Tip of the iceberg: European migration policy in Greece and the Euro-elections

Many people will be affected by the results of the Euro-elections in Greece and across the continent—including those fetching up at its borders.

Lilana Keith
5 June 2014

Reports of “push-backs” of migrants, their long-term detention and racist attacks in Greece have rightly made regular headlines. But while the Greek crisis is pronounced, the links between national and European Union policy—and trends across Europe—are also increasingly concerning.

Experiences of migration to Greece have been greatly influenced by its membership of the EU—from the high demand for workers of the late-1990s and 2000s boom, to the insecurity following the deep recession and accompanying austerity. This has led to one of the highest poverty rates in the union, affecting the rights of Greek citizens and migrants alike.

Many migrants gainfully employed in Greece have lost their jobs, are unable to find work or are at least unable to find sufficient work to pay compulsory social-security contributions. This can not only leave migrants destitute but invalidates their residence permits, so they become irregular.

Irregular migration is also sustained by European demand for a cheap and flexible workforce—for instance, in Greece’s agricultural sector. A major case of exploitation of migrant workers became public last year after Bangladeshi strawberry pickers were shot at in Manolada for demanding payment of their wages.

The EU has enacted legislation which guarantees undocumented workers six months of back wages in the event of immigration sanctions. Set within a wider regime of punitive measures against undocumented migrants and criminalisation of their employment, however—and in the absence of European or national legislation ensuring undocumented workers can claim their wages without facing deportation—exploitation flourishes, while the prices of the fresh fruit we consume are kept accordingly low. The same can be said for other sectors which thrive on the employment of irregular workers, such as construction, hospitality and catering, and domestic work.

Migration in Greece is also distinctly shaped by its location on the external border of the EU, a natural entry point for those wishing to migrate or seek protection elsewhere. Other impacts of the common European migration and asylum policy have been equally significant—in particular the Dublin regulations, which make Greece responsible for reviewing the applications of all asylum-seekers who first enter the EU there. Most EU countries have stopped deporting asylum-seekers back to Greece for now but these rules have trapped many asylum-seekers in the country.

Death and detention

At the same time Greece, supported by considerable EU resources, has been tasked with preventing irregular migration via its borders. It has been implementing an ever-more security-focused European regime for migration management, which prioritises border surveillance and facilitated deportations, through measures such as readmission agreements and administrative detention.

Within this context, there have been numerous reports of systematic violations of the human rights of migrants in Greece. Loss of life, dangerous manoeuvres which put lives in danger, violence and illegal push-backs directed at migrants attempting to enter the EU through Greek borders are increasingly documented. The picture is beginning to look similar at other Mediterranean EU borders, in Italy and Spain and, particularly, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 170 people have already died at sea trying to reach Europe since the beginning of the year.

Treating migrants as though they were criminals—arresting, detaining and deporting them and limiting their access to rights—is the prevailing approach across Europe and in the common policy framework.

Undocumented migrants apprehended in Greece are being systematically detained—including children, victims of torture and sick people—without individual assessment and often for the 18 months maximum allowed by EU law. A recently released report from the Greek section of Médecins Sans Frontières documented appalling conditions, drawing on six years of work in detention facilities where health services would not otherwise be available.

In many cases, the process, length and conditions of detention in Greece would be (and are being) found in breach of EU law and minimum standards, as well as international human rights. Newly enacted measures to extend the 18-month maximum for those who do not co-operate with their deportation, contrary to EU law, have already been ruled illegal by a court in Athens.

Nevertheless, while the acts of Greece and other EU countries, and individual public officials, often break the law, and the tragic deaths at sea have been decried by European and national officials alike, official policy responses so far serve only to reinforce the security-oriented approach—with slight variations. Aside from welcome developments in search-and-rescue regulations and processes, policy-makers are now calling for more border surveillance, with the contradictory aims of preventing migrants from reaching Europe and saving their lives. Some are also agreeing to accept more refugee resettlement—channels for a limited number, screened and certified, to enter Europe regularly.

A European approach that is restrictive overall is continuing largely unchanged, though it does not reflect the demand for workers in countries of destination or the realities of migration or migrants. But it does create the conditions for irregular, unsafe migration and human-rights violations, including violence and exploitation.

Rising xenophobia

The severe economic situation is contributing to rising xenophobia, in which migrants are made scapegoats for the crisis, in some cases leading to physical and verbal attacks. The increasing popularity in Greece of the far-right Golden Dawn is symptomatic. Several members of the party, including the leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, are under criminal investigation, including for belonging to a criminal organisation. Nevertheless, the party enjoyed success during the recent election and for the first time will hold seats in the European Parliament, with three MEPs elected.

The clampdown on Golden Dawn has not been matched by action by the authorities to investigate reports of violence, protect migrants, prosecute perpetrators or facilitate access to justice. Nor has the mainstream political discourse changed to recognise the power of stigmatising and scapegoating language. On the contrary, this rhetoric is increasingly being taken up across the right and centre of the political spectrum and by policy-makers. Treating migrants as though they were criminals—arresting, detaining and deporting them and limiting their access to rights—is the prevailing approach across Europe and in the common policy framework.

The converse success of the far-left SYRIZA party in Greece however shows dissatisfaction and frustration with the government there and with the economic and social developments of recent years. The party may also maintain its more progressive stance on migration. At the same time, the success of right-wing populist parties across the EU raises questions as to whether realistic policy which respects the human rights of migrants can emerge at European level.

A milestone will be the strategic guidelines to be adopted by the European Council at the end of June. These will shape EU policies on migration and asylum in the coming years and present a key opportunity to adopt a more coherent and evidence-based approach to irregular migration. We will have to wait and see what roles the new members of the European Parliament will then play in how the guidelines are translated into concrete policies and actions.

Meantime, the situation in Greece remains critical. In March a number of EU networks and Greek NGOs published Recommendations to the European Union to Urgently Address Criminalisation and Violence Against Migrants in Greece, proposing improvement of EU law and its implementation domestically. In particular, the EU should shift the focus of financial and technical support to Greece from border surveillance and investments in detention to measures that ensure migrants’ human rights are protected, regardless of residence status.

This should include developing capacity to deal with immigration and asylum-related applications, fully respecting procedural guarantees, as well as open reception infrastructures. It also means ending the systematic detention of migrants in Greece and supporting alternatives to it. Investment in universal, high-quality and affordable social services and adequate social protection should be made a priority in the budgetary negotiations with the troika, as well as in the allocation of European Social and Investment Funds.

However the politics of the new European Parliament will play out, the EU must recognise its responsibilities for migrants in Greece, and take action using all the tools at its disposal.

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