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  • Rory O'Keeffe

New democracy? A guide to Greece under Nea Dimokratia

People who like to deal in political aphorisms will tell you that the first weeks a government spends in power are its most important. Though – like most such ideas – this has its roots in the US, where campaigning eats roughly three-quarters of any presidential cycle, it is true that even in Europe, the early days are when a new administration seeks to set the markers from which it will build.

In the case of the first two weeks since Nea Dimokratia regained power, the party has moved fast and all indications suggest (albeit unsurprisingly) that we are in for a challenging few years.

This piece will note the party’s stances pre-election, those on which it campaigned, and its first 14 days, as well as offering some advice on how we might make the most of our relations with it at both national and municipal level, as well as where else we may turn for assistance.


On 7 July 2019, Nea Dimokratia won the Greek General Election. They took 39.85 per cent of the vote (2,251,426 votes) on a turn-out of 57.91 per cent. Syriza, the party which had been in government and called the election three months early, finished second with 31.5 per cent of the vote (1,781,180 votes).

It may be of some interest to note that this constituted a vote-share increase of 11.76 per cent for Nea Dimokratia, but a fall of just 3.93 per cent for Syriza, since the previous general election in September 2015, perhaps indicating that many previous Syriza voters failed to vote, or voted for a party other than Greece’s current ‘big two’: certainly, there appears to have been little if any movement from Syriza to Nea Dimokratia.

In any case, the 7 July result handed Syriza 86 of the Greek parliament’s 300 seats (compared to 145 in September 2015) and Nea Dimokratia 158, compared with 75 at the last election. The large difference between the parties’ seat numbers – both compared to their current positions, and to their respective numbers since September 2015 – is explained by the fact that the party with the largest number of seats is given a further 50 automatically, to help it form a majority government in parliament.

Had we been advising Syriza, we might have suggested that they attempt to retain power to the latest possible moment (October this year) rather than calling an early election.

This is largely because every poll since early 2016 had shown Nea Dimokratia with a lead over Syriza of 9-12 per cent, and because a great deal of the anger with Syriza had come about due to the policies – including tax increases, mass sell-offs of publicly-owned services, and wage decreases (all of which, coming at a time when the economy was already in crisis, had the effect of putting up prices and leaving Greek people with less money in their pockets, along with rising homelessness and alarming rates of unemployment and poverty) – the EU had imposed upon them while Greece was under the bailout mechanism.

The mechanism ended only in September 2018, which would have offered Syriza slightly more than a year to demonstrate its own capacity for change and to exercise some of the policies it might otherwise already have enacted. This would perhaps have been Syriza’s only opportunity to demonstrate to the Greek public that it could govern, and that it was willing to do so.

Heavy defeats in the EU and local elections (this is important for us: the fact is that virtually every municipality with which we are likely to deal is now run by Nea Dimokratia. What counts at national level, is also

applicable to a very large extent at local level) however, combined with continued frustration over the restrictions placed upon it by the EU as conditions of leaving the bailout process, saw its leader Alexis Tsipras instead call ‘snap’ elections, having had just eight and a half months in which to set its own policies (it would, of course, argue that it never really had the opportunity to do so).

Greece’s economic disaster, and the EU’s response to it, had of course been central to Syriza’s performance and activity even before the 2015 General Election.

In brief, the party had originally come to power promising to resist EU plans which it – and most Greek people – realised would be ruinous to Greece in the immediate-term. It held and won a national referendum on whether Greece would accept the terms of an EU bail-out to the state, which was presented in the rest of Europe – though not in Greece – as a referendum on whether Greece wished to remain an EU member state.

Syriza presented the result of the referendum to the EU as proof that it had no mandate to carry out the cuts, privatisations and tax increases the latter demanded, but the EU responded by both demanding that Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis be barred from any and all future negotiations with the EU, and that Greece must accept the bailout package on offer, or leave the EU.

Syriza, in full knowledge that less than a quarter of Greek people wished to leave the EU, was left with little choice but to accept, losing in the process not only its major positional strength – its promise to stand up to the EU in Greece’s best interests – but also one half of what it, and national and international media, had presented as its major partnership: Tsipras and Varoufakis.

The final blow to the government came when 43 of Syriza’s 149 MPs abstained or voted against the bailout in the Greek Parliament, forcing the party to rely on Nea Dimokratia, To Potami and PASOK to help it pass as policy (the vote by Nea Dimokratia is significant here, considering what was to come).

Tsipras resigned and called a new general election, which Syriza won taking 1,925,904 votes, 36.3 per cent, on a 56.6 per cent turnout. This left them with 145 seats, still six short of a majority, which they made up by forming a coalition with the Greek nationalist party ANEL, who held 13 seats.

ANEL’s position in government was a direct reason for refugees being forced to live in warehouses and former military bases and barracks, despite the absolute unsuitability of their conditions and locations. ANEL’s leader, Panos Kammenos, who was placed in charge of accommodation for refugees, claimed that this was ‘necessary’ because otherwise the refugees’ presence would make ‘Greek people’ ‘uncomfortable’.

