply too large”.
On the other hand, a variety of non-state actors are at the forefront of efforts to aid migrants arriving in Greece. Migrants and social workers spoken to during the course of research for this article mentioned the work of NGOs such as the Greek Council for Refugees, Aitema, Caritas, Doctors of the World and the state-funded EKKA. At the Greek Council for Refugees I met a number of migrants, all waiting for documents of one sort or another (“others wait much longer than the year that you have been here” a social worker consoles a middle-aged man from Afghanistan), and seemingly grateful for such help as had been provided. Outside the main door an elderly man sits with a few possessions scattered around him; he is among the lucky ones, officially recognised as a political refugee. And he has nowhere to go.
The Orthodox Church also runs charities with the aim of helping migrants. One such, the Ark of the World feeds over four hundred children daily and provides health and medical care. (“The place where the blacks go to eat?” was the disparaging remark of a man on a street nearby when asked for directions). Theatre, dancing, computer and vocational training are also provided. The only condition for entry is that children must attend school. “Parents with children who are entirely Greek come in and ask if their kids can come here too”, a social worker at the Ark explains, “so now we look after migrant and Greek children together”.
Outside Athens, citizens groups have been helping migrants on their own initiative. To Horio tou Oloi Mazi (the village where we all come together) on the island of Lesbos is a union of over twenty five organisations (including NGOs, the Boy Scouts, doctors, local parishes and monasteries) set up to help locals suffering from the economic crisis. They now run a reception centre for an even more vulnerable group: migrants arriving on the island. “Some one hundred and twenty five individuals are fed every day, three times a day, simply through collections from locals. These are not only young men but women, children and the elderly” relates Michalis Bachas, one of the coordinators. “But another twenty Afghanis, Syrians and Somalis are arriving almost every day”. The state does not have the resources to help, though the municipality did provide a building. Many migrants do not make it: more than twenty died in a shipwreck off Lesbos over the weekend. Similar groups have been set up in other parts of the country.
Diktio, a left-wing network for the support of refugees and migrants that operates throughout Greece, makes a point of not being an NGO but a political organisation: its activities include debates, demonstrations and campaigns for the rights of migrants. It also provides legal support. “The increase in racism has made Greek language courses less popular”, Nasim Lomani, originally from Afghanistan and spokesperson for the Diktio, relates, puffing on a cigarette. On the wall behind him the slogan “Freedom, not Frontex” is prominent.
“Still, we run a whole range of other language courses: English, French and German”. As if to prove the point, a Bulgarian woman enters the room to ask about courses in German. The Diktio also organises what it calls an “Underground Free University” with courses ranging from computing to dance. “The emphasis throughout is on Greeks and migrants learning together,” Nasim Lomani adds. “Over the last few years we've had about four hundred students on average. But people also vanish, probably picked up by the police”. Diktio has been subjected to a hand grenade attack in 2009 (fortunately without victims) and a police raid in 2010. A young Algerian outside one of the classrooms confides: “this is a very beautiful country, but it is also very messed up”. He told me that he had been helped by a number of Greeks, however.
The combined efforts of such organisations – spanning much of the ideological spectrum from left to right – constitute testimony to the courage of human beings, despite the ravages of economic depression. They also point to the limits of a purely economic analysis of events in Greece today. For if Greek society is on the verge of collapse, it is also at that precipice where people have the potential to rediscover the values of social support and creativity, values that make a cultural community meaningful for those who belong to it. This community cannot be fixed, or exclusive; it has to grow in relation to others, to include others in its midst and to mobilise new potential, or else to atrophy.
In other words Greek society has the means to reconstitute itself along new lines provided that it strengthens those institutions that mediate conflicts between competing groups. To prevent such efforts being swamped, however, European governments must act with urgency to alter the overall framework for migration into the EU.
Racism and reform
Etienne Balibar's argument that racism should not be considered a hangover from pre-modern fantasies but that it is the “composition of disavowal and projection that arises from a modern aggressivity against cultural difference” fits Golden Dawn. Thus the dictator Metaxas, whom Golden Dawn considers its ideological forefather, was in fact rather pro-Jewish. It is not Metaxas per se (or indeed any other aspect of Greek history) that interests the ideologues of Golden Dawn but the ability to manipulate culturally significant symbols to project power.
