Greece’s new police state
In the early hours of 23 September, the eviction at ‘Fifth School’ began. ‘Everyone was sleeping, and we woke up. Pa pa pa – everyone stop, no moving! They have guns. They come inside to [ward] the children, to the old men, with all [these guns] like we are Daesh, like we are going to fight them,’ Anuar, a 27-year-old law student from Aleppo tells us.
Anuar came to Greece in 2017 after fleeing forced conscription to Assad’s army. He is one of hundreds of refugees who, until recently, lived in the self-organized community squats in central Athens.
He describes Fifth School, a once-vacant school building on the upper side of Exarcheia neighbourhood, as a ‘home’ – a place where people of different nationalities worked closely together to organize weekly food distributions, security and cleaning rotas, and where they ‘felt safe’.
After the EU-Turkey statement was signed in March 2016 and the northern Greek border closed, squats eased the shortage of housing for refugees and migrants. They provided a dignified option for people wanting to live and work in the city, offering access to schools and hospitals mostly unavailable to residents of predominantly isolated and overcrowded mainland camps.
Since its doors were opened by refugees and activists in 2016, Fifth School has sheltered over 10,000 people. In light of poor integration policies for refugees in Greece, the squat recently began housing families evicted from their UNHCR-funded flats.
The 23 September eviction is the seventh since New Democracy, Greece’s centre-right party came to power in July - several more have followed, leaving hundreds homeless and refusing to be transferred to derelict camps in the north.
Law and order politics
Drumming-up support using ‘law and order’ tactics is not new. The previous Syriza-led leftist coalition government paved the way by bowing to populist pressure to evict squatters, halted only by their public protests. Under New Democracy, however, they have become a key feature of its consolidation of power.
The party ran its election campaign promising a ‘return to normality,’ focusing on an anti-immigration rhetoric and the control of dissidence. Central to this was its pledge to ‘clean-up’ the leftist-anarchist neighbourhood of Exarcheia of political activists and refugees, referred to as ‘garbage’ and ‘annoying dust’ by the representative of the Greek Police Confederation, Stavros Balaskas.
New Democracy MP Dimitris Markopoulos then publicly criticized media reporting of police violence, claiming that ‘every time a little blood of a dissident runs they [the media] are quick to say “oh the poor kid”’, showing disproportionate sympathy. A statement that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially after Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis assumed direct control of state media – national TV, radio and the Athenian News Agency (APE) - the day he got into office.
The unjustified use of force during evictions, intended to criminalize refugees in the public eye, comes with an intensification of ‘broom operations’, mass police paper checks based on racial profiling, and what the assembly of Exarcheia residents denounce as a ‘police occupation’ of their neighborhood. While police harassment in the area - including of adolescent girls - has regularly been reported, in recent weeks there have been over 10 registered complaints of severe beatings, unlawful arrests and humiliating practices, including illegal undressing and photographing of detainees.
The recent militarization of public space goes alongside an unprecedented concentration of power in the Ministry of Citizen Protection that oversees the police and took charge of the independent Ministry of Migration and the penitentiary system in early July, formerly overseen by the Ministry of Justice.
The government also ‘neglected’ to renew the social insurance regulations, making it practically impossible for new asylum-seekers to access public healthcare, take up employment or attend school. Newly introduced guidelines effectively abolished the right to free healthcare for children born in Greece to ‘illegally residing parents’ and to anyone who doesn’t have a work permit.
Refugees and visitors to Exarcheia are not the only ones to feel a change. The government has announced plans to take control of the main independent rehabilitation and social reintegration network in Greece, KETHEA, despite protests from its management. And according to Anna Kouroupou, president of the sex-workers’ rights network Red Umbrella Athens, trans women are now liable for arrest on suspicion of performing sex work, simply for being transgender in public.
Exarcheia embodies a model of egalitarian social organization, and its violent ‘clean-up’ shows that in New Democracy’s Greece, difference signifies ‘danger’. Migrant, prisoner, addict, politically active, trans and queer, all represent a lack of ‘control’ for the government, thereby using the state apparatus to deprive them of their rights.
Asylum under threat
A week after the September eviction at Fifth School, the government released a statement about its migration plans to ‘set rules, clear and precise, ending anarchy’. Despite severe criticism by UNHCR and major NGOs, a new asylum law passed in November rejects internationally accepted understandings of vulnerability, discredits the experience of PTSD, and excludes UNHCR staff from asylum review committees - now overseen solely by state employees.
While the government argues that its ‘fast-track’ approach to asylum will unclog the already overloaded system, the negative effects on asylum-seekers’ rights are already evident. On 22 November, 28 asylum applications in Lesvos were rejected without an interview, because officials were ‘unable’ to find translators in the applicants languages.
The statement also sets an arbitrary quota for deportations to countries that international organizations deem unsafe. From 1,806 returns in four and a half years under Syriza, the new ramped-up target is 10,000 returns by the end of 2020, including to Afghanistan which was recently recognized by the UN mission there (UNAMA) as the most deadly country in the world.
‘Refusing to cooperate’ – a vague term that ranges from unwillingness to be moved to a camp to protesting against bad living conditions – will mean forfeiting the right to asylum. For the new government, the concept of international refugee law itself is increasingly becoming irrelevant.
The Vice-President of New Democracy, Adonis Georgiades, declared in October that there is ‘an invasion’ of people entering Greece, where the vast majority are ‘non-refugees’ coming for economic reasons, defying UNHCR’s statistics. He added that the government ‘respects humanity to the extent that it is possible’.
‘European way of life’
While New Democracy claims that refugees are being moved to ‘better places’, Anuar tells us that the eviction from Fifth School occurred because ‘they like to put all people under the control [of the] police and the government’.
Tamer, who is from Iraq, talks about the new transit camp in Corinth where he has been moved: ‘[The] squat was better. [This] camp is very bad - no hot water, no washing machine for clothes. [There is] no stuff for children to play, to have fun, to enjoy, to learn. Korinthos and Moria [are the] same - very bad.’
Collective self-organized accommodation in the city-centres would have been a better housing strategy. Instead, the Minister of Citizen Protection, Mihalis Chrisochoidis, recently gave an ultimatum to vacate squats by 5 December. This is a symbolic date set one day before the annual commemoration of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos’ killing by policeman Epaninondas Korkoneas in Exarcheia in 2008.
The squat evictions signify a rolling back of refugee and citizen’s rights within Europe’s borders. The Greek government has also announced plans to create closed camps on the islands that NGOs describe as ‘prisons’ unfit for children and vulnerable populations.
Meanwhile in the EU halls of power, a vice president for protecting the vague and racially charged ‘European way of life’ was appointed in September, taking on the duties of the previous migration commissioner including control of Europe’s external borders. As this unfolds, the options for Anuar and his friends are dwindling as they are spread across the country in flimsy tents with the winter setting in.