Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki
Chaos in paradise: a government using violence, to be allowed to break the law
The situation on at least three islands in the East Aegean is one of extremely high tension and in some cases active violence between members of the public and – in the main – representatives of the Greek state.
Several other islands, while not quite on the verge of violence – or well over that ‘boundary’ – are not far from it.
Fighting has already broken out on Lesvos and Chios, and has been described by most sections of Greek and international media as ‘riots’. We feel we must immediately note that this is a startlingly misleading description, as it suggests the ‘public’ might have started the violence, with attacks on property and/or people.
Despite a suggestion (hidden in an assurance that the situation on the islands was not ‘unique to Greece’) on Wednesday (26 February 2020) by Kathimerini, that this was in fact what had happened, this is not in fact the case.
Instead, units of the MAT (Units for the Reinstatement of Order, a division of the Greek police whose major role is supposed to be riot control, but which are depressingly often sent out to attack peaceful protestors – and in some cases people who are not even protesting) were sent to Lesvos and Chios, arriving very early on Tuesday morning and attacked public protestors with flash grenades, as well as the standard Greek police responses to almost every situation, teargas and batons.
To some Greek readers this may seem a little unfair, but the Greek police are far faster than any force we have seen in Europe (we have not been to every European country) to use teargas and violence in response to protest.
Ten units were sent to Lesvos, arriving at 2.30am. Several other units were sent to Chios.
Violence has continued for (at the time of writing) close to 48 hours, with reports from Mytilene stating that by Tuesday night, six units on Lesvos had been chased into the Kyriazi military camp, where they had locked themselves and were awaiting reinforcements.
Though to an extent this is a heartening development in what began as public resistance to enormous and wild police aggression and violence, it must be noted that this stand-off is unlikely to end well, and without significant further violence.
On Chios, six police officers were beaten by crowds after one officer threw a tear-gas canister into a group of protestors, from a hotel window.
Alongside the protests, all regional and municipal authorities, and most private businesses, on Lesvos, Chios and Samos closed yesterday and today (Wednesday and Thursday) in a public statement of sympathy with the protestors.
2. Causes – prison camps for refugees
The industrial action, and the remarkable and chaotic (and chaotically-badly managed) violence by the Greek state police against the islands’ native population, was sparked by plans by Nea Dimokratia to build five prison camps for refugees, one on each of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos.
The detention centres already on those islands – at Moria, Vathy, VIAL, Lepida and Pyli – respectively, are closer to ‘open prisons’ than refugee camps, in that they are places the men, women and children can leave, sometimes only with permission, but to which they are expected to return each evening. No-one can leave the island on which they are located.
At present, the islands’ detention centres have a capacity of 6,862, and a population of 40,163.
Life in the centres is grim, with most people forced into sub-human conditions, with less than the minimum four metres squared of space required under Sphere guidelines even for short-term emergency responses (and many of the people in the camps have been there for two or more years, far beyond the Sphere maximum of three months).
People have – for the fourth year in a row - been forced to spend the winter in summer tents, while electricity and hot water are available only an hour each day, on average – a situation which, given the shocking overcrowding, makes it extraordinarily difficult for most to access any at all.
As a result, when Nea Dimokratia proposed to close them, many people were relieved. But instead of replacing them with decent places to live, it announced instead it would build five prisons, one on each island (the ones on Lesvos and Chios would be at Karavas and Epos, respectively).
Every man, woman or child placed there will remain locked up until their asylum claim has been processed. Nea Dimokratia’s spokespeople say this will take ‘only three months’. At present, it is taking five years.
This is absolutely against international law.
No government is allowed to jail asylum seekers solely on the basis that they are asylum seekers. The reason for this is that not only have they committed no crime, but also that they are human beings, and no person on Earth deserves to be locked in prison for five years not only without having had a trial, but also not even having been accused of doing anything illegal. No sane or decent person would stand for that.
In response, islanders have come out in protest against the building of the prisons.
3. Nea Dimokratia and protest a) protestors
We should note that not every protestor has the same reasons for wanting the prisons not to be built (though on that, every protestor shares a common desire with every refugee and every NGO worker: literally the only people in Greece right now who appear to think illegally imprisoning refugees is a good idea is Nea Dimokratia).
Some are indubitably far-Right wing ghouls who are hoping to use people’s anxiety and misery to further their racist ideas.
Their cause has been helped in part by articles such as Takis Theodoropoulos’ astonishing ‘Incriminating the Greeks’ carried by Kathimerini in late January, and there absolutely have been examples, even in the past few days, of aid workers and refugees being targeted by protestors.
But in fact the majority of protestors want the men, women and children currently in detention centres, many of whom – and many others in the same situation as them – would be jailed for several years under Nea Dimokratia’s plan, to be given decent places to live – and indeed work and/or contribute to their new communities in other ways.
Indeed, their aims are those of the NGOs, and indeed the men, women and children trapped in the detention centres.
In fact, we might note that the protestors share more than just aims with the refugees in the detention centres: their treatment by police has also been identical. On Monday 3 February, Nea Dimokratia sent armed police to teargas men, women and children who are trapped in Moria detention centre, Lesvos, and were protesting against the abominable living conditions there.
