Refugees are currently reaching Greece’s border with Turkey in large numbers after the Turkish state withdrew all border enforcement. As the Greek army violently attacks migrants at the border, the EU is preparing to mobilise its own border agency Frontex. Kleanthis Antoniou, a member of ANTARSYA, demonstrates how the recent events relate to the political and international context.
Thousands of people have reached Turkey’s border with Greece in the last few days, desperately hoping to be able to travel onward into Europe and to relative safety. The Greek army has responded with a display of brutal violence and revoked the right to apply for asylum. In Athens, police are assaulting and arresting people and evicting squats in the Exarcheia neighbourhood, where the community has organised to support refugees. The situation for migrants in Greece was already desperate, but the government is now dramatically escalating its attacks.
Since Sunday 1 March, the army has authorisation to use live ammunition in the grey zone between Greece and Turkey. On 2 March, Muhamad al-Arab was shot dead by rubber bullets by the Greek army. He is one more name among the thousands who have fled war only to die in ‘peaceful’ territories.
A glimmer of hope in the darkness is the announcement that the border forces made up of army infantry recruits have declared that they will not open fire against anyone. However, there are other permanent army divisions that are already securing the area. The EU has also announced that the European border agency Frontex will deploy forces, while the head of the European Commission has praised Greece as the ‘European shield’.
Syrian refugees facing the EU border regime
As a result of the terror of the Syrian conflict that began in 2011, a wave of more than a million refugees fleeing the area broke every border in the Balkans and reached central Europe – achieving the impossible with the power of sheer numbers. This wave led to the creation of the first large refugee camps in Greece, but also brought about a wave of solidarity. From the rural countryside to the urban centres, the amount of materials collected to support people’s immediate needs was tremendous; in many cases the materials were used for different causes because there was more than was needed.
At that time, the European Union already had rules in place to ‘regulate’ refugee flows with the treaty known as the Dublin Regulation, which gave refugees the right to seek asylum only in the first country of the EU that they entered, thus providing a framework for controlling refugees’ movement.
In 2016, the EU went further and struck a €6 billion deal with Turkey that converted the Turkish state into another barrier even before refugees reach the EU border. Under the deal, migrants can be deported to Turkey after reaching Greece and Turkey acts to prevent refugees from attempting to reach Europe. By 2020, just under four million refugees were gathered in Turkey, while the Turkish military continues its operations in Syria.
— Seebrücke Berlin (@SeebrueckeB) March 3, 2020
The immediate cause of the current crisis is Turkey’s decision to renege on the deal and open its borders with Greece and Bulgaria. No one thinks that this decision was made with the welfare of refugees in mind; the aim is to put pressure on the EU to support Turkey’s role in the war in Syria. As the Turkish Prime Minister has not yet gotten what he wants from the EU, directing refugees to the borders was a predictable reaction. It is a move that he has threatened he is capable of many times. Of course, the primary reason that refugees have decided to cross borders and risk their lives in the first place is to flee the ravages of imperialist war. Russia and Turkey have now negotiated a ceasefire in Idlib, but this will mean little for those who have already been displaced.
In spring 2019, 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was found under the Mediterranean between Turkey and Cyprus. France’s Total and Italy’s ENI have secured rights over the area and will start drilling in a few months under military supervision. In January 2020, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Israel signed a deal for a subsea pipeline project that will carry gas from Israeli and Cypriot waters to Crete and into Europe’s gas networks via Italy.
There is intense competition in the region around the Turkish state regarding control over territory and energy resources. Turkey has been excluded from the subsea pipeline deal, despite the fact the project is taking place only a few miles from Turkish shores. In February, the EU imposed sanctions on two individuals over their role in Turkey’s drilling off the coast of Cyprus. Control over reserves of fossil fuels is an almost permanent feature of competition between states, causing cycles of conflict and climate breakdown.
Repression of refugees in Greece
The south of the Balkans has long been a route to the ‘peaceful’ West for those travelling from the Middle East and North Africa. The movement in Greece has been acclimatising to this situation since the 1990s, when the first bonds between the Left and the Pakistani community were built. The decade of the 2000s saw many mobilisations with participation from migrant workers, leading to a bright moment in 2011 when 300 refugees started a hunger strike that made the State bend and allow them to travel further into Europe.
After the 2008 financial crisis and the 2009 sovereign debt crisis, migrant workers were put under intense pressure by both New Democracy, the party of the ruling class and the petit bourgeoisie who own farmland where migrants work under hideous conditions, and the Nazi party Golden Dawn for whom migrants were an easier target. There were many mobilisations in response to incidents where migrants were beaten and often heavily injured. Many migrant workers died at the hands of the Golden Dawn party; these were deaths that never saw the light of publicity, apart from that of Sahzat Lukman in 2013.
Meanwhile, the camps on the islands were holding increasing numbers of refugees. Lesvos and Chios are the two islands that currently have the largest numbers of refugees. Moria is the most famous camp in the islands, for all the wrong reasons. The islands used to be considered more democratic than the mainland and there had been a tradition of showing solidarity to people arriving by boat – until now. The government has failed to handle the situation on the islands even on their own terms and seem to have decided to allow the appalling conditions to persist. They will lose the islanders’ political support but maintain overall political control.
Attitudes towards refugees have often swung in favour of refugees but have equally often been against them. Recent demonstrations on the islands of Chios and Lesvos against the camps may seem like a progressive uprising from below to the untrained eye; the people were taking the streets against the main political parties and even calling their actions a ‘strike’. The reality is that these are racist rallies that have emboldened attacks on refugees. Even the majority of leftist organisations couldn’t decipher the character of these demonstrations, tailing the racist right rather than determining their approach according to the necessary direction that a movement in solidarity with refugees should take.
The disastrous policy of the supposedly left-wing SYRIZA government, which instead of providing aid for the lives of refugees, isolated them and brought further depression to their population, is followed by the policy of the new right-wing government which will do nothing but isolate them even more. The proposals on the table are closed camps and moving people to isolated islands, which was once common practice against communists. Overall austerity has brought locals to the limit, and as there is no concrete left voice providing a way out of the current scenario, the Golden Dawn party came out of the shadows; their poisonous ideology has heightened the level of racism all over the country. It is a shameful development, especially since people in these parts of Greece are all descendants of refugees themselves and their behaviour until now was exemplary.
The limits of material aid
Internal opposition may not be enough to change the policy of the Greek state, but the government cares about its international image. Greece projects an image of itself as the modern leader of the region against the conservative oligarchy in the neighbouring country.
Refugees face a political problem. That means that apart from responding to people’s immediate material needs, their struggle also demands political action. Their issues are fundamental and universal for the oppressed in any country. That is why a movement in their defence is a movement towards the liberation of all.
Common ground between refugees and those who stand with them across Europe must be found in a movement that will oppose war and will fight for the emancipation of the deprived everywhere. A movement in solidarity against the border regime must appear across the countries of the EU and take a stand against arms dealers and fossil capital, in defence of the oppressed and exploited.
The situation at Greece’s borders stands as a reminder of what borders really mean, who they are meant to divide and what their purpose is – they are borders for those who have nothing and are in acute need. The left must unite behind the demand of opening the borders and providing safe passage for refugees.
Two protests have been called in London outside the Greek Embassy:
- Saturday 7 March 2-4pm: Fortress Europe – A protest outside the Greek Embassy
- Tuesday 10 March 6pm: Solidarity with Migrants and Anti-Authoritarians in Greece!
To donate directly to refugees facing down Europe’s borders, donate to Refugee Lifeboat who provide material aid to people in Calais.