By Alex Johnson
According to Greek mythology as the beautiful but mortal Adonis bled to death in the arms of Aphrodite, the Goddess wept tears of small red hearts, or strawberries. If you’ve ever tasted a Greek strawberry, it most likely came from the fruit fields of Manolada. The vast rural plain in the western Peloponnese produces almost all Greek strawberries, 70% of which are exported to Europe. Once again in Greece the crimson fruit has become associated with blood. In April 2013 some 200 migrant strawberry pickers gathered to demand back-pay for their previous six months of work. Instead of paying the €22 a day the pickers had been promised, the farmers pointed their shotguns at the crowd and opened fire hitting 28 and badly injuring four Bangladeshis.
Just over a year later in the nearby industrial port of Patras the city’s court freed the farmers involved to the tears and dismay of the protesters outside. The situation for migrants in Greece has worsened in the years of crisis. The case of Manolada pickers is only one example of the systemic mistreatment, abuse and oppression facing migrants in the crisis riddled country.
The last six years has seen the Greek state stretched to its limit, unable to provide basic services under the weight of austerity. War and unrest in nearby Syria, Libya and Egypt has seen an influx of refugees to Greece conflating strains on the asylum system. The fascist Golden Dawn party has vocally and brutally targeted immigrants amid a climate of right-wing rhetoric. The anti-immigrant backlash from politicians and the police has seen migrants murdered, detained and scapegoated without recrimination.
Greece is at a turning point. Battles with Brussels and Berlin over the servicing of the country’s debt may dominate the headlines but back home some tentative steps are being taken to address migrant issues. On the 25th of January to a backdrop of renditions of Bella Ciao and a sea of red flags the leftist Syriza party ascended to government, teaming up with the populist right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL). Syriza were elected on a message of hope, not just to the unemployed and growing ranks of Greece’s poor but also to migrants.
Outside the Syriza tent on Klathmonos square on election night a young Syrian twenty-something who declined to give his name said: “My papers aren’t in order so I can’t find work. I’m scared of the police and I can’t return home. Syriza say they will help me to leave Greece to Germany or Austria.” But in a system plagued by hostility towards migration what steps is the new government taking to improve the situation for the most vulnerable?
In 2012 the Greek police began operation Xenios Zeus, designed to sweep-up irregular migrants from the streets, detain and discourage them from remaining in the country. The operation saw police arrest any migrant whose papers were not in order and hold them in detention centres. It is estimated 45,500 people were apprehended by the police in 2014 through Xenios Zeus. Human Rights Watch condemned the policy for “ethnic profiling and arbitrary deprivation of liberty”. In February it was announced the authorities plan to ditch the controversial policy while also closing down migrant detention centres.
The new Deputy Minister for Immigration Policy Tasia Christodoulopoulou, who made the announcement, is a former human rights layer well versed in migrant’s rights. She told Al Jazeera: “We will close detention camps where, right now, around 4,500 people are held in inhumane conditions and for which Greece has been condemned. We will stop rounding up people indiscriminately and deporting them to countries with which we have no diplomatic relations.”
Detention centres have been at the heart of the furore surrounding Greek policy towards migrants. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles who visited the Fylakio detention centre in the Evros region in December describe the situation there as “extremely bad”: “The dormitories in Fylakio Detention Centre are large cells, behind bars, containing between 50 to 60 bunk beds, access to the courtyard of the detention centre is limited to 3 hours a day, weather permitting.”
After a string of suicides in the infamous Amydaleza detention centre Deputy Minister for Citizen Protection Yiannis Panousis visited the compound to declare: “We are done with detention centres”. Amydaleza which has been the scene of hunger strikes and protests is being evacuated at a rate of 30 people a day with priority given to asylum seekers and those who have been detained for longer than six months.
The release of detainees is promising but questions loom over what happens next. When freed, migrants from Amygdaleza are being driven to Omonoia square in downtown Athens. Kathimerini, the Greek newspaper, spoke to detainees being released to the square with nothing but a paper authorizing them to stay in Greece for six months and a list of phone numbers for NGOs. “Where am I supposed to go? I don’t know,” questioned a 28 year-old freshly released Egyptian.
Omonoia has a reputation for being one of the rougher parts of downtown Athens where drug dealers and homeless people reside in the shadowy fringes of the square. When challenged about the releases at Omonoia square by Alpha TV Christodoulopoulou stated: “We left them in Omonia because there is cheap food, their compatriots, the metro… …if the Athenians have an issue, the ministry [of Immigration] has many corridors.”
Christodoulopoulou has pledged to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants, ending the legal ambiguity facing children born in Greece to undocumented parents. “Syriza has committed to grant Greek citizenship to all those children that were born and raised in Greece, the so-called second generation of migrants.” A move which could provide 100,000 youth with Greek passports. However, the legislative timetable for such a bill is unclear with the economic situation taking precedence. Furthermore, Syriza and ANEL have agreed that they will vote separately on issues of migration requiring support for such a bill to come from one or both of the centre-left parties of Pasok or To Potami.
Greece’s migration situation is exacerbated by the Dublin Regulation, which essentially requires migrants to apply for asylum in the EU country in which they first enter before they may travel and live in other EU states. The much derided policy has put additional strain on the crisis countries of Europe’s southern frontier. In frustration with the Dublin system Deputy Minister for Citizen Protection Yiannis Panousis recently exclaimed (in a personal capacity, it must be noted): “If Europeans do not understand what we say, then let us break the Schengen Agreement and give documents to 300,000 immigrants who will scatter around Europe.”
According to Amnesty International Greek border patrols have been using push-backs, as a method of reducing the number of refugees arriving in Greece. The practice, which is illegal under EU law involves patrols rounding up refugees in Greek waters and delivering them to Turkey and other countries. “There are cases where they [refugees] have been stripped naked, had their possessions stolen, and even held at gunpoint before being pushed back across the border to Turkey” said Amnesty’s John Dalhuisen, Programme Director of Europe and Central Asia.
While granting citizenship, clamping down on police brutality and closing detention centres is welcome Greece has a challenge on its hand to improve the situation for migrants. The government needs long-term planning and money to assist the undocumented. The years of crisis, the influx of refugees and anti-immigrant rhetoric has exposed cracks in the state and society that allow abuse and unfair treatment to perpetuate. Only last week it emerged that a 29 year-old Egyptian baker on the island of Salamania was kidnapped and tortured for 19 hours by his boss and the local deputy mayor. When he escaped the police arrested him for not having the correct paperwork.
Greece is still facing financial ruin and unable to properly process and assist the influx of migrants and refugees looking for a way into the EU. Until the Dublin Regulation is reformed and other EU countries begin to share the distribution of people, Athens will be unable to provide the assistance and protection migrants and refugees require. The climate of racism that led to blood in the strawberry fields will not wash away anytime soon and until it does Greece and her migrants need all the help they can get.
Alex Johnson is a freelance journalist. He writes on Greece, corruption and European politics. He tweets here: @Ah_johns