How Greece Went From Welcoming To Demonizing Refugees

Locals in the Greek island of Lesbos went from being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for welcoming refugees five years ago to hurling racist slurs today.
Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesbos island, Greece. Volunteers (life rescue team – with yellow-red clothes) from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms help the refugees. – October 30, 2015 (Ggia/Creative Commons)

Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey to Skala Sykamias, Lesbos island, Greece. Volunteers (life rescue team – with yellow-red clothes) from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms help the refugees. – October 30, 2015 (Ggia/Creative Commons)

Vasiliki Tsagkroni is a comparative politics scholar from Leiden University. 

On March 1st, a video made its appearance on the media. The location: the village of Thermi, in the Greek island of Lesbos. In the video, one can clearly observe a boat, full of refugees, exhausted after traveling endangered for days in the Aegean Sea, but they are not alone. Inland, a group of local islanders are trying to prevent them from disembarking on the island, casting curses and using racist and sexist language, shouting and yelling ‘go back to Turkey’. This has been one of the most horrifying episodes Greece has ever experienced since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015.

This hateful rhetoric, systematically reared, is only one of several incidents in the areas around the maritime and land borders of the Greek territory. But it is not just hate speech. In many of these border locations, locals take the initiative to guard the border along with using violence to those who try to cross. Apart from blocking the arrival, as seen above, they have also beaten up reporters and journalists, recording the events at the scene, while organizing patrols through the island of Lesbos and threatening and bullying NGO volunteers and solidarity islanders that sympathize with the refugees.

It was only five years ago, in the peak of the refugee crisis, where locals from the same island were nominated for the Nobel peace prize. The narrative at the time was talking about how these islanders have been in the frontline, assisting and rescuing people from the sea, showing emblematic solidarity to the refugees arriving at the Greek borders. The situation as described above, as the latest events show, has clearly changed. The image of the welcoming islanders has been replaced by the discourse of exclusion and restricting immigration.

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Even with the former government of Syriza, the state management of the refugee issue was not very effective. As a result of the former and current government of ND, the refugee population is still located in many host centers in the islands like the one of Lesbos, asylum procedures are constrained by state bureaucracies and living conditions in the camps are the least, unsatisfactory and inhumane. And all this, just a few days after Turkey announcing that could no longer enforce the 2016 deal with the EU, on preventing migrants from entering Europe, and as a result, Greece suspending all asylum applications. But is it just politics that impacted the shift of behavior and contributed to this change?

Emma Mc Cluskey, in her book From Righteousness to Far Right. An anthropological rethinking of critical security studies offers an additional explanation. By doing ethnographic research on the village of Öreby, a place that welcomed refugees, and had locals engaging in the process of them settling in Sweden, Mc Cluskey monitors a shifting of the behavior of villagers, gradually slipping from an attitude of solidarity to more far-right narratives. What Mc Cluskey proposes is that in order to explain this, one needs to analyze practices in a micro, day-to-day level. The political-anthropological approach of Mc Cluskey provides a new insight of the essence of securitization of migrants and refugees, through the notion of righteousness. This allows a layer of analysis that has been so far ignored by the majority of literature on the subject and moves away from the traditional approaches that place politics and institutions at the center, in order to explain the embrace of far-right narratives by part of the population.

This extra layer of analysis has the potential to provide a very thorough interpretation of the behavior of locals in places where refugees have been settled or hosted, in order to understand securitization. This, along with the formal politics of institutions can provide a clear image of how narratives of the far-right have been constructed, implemented and replicated in a three multi-level analysis. And the case of the island of Lesbos, would be even more interested to explore.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Greece / Radical Right