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27 August 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 5:32am

Essay: the new untouchables

Greece's - and Europe's - treatment of undocumented migrants is a threat to the liberty of us all.

By Spyros Marchetos


The Monaghan Report on the scandalous death of Jimmy Mubenga during his expulsion from Britain highlighted the broader issue of the inhuman treatment of immigrants in Europe. We become more and more accustomed to their demonisation and dehumanisation; even worse, the recent “Go Home” vans campaign in Britain warns that immigrant-bashing might soon become something like official policy. A system in crisis needs scapegoats, and the immigrants come in handy here, being much sexier scapegoats than bankers. Could this be a prelude to a wider authoritarian turn? Just watch what is happening in Greece.

The plight of the newcomers has often been described in words and in film. It does not lack official sanction. Before the elections, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, whose extreme Right past and affiliations are no secret, decried that “our cities have been occupied by illegal immigrants; we will take them back”. This would actually be an act of charity towards Greek children: “Kindergartens are now full of immigrant children, and Greeks cannot enter. This will stop!” he added. Nikos Dendias, Minister for Public Order, put things into perspective: “Immigration is a problem perhaps greater than the [economic crisis]”. Such declarations are not taken by the police as implying that immigrant rights are sacrosanct. As for the judicial and the administrative system, they protect these rights no better. In all, asylum seekers are systematically detained and face inhuman or degrading treatment. This is not leftist rhetoric, but an official statement of the highest EU Court of Justice, which in 2011 put a ban on the deportation of asylum seekers to Greece for exactly that reason.

But did the rot start in Athens? One might fairly say that EU policy played some part here. My bet is that European Council Directive 2002/90/EC, of 28 November 2002, will be viewed by future historians as equivalent to laws chasing those who helped Blacks in the pre-Civil War United States. It calls for prosecuting any “facilitation” of “unauthorised entry, transit and residence” of undocumented persons, also asking for the punishment of anyone who “intentionally assists” them to “enter, or transit across, the territory of a Member State”, or even simply to “reside” there, in some cases. Vague terms like “facilitating” and “assisting” can be interpreted so broadly, that every social interaction with immigrants is criminalised. With the result that racist behaviour becomes a norm, and then racism turns into common sense.

This European Directive was transcribed into Greek law in 2005, making it illegal to help undocumented immigrants in any way. But how can you tell documented from undocumented immigrants? Pretty impossible, isn’t it? Not to mention that many of the so called undocumented or “illegal” immigrants have been living legally in the country for decades, but lost their right of residence because their employer went bust or some law changed. Early this year the highest court annulled a 2010 law that had accorded Greek citizenship to certain categories of immigrant children, thus turning thousands of children into illegal aliens on their eighteenth birthday – children who often know only the Greek language and culture, and have never been abroad. During the last three years, legal immigrants have decreased from 600,000 to 500,000.

Put simply, the current law invites people to avoid immigrants or asylum seekers altogether. If you approach those who look like immigrants, you may “assist” or “facilitate” them. How much is too much? Taxi drivers lost their licences and their vehicles, and were even sent to prison, because they happened to carry undocumented immigrants from the bus station to the city centre. The state effectively asks them to check the documents of their clients, so they stop carrying people who look like less than wealthy foreigners. Taverns have been reported as refusing to serve immigrants, a notion unthinkable until a few years ago. If you have rented your flat to a family of legal immigrants and then one of them becomes illegal, because she lost her job or he turned eighteen, you may face very serious charges. If you look like an immigrant, then, you become untouchable. As far as I know, no doctors have yet been prosecuted for treating untouchables, but the law clearly asks for that. Another extreme Rightist in government, the Health Minister Adonis Georgiades, has already pressed public hospitals to discriminate against immigrants pure and simple.