It does not, however, explain several other policies set by Ministry of Migration, or indeed the EU, which have caused the dehumanisation of refugees, although to be completely fair, Syriza at least recognised the right of refugees to escape their countries and claim asylum, which many other EU states have failed to do.

The period 2015-2019 was disastrous for large parts of Greece, and many people within it, and blame for this fell – as it always does – at the feet of the governing party, Syriza. Nea Dimokratia, as the largest of the opposition parties, and indeed as one of Greece’s historical ‘big two’ (PASOK, the other, was devastated by being in power when the global economic crash effectively wiped out the Greek economy), was well-placed to reap the rewards.

Election campaign

We are not going to go too deeply into criticism of ND for its economic or social positions – they are not for us to decide upon as professionals (though we may all have our own personal opinions of them) – but we will and should note what those positions are, particularly because the party’s outlook helps shape its positions on matters which affect us, and the people we work with and for.

For the same reason, we will note the ways in which the electoral system has helped deliver the exact iteration of the party which is now in government.

To some extent, there simply was not a true ‘election campaign’ in the run-up to the 7 July election, (the official launch of Syriza’s ‘campaign’ was made on 11 June, just 26 days before votes were cast) though in another way, we could consider that the ‘campaign’ had run since September 2015, or at the very least since January 2016, when Nea Dimokratia elected as its leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Mitsotakis is effectively part of Greek politics’ ‘aristocracy’, as the son of Konstantinos Mitsotakis, who led Nea Dimokratia himself, and was one of the party’s grandees, serving as Prime Minister from 1990-93. We might note, however, that being part of Greece’s political elite by birth did not help the children of Andreas Papandreou, the leading light of PASOK, to steer their party to great success. It remains to be seen how successful Kyriakos can be.

The younger Mitsotakis presents himself – and is presented by most – as a liberal in social terms, and a ‘neo-liberal’ economically.

Despite the former label, however, we might note that as a member of Nea Dimokratia, he voted against the legalisation of civil partnerships for gay couples, and as leader, he also voted against a law which has enabled gay couples to adopt children. He also led his party in opposing – and voting against – the solution Greece and the Republic of North Macedonia achieved over the latter’s name.

The economic image he portrays, however, does seem accurate. He has been a strong critic of Syriza’s economic performance, even though his party voted for the bailout conditions Syriza enacted, and even though he and his party strongly advocate privatisation, reduced taxes for the rich, and reduced public-sector wages, which – ironically – most Greeks have already experienced since 2015.

Effectively, however, the Nea Dimokratia campaign ran on the idea that Syriza was economically-incompetent – an arguable, though slightly harsh, perspective – and, more concerningly for us, that ‘the poor’ were largely to blame for their own poverty, and that Syriza had, not least but also not only over the Macedonia issue, betrayed Greece and its people.

Golden Dawn’s ‘ejection from parliament’

One thing which outside observers may find interesting about Greek elections is that they are run on a ‘dual vote’ system. This works by first asking people to ‘mark a box’ for the party they prefer, and then asking them to vote for the candidates they like the most within that party (one may not vote for one party and then for candidates of another).

This is interesting in relation to 7 July because of Golden Dawn.

One indisputable positive outcome of the election of 7 July was the removal from parliament of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party (in order to gain a place in the parliament, a party must get at least three per cent of the national vote, Golden Dawn – which had taken seven percent of the vote in 2015, making it the third largest party in the Greek parliament, with 18 seats – took 2.93 per cent this time).

There are a number of possible reasons why this may have happened.

First, the ‘party’ achieved basically nothing while in parliament (though its support could hardly have expected it to, with only 18 seats); second, a trial into the September 2013 murder of Pavlos Fyssas (a rapper named Killah P – ‘killer of the past’) had made it appear increasingly likely that the party may in fact be a criminal organisation, though we should note that this trial began in April 2015, five months before the September 2015 elections.

(We must also note, however, that despite Golden Dawn winning an extra seat in that election, it actually won slightly fewer votes than in the general election of January 2015, and significantly {10-12 per cent} fewer than in the previous two elections: low turn-out – the turnout in the September 2015 election was the lowest in Greek history, at 56.6 per cent; though this is just 1.31 per cent lower than in the election of 7 July – almost always benefits the far-Right more than any other part of the political spectrum)

Third, the election of September 2015 was held at a point where desperation was as strong an element in Greek politics as any other single factor: PASOK and Nea Dimokratia had already proven ‘failures’ in Greece’s economic collapse, while Syriza appeared irreconcilably broken by the same crisis. In the face of this, the far-Right had, as it does in every political crisis in every part of the world, gained support by using the same ‘simple’ (but incorrect) ‘answers’: the crisis is the fault of ‘politicians’ and can be solved by removing ‘immigrants’ who have forced down wages and are damaging society. The end of the ‘bailout’ stage of the EU response, without Greece following a policy of removing immigrants, and with the ‘political class’ still in place, served to weaken its position.