Nor is this treatment especially unusual for refugees on the Aegean islands: incidents in 2017 and 2018 at Moria and in Mytilene saw refugees beaten with truncheons and then forced into solitary confinement.
But the last three days also highlight something slightly different, and arguably much worse – Nea Dimokratia using the police and specifically MAT as a means of violent activity against people who oppose them.
4. Nea Dimokratia and protest b) government response
On Monday, (24 February) a police officer ran onto the campus at Athens’ University of Economics and Business, where he waved a gun around shouting ‘I will use it’ at students. An MAT unit then entered the campus, firing flash grenades and beating students with truncheons as the retreated with the police officer, away from the campus.
Nea Dimokratia has consistently – in government as well as in opposition – described University campuses as ‘lawless’, vowed to ‘strike’ against them and in August passed a law removing their right to be used as places of asylum for protestors. In November, MAT officers fired teargas at students in the same Athens University.
In Exarcheia, too, Nea Dimokratia has consistently promised it will strike. In a 2017 speech the party’s leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis claimed he would ‘restore law and order’ in the suburb, adding ‘I will clean Exarcheia’.
Immediately after the Greek general elections of 7 July 2019, Stavros Balaskas, of the Greek Union of Police Officers said: ‘If they give us a mandate, we will not only clean them up, not even a mosquito will remain in Exarcheia.’
Since then, Nea Dimokratia has sent armed police to clear five squats used by refugees (claiming, falsely, that they were centres for drug abuse and people trafficking) and in August attacked a crowded café, K*VOX, with teargas, directly breaking the law on use of the chemical (in concentrated amounts, including indoors, teargas can kill).
If we factor in that the Greek Police Initiative (‘what are we, Greek police officers or occupation army? Let the squads come back from the islands’) and soldiers at Lesvos’ Captain Miarinelli camp ('The plan of the government and the EU to transform the island into a vast prison, a concentration camp for the war-torn, poverty-stricken, must find its people. We demand the release of refugees and migrants from the island, they (should be given) travel documents to go to their destination, no new hot spots on the island (or anywhere), now (or ever), and the abolition of the EU-Turkey Agreement, which is trapping these people in the islands of NE Aegean.’) responses on Wednesday, it is worth considering the extent to which Nea Dimokratia is prepared to use the Greek police in particular against Greek people, against the officers’ will (this is not to suggest that the Greek police are in general ‘pro-refugee’ – they have far too often violently proved the opposite).
Because despite continued media pretence (The UK’s Guardian newspaper repeatedly describes Nea Dimokratia as ‘centre-Right’, for example, while on Tuesday 25 February it ran a headline stating ‘Greek authorities scramble to calm tensions over migrant detention camp’: in fact, the Greek government sent armed police to attack protestors) the current Greek government cannot be described as anything other than a far-Right organisation.
Not only has it proven worryingly keen to send its police force to attack those who disagree with it, but its policies on refugees and migrants are similar in content and tone to those of Hungary and Poland, states with self-declared far-Right governments.
This is not an irreversible situation, for reasons we will note in the last section. But it does tie in with a final factor in this situation: the EU.
5. Blame: the EU?
Several newspapers, and many social media commentators, have argued that this situation is ‘the fault of the EU’.
There is an extent to which they are correct. But only an extent.
Because the EU (which, of course, includes Greece: every time we say ‘the EU’ we mean, by definition, ‘Greece and 27 other states’ – the UK being included for almost all of that period) certainly has taken an extraordinary and unjustifiable position on the situation in Greece (as well as Italy and Spain).
It is running a refugee policy which is based extremely heavily on both the US’ approach at Guantanamo Bay (the non- extraordinary rendition part) and Australia, which in both cases have been shown to both allow and result in human rights’ abuses, while the EU/Turkey Deal breaks international refugee law, and is in turn based on the Dublin III Regulation, which is a document which is not fit for purpose as it relies upon the existence of an EU which was envisioned at the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, but which does not yet exist.
Added to that, almost all of its member states have failed to meet even the low targets for the number of men, women and children they would allow to move from Greece to their own countries, which they themselves agreed to, and no subsequent efforts have been made either to enable those people to move, let alone any others as well.
And at EU-level, the bloc has – perhaps because it finds the idea of a humanitarian situation still happening almost four years after it had supposedly ‘solved’ it – effectively turned a blind eye to the situation in Greece, particularly the Aegean islands. It has failed to fulfil the promises it made even on matters relating to assistance with asylum applications,
Despite all of this, however, the EU spoke out on Wednesday against the Nea Dimokratia response to the protests on the islands, with a European Commission spokesperson telling EU Observer: ‘we would expect the member state authorities to address such situations using measures that are necessary and proportionate.’ A clear statement aimed at the government, rather than the protestors.
6. Blame: Nea Dimokratia
Even more importantly, the EU absolutely did not suggest the Greek government should build (illegal) prisons on the Aegean islands.
This is a Nea Dimokratia policy, as shown by the comments on 11 February by the party’s Vice President and Minister for Investment and Development Adonis Georgiadis.
