In the latest chapter in the sclerotic official reaction to the refugee crisis in Greece, the inhabitants of the tent city in the Pedion tou Areos park in Athens will be moved to an organised temporary location across town at Elenonas. Before the refugees arrived, Pedion tou Areos was the kind of city park where locals stay away and small-time drug dealers compete for turf; as a recent newspaper article put it with some understatement, despite repeated efforts it has failed to live up to its potential to become Athens’s Hyde Park. Eleonas, despite the idyllic name which translates as “olive grove,” is a disused industrial zone that had been earmarked first for a controversial regeneration development just before the crisis struck, and more recently for Athens’s first modern mosque. Now the new Athens Stock Exchange is the only remaining pioneer of gentrification, stranded between junkyards and disused warehouses. The camp will only accommodate a few hundred people of potentially thousands passing through, but at least there will be sanitation and shelter for those who need to spend time there before getting out of the country as fast as their legs will carry them. According to volunteer organisations, the item in greatest demand in the camp is backpacks, as well as sunscreen and sports shoes. This is a pretty clear statement of their intent.
After months of build-up, the refugee crisis has finally become the political football it promised to be, but not quite in the way it could have been.
After a couple of decades of tolerance for informal migration during Greece’s boom years, immigration became a hot topic in the crisis, when the jobs dried up, austerity started to bite, and the self-appointed defenders of Greek identity began to poach votes from the traditional political parties. Most notably, Golden Dawn, previously a loser skinhead militia known chiefly for beating up people with the wrong kind of haircut and stealing their Doc Martins, became a real political force in the Hamas mould, by providing a combination of social safety net and criminal protection racket in underprivileged areas.
These developments coincided with necessary reform of the legal framework on immigration and asylum to comply with European and international law. While some improvements were undoubtedly made, the public debate revolved mainly around securing the borders and rounding up and deporting unwanted migrants, as politicians of all stripes vied to claw back votes from the extreme right. And as this was happening inside parochial little Greece, the neighbourhood was going up in flames. Afghanistan and Iraq unravelled, and across north Africa the Arab Spring turned into a series of violent civil conflicts, sending millions fleeing into neighbouring territories and towards the safety (if not prosperity) of Europe.
The good news is, the populist tussle over the anti-immigrant vote seems to have run its course for now. When the then Prime Minister Antonis Samaras chose to conclude his disastrous 2015 election campaign on the Evros border by pompously proclaiming that “we will not allow illegal immigrants to come in and provide them with healthcare and benefits too, the Greek people will not permit it,” most of the Greek people were clearly not listening. His Nea Dimokratia party got its worst election result ever. Golden Dawn held on to third place and a solid 6.28% of the vote, but its appeal to a broader power base weakened, possibly as a result of a high-profile racketeering prosecution which saw its parliamentary leadership detained in jail for over a year (though sadly now caught up in the slow wheels of the Greek justice system). They have maintained a deafening silence on the subject the refugee camps (it’s possible that they prefer a temporary migrant camp to a permanent mosque), and the kind of vigilante action that would have been almost inevitable just a couple of years ago has thankfully not materialised.
The bad news is that the current government has not risen to the occasion either. When Syriza was voted in on a tide of anti-austerity sentiment in January, there was also a great deal of hope among more moderate Greeks (or at least the bleeding-heart liberal minority who don’t consider human rights a luxury) that one of the positives might be a more progressive national immigration policy. Unfortunately, this has not happened. The new government’s reaction to the “shameful” conditions at temporary detention centres has been to close them down (good) and bus their temporary residents/detainees to the centre of Athens where they have been left to fend for themselves (not so good). As the inflows increased, the minister in charge has distinguished herself by sounding increasingly like a bureaucratic Marie Antoinette. Αsked to comment on migrants congregating in the streets, she correctly stated that they were probably refugees, but followed up by saying there was no concern because they were merely “sunning themselves” and not homeless; more recently she defended the refugee camp in the park on the basis that “that’s how the refugees live in Germany.”
Now the refugee crisis has become a major topic on the global news and the UN has publicly criticised the Greek response, wounding our famously fragile national pride. The political opposition and the sensationalist media have been handed a stick to beat the government with, just as they are knuckling down to get another bailout signed off. On returning from his own brief holiday, Prime Minister Tsipras has belatedly called it a “crisis within a crisis” and called on our European partners for help, once again blaming everyone but his own government for the situation. True, most European governments have been reluctant to formally welcome anything resembling a fair share of asylum seekers entering Europe through Greece and Italy. However this longer range planning is of little relevance to the crunch situation in Greece at the moment which has much more prosaic and ignoble roots closer to home.
Photo of the Pedion to Areos camp by Alexandros Michailidis / SOOC Source: www.lifo.gr