Finally, we must consider that in times of political desperation, parts of the population are simply more likely to turn to the far-Right, in part for the reasons laid out in the previous paragraph. This does not only apply to those who would normally consider themselves Right-wing. Golden Dawn’s policies included economic elements such as additional nationalisation, which might appeal to certain voters who consider themselves Left-wing (though we must note that there is far more to being ‘Left’ than simple economic policies, and that even those policies must have particular aims attached – nationalisation is ‘good’ in Leftist terms because it is supposed to increase equality, rather than in and of itself. There is no sense in which nationalising while expelling people from your country and/or excluding them from the outcomes of such nationalisation could be considered ‘increasing equality’, though equally, most people do not vote based on such factors).

The point here is that while it is tempting to suggest that Nea Dimokratia’s increased vote may have included the 4.3 per cent who left Golden Dawn, while the three per cent who ‘left’ Syriza voted instead for Varofakis’ new MeRA25 party (and the figures do closely suggest this may be the case) this is by no means certain.

However, there is no escaping the fact that Nea Dimokratia’s opposition to increased gay rights, along with its opposition to the solution to the ‘Macedonia issue’, while in opposition, were certainly policies which appealed to Golden Dawn’s voter-base.

More than that, while Mitsotakis himself focussed largely on economic issues and promises of ‘greater investment in Greece’, there is also no escaping the fact that certain candidates and ‘supporters’ of Nea Dimokratia focussed on other issues, including ‘poor people’ (including ‘migrants’, for which we can largely read ‘refugees’) who were at fault for being poor and were presented as being a ‘burden’ on the rest of society (we must again note that the narrative here was that Syriza, in its foolish desire to ‘help’ people with little money, was to blame for ‘opportunities’ being lost by Greek people, but the underlying message was in fact that ‘the poor’ had benefitted at the expense of ‘ordinary Greeks’; and indeed at the expense of Greece itself), and ‘non-Greeks’.

One example of this came on the night of the election, when Greek criminal defence lawyer Alexis Kougias, appearing as a commentator on ANT1, commented: ‘The 26 or 27 per cent that SYRIZA seems to be taking {predicted at that stage in the exit polls} is a significant percentage. But you have to worry about the composition of the people who voted for you. If it is a prank, illegal immigrants such as Roma who have been issued passports, peculiar people or criminals, their votes should have less weight.

‘Of course they have to be entitled to vote, they just have less independence in voting because they vote differently than the people who live here freely, not because the government has handed them that right. If the aesthetics of the left are the aesthetics of the Roma, of the peoples with peculiarities and of the impoverished prisoners, they do not represent me.’

The statement has since been complicated by claims from supporters of Kougias, that ‘he has always been and remains on the Left’, but his appearance that night seemed to most observers to be a statement of support for Nea Dimokratia, and against Syriza.

We must of course note that Kougias is not a member of Nea Dimokratia, far less a political candidate for the party, but the issue here is that his statement appeared to chime with the comments and position of many of the party’s campaigners and supporters.

And this is where and why the Greek system of voting for the party first, and then for the candidates you prefer, becomes notable and potentially important.

Because Mitsotakis himself may be ‘liberal’ in social terms, if not economically. His voting record suggests otherwise – and claims that he voted the way he did because he was leader of the opposition and it’s the opposition’s job to vote against the government are significantly undermined by the fact that Nea Dimokratia voted with the government on accepting the EU bailout conditions, as well as on 17 April this year, to approve a Syriza motion to demand that Germany give Greece billions of Euros in war reparations (itself a policy which had been in Golden Dawn’s September 2015 election manifesto): it seems Mitsotakis chose how to vote based on his own preferences, or at least based on his perception of voters’ prejudices – but that is not important for us right now.

What is important for us as humanitarian operators, who must work with Nea Dimokratia and its representatives if we are to reach the people we work with and for, is that the majority (though by no means all) of Nea Dimokratia’s voters at this election voted for the party and then chose its furthest Right-leaning candidates to represent it in parliament.

That is, even if Mitsotakis is a ‘liberal leader in charge of a right-wing party’, as some claim, Nea Dimokratia is that Right-wing party. And it is that party – which campaigned on a twin message of economic Right-ism (cuts to benefits, tightening of public spending on services, privatisations, tax cuts and encouraging greater private sector engagement in the economy) and societal Right-ism (cutting immigration, removal of ‘migrants’, tightening borders and making it harder for people to enter Greece and its public support systems) – with which we have to deal.

Whatever Mitsotakis’ position(s), and even if he is as ‘liberal’ as his supporters suggest, we are not, in the end, dealing with him as an individual, but with his party. And every indication is that Nea Dimokratia is far from a liberal (or Liberal) organisation.

The first two weeks

Nea Dimokratia’s first two weeks have contained some elements which should concern us. How we might respond will be dealt with in the next, final, part of this analysis.

Once again, this document is not designed as a political statement. We ourselves have a variety of political opinions, and our organisations may consider themselves politically active or not. Equally, even where we disagree with a policy or position, there are often ways we can attempt to work with or around it.

As a result of this, points which could be considered ‘newsworthy’, such as the party finding space for only two women in its cabinet, or the moves it has already undertaken to reduce the range of and penalties for ‘financial’ crime, such as tax evasion and money-laundering, concern us here only as contextual information.

