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Greece: How the Greeks Respond to the Flood of Refugees

Wednesday, 09.10.2019
20:40

  There are six boats with 242 people aboard, which depart from the Turkish coast within a few hours on 1 October. The small dinghies make it past the Turkish Coast Guard into Greek waters. You cross the few kilometers that the Aegean Sea is wide at this point, in the morning they finally reach Lesbos, the island in the Aegean, which is currently the focus of refugee movements to Europe.

  Six boats, 242 people, so many now arrive almost daily on Lesbos. The number is just above the current average. In the big Greek media, however, the "mass landing" was an event: news portals, TV programs and social media were full of pictures and videos of the boats. Some reports seemed to be a kind of Greek D-Day, as if the rubber boats were invaded by invaders instead of refugee families seeking asylum in Greece.

  

STRATIS BALASKAS / EPA-EFE / REX
Afghan refugees reach the coast of Lesbos on 1 October

  One could dismiss this reporting as sensational, if it did not stand for a deeper mood change in the Greek society. As the number of refugees in Greece increases, so too does anger over politicians who are allegedly out of control of the situation, and the fear of a new, large refugee movement is growing.

  For months, migration has dominated Greece's public discourse. Debating is in cafés, in the internet, in parliament. The newly elected government is already under pressure in the migration issue.

  
Mitsotakis intensifies the tone

  Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a conservative, was chosen because he promised the Greeks to manage the refugee situation more effectively than his left predecessor Alexis Tsipras. He promised to protect the borders, to send migrants back to Turkey – and to "keep order" in the refugee camps on the Aegean islands.

  Three months later, the numbers of refugees are rising, and the conditions on the islands are deteriorating: Almost no one is being sent back to Turkey. Mitsotakis blames Tsipras, but this legacy policy is not caught. More than half of the Greeks rate the work of the new prime minister negatively in this regard.

  

  In Parliament, Mitsotakis announced last Friday his new line of government: Greece will not serve as a sanctuary for all vulnerable, he said. And: "The problem we face is migration and not refugees." He ignored the fact that most immigrants currently come from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq – and have good prospects of asylum.

  Mitsotakis announced plans to expand border surveillance. Asylum procedures are to be accelerated and the number of repatriations increased. In addition, migrants will in future receive less access to the Greek health system and social benefits.

  

Milos Bicanski / Getty Images
Departure to the mainland: The refugee camp on Lesbos is completely overcrowded

  Migrants, not Refugees: The Greek mood change can hardly be spelled out more clearly than in this sentence by Mitsotakis.

  Many commentators and citizens welcome the government's new, stricter course. Giorgos Toulas is not one of them; He works as a radio host in Thessaloniki, a city in the far north of Greece, not far from the border with northern Macedonia. He also publishes a magazine. "I notice very closely how the word 'refugee' in public discourse is gradually being replaced by the word 'migrant'," he says. Mitsotakis considers sentences like Toulas to be an attempt to turn Greek citizens against immigrants.

  Asylum seekers are already largely isolated in the Greek society, they are visible especially on the islands. Three out of four refugee children do not go to school there, only a few learn Greek. Hardly an asylum seeker finds a job.

  
Main thing out of Greece

  The consequence can be observed in the vicinity of Thessaloniki at a train station. A few miles from the city, dozens of migrants gather here on a hot September morning.

  Yosef Andar, a young Afghan, sits in a wagon of a disused train. He and his companions are waiting for the next freight train. He wants to take them north, where they want to cross the border with northern Macedonia, which is cordoned off by police and employees of the European border agency Frontex. Then they want to continue, via Serbia in the direction of Italy. Above all: away from Greece.

  His father killed the Taliban, says Andar, telling him they've cut off their fingertips. Andar would probably be granted asylum in Greece, his chances would be good. But he still wants to continue. He'll probably never find a job here, even the language is difficult, he says.

  
Video: Thessaloniki – and on

  

  Most Greeks would be glad if people like Andar made it across the border. In a survey conducted in 1982, 82 percent of respondents said that the state should allow fewer or no migrants to enter the country.

  In October 2015, only 62 percent had responded. The month marked the height of the refugee crisis, when 200,000 refugees came to Greece. The difference to today: In 2015, almost all went undisturbed further north. The border was open, and the Greeks knew that.

