Tag Archives: illegal immigration

Inverting the pyramid

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It is with the same sense of guilt that a parent feels when a child slips out of their grasp in a crowd that Greeks, like other Europeans, have been watching events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria unfold over the past few weeks. Shudders were sent down millions of spines with the realization that under our noses so many people were living in poverty and oppression created by duplicitous regimes willing to exploit them.

For Greeks, though, the surprise shouldn’t have been so great because they have discovered firsthand how many in authority will not think twice about casting destitute people like chaff into the wind to advance their own causes. If nothing else, the debacle surrounding the brief sit-in protest by North African migrants at Athens University’s Law School has taught us just how easy it is for the weak to be manipulated right under our very noses.

There is no doubt that the organized transfer of the 237 immigrants from Crete to the Law School a couple of weeks ago was misconceived on a grand scale. Campaigners who helped the migrants board a ferry and then moved them onto the campus did so in order to promote what they billed as “the largest mass hunger strike in Europe.” Right from the beginning, the whole event took on the air of a very badly run circus.

The protest’s organizers’ were apoplectic that the media did not focus on the fact the migrants were on hunger strike but instead insisted on paying greater attention to questions about whether the university asylum law was being abused. It was like a chemistry student being upset nobody could see the genius in his experiment when it had just blown a great big hole in the lab.

Those who backed, and actively aided the migrants in their campaign — a cross section of people including students, journalists, lawyers and human rights campaigners — should have been savvy enough to realize that by staging the hunger strike on university grounds, they were undermining any message they wanted to get across.

They gave politicians of various hues the burst of oxygen they needed to reignite the debate about whether the law that places strict limitations on when police can enter university grounds should be scrapped. Pumped full of opportunism, members of New Democracy, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and even governing PASOK sought to identify with a public that has started to lose its appetite for the asylum rule, a remnant of the post-junta era. The MPs showed that two can play at the exploitation game — if the activists could use the migrants as a vehicle to highlight the government’s failings, then there was no reason why politicians could not use the protest to give them a leg up onto the popularity bandwagon.

The opposition leaders and deputies chided the migrants and their supporters for daring to bring an issue as base as immigration policy into the sacrosanct corridors of Greek academia. How dare these foreign laborers and the woolly liberals supporting them transform a Law School auditorium into a political bear pit? they asked. Of course, they conveniently overlooked what has been going on at Greek universities for the last 30 years. They chose not to mention how many academic appointments during that time have been politically motivated, they opted not to talk about how many technical colleges (TEI) and university departments have been built in far-flung parts of Greece simply because the government or minister at the time was fulfilling a favor to a local community and they decided to overlook the behavior of their own student groups, which tempt members to join with free drinks and club nights and have led to university life becoming politicized to a self-destructive degree.

Make no mistake, there has been hypocrisy on all sides over the last couple of weeks. But then again, there always is when there are weaker people to be exploited. The real tragedy, though, is that a vital message has not been heard because of this. The 237 migrants, half of whom are now living like metropolitan Bedouins in tents pitched up in the backyard of a listed building, had been working legally in Greece for the past few years. But now, like many Greeks, they are the victims of the economic crisis. Their work has dried up and they do not have enough social insurance credits to receive unemployment benefits or to renew their residence permits. The security they once had in Greece has disappeared and, as we have discovered by watching events across North Africa over the past few days, there is precious little for them to return home to. They are stuck in a purgatory where their screams for help cannot be heard because everyone else is shouting over them.

The fate of tens of thousands of economic migrants who have been left on the edge of a precipice is too important an issue to be relegated to publicity stunts and slanging matches. Greece has to decide whether, given the current economic climate, it is willing to cut any slack for people who were until recently legal residents here. It has chosen, for instance, to go easy on Greeks who owe money to the state, so, some might argue, why not relax the criteria for people who need to renew their residence permits? If not, then can the country get help from the European Union to help repatriate migrants following the success of the pilot schemes that were launched last year?