Though those of us based in Northern Greece, where the ‘Macedonia issue’ was a commonly-cited reason for people voting Nea Dimokratia, may be interested to note that on 17 July, ten days after the election, the party’s Defence Secretary Nikos Panagiotopulos and its Deputy Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, told a conference organised by The Economist magazine that the Macedonia agreement had been ‘achieved well, and for good reasons’, that it must be ‘strictly observed in its essentials’ and that it has ‘largely resolved the political issues’ between Greece and the Republic of North Macedonia.

But the party has, in some of its first steps and public statements, set in motion a series of measures which do directly concern us, as well as the men, women and children we work with and for.

The subsumation of the Ministry of Migration into the Ministry of Citizen Protection

The first of these is its decision to disband the Ministry of Migration, and instead place migration policy issues in the responsibility of the Ministry of Citizen Protection, which is also the ministry with responsibility for the police.

Nea Dimokratia’s publicly-stated justification for this is that ‘other states do not have a separate ministry for migration’.

This is in most cases true, but there are two simple counters to this argument: it makes sense for every nation to have one, if migration is to be treated (as it often is) as a serious ‘challenge’ to nation states, and if it is to receive the attention it requires outside of ‘other’ concerns such as providing services for Greek people and/or crime prevention.

The second, and arguably more urgent, counter is that Greece, unlike at least 25 of the other 28 EU member states, is the entry point to the EU for a large number of ‘third-nation’ (non-EU) refugees. This year alone, there had – to 17 July – been 15,852 sea arrivals to Greece. This compares with 14,995 to the same date last year, and 9,735 in 2017 (we will go into more detail on these figures in our next update). No other EU state – including Italy and Spain – has received anywhere near as many new arrivals this year, and the number is not falling year-on-year.

Because of this, Greece needs a Ministry of Migration more than any other EU member state does, at least for as long as the EU fails to act as a single body. There is absolutely no good reason to disband it now.

As we are all aware, the Ministry of Migration was in fact a difficult body to work with and, in partnership with the EU, was responsible for many of the manifest problems inherent within Greece’s refugee response.

But even considering this, and the arguable necessity for reform it highlights, the decision to move the ‘migration issue’ to a department dedicated to ‘citizen protection’ is deeply concerning.

Because refugees and migrants are, by definition, not citizens of Greece. There is in fact no reason whatsoever for a department responsible for citizen protection to take responsibility for them, and no reason to think that the department would be capable of responding to their needs or challenges.

It is hard to escape the idea – particularly when one considers Nea Dimokratia’s consistent portrayal of ‘migrants’ (again, as in every case where the European political Right talks about ‘migrants’ we have to read also ‘refugees’) as a part of Greece’s ‘problem’, rather than people who need assistance or indeed are a benefit (potential or actual) to Greece – that the measure is a further statement that refugees are a problem, and that migrants are people from whom Greek citizens ‘require protection’.

This is a painful and worrying development because not only are refugees entering Greece at a faster rate than at any point since March 2016, their portrayal as ‘dangerous’ and ‘problematic’ to Greece will not only impact the new arrivals, but the tens of thousands of people who have arrived here since 2015 – some of whom are now ‘citizens’ even as they are also ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’.

These people are now at serious risk of being portrayed as an ‘enemy’ of Greece, whether or not that is Nea Dimokratia’s intention. Combating this perception must be a priority of all those of us working with and for men, women and children who have entered and continue to enter the state.


On Friday 12 July, just five days after the election, Nea Dimokratia’s Labour and Social Affairs Minister Nikos Vroutsis publicly cancelled a ministerial statement regarding the issuing of AMKA numbers – the number without which people in Greece cannot access social security services, as well as healthcare and education – to refugees and other third-country nationals.

This move was simultaneously less (immediately) serious than it first appeared, and curious, for the following reasons. First, the statement, made in June this year by Syriza ministers for Health, Migration and Social Solidarity, was not in itself a law: it was a circular clarifying the already existing law on the issuing of AMKA numbers to refugees, migrants, non-EU nationals and unaccompanied minors in Greece. That is, Vroutsis publicly cancelled not a law, but a description of that law, designed to enhance other minsters’ understanding of it.

Second, the law itself had been created and passed in 2009, by Nea Dimokratia.

It is important that we note, again, that this does not constitute a change in the access to AMKA numbers and associated services. That would require an actual change in the law. But we can expect that if Vroutsis is serious about the circular, he is likely to bring such changes before parliament, where an unusually Right-wing Nea Dimokratia has an absolute majority. We must be aware of this likelihood, and work both to prevent it and be prepared if it happens.

Even if he is not serious about it, there are two further factors to consider: Vroutsis’ act is designed to paint Greece as a ‘soft-touch’, in which people (including, it seems children whose parents have died, or who have been separated from them in some other way) are refusing to work and claiming costly benefits for little or no reason. This is entirely in keeping with Nea Dimokratia’s pre-election campaign rhetoric, and is – whatever the party’s actual intention – likely to damage refugees in the eyes of the Greek public and in reality.

