The Other Greek Crisis: Xenophobia and Mass Detention

Amygdaleza migrant detention center

Landing at Elefthérios Venizélos in Athens, you can’t miss the sprawling blue and gold IKEA near the airport.  While tourists arriving  in Greece may recognize the siren call of cheap and trendy furniture, they are not likely to notice that there are also detention centers in Athens.  The brand-new Amygdaleza migrant detention center was opened in April in western Athens, shortly before the election. There are plans to build many more detention camps – and quickly.  Greek police reported this week that they have arrested thousands and temporarily detained more than 17,000 migrants, mostly from Asia and Africa, since August 4, 2012.

I traveled to Greece for the first time in May.  I was there briefly and only as a tourist. I stayed in tourist areas, encountering very few Greeks who didn’t work in the tourism industry. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard, but I can’t help but look for human rights violations – even when I’m on vacation.   So I listened carefully when my brother, who had been living in Greece for some months, mentioned that recently the government had started arresting, detaining and deporting migrants.  In fact, the first 56 migrants arrived at the new Amygdaleza migrant detention center on April 29 – only a week before the national election. Undocumented migration had become a major issue in the May 6 election, with several parties pledging to crack down on migrants. Based largely on this issue, the far-right Golden Dawn party gained seats in Parliament for the first time.

While Greece may be idyllic for the foreigners who are tourists, many migrants and asylum seekers have a very different experience.

Since the early 2000s, Greece has been a major entry point to the west and Europe for migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa.  Many of them cross the border with Turkey, which up until August was fairly porous.  By some estimates, a million immigrants live in Greece, which has a population of barely 11 million.  Add to this demographic change the deepening economic crisis and rising social tension and you get a volatile situation in which undocumented migrants and asylum seekers have become the targets of xenophobia.  According to a July 2012 report from Human Rights Watch, “Xenophobic violence has reached alarming proportions in Greece, particularly in the capital city of Athens.”

None of this was apparent to me when I was a tourist in Athens in May.  Even the economic crisis in Greece was surprisingly – shockingly, in fact – invisible.  I tried asking a couple of people about it.  People seemed annoyed with the politicians, but unconcerned that Greece would leave the Euro zone.   The waitress at the take-out place where I got my Greek salad just rolled her eyes when I asked about it.  “Try a FIX Hellas,” she said, proffering a pale Greek beer in a clear plastic cup.  “You can walk around with it.”  So I walked around Plaka like I was on Bourbon Street, thinking about the ironic name of my beverage. Lots of people were shopping.  The Barbie store was doing a particularly brisk business.

Later, I walked over to the Parliament.  Even though it was the middle of a workday, it was as still as a tomb.  I started to understand the Greek frustration with politicians.

I followed the news on the “other Greek crisis” after my return.  In early August, there was a mass crackdown on “irregular migrants”.  Greek authorities deployed 4,500 police around Athens to arrest and detain more than 7,000 migrants in less than 72 hours.    In another example of ironic naming, the Greek authorities called the operation Zeus Xenios after the Greek god of  hospitality and guests.  The Greek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that legitimate refugees and genuine asylum seekers could be among those who are summarily deported, but the round-ups have continued.  On September 5, Greek police reported that 17,000 migrants have been temporarily detained in these round-ups, with 2,144 of them arrested. One of the concerns is that the ongoing sweeps target suspected migrants based on little more than their physical appearance; the proportion of temporarily detained to arrest numbers seem to bear that out.  In addition to the problem of arbitrarily detaining migrants, visits to some of the migrant detention centers have documented inhuman and degrading conditions. 

Of course Greece has the right to control migration, to set and enforce their country’s immigration laws.  But Greek authorities must comply with their international and European human rights obligations.  Above all, they should not arrest, detain, and deport foreigners based on appearance or ethnicity – in contrast to the the welcome received by an American tourist like me.  The left-wing main opposition Syriza party has been critical of the crackdown and claims that the migration issue is being used to divert attention from the more difficult and unpopular issues of the economic crisis and the spending cuts that the EU and IMF require in exchange for assistance out of the economic quagmire.  From my limited observation of the situation in Greece, I have to agree.

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