That’s the thing about economic migrants — you don’t have to dress up their story. You don’t need to stage a media event to turn them into causes celebres or martyrs because they’re heroes already. It takes guts to leave everything you have behind to pursue a life in a land where you don’t know anyone and you start with nothing. Greeks are very familiar with this type of heroism because they embodied it in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Stoking their anger will not achieve anything, rekindling their compassion might. Greeks need to be reminded there are destitute people susceptible to all kinds of abuse and manipulation living right under their noses, not just in TV footage from Tahrir Square in Cairo, and that during these extraordinary times, these people have a right to know, like their brothers back home, that someone is willing to stand by them.

Nick Malkoutzis

Anthimos vs Anthimos

Plans to build a fence on Greece’s border with Turkey in Evros have clearly divided opinion. Nowhere is the split more visible than in the Church of Greece, where two bishops have taken diametrically opposite views in the space of just a couple of days.

Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki, perhaps the church’s most prominent cleric, expressed support for the project to erect a 12.5-kilometer fence near the River Evros and between villages of Nea Vyssa and Kastanies.

“The fence should be built where they say but not just there,” he said. “They should extend it further down to the village of Poros, where a whole load of illegal immigrants cross every day.

Anthimos also accused politicians of “delaying to take decisions” and said that he had been warning about the dangers of immigration “for the last 15 years.”

The bishop’s comments are no surprise as he is known for being outspoken and adopting a firm nationalist line on most issues.

The comments a few days later of Bishop Anthimos of Alexandroupolis could not have been in greater contrast to the position adopted by his namesake in Thessaloniki.

“This is a desperate move that is destined to fail and which is more in keeping with other times and other places,” he said in a statement in which he asked a perfectly reasonable question that has not been broached by the government.

“So, what will happen when the migrants amass on the bank of the Evros River on the Greek side of the border behind the barbed wire when it is snowing or the water is rising? Will those people remain there, drenched and without food until they are forced to make their way back to Turkey?

“This is not a solution, at least it is not a civilized one. Will we just sit idly by and watch them drown, starve to death or be ravaged by mosquitoes?”

Anthimos of Alexandroupolis then went on to inject a global dimension to the problem, which is something that is also being overlooked in the debate over the pros and cons of constructing a fence.

“Of course the wave of illegal immigration must stop but I do not think it will as long as Western countries continue their unfair treatment of the poor and underdeveloped countries of the South and Asia.”

The contributions from the two bishops are welcome additions to the debate, particularly in the week that the Church of Greece warned its clerics say publicly after Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus stoked controversy by making comments that offended the Muslim and Jewish communities in Greece.

Anthimos of Alexandroupolis in particular has made some pertinent observations that should make those who have rushed to support the idea of the Evros fence to think again. One key question stands out: could it be that by erecting the barrier, Greece will great a worse humanitarian problem than the one it has to deal with now?

Through the wire

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If building a 12.5-kilometer barbed wire fence along a section of the Greek-Turkish border is the answer, then I’m really not sure what the question is. It certainly can’t be “What will keep undocumented migrants from entering Greece?” There is no way it’s “What will solve Greece’s immigration problem?” And it’s highly unlikely that it’s “What will deal a blow to the multimillion-euro trafficking rings that smuggle people across the border?” However, if the question is “What’s the best way of making it look like we’re doing something to tackle illegal immigration while doing very little at all?” or “How can we shift the public debate so people are talking about immigrants rather than the economy or our own failings?” then perhaps the government has hit upon a fantastic solution.

The recent announcement by Citizens’ Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis that the government plans to erect the fence, equipped with thermal cameras, between the villages of Nea Vyssa and Kastianes in Evros, northeastern Greece, bears all the hallmarks of a populist move designed to pander to the masses and obfuscate the real issue. It’s a piece of vacuous policymaking that will play well on the TV news but will do nothing to alleviate the hardship of thousands of migrants in Athens, Patra and other parts of the country, nor instill any long-term confidence in Greeks who are concerned by the inability of successive governments to muster a coherent immigration policy.

The fence idea is a waste of time because it simply won’t work, on any level. First of all, it won’t stop or even stem the steady flow of exasperated people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, north Africa and various other parts of the world from trying to reach Europe either to escape persecution or death or in the hope of finding work and getting a foothold on a viable future. Papoutsis’s concept overlooks the fact that those who make this often perilous journey cover thousands of kilometers in difficult conditions, over mountains, along valleys and across rivers and seas. And then, when they reach Greece, it gets even more treacherous. According to the UNHCR, some 50 immigrants drowned last year while trying to cross the Evros River. The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines says that more than 80 migrants have died and over 70 have been injured while attempting to cross through minefields in Evros since 1994. So some latticed wire is hardly going to deter them, especially when they have paid their life savings (a few thousand euros) to get as far as the Greek border.