  Today, at the request of the European Union, the Greek government holds asylum seekers months or even years in the Greek islands. Anyone who arrives on the mainland is prevented from continuing to Northern Europe, and there are now strict controls and patrols at the border. Thousands of refugees still manage to cross the border unnoticed, but it is far more difficult than in 2015. Almost all young men are trying.

  

  Other European countries help the Greeks with money. For example, Germany and Portugal take in some refugees from Greece. However, this is not about noteworthy numbers.

  
"Fear and humanitarian impulses"

  In a study published in April, scientists examined the Greeks' attitude to the refugee issue. Their conclusion: The views of the citizens seemed contradictory at first sight. The Greeks have "fears" about immigrants, but these are mainly related to the poor economic situation.

  Unlike, for example, Turkish citizens, most Greeks hardly perceive refugees as competitors in the labor market. Instead, the discussion revolves above all on scarce state benefits, which Greeks in some places now have to share with refugees. There are increasing complaints about the alleged preference of newcomers and overcrowded hospitals, about their own economic hardship at a time when the consequences of the economic crisis are still clearly felt.

  Vasso Katsarou is one of those Greeks and Greeks who have had enough. "Migration is out of control," she says. Katsarou is a pensioner, she lives in Thessaloniki, but originally comes from Lesbos. On the coast of the island 2015 people waded into the water to help refugees in the last few meters from the sea. More than half of the Greeks had helped newcomers in some way, according to a 2016 survey.

  Many still help, every day. But that is lost in the public debate. Especially on the islands, many people regularly demonstrate against refugee policy. It is these pictures that dominate the news.

  

  The residents are wondering why their home just turned into an open-air prison. "Greece is a poor country with poor people," says Katsarou. "Why can not we spend the money on Greeks, these people do not want to stay here, where will they live?"

  
Ironically, Turkey delivered

  In Greece, it is very well perceived that especially German politicians and government officials at every opportunity insist on sealing the Balkan route. For the Greeks, what sounds like order and migration control for the officials means, above all, that the refugees will not leave.

  

YANNIS KOLESIDIS / EPA-EFE / REX
For many only stopover: A mother with her baby after arriving in the port of Piraeus

  The historically difficult relationship with Turkey does not ease the situation either. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly threatens to send more refugees to Greece. Several million Syrians live in Turkey. Once Erdogan had welcomed them with open arms, but now the mood in his population is tilted. Erdogan is under pressure – and wants to get rid of the Syrians as soon as possible.

  That is another reason why the feeling of helplessness has spread among the Greeks. One feels abandoned to the whims of an unpredictable neighbor and left alone by the EU states. Accordingly, one is now also in Berlin. Last week, Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) traveled to Athens and evoked European solidarity.

  Only a few Greeks believe that the EU and the Greek government can jointly master the situation. The conditions on the islands in the Aegean have long been too precarious: at the refugee camp Moria on Lesbos, which is designed for 3000 migrants, currently home to nearly 13,000 people, as many as last after the establishment of the camp in March 2016.

  On Friday, Prime Minister Mitsotakis spoke in parliament about wanting to build more and larger closed detention centers for uncooperative or forced asylum seekers. They would be a visible sign of the Greek mood change.

  

This article is part of the project Global Society, for which our reporters report from four continents. The project is long-term and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. What is the Global Society Project?

Under the title Global Society, reporters from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe will be reporting on injustices in a globalized world, socio-political challenges and sustainable development. The reportages, analyzes, photo galleries, videos and podcasts appear in the Politics Department of SPIEGEL. The project is long-term and will be supported over three years by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

Are the journalistic contents independent of the foundation?

Yes. The editorial content is created without the influence of the Gates Foundation.

Do other media have similar projects?

Yes. Major European media such as "The Guardian" and "El País" have created similar sections on their news pages with "Global Development" or "Planeta Futuro" with the support of the Gates Foundation.

Was there already similar projects at SPIEGEL ONLINE?

SPIEGEL ONLINE has already implemented two projects in recent years with the European Journalism Center (EJC) and the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: The "Expedition The Day After tomorrow" on Global Sustainability Goals and the journalistic refugee project "The New Arrivals" Several award-winning multimedia reports on the topics of migration and escape have emerged.

Where can I find all the publications on the Global Society?

The pieces can be found at SPIEGEL ONLINE on the topic page Global Society.

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