Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki
Mitarachis and Elaionas: lack of interest, lack of empathy
The closure of Elaionas refugee camp has been protracted, harrowing and threatening for the men, women and children who (have been forced to) call it ‘home’. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis’ response – a mix of indifference and harsh punishment – is emblematic of his entire period in his role.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis has Tweeted about violence at Elaionas camp, central Athens, including a video showing camp residents throwing items at the camp’s office.
In a rather strange and quite irresponsible tweet, he yesterday said:
‘Elaionas: immigrants and solidarity people are threatening our staff, this will not be tolerated and the structure will definitely be closed.’
Before we say anything else, we should note: this is a translation and my Greek is very far from perfect. Equally, Mitarachis’ first language is not English. So it may be for either of these reasons that his Tweet appears to suggest the camp is being closed because of the violence.
But we must note that it is not. The camp is being closed to make way for a renovation of the local area, including a new stadium for Panathinaikos football team.
Nor is there anything really wrong with wanting to renovate an area of a city (taking into account that gentrification is almost always a prelude to people no longer being able to afford to live where they used to), or building a new football stadium.
The problem is that the plans, cheerled by Athens’ Mayor (and Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis’ nephew) Kostas Bakoyannis, have been in place for more than three years and yet in that period there appears to have been basically no preparations made for the people who will be most affected by the camp’s closure: the people who live there.
Mitarachis’ Tweet yesterday was a clear example of this. Even though he is Migration Minister, and his sole responsibility in this situation is to deal with the men, women and children at Elaionas camp, he wrote four lines about the ‘renovation’ and just nine words about the people’s movement: ‘there is availability of seats in other existing structures’.
It isn’t good enough. His entire role is about the people in camps (and other new arrivals) and yet all he says is ‘there is space in other camps’, dismissing these people’s lives – indeed dismissing them as people – and pretending the sole matter he should address is ‘there are spaces in other camps’.
And there are of course other concerns. This camp contains children who attend schools in Athens, and adults who have jobs. Its residents have friends and support groups both inside the camp and outside of it.
Absolutely no-one is saying that this or any other camp should remain open forever. It is an absolute embarrassment that they are still open, in the EU, after six years (in fact, Elaionas opened in August 2015).
But when one closes a camp, one must consider and act on the needs and wishes of the people who live there, for example by ensuring they can live somewhere where they can stay at the same school, or in the same job.
Even if this were impossible (and it may be, but we don’t know because zero effort has been made) the absolute least that could be done is to tell people when they will leave the camp, and where they will be moved to, so they and those responsible for moving them can help them find school places for their children, and jobs and ‘connections’ for themselves.
Even this – just telling them where they will be moved to – has still not been done. And the camp’s closure has been put back three times, with yesterday the third.
Nor is this the only problem. Because only people who are registered as part of the Greek asylum system will even be moved anywhere else. Those who have not yet managed this – and in the last two years this has been an extraordinarily-difficult thing to do – will not even be moved to another camp. They will simply be thrown onto the street.
This, too, could have been avoided. First of all by Mitarachis not making it almost impossible to enter they system, secondly, by ‘fast-tracking’ the system for anyone at Elaionas, so they would not be made homeless when the camp closed, or thirdly, at the absolute least, by giving those people who had not been registered certificates to show they are residents at Elaionas and must be granted somewhere else to live.
Not one of these things was done.
It will not come as news to anyone involved in this response that Mitarachis is an absolute incompetent, seemingly in his role solely because he is vicious enough to demand and order violence against vulnerable men, women and children at Greece’s borders.
But his arrogance in believing he is capable, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and his absolute indifference when it is pointed out to him that he is not, is unacceptable. Because it means he will never improve: he does not know enough, or care enough, to ever get better at his job. And this means he is ruining – and in some cases at the Greek borders ending – the lives of vulnerable men, women and children.
And, to come back to Mitarachis’ tweet today, the closure of Elaionas is not ‘the result’ (as the tweet – perhaps accidentally – implies) of yesterday’s or any other day’s violence.
In a second tweet yesterday, he wrote:
‘THE @hellenicpolice has already made the first additions [arrests]. And there will be continuity, there will be no tolerance for violence against its employees @migrationgovgr.’
Now. The violence (such as it was: the video clip shows only a few people shouting and only one definitely throwing something at the camp’s office) is not OK. No-one needs to make any excuse.
But the experience of people at the camp in the last few weeks has been awful. It was never particularly wonderful, but what has happened most recently has been even worse.
People there do not want to move, they have no idea where they will be moved to, or whether they will ever see the people they met here again. They do not know whether they will ever find another job, or school places for their children. Many face homelessness.
Simultaneously, the people who work there report that conditions have been allowed to deteriorate significantly, making people’s lives increasingly awful, in the hope that they will simply leave, saving Mitarachis and his government the ‘bother’ of having to move them. And their repeated – peaceful – protests against this situation, have not been acted on, addressed, or even just responded to, but ignored.
We cannot pretend that violence is the answer, and we cannot possibly know that the Ministry of Migration employees working at the camp even approve of its closure. But they are, sadly (as Mitarachis, on his very few visits to the camps which are his responsibility, never meets and speaks with their residents) the sole representatives of the Ministry they ever see.
They have good reason to be deeply worried and scared, which combined with the frustration they feel from being absolutely and always ignored when they raise these fears, can of course lead to anger.
The absolute least these people deserve is understanding, rather than arrest. Then again, the absolute least they and everyone else in Greece deserve is a Minister of Migration who has at least the most basic understanding of his responsibilities, and his weaknesses. What they have instead is Notis Mitarachis, an incompetent with neither that understanding, or enough interest to care, who consistently allows his personal pettiness and spite to dictate his policy and comments.