Fortress Greece

On 7 June, the Greek Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarakis, proudly declared that the right-wing New Democracy government had fulfilled one of its flagship pledges from the 2019 election campaign: reducing refugee arrivals by 90%. He declined to say how this target was reached, yet to any informed observer the answer was obvious. Over the past two years, reports have been circulating that Greece is engaging in systematic pushbacks: a practice – prohibited by international law – of forcing refugees back across the border before they can claim asylum. Although this activity has caused dozens of refugees to drown in the Aegean, it has elicited little domestic protest, and appears to be on the rise. This reflects broader changes in Greece’s ideological climate, which has become increasingly receptive to far-right attitudes since New Democracy came to power. One of the chief priorities of the current government, led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is to consolidate such changes and build a security state which will act as the EU’s frontline barrier against refugee crossings. This, in turn, requires whipping up a perpetual moral panic about those entering the country ‘illegally’, while stamping out a previously vibrant culture of migrant solidarity.

New Democracy’s hardline approach was intended to mark a contrast with Alexis Tsipras’s administration, which initially took a more welcoming stance towards those fleeing war, persecution or destitution. At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-16, Syriza organized accommodation and medical care for new arrivals while responding to the sharp increase in asylum applications. It also made attempts, albeit sporadic and unsystematic ones, to provide education for refugee children. Yet Syriza’s focus on the reception of refugees neglected their integration. Tsipras permitted the establishment of refugee camps such as the infamous Moria on the island of Lesbos – where thousands were kept in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions – and imposed so-called ‘geographical restrictions’ which constrained migrants’ ability to move from the islands to the mainland. This was partly a result of the EU–Turkey deal signed in March 2016, which sought to curb irregular migration to Europe. The agreement stipulated that Turkey would take all necessary measures to prevent people travelling irregularly from Turkey to the Greek islands; that those who managed to make the journey could be forcibly sent back; and that Erdoğan would receive €6 billion toward accommodating refugees in Turkey. Ultimately, Syriza’s decision to act as the EU’s border police by implementing this agreement marked the end of its migrant-friendly approach. With that, Greece entered the era of permanent camps and crackdowns on new arrivals.

Once New Democracy was elected, migration policy took an even more sinister turn. One of the first measures it adopted was Law 4735/2020, which introduced changes to the system for awarding Greek citizenship, including a strict financial threshold. Under Mitsotakis, the camps were turned into de facto prisons, heavily policed, with barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners, magnetic doors and punitive detention facilities. Border patrols were strengthened and migrants were denied legal routes to claim asylum. Perhaps the starkest shift was the covert yet persistent practice of pushbacks – both in the Aegean and on the Greece–Turkey land border. In summer 2020, the New York Times brought this story global attention, in exposing how migrants were regularly forced onto unsafe life rafts and abandoned in the middle of the sea. Though the claims were backed by first-hand interviews with survivors, three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard, the Greek government denied the allegations, and the EU was reluctant to investigate. Shortly after, Human Rights Watch found that Greek police were routinely stripping asylum seekers of their clothes and possessions before handing them over to masked men who would leave them floating in small boats in the Evros river. It also revealed a pattern of violent and deadly attacks on refugee boats by the Greek Coast Guard.

In response to these findings, the EU Commissioner for Human Rights announced that ‘the scale and normalization of pushbacks at Europe’s borders requires urgent and concerted action by governments and parliamentarians’. Yet this was little more than an attempt by the EU to cover its tracks. In fact, the European authorities had spent years working hand-in-glove with Greece to keep out migrants. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, has seen an almost twenty-fold increase in its budget since its creation in 2006, and is projected to employ over 10,000 guards by 2027. Its executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, was forced to resign earlier this year after being investigated for alleged complicity in pushbacks. Though his departure is a welcome development, it will not lead to any meaningful policy change. The EU will not lift a finger to stop Greece, or any other country, from using brutal deterrent tactics for they are an essential part of its plan to make European borders uncrossable – thereby preserving ‘freedom of movement’ as an ideal that applies only to the predominantly white population of the trading bloc.

This dynamic was evident during the Evros incident in March 2020, when Erdoğan declared that he would no longer stop migrants from leaving Turkey. New Democracy responded by illegally suspending the reception of asylum applications, in a move that was widely praised by European leaders and backed by the Syriza opposition. Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for acting as ‘our European shield’ and promised €700 million in aid to help its border authorities. That autumn, the EU awarded Greece a further €121 million for the construction of reception centres on the islands of Samos, Kos and Leros, and the following March yet more funding was allocated for centres on Lesvos and Chios. Migrants can now be kept for an indefinite period in these remote locations, away from the European mainland. Having deterred over 140,000 people from entering the country between April and November 2021, Greece is now seeking more EU funding to triple the length of its steel border fence in the Evros region. At the same time, the government has instrumentalized the Ukraine crisis to whitewash its human rights record – creating a two-tier system in which Ukrainian refugees are given preferential access to registration, accommodation and education.  