Overall attitudes towards migrants in a country forged through these various migrations remain necessarily ambivalent. The migrant has been and is viewed as a threat, while simultaneously serving as an embodiment of a foundational narrative, the journey of many – perhaps even most – Greeks' grand or great-grandparents, of their father “Batis” and all their respective fathers. As a result, both state and society have oscillated between welcome and hostility. Similarly, for Greeks newly arrived in Athens from their regional homelands the state remains both “ours” and “alien”, a duality which accounts, in part, for the discrepancy between informal practices and formal laws (alternatively known as corruption). This discrepancy characterises the Greek polity as a whole, and earlier Greek immigration policies in particular. If there is anything new in this equation, it is the import of strictly racial criteria as somehow diagnostic of “Hellenism” as seen in challenges to the citizenship law of 2010.
However, a complete reduction of phenomena to discourses should be avoided. It is impossible to explain the institutionalisation of racism in contemporary Greece without taking into account economic and social variables that both stem from and contribute to the weaknesses of the Greek state. The capacity/incapacity to absorb migration flows is one such variable. Ioannis Albanis, a popular figure on the central committee of SYRIZA and an expert on human rights issues, explains: “Greece has taken the place of Libya or Morocco. It has become a giant concentration camp for refugees, this time within the EU.”
Following bilateral agreements between Italy and Spain and their respective southern neighbours, Greece has ended up accounting for approximately ninety percent of illegal immigration to the EU. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's International Migration Outlook (2010) estimates that nearly half of the 1.2 million immigrants in Greece are unauthorized. With civil war in Syria reaching a crescendo, these numbers are likely to rise. Albanis concedes that the issue of migration is costing SYRIZA votes (migrants serving as scape-goats for society's ills), but adds: “The EU must change the framework for migration for its own good. Current policies are simply not viable”. Demetris Papademetriou agrees: “everyone abhors the migration crisis and points a finger at Greece. But Greece is stuck. It is resorting to the failed politics of symbols because it does not have the institutional capacity to deal with migration itself”.
If EU policies are currently making matters worse, this need not continue to be the case. Following on from a European Courts of Human Rights decision that Belgium would be in breach of the Human Rights Convention if it sent asylums seekers back to Greece, the EU should suspend Greece's participation in the Dublin II Regulation and permit asylum seekers to apply directly to other EU countries. If deemed absolutely essential, camps for migrants should be run by the EU authorities (a proposal made by Tony Blair in 2003), and audited by the European Parliament and external human-rights organisations. No migrant should be held at any camp for more than six months. The EU is currently integrating the Dublin II Regulation and the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum into a Common Asylum System for Europe. To function, such a system must distribute successful applicants according to the population size and wealth of receiving countries.
There is a certain incommensurablity which is at the root of arguments over mass migration. The cohesion of the community, in this case the nation-state, is often pitted against the needs of the suffering other; the demand for assimilation against the aesthetic of diversity. Large scale migration does constitute a potential source of conflict, today as it did in 1923.
Whether the stage of unrest will be reached does not depend primarily on the displaced persons, however, but on the institutions that receive them, both within and across countries. As Nasim Lomani explained: “there is no society without racism. But things have changed from the time when I first came to Greece. Violent racism is now legitimised by the authorities.”
And yet, as long as other countries remain unwilling to make fundamental changes to the framework for migration into the EU, articles accusing the Greek state of institutional racism will continue to miss the point. The institutionalised racism described here should not be considered exclusively Greek, but in large part a consequence of European policies towards peripheral states and migrants. And the EU as a whole should share in the opprobrium.
 I am indebted here to Dimitris Papanikolaou, Singing Poets: Literature and Popular Music in France and Greece, Legenda, 2007, pp. 142-144.
 Interview in person, 9 December 2012. The person interviewed asked to remain unnamed.
 Telephone interview for this article, 16 December 2012.
 Visit to the Ark of the World, 9 December 2012.
 Telephone interview for this article, 19 December 2012.
 Telephone interview for this article, 12 December 2012.