In an astonishing outburst, Georgiadis – a man who has previously denied the Holocaust - said: ‘Closed-type centres need to be fixed, there is no other way, a message should be sent across that here these people are not welcome.
‘Let's not take a penny from the EU, let them be closed. No problem. Not a single euro. If Greece is going to be destroyed I don't want a single euro from the Europeans.
‘The centres must be closed. And when I say closed, I mean closed, closed. No mosquito should come out of the inside. Never. 24 hours a day. Until they leave.
‘The message must be: “did you go to Greece sir? They locked you up. Whenever you want to go home, free ticket, go. Until your request is judged, you will not move from there. If you are a refugee, take your paper go wherever you want, if not you turn the other day back.”
‘We don't want them here. Period. This is the message. Don't come here illegally.’ (it is of course not illegal to come to Greece or any other country to claim asylum)
This is the problem, and the point: at present, Nea Dimokratia is operating as a far-Right organisation, both punishing innocent men, women and children for coming to Greece and using violence against them and Greek nationals when they protest against this approach.
The chaos on the islands has a number of contributing factors, but Nea Dimokratia’s behaviour is its final – and major – cause.
7. Solutions or suggestions
In this brief final section we do not set out to detail every element of the ways in which we can respond, more to note that there are routes through which we can help improve matters in Greece, for every person now in the country.
a) Community meeting sessions
The situation on the islands is unacceptable and unsustainable. But in that, the only true difference between last week and this is that Nea Dimokratia is sending Greek police to attack Greek people, rather than as in previous episodes, to attack men, women and children from other parts of the world.
And in fact, while it may seem slightly perverse to say so, this shared experience between refugees and the islands’ native population can in fact be a catalyst for an improvement in some elements of the lives of both groups.
We recommend (and will work to develop) a process under which representatives of the refugee and native communities can meet to discuss common, and individual, concerns and experience. This should include – but not be limited to – representatives from the islands’ municipal authorities as well as members of the public and people from the current detention centres.
These groups’ aim will be to help refugees and islanders meet on (close to) ‘equal terms, and get to understand one another’s concerns better. They will also offer opportunities to ask questions to municipality heads, where possible solve problems as, or close to the moment when, they arise, and ensure that community concerns are heard by municipality employees and, through them, members of the government.
In truth, the last few days are only the confirmation of a truth which has been there throughout: refugees and islanders on the Aegean islands are at present facing largely the same challenges and obstacles. In a social setting, it is far more likely they will be able to come together to overcome them, and perhaps to build ties which have so far not been created.
b) Nea Dimokratia and communications
For reasons we have detailed on many previous occasions, Nea Dimokratia is far from the party even its leader wishes it to be. In its present iteration it is enacting policies which cannot be described as other than far-Right.
Part of this is perhaps genuine fear (and as a result of that, intense dislike) of the men, women and children entering Greece from the East. Some may be an effort to keep support – perhaps particularly that it won in July last year from Golden Dawn and other far-Right organisations – onside.
But some of it – we feel potentially a great deal – comes from outlook and perspective. That is, one of Nea Dimokratia’s major focuses is a particular type of right-wing economics, in which those who ‘contribute’ do so because they are hard-working, which makes them deserving, and anyone who is not ‘contributing’ is, by simple (but misapplied) logic, therefore a ‘burden’ and also ‘undeserving’ of in some cases aid, in others even a place in Greece.
We need to assist Nea Dimokratia to understand that in fact the refugee population now in Greece is, far from being a burden, in fact of great potential to Greece. The men and women are in many cases exceptionally well-qualified and in almost all extremely eager to work (following several years being completely denied the opportunity), while the children are talented and in most already speak several languages (a result of their upheaval so far).
In as far as they are a ‘burden’ in any sense (and in fact, the EU, UN and many other aid organisations have spent the last five years pouring money into Greece), it is only because they have not yet had the opportunity to work and to contribute. And although the standard line is ‘there are no jobs in Greece’, the state does receive an enormous amount of EU AMIF funding specifically for so-called ‘integration’ programmes. This can be used, to the benefit of everyone.
We must do a better job of reaching out to the government. We will not change its opinions until and unless we do, and without changing its opinions, the outlook for the men, women and children we work with and for is increasingly terrible.
c) The EU
As noted earlier, the EU is not responsible for the situation on the islands over the last few days. Neither is it responsible for the plan to replace the atrocious detention centres with illegal jails for innocent men, women and children.
But the EU does have to play a part in this response, and it must be reminded both of its responsibilities and the failures of its policies so far to offer any meaningful or lasting solution.
As humanitarian organisations, we do have a duty – not least to the people we work with and for – to highlight these issues: to meet and discuss the situation with MEPs, to put this situation back on the agenda, and to show that there are solutions which can work, unlike those which are not working now.
We need to help the EU work out ways to move people from Greece to other parts of the bloc, and, once they get there, to help them become part of the communities they enter.
We must help the EU recognise and understand the situation in Greece, and its enormous problems. The alternative is we go on as we have been, with the EU hiding its ‘embarrassment’ by pretending there is no problem, and a Greek government using violence to illegally imprison innocent men, women and children, all the while claiming there is ‘no problem’.