Greece is not the first country to consider the folly of trying to block access to illegal immigrants by putting physical barriers in their way. Perhaps the best-known recent example of a similar venture is the construction in 2005 of a fence on the US-Mexico border in Arizona. Spanning almost 1,000 kilometers and constructed at a cost of more than $2 billion, the fence appears to have had only a marginal impact on illegal immigration. Earlier this month, documentary maker Roy Germano highlighted the barrier’s futility by filming two teenage girls climbing it in 18 seconds. It’s estimated that it would cost $6.5 billion over 20 years to maintain this monument to nonsense. Last year, the US ditched plans to construct a virtual fence consisting of cameras, radar and sensors, but no wire, across its border with Mexico. After spending $1.4 billion working on it for three years, the contractor, Boeing, admitted that the virtual fence only “sort of” worked.

This spectacular failure on the other side of the Atlantic makes the Greek government’s choice even more galling. Greece will never be able to prevent illegal immigration on its own: As long as Turkey turns a blind eye to the trafficking rings operating on its territory and the European Union does not treat people smuggling as a breach of its own borders rather than just Greece’s, then very little progress will be made. Apart from a string of ministers sounding off to the local press in an attempt to appear tough, Greece has done little to draw Europe’s attention to the issue. The first real breakthrough was convincing late last year the EU’s border agency, Frontex, to send a clutch of its officers to help with patrols in Evros.

The opportunity for Greece to gain know-how and for EU representatives to see first-hand what is turning into a humanitarian crisis is priceless. Building trust has always been much more effective than building walls or fences. However, the exercise has also exposed Greece’s failings. Germany, for instance, has expressed concern about the way illegal immigrants are treated and has warned its 26-man contingent of officers that it would be illegal for them to participate in some of the actions carried out by their Greek counterparts. Perhaps the government should be concentrating its efforts on creating a fair and competent immigration process if it wants to force the EU into action. As long as Greece fails to get its act together, other Europeans can point the finger of blame at the perennially hapless Greeks. But if Athens can show it’s able to behave humanely and set up an efficient process for dealing with undocumented migrants and asylum applications, then the onus would be on its partners to assume their responsibilities, which are considerable given that the vast majority of the thousands of people who cross the Evros border clandestinely each month do so because they want to end up in another EU country, not Greece.

Greece will not get anywhere with public relations stunts like building fences if it cannot untangle its own bureaucracy and overcome its own incompetence. It will not convince anyone that it wants to get tough on illegal immigration when it allows people smugglers to operate in various parts of Greece with apparent impunity. It will fail to earn any sympathy if it cannot take the initiative in dealing with a problem whose impact is being felt in neighborhoods of Athens, Patra and Thessaloniki, not in Brussels, Berlin or Paris.

Papoutsis’s barrier might stop a few thousand would-be migrants each year but Greece currently has a backlog of 47,000 asylum applications. These are people who have not only crossed into the country but are here, living and, if they are lucky, working but doing so while in an emotional limbo, not knowing where their future lies. It’s hypocrisy to blame other Europeans for not providing assistance or to pin your hopes on nothing more than a jumped-up garden structure when you have not made the slightest effort yourself until now.

The government submitted to Parliament last week a bill foreseeing the creation of an independent asylum service to handle applications rather than dumping them in the lap of the overburdened and undertrained police – something that human rights groups and the UNHCR had been calling for. It’s a travesty that PASOK should not hold this policy up as an example of how 21st-century Greece should respond to a 21st-century problem. Its insistence on giving the Evros fence top billing is the sign of a government that is desperate to be liked and which wants to tap into the growing skepticism about migrants. To do so at a time when nationalism is on the rise and when illegal immigrants are becoming soft and defenseless targets is politics of the lowest order. To nudge the public debate from the dire state of the economy, what our politicians did to lead us into this situation and what they are doing to get us out of it is political opportunism of the worst kind. Papoutsis may like to think that his fence will be high and mighty but it’s already clear that it’s as low and dirty as they come.

Nick Malkoutzis