But also important is what Vroutsis actually said in relation to his act: ‘Greece is not an unfenced backyard.’

As we have already ascertained, his decision has not actually changed the law – and would in any case not have ‘fenced’ Greece any more than it already is (and with detention centres on each major Aegean island for people who have committed no actual crime, Greece really is already quite ‘fenced’), but the statement is another element of a seeming programme by Nea Dimokratia to encourage Greek people to see Greece as in danger of being ‘overcome’ by people from whom they need to be ‘protected’, whether by removing refugees and others from the system, preventing them entering it, or by building ‘fences’ to ‘keep them out’.

Once again, this is a serious and potentially extremely damaging trend.

‘Increased border force’

In much the same way, Mitsotakis spoke at length before the election about his desire to ‘strengthen Greece’s borders’, including suggesting that Frontex would be reinforced with new recruits (he suggested that they would be German), as well as processing asylum claims faster, reducing the number of asylum seekers on the Greek islands (he also said he would ‘restart’ returning people to Turkey) and perhaps create ‘closed Reception and Identification Centres’.

The problems with this position are manifold. First is that the Greek border is already extraordinarily heavily-policed, under a system in which if people enter Greece they are taken to detention centres where they are registered and wait – in some cases for several years – before their claim is considered. There is absolutely no sober analysis anywhere suggesting that Greece has a ‘problem’ with large numbers of refugees arriving in the country unnoticed.

We must, therefore, consider whether Mitsotakis and his party’s intention here is to further fuel their ‘rhetoric of threat’ or in fact to use this undeniable misdirection to ‘excuse’ illegal or immoral acts regarding refugees and the asylum process.

But secondly, almost none of these ‘proposals’ are actually deliverable by Mitsotakis. It would be the EU (and in Mitsotakis’ plan, presumably also Germany) which decided whether or not to ‘reinforce’ Frontex, albeit perhaps on the guidance of Nea Dimokratia (we will come to this in the final section): there is no way Mitsotakis could do this without full EU engagement, agreement and in fact action.

Faster processing of asylum claims would be welcomed by most people, as at present there is a four-year waiting time for new arrivals to have their first interview with asylum officers. But Nea Dimokratia strongly implies that this would in fact be achieved simply by dismissing certain claims without full consideration of individual circumstances (which international law requires).

If, instead, the party hopes to treat every application with the seriousness it deserves, this would either require it to use public funds to employ hundreds of new asylum officers, which would cost public money it has stated it does not wish to spend, or to convince the EU to send asylum officers to help speed up the system in Greece, which is absolutely out of the party’s hands (and which Syriza already tried, gaining a promise of officers, but absolutely no actual officers, from the EU).

Equally, nobody would oppose a reduction of the number of refugees in detention centres on the islands – although Syriza’s efforts to achieve this not only failed to match the rate at which people have arrived on the islands (from 1 January this year, 15,852 people have arrived in Greece by sea, while 13,274 people have been moved from the island detention centres to the Greek mainland), but have also seen camps whose closure was celebrated in 2017-18 reopen on the Greek mainland, while others have been destabilised by instantaneous population growth.

But, combined with Mitsotakis’ claims he will ‘restart’ forcing refugees back to Turkey – a process which is deeply flawed and has in any case not actually ceased at any point since March 2016 – it seems likely that what he in fact means, or is at least suggesting he means, is the removal of men, women and children from Greece altogether.

Again, if he means this, this is a serious concern for those of us who are working with and for these innocent people. If he does not, he is creating a dangerous atmosphere in which refugees – and indeed all ‘foreign’ people – are seen as a threat or at best as people attempting to steal money and food from Greek people. People, in fact, who do not ‘deserve’ to be in Greece.

The ‘closed’ Reception and Identification Centres are in fact effectively what already exist, though we may need to note that it is therefore likely that Nea Dimokratia in that case wish to talk about ‘introducing’ them as another facet of their presentation of ‘refugees’ as a ‘problem’.

Again, whatever the party’s motive for this – whether to appear to be taking a ‘strong line’ to appease fascists and people who (partially because of our failings) are misinformed about the situation regarding refugees in Greece, or because the party itself genuinely wishes to act against refugees who it believes to be a threat to the country – it is a dangerous practice, with the potential to spread political and violent unrest, and to damage the people we work with and for, as well as those who have already been granted asylum and/or citizenship in Greece, and all other ‘foreigners’ in the state.

What we can do

The missed opportunities of Syriza

There is a tendency among humanitarian organisations (with a few notable exceptions) to declare themselves ‘non-political’.

There are good reasons for this, the first among them being that if an organisation chooses a ‘side’ and appears to (or actually does) back a particular political group ahead of others, they can be denied access to certain areas of a state, and be left unable to reach people who need and deserve assistance.

It is also anathema to the humanitarian ideal that we would ‘choose’ which human beings ‘deserve’ assistance, and by implication, which do not. Our job is about need, and meeting it, regardless of who is in need.

