In the last few days, Greek police have rounded up 7000 alleged illegal immigrants in a wave of arrests around Athens and the surrounding area. Over 1000 are set to be deported to their home countries. As the flights start, is this a case of scapegoating an easy target for political gain, or an overdue purge of illegal immigrants?
Almost 5000 Greek police were deployed in a series of raids across Athens, where immigrants from all over the world were rounded up and taken to detention centres. The worrying scenes have dominated the Greek news in the last few days with the public seemingly siding with the authorities. The newly created Minister for Public Order said Greece’s economic issues meant the country “simply could not afford an invasion of immigrants and this is a bomb at the foundations of the Greek state and society”. Many of the immigrants were held overnight, with over 1700 marked for deportation. In a lesson in swift justice, the first batch (all from Pakistan) were escorted on to a plane and sent home.
Greek society has always had a harder approach to immigration, and unsurprisingly has got harder in the last two years. The nation’s position just across the sea from Africa and bordering Turkey means it’s the first port of call for people trying to seek a better life-Eurostat estimates that over 75% of all migrants into the EU enter via Greece, mainly crossing from Turkey. In fact it is such an issue the nation gets financial support from other Schengen signatories to help police its border. Greece may seem a bizarre place to try and get to considering the economic crisis, but most immigrants use Greece as merely a stepping stone to Western Europe, though many end up stuck in Greek towns and cities. The Greek government claim over 100,000 illegal immigrants arrive in Greece every year, fuelling resentment even at those with legitimate claims.
Despite the fact many of these immigrants come from desperate conditions in Afghanistan, East Africa and more recently Syria, the Greek public do not see their plight. It is estimated the immigrant population in Greece is over one million, compared to a whole populace of ten million, a visible minority. They are blamed for the jobs crisis and for taking welfare. More recently, they have been accused of causing crime. After a series of crimes and violent attacks on Greeks by (mainly Asian) immigrants, the new right-wing led government has had to be seen to act. These detentions are the latest parts of an anti-immigration agenda and are one of the few things for which the government can claim have broad public support. However not everyone is happy. The left wing Syriza party branded this latest crackdown as a demeaning and cruel PR stunt to divert attention away from economy and the fact the government is set to run out of money in days.
International organisations have also waded in, urging the Greek police and courts to show restraint. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees told a conference he was worried that asylum seekers were being summarily deported without any consideration for their human rights or individual cases and Human Rights Watch expressed concerns and said they would consider lodging complaints with the European Court of Human Rights, although with the rate of deportations, they may be too slow.
A harder approach to immigration is a policy we’re seeing across Europe. Right-wing parties occupy the majority of European Parliaments, with far-right populist parties getting bigger shares of the votes. Greece is no exception as the high profile case of Golden Dawn has shown. Right wing parties need to get back their initiative and adopting anti-immigration rhetoric is a part of this process. Now we’re seeing scary actions to accompany the scary words.