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Hot Money for Immigrants

When the economic crisis broke out, the Troika intervened to “save” Greece, and now, more than three years later, the country teeters on the edge of disaster. With debt rising steeply and the economy in free fall, structural adjustment policies brew social polarisation and popular mobilisation. Α fully fledged humanitarian crisis now ravages a country that until a few years ago enjoyed one of the highest places in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Trying to divert attention from systemic woes, state and media lash out against immigrants. They have also encouraged the rise of a neo-Nazi party, closely connected to the security apparatus, which openly preaches persecution. Notables of the ruling New Democracy party are pushing to incorporate parts of the terrifying racist program of Golden Dawn into official policy.

The Greek governments of the last three years, while dismantling social protection and destroying living standards, have posed as saving the people from the real enemy, who are of course the immigrants and asylum seekers. They provocatively ignore binding international treaties that protect refugees, and pay no heed to political pressure or court decisions beneficial for them. They built a wall on the border with Turkey instead, and then a series of prison camps (officially, “detention centres”, where inmates are treated worse than in prison, and are even less free). They police the sea with the help of the unaccountable and oft-criticised EU agency Frontex. In tandem with the media, they create scares against possibly HIV-positive foreigners. Protests on the part of the mainstream Left are subdued: defense of the immigrants and asylum seekers is not a vote-winner. The brave judge who ruled that immigrants were right to escape from their inhumane detention remains the exception, almost all his colleagues preferring silence. So the governments stepped up their campaign.

The police operation Xenios Zeus (“Hospitable Zeus”, the Ancient Greek god of hospitality), according to Human Rights Watch “an operation that stigmatizes migrants and asylum seekers”, continues for more than a year now. Until spring 2013 it resulted in the mass arrest, humiliation, and abusing of immigrants, of whom 79,981 proved to be documented, and only 4,811 undocumented. The Hellenic Police, according to its own data, effected 16,580 identity checks in Athens in the two first months of the operation, taking 5,353 persons to its stations, but arresting only 26 of them. Meaning that over 99,5 of those controlled were hassled and victimised without any legal reason. The state and the media however considered the whole operation a resounding success.

Thanks to Xenios Zeus, thousands of undocumented immigrants were summarily sent to the concentration camps, even though EU law asks for detention to be decided on an individual basis, and only as a last resort. But the Greek state and the EU institutions themselves have obviously forgotten this injunction. Samaras and Dendias lose no chance to proclaim that they intend to keep all undocumented immigrants imprisoned until their eventual expulsion, unless they enjoy international protection. One wonders why no EU institutions or even humanitarian organisations protest at these appalling declarations.

A most worrying sign, that points to a systematic policy of dehumanising, is the detention and deportation of unaccompanied minors. “It is unfathomable,” decried shocked eurodeputies last year, “to think that anywhere in the EU, children can be detained in such conditions, crowded into rooms with little exposure to natural light, left with few toilet facilities, with insufficient medical and psychological support, with insufficient access to telephones, education, entertainment or activities or to people who might help them such as lawyers and social workers.” No concrete measures have been taken since to change this policy, a policy that can only be characterised as criminal. Can the institutions that cover, condone  or even manage it – police, judges, administrators – really be trusted with protecting any human rights?

A nice little earner

By now, outcast-hunting does not simply mirror official racism or political expedience; it has also turned into a booming business. “Countering the national problem of immigration is profitable too! It brings in hot European money”, tweeted the Immigration Policy Secretary of New Democracy. The relevant programme’s cost was 350 million euros from 2007 to 2013, and will reach 500 million in 2014, 95 per cent of it covered by funds of the EU Solidarity and Management of Migration Flows framework program. The Health Ministry, on the contrary, has received only 22 million for the pressing medical needs of the refugees. While the problem is being compounded by police sadism and political expediency, its roots can clearly be traced to priorities set in Brussels. Fortress Europe is a European policy, not only a Greek one.

The macho aggression of the public order minister Dendias expresses sentiments dominant in the ruling parties as well as in Golden Dawn. The police round-ups, however, had an unexpected consequence, as they proved that undocumented immigrants are much fewer than rumours have it. Their actual numbers do not justify any panic. Nevertheless they are expedited to a gulag of freshly built camps, soon to be complemented by open air camps on desert islands, where oversight will be impossible and conditions will be even more inhumane.