But while this is a sensible and indeed the sole logical and justifiable approach, this does not mean – as some seem to believe – that we must not engage with a government. And in Greece, we have no choice.

Because unlike in some (particularly emergency) responses, we are living and working in a country with an operational political system, a legitimate government which is accepted as such by all parts of the state, and a functional infrastructure. That is, whatever our misgivings, we must engage and work with the Greek government if we are to work at all.

We missed an opportunity with Syriza, which at least on the face of it shared many more of the ideals we hold than Nea Dimokratia does. While the situation was complicated by the non-relationship between the government and UNHCR, and by the fractious relationship between the government and the EU, the foundations of a reasonable working relationship between Syriza and the humanitarian sector were there.

The party hoped to use the humanitarian crisis to ‘prove’ to the EU, which had snatched a great deal of its power from it under the conditions of the bailout, that it was a capable and trustworthy ‘partner’ and EU member. In part because of this, and in part because it had – as noted – already lost the ability to govern in many usual policy areas, it wished to ‘respond’ effectively alone.

It came – quickly – to resent the UN and a number of other agencies, which it had not in fact invited to come to Greece, in part because it felt they threatened its control and by extension its ability to claim that it had ‘solved’ the problem.

Meanwhile, we behaved as if our jobs were being made unnecessarily difficult (which they arguably were) by a government (though in fact there were other operators also making matters more challenging) which had no idea how to run a humanitarian response.

We were not – with the codicils above – entirely wrong. And certainly, governments are absolutely not capable of humanitarian response. They are not designed to be. But we wasted the opportunity to work productively with Syriza, with which we did at least share a sense that people deserve to receive assistance and be treated as something other than a burden and a problem.

We could have offered Syriza assistance – effectively, put ourselves and our expertise to use alongside the government – not by saying we would do whatever it wanted, but by offering advice, ideas and guidance on how to communicate the situation inside Greece and beyond it. This may not have been easy, and there would have been some resistance, but had we organised, it would also have worked. (there are conversations we must have about the practical side of this approach, but we can – and must – have those another time).

Instead, we entered and contributed in part to a situation in which we and Syriza were often opponents and on occasion – such as the disastrous (non) winterisation of camps in the winter of 2016-17, which led to deaths on the mainland and islands - the government dismissed our advice as meddling without an understanding of Greece.

This was in part because it did not understand the intricacies of humanitarian response, in part because it believed we were meddling without a proper understanding of Greece, in part because it didn’t want to listen to what we had to offer, and in part because we let it think and want those things, by not building the relationships we needed to.

The point is not for us to kick ourselves, but to learn from what went wrong. We must do so now, because it seems very likely that things will be harder, rather than easier, with Nea Dimokratia.

Nea Dimokratia: the only game in town

On Monday 22 July, the government Nea Dimokratia has put together faced a parliamentary vote to be confirmed as the Greek executive. This is standard practice in Greece and, as the party has an absolute majority, it was also a formality.

After that, Nea Dimokratia became the major, if not the sole, state-level decision-maker in Greece – though to an extent, the EU will continue to have a part to play.

In essence, if we wish to operate here, and if we wish to safeguard the men, women and children who have come here to stay safe and build new lives, we must work out how to do so under a Nea Dimokratia government.

This does not mean that we must ‘support’ Nea Dimokratia, or that the party is the only group of people with which we must communicate, but from a legal and government perspective, our relationships with the party must exist if we are to have any influence apart from desperate hand-outs and last-minute mitigation to slightly reduce negative outcomes for the people we work with and for.

Refugees’ contributions to Greece

One way in which we can attempt to alter the current Nea Dimokratia position and/or public narrative – that refugees are a ‘burden’ on Greece, or even a threat to it – is by making the simple economic case that in fact at present, this is simply not true and that if people are given the opportunity to build their lives here, in fact the opposite would be true.

This is a slightly deterministic argument, and not one which we would wish to make outside of Greece, where people’s rights on the grounds of them being people can and should be at the forefront of what we do and say, but a) we can still make that point here in Greece and b) at present, Nea Dimokratia is not interested in that idea and its public statements and activities do not even engage with this issue.

The key to convincing Nea Dimokratia, and by extension the people who vote for it and agree with it, is to show two things – both of which have the advantage of actually being true: that refugees do not and have not cost Greece money, and that they can and will be of immense benefit to Greece (and by extension the wider EU) as long as they are allowed to be.

The first half of this is very simple. The overwhelming majority of money spent on the refugee response in Greece has come from the EU, with a smaller amount from the wider international community, through the UN. It has simply not come from ‘the Greek government’ or ‘the Greek taxpayer’.

More than that, this money has not simply been ‘spent’ on refugees. It has been given to them so they can then spend it, in Greece, on food, clothing, other essential items, and rent. Refugees, like other people with little money, do not ‘keep hold of’ what they have, because they cannot.

They have to spend, to survive. That is, shop owners, producers and landlords have actually benefitted from the refugees in Greece, as has, as a result, the wider Greek economy.