The New Democracy government continues to dismiss evidence of pushbacks as ‘fake news’ or ‘Turkish propaganda’, and has developed effective methods to close down discussion of the issue. The vilification of pro-migrant NGOs – a staple of far-right discourse during the Syriza years – is now a talking-point of cabinet ministers. Under new laws, such organizations are required to sign up to an official register and receive permission from the state to continue their work, which must conform to highly restrictive criteria. New Democracy has also ensured that the camps remain off-limits to the press, and so the public is prevented from seeing the horrors therein. Meanwhile, journalists who try to cover migration issues can expect a hostile backlash. When the Dutch-born reporter Ingeborg Beugel accused the Prime Minister of lying about the activities of Greek border forces, for instance, she became the target of a state-backed smear campaign. After a barrage of death threats, Beugel was forced to temporarily leave Greece on the advice of the Dutch embassy. She is now facing criminal charges for allowing an Afghan asylum seeker to lodge in her house, which could lead to a year in prison and a fine of €5,000. A similar fate befell Iason Apostolopoulos, field coordinator of the humanitarian organization Mediterranea Saving Humans, who was labelled a traitor and a Turkish agent for conducting search and rescue operations. He was targeted by a pro-government news outlet which published his personal information online. Because of this climate of fear, Greece has fallen 38 places in the Press Freedom Index over the past year: now ranking 108th, just below Burundi. Earlier this month, when the European Court of Human Rights found that the Greek Coast Guard had sunk a migrant boat in 2014, causing eleven asylum seekers to lose their lives, major news outlets simply ignored the ruling.

This media blackout has contributed to hardening attitudes towards refugees and migrants among the Greek population. Previously, a coalition of forces – NGOs, progressive political parties, the anarchist movement and small unaffiliated groups – constituted an impressive migrant solidarity network. They assisted with the first reception of refugees, hosted them in their houses, helped them file asylum claims, organized food deliveries and clothing donations, and even occupied empty buildings in the centre of Athens, where migrants could live less controlled and more dignified lives than in the camps. Yet this atmosphere began to change in 2016, when the European borders closed following the EU–Turkey deal. Henceforth, Greece was no longer seen as a ‘transit country’ but a permanent home for its migrant population. Many islanders realized that the camps were there to stay and feared that they would be a detriment to the local tourist industry. Accordingly, the perception of refugees as victims of war and societal collapse was supplanted by representations of them as scroungers or civilizational enemies. This shift, in which the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party played a major role, was fomented by the widespread sense of despair following the 2015 bailout referendum, where the resounding vote to reject the Troika’s demand for more austerity was flatly ignored by Tsipras. In these conditions of scarcity, with the promise of a left alternative betrayed, far-right propaganda succeeded in turning many ordinary Greeks against migrants, framed as competitors for limited jobs and benefits.

This about-turn was also aided by the Orthodox Church, which continues to enjoy extraordinary influence in Greek society given the lack of an official separation between Church and State. With the rise of multiculturalism during the 2000s, a significant section of the ecclesiastical body gravitated towards the far right, often parroting conspiracy theories about the existential threat of ‘Islamicization’. The Archbishop of Athens led the charge, stating that ‘Islam is not a religion but a political party…and its believers are people of war’. Although Golden Dawn lost their parliamentary seats at the last election, racist views have been all but normalized in public discourse. A survey conducted earlier this year found that 55% of the Greek public think that refugees will contribute to the spread of terrorism, 72% believe that they have a negative impact on the economy, and 73.5% want those who enter the country ‘illegally’ to be deported back to their country of origin.

With the exception of MeRA25 – a marginal left-wing party founded in 2018 as part of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) – the parliamentary opposition has done nothing to push back against such views. Syriza has wholly adopted New Democracy’s migrant-baiting rhetoric, claiming that Greece is ‘facing a geopolitical threat from Turkey’ in the form of refugees. A few international organizations (UNHCR, The Danish Refugee Council and the International Organization for Migration) as well as long-standing local solidarity structures, anarchist and far-left groups, still work closely with migrants, offering legal advice, educational services, practical and psychological support, accommodation and advocacy. But their position in a society increasingly seduced by far-right rhetoric is precarious. Without concerted organizing efforts, it may vanish completely under Mitsotakis’s repression.

Read on: Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘Borderland’, NLR 110.