The Amygdaleza camp, outside Athens, has been called the Greek Guantanamo because its administration does not even pretend to respect the rule of law. Built with EU funds and in a hurry, which meant that money was spent without oversight, it opened before the 2012 elections in order to highlight the rulers’ decisive stance on immigration. Touted by the Minister himself as model, it was immediately denounced by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and soon revealed as substandard, with conditions “unacceptable for an EU member state”. Around two thirds of its almost two thousand prisoners – this is the correct term – are asylum seekers, and many are minors. They suffocate under unacceptable hygienic conditions, living in plastic containers, without heating in the winter or air conditioning in the summer, and lacking sufficient food, clean water or sanitation all year round. Many lack shoes and clothes. Diseases spread. Lives are lost from easily treatable conditions, because no medicines or proper medical support exist. The case last month of Mohammed Hassan, an Afghan, is one example. No contact with relatives or even lawyers is allowed. Some attempt to commit suicide, while desperate hunger strikes are often joined by hundreds of prisoners. More than eight hundred participated in one last April, demanding better conditions, while in another one, going on since last week in Orestiada camp, near the Turkish border, four hundred refuse food and twelve prisoners have stitched their mouths shut.

Inmates suffer not only from neglect, but also from police brutality. There have been repeated reports of torture, sometimes particularly horrible, even of minors. Vicious guard attacks have been documented, occasionally during times of prayer, as well as repeated religious insults. A respectable journalist described a chilling incident in which two guards doused an immigrant with alcohol and set him on fire. No prosecutions followed, but the immigrant was later permitted to leave the camp. The Left protests impotently since it allowed the extreme Right to hijack the discourse on immigration. The left-wing movements Syriza, Antarsya, and others often demand Amygdaleza’s closure, without results. Human rights groups have repeatedly asked permission for teams of doctors and lawyers to visit; they have invariably been rejected. “We understand that they just want to hide what is happening in this place of torture,” explains Petros Constantinou, municipal councillor of Athens and leader of the anti-racist organisation KEERFA.

The inevitable revolt came in August, after the maximum limit of detention for these people, who are accused for nothing beyond entering the country irregularly, was raised from 12 months to 18. Repression was swift and ugly. Special police forces were sent in, using extreme violence and tear gas against whole families. Dozens of arrests followed, while photos made public afterwards show clear signs of torture on the inmates’ bodies, a finding corroborated by many doctors and lawyers who met them at the court. Afterwards all detainees were kept for days locked inside the containers, in conditions of unimaginable heat and squalor, clearly constituting a form of indiscriminate torture. Even police trade unions have expressed horror at these reprisals, and asked for the punishment of high ranking officers. Finally, the revolt forced the sleeping Ombudsman to recognise that the so-called detention centres had in fact turned into prisons. It also spurred Amnesty International into action.

Reactions, however, brought no change to government policy; if anything, they hardened it. Representatives of leftist parties and human rights organisations who tried to contact the Amygdaleza inmates after the riot were harassed and finally kept outside the camp. A Syriza deputy was allowed entry but could not meet the prisoners, who remain for weeks now isolated day and night inside their plastic containers, in hellish temperatures. A second visit was even more unsuccessful, since no one was allowed in. The Human Rights section of Syriza cites as probable reasons the authorities’ vindictiveness towards immigrants and refugees, and their possible effort to conceal signs of torture. International organisations show once more unexplainable indifference for this issue.

Could all these measures, procedures, and installations be used tomorrow against Greek citizens as well? I thought such a fear exaggerated until last July, when my optimistic reading of legal and institutional reality landed me in the cells of the Hellenic Police. My crime was accompanying to Thessaloniki airport a sixteen year old Somali girl. Without a family, having never entered an aeroplane before, and knowing minimal Greek, she needed help to board her flight for Paris, where she could integrate. She was prevented from boarding, and I went to the police station to inquire, together with a friend. We were unceremoniously arrested and charged with “facilitating” and “assisting”, even though the girl was legally residing in the country.