We do not need to make this point so openly and baldly (though we should answer questions openly, politely and honestly when we are asked them, including those raised by members of the Greek public). But we can point out that if we are to regard ‘the public’ as ‘consumers’, whose money feeds the ‘health of the economy’ (and yes, this is a slightly grim and depressing perspective, but it is Nea Dimokratia’s view, and they are who we have to deal with now) then not only do refugees absolutely fit that description as well as anyone else, but the money they are spending is in effect a contribution, from the EU. Refugees are in fact adding money to the Greek economy.

We can and should speak about this in conversation with the government. Where we can, we should also talk about it in articles and other communications we produce, and in any other moments in which we communicate with the Greek public.

We must continue to tell people’s stories (in fact, we should do it more than we now are, as to far too many people – especially in the light of the ‘new narrative’ of the new government – it is too easy for people to regard refugees as statistics, and threatening ones at that. One way to deal with that is to increase our efforts to introduce Greek people to refugees as people to people) but we can and must meet Nea Dimokratia on its own terms, which are often overwhelmingly that people are ‘consumers’ and the economy is the overriding priority of government. Our strength is that refugees are an asset, not a burden.

The second half is almost as simple. Refugees are men, women and children who have deliberately come to Greece. They have, to whatever extent (and factoring in that many hope to live elsewhere in Europe, which we will also touch on) chosen to be here.

They are also skilled and talented individuals, from the young children who in many cases already speak four or more languages, and will grow into Greek citizens who understand that they are a part of Greece and a bridge to other nations, if they are given the opportunity to be, as well as the next generation of doctors, engineers, writers and musicians, to the adults who bring skills and ambition to Greece.

We need to talk about what we do – and about Greece’s vital part in this – not just as ‘giving refugees the opportunities they need and deserve’ (though again, we should make sure that we tell people that this is what we are doing) but also that refugees themselves have skills to offer, that they have chosen to be here, and that they will benefit Greece.

For example, we can talk not just about refugees’ ability to work, which is too easily countered by the fact that there are in fact very few jobs available in Greece, but that given the opportunity – such as through microfinance (this is something we should be looking at in any case: training people to do jobs is great, but can easily be countered by those who wish to, by pointing out that there are not jobs to do in Greece at present. Another option is large public works, such as the restoration of buildings, as more than 500,000 buildings in Greece are currently empty and unused) – many men and women can themselves set up businesses, effectively creating jobs for the wider community.

We do need to make sure that we don’t hold up individual refugees as ‘good refugees’, with the implication that perhaps others are ‘not good’ – and we must not stop explaining how these businesses and arts initiatives help to enrich people’s lives in ways other than the financial – but we also must address the fact that Nea Dimokratia and its supporters do view much of the world through a financial lens. We can, and for the benefit of the people we work with and for must, meet them on their own terms.

This applies at municipal as well as national level. Working in this way we can suggest projects, and help politicians recognise opportunity, where what is being presented now is threat and burden.


As noted in the previous section, there is a clear feeling – not entirely incorrect – among Greek people that refugee men and women do not want to be in Greece; that they wish instead to travel to Germany, Sweden or another wealthier EU state.

There is truth in this, as we know. And it’s not an unreasonable desire. Of course people will want what is best for themselves and their families.

But there are two elements of the response to this. The first is that at the very least, this means that refugees literally do not want to be a ‘burden’ on Greece: they do not aim for a life out of work, claiming state benefits (at present, of course, the ‘benefits’ they receive are paid to Greece by the EU), but would prefer to go where there is money and opportunity to live comfortably and well.

If Nea Dimokratia were to work with organisations here to attempt to reopen routes by which refugees could legally reach and live in those countries, we would probably welcome that. Unfortunately, far more likely, they will argue ‘they do not even wish to be here: why do we not just send them back to Turkey/their home country?’

We know the reasons why this is impossible: because it is illegal to send people to states where they are in danger of being persecuted and killed (the Turkey argument is more complex, but is in any case not really down to Nea Dimokratia, and of course Greek politicians are quite likely to be sympathetic to arguments that Turkey is not a good place for people to live) and we must continue to make clear, in Greece and everywhere else, that this is the reality.

But ‘you can’t because you shouldn’t’ and ‘you can’t because it is not allowed’ may be true, but do not address the underlying causes of this argument.

As well as this, and more often, we should be making the point that the refugee community of Greece might wish to stay if the economy was in better shape, and if they felt that they were welcome here, and that one way the economy can improve is if they are made to feel welcome here, and have the opportunity to work and/or set up businesses. This, we can hint, is of course not the fault of Nea Dimokratia, but is an opportunity for it to show that it recognises and addresses the struggles not just of refugees here, but the country as a whole: that this is a chance for the government to lead the recovery.

Recognise politics

A very short point, but one which is important: politicians require publicity to win votes. We can show them that success in cohesion involving refugees can be presented by Nea Dimokratia as achievements ‘under this government’. That progress here actually benefits them.

We must recognise that Nea Dimokratia decided early in this crisis that there were more votes to be gained by pretending it could ‘deal with’ the ‘threat’ of refugees than by agreeing with Syriza that innocent men, women and children needed to have their claims to asylum taken seriously. We can combat that by addressing the bottom line: there are votes to be won by showing the public that a ‘crisis’ is becoming a positive.

