Anti-refugee sentiment fuels racist protests in Greece, warn watchdogs
On November 1, a boat carrying 40 refugees and migrants neared the shores of Leros, an island in the Aegean Sea, Mayor Michalis Kolias led a mob of locals that prevented them from disembarking on Greek shores.
The following day on nearby Kos, Mayor Theodossis Nikitaras rallied a group of local residents to prevent most of the 75 passengers on another dinghy from getting off on the island. Municipal vehicles blocked passage from the port.
Around Greece, on islands and in the mainland, local communities have lashed out at refugees and migrants seeking safety in the Mediterranean country, already home to an estimated 96,000 asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR’s tally.
“These incidents may be committed by small groups from local communities but the widespread and organized nature they seem to take, as well as the involvement of officials, are of particular concern to us,” the Athens-based Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) said in a statement.
The RVRN called on authorities to better educate local communities about the transfer of refugees and migrants to their communities, urging the government to establish a national council dedicated to combating xenophobia and racism.
The United Nations-backed watchdog cited a “link between the rise of xenophobia and racist events both in the lack of coherent immigration policy”.
Since the rightwing New Democracy party won snap elections in July, Greece has witnessed an uptick in incidents that observers and watchdogs deem worrisome.
For its part, the newly-minted government has ratcheted up efforts to evict refugee squats in downtown Athens, passed a new law that rolls back many rights afforded to asylum seekers and promised to deport at least 10,000 refugees by the end of next year.
‘Organising actions against refugees’
“We control our borders and always take in the hunted of this world,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last month. “But one country alone cannot carry the problems of three continents on its shoulders.”
Contacted by TRT World, the Greek government’s migration spokesperson did not reply to requests for comment.
“Mayors supporting New Democracy are organizing actions against refugees,” Petros Constantinou, national coordinator of the Athens-based anti-fascist union Keerfa, told TRT World.
“We are there, we are ready and we are fighting them. Don't forget that this government [New Democracy] existed before Syriza, so we know who they are,” he added, referring to the leftwing party that governed Greece from January 2015 until earlier this year.
On November 10, a far-right group called United Macedonians held an anti-refugee rally in Diavata, a village on the outskirts of the northeastern coastal city of Thessaloniki.
During the rally, organizers provided attendees with a bottomless supply of grilled pork, beer, and wine, which they described as a “unique and new protest” against refugees.
In late October, dozens of locals in Vrasna, a village in northern Greece, blocked eight busses carrying around 400 refugees from entering the community. Encouraged by local far-right groups, the protesters set rubbish cans on fire and blocked the road with tires.
The busses eventually retreated and redirected their passengers to Chalkida, a community closer to Athens.
Between August 2018 and September 2019, the number of refugees and migrants in Greece skyrocketed from 62,500 to 96,000, according to UNHCR statistics.
Deteriorating conditions on Greek islands
Faced with the largest rise in refugee arrivals since the crisis erupted in 2015, Greek authorities are struggling to provide adequate living conditions in the already overcrowded camps, particularly on a handful of islands.
Nearly 15,000 people currently live in Moria, the notorious camp on Lesbos Island, although that facility was built to accommodate less than 3,000 occupants.
On other Aegean islands, among them, Samos and Chios, humanitarian conditions in camps are also plummeting.
Boris Cheshirkov, a UNHCR spokesperson in Athens, estimates that at least 2,000 unaccompanied minors are currently confined to refugee camps on five Greek islands.
Although Greek authorities have started transferring asylum seekers from the islands to communities in the mainland, that process has moved slowly and sparked a backlash from angry locals.
“We are also concerned at a number of recent incidents of the island and mainland communities objecting to the government transfer of asylum-seekers to their areas,” Cheshirkov told TRT World by email.
“The islands are under huge pressure to host this high a number of asylum seekers.”
On Tuesday, Greek police forces raided and evicted a squatted building in the downtown borough of Exarchia, long considered a safe haven for refugees and migrants in the city.
During the predawn raid, officers rounded up 138 refugees and migrants, among them 28 minors, the Hellenic Police said in a statement.
After months of similar evictions, only a handful of squats remain in Exarchia.
In 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants passed through Greece, but borders across the so-called Balkan route slammed shut in early 2016, leaving tens of thousands stuck in the country.
With the country still recovering from a nearly decade-long economic crisis, Greek officials insist that the European Union should provide more assistance in dealing with the renewed influx.