That Greece is creating mutual benefit where previously the ‘expectation’ was that the situation would be a burden.

The EU

Greece’s relationship with the EU – in some ways similarly to our own as humanitarians – has in recent years been strained. But as outlined above, there are certain policy aims held by Nea Dimokratia which the party simply cannot deliver without EU assistance. Should we oppose them – or indeed any other of its proposals, we must not only speak to the Greek government and Greek citizens, but also the EU, and people across Europe.

On 1 November, Ursula Von Der Leyen will take over as President of the EU Commission – effectively the ‘president’ of the EU itself.

Although she is regularly described as ‘centre-right’ and is a member of the German Christian Democrat party, we should keep in mind that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is described the same way, and that it is widely accepted that her (Merkel’s) attitude to refugees is considerably more liberal than many members of ‘equivalent’ political parties elsewhere in Europe, and indeed than many of her political opponents in Germany.

Von Der Leyen’s election was opposed by Green MEPs, and some other Left-wing groups, in part because of their (justified) concerns about her position on refugees: she has stated, and this of course connects with Nea Dimokratia’s stated aims on the issue, that she wants Frontex to be increased in number and strength.

We should note, however, that she was also opposed by the EU’s far-Right (including the UK’s Brexit Party, and the sole remaining member of Golden Dawn), largely because of her hopes that the EU will become a more united and closer political organisation, but also because she has publicly demanded that ‘humanitarian pathways’ are opened for refugees and that the Dublin Agreement ‘should be rewritten’, so that it no longer demands refugees must remain in the first EU state they enter.

Given these twin positions, we should begin speaking with Von Der Leyen – and with other MEPs – about whether Greece actually requires ‘extra Frontex recruits’ (it does not) and whether they will in fact help the situation here (they will not) as she and Nea Dimokratia appear to think.

But we should also speak with her and other MEPs to see how far we can begin to move on altering the Dublin Agreement: if we can reach a situation in which EU states all accept refugees and process their claims themselves, rather than demanding Greece (and Italy and Spain) do so, we can effectively solve some of the most serious issues – overcrowding, enormous waits even for asylum interviews – refugees here are experiencing.

That is, we must continue to talk to the EU – and all EU citizens – about people’s human rights, about their experiences, their hopes and desires, but we also have an opportunity to help shape EU policy on refugees in a way which will actively benefit the men, women and children with and for whom we work including, if necessary, removing them from a country whose government appears to wish them harm.

Simultaneously, as noted at the start of this section, and in previous sections, there are parts of Nea Dimokratia’s proposed policies on refugees which only the EU – not the party itself – can deliver. If the party is set to request the EU’s assistance in its aims, we must be in regular contact with the bloc’s representatives, to ensure that they know all the facts, and the reality of the situation on the ground, rather than only the elements Nea Dimokratia wishes to present to them (we might also use the opportunity to raise questions about Turkey’s designation as a ‘safe third state’, among other things).

We have an opportunity, as well as a responsibility. We must ensure we meet them both.

The public

We can and of course must speak with Nea Dimokratia, and with the EU. But the most effective way to ‘win’ the debate is to shape it (in fact, this is what most elements of the far Right have been doing, with grim success, for the last five years) and this is done by speaking as much as is possible to the public at large.

That is, our ability to convince politicians to change policy is far stronger if they can see that this is also what the general public want them to do (we can even help here, by assisting politicians with ‘things to say’ – the outgoing deputy mayor of Ioannina, who was largely open to and in favour of assisting and providing refugees with opportunities to succeed, could certainly have used this assistance when he was being physically attacked for his position).

A first priority should be to ensure that people remember that when we talk about refugees, we are talking about people. That this is not a matter of ‘statistics’ but of men, women and children like themselves.

We can achieve this by slightly changing the way in which we communicate – by making more of the stories of the people we work with, letting them talk about their lives in their home countries, what they did there, what their homes were like, then why they left and how they arrived here.

We must of course explain to donors – and potential donors – what we are doing and why, and we should remind people of international law and our responsibilities to safeguard people’s human rights, but first of all we can and realistically, if we are to achieve the lasting and meaningful change we are working towards, must ‘introduce’ people to people, to show – as we know to be true – that the ‘average’ refugee has an enormous amount in common in terms of experience and hopes for the future, with the ‘average’ person who has not been forced to flee their home.

Once this is done – once people are reminded that refugees are people, and people very much like them – all our other messages become far stronger.

We do live in a society – in Greece and internationally – where people, generally those from other countries, are being deliberately ‘othered’. This should offend us not only because it is a cynical and disgusting activity, but also because as we know, it is also an affront to truth.

We are in an almost unique position to do something about this. Once again, we must not miss this chance.

As a final note, there are of course a number of considerations to be made about the ‘practical’ elements of each of these approaches, which we must discuss at some future moment. For now, however, the principals of what we might do, rather than exactly how we do it, are the most immediate concern.

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