Trafficking sounds like a bizarre pastime for university professors, or members of the executive board of Thessaloniki Lawyers’ Αssociation, which is the official capacity of my friend. But we were officially designated as possible traffickers and sent to trial. The police and the prosecutor who accused us possibly knew that traffickers do habitually visit police stations to enquire about the fate of the trafficked. Or perhaps they thought resorting to trafficking a rational option for professors after our wages were slashed. Eventually another prosecutor dropped the heaviest charges and set us free, but had he done otherwise, I would have automatically lost my job according to a new law. One may be forgiven for thinking that exactly this was the intended message. You mix with refugees, you end up on the dole and possibly in prison.

An impossible democracy?

A quite different message is being sent to the perpetrators of countless hate crimes against refugees and immigrants: in a word, welcome. Greek police and courts rarely convict any of them. You kill a refugee, nobody cares. More than fifty immigrant deaths went unpunished, uninvestigated and even unheeded in the decade ending in 2009. Afterwards, during the economic crisis, their numbers soared. For example, in August a group of neo-Nazis knifed two young Pakistanis in Heraklion, Crete. They did not even dare visit the hospital, while the police refuse to investigate the bodyguard of a Golden Dawn deputy, believed to be the group’s leader. Occasionally the state itself demonstrates that immigrant life is worth little. For example, three Albanian prison escapees were shot and killed during a huge police operation last month, that included the illegal use of army units. They were given no chance to surrender. Other victims die in state custody; Amnesty International recently protested at the impunity enjoyed by the administrators of the camps, even in cases of loss of life.

Of course, it is hard to believe that a country that until recently enjoyed stability and mild political manners took this turn. Could this sadistic treatment of immigrants presage the treatment of Greeks tomorrow? Could it really be but the thin end of a wedge, a lightly veiled official policy? It certainly is highly profitable for those in power, in political and also financial terms. The hell all around us is being organised from above, systematically; and curtailing everybody’s rights is part of it. The existing legal framework destroys everyone’s freedom, because you are not a free person when you are being kept apart from the people around you; when you cannot legally host them, dine them, or drink a glass in the bar with them. Or even take them to the hospital when needed.

Similar liberty-killing laws exist all over Europe, even if they are normally used with greater discretion than in Greece. They have practically turned undocumented and even, sometimes, documented immigrants into an underclass without rights, to be shunned and avoided by citizens. In the Greek case, psephologists contend that their application gave a huge boost to Golden Dawn. It is exactly such daily practices that create racism, and not any abstract ideas; so we can conclude that racism is being produced and reproduced by our own laws. And this is known to those who make them, on national and international level.

But creating prison camps for immigrants presages direct attacks to citizens’ liberties in more immediate ways too. There are indications that, if the government has its way, other vulnerable or undesirable groups will follow suit. Last March more than a hundred drug addicts were rounded up by police in central Athens and sent temporarily to the Amygdaleza camp, in an operation condemned by the Greek Human Rights Association and assorted NGOs. They were illegally subjected to blood tests and other medical examinations, and reportedly tortured, a claim that human rights organisations were unable to check because they were once more denied access to the camp. Furthermore, it seems that around Amygdaleza a “dirty job” police network has formed that already targets another vulnerable group, the homeless. Police transfer dozens of homeless from central Athens to this area, after confiscating their belongings, and then leave them there without any care. The whole operation is completely illegal, but temporarily beneficial for the image of Athens city centre. And it also gives police the habit of cruelly treating the most vulnerable, plus the exhilarating feeling of practically being above the law.

Can we now assess the larger picture arising out of all these worrying developments? They might confirm, first of all, that the traditional liberal nation state, with its promises of political representation, freedom, and equality before the law, tends to disappear, like liberalism itself. This proposition is not original, having been formulated long time ago by radical luminaries such as Immanuel Wallerstein. The limited democracies that we had on a national scale are being replaced by supra-national bureaucratic mechanisms enjoying no real legitimacy and often hated, like the arrogant overlords of the Troika in Greece.

Also, what used to be the unitary, even if only in theory, body politic of the nation, is now being dismembered. A tripartite formation appears more and more clearly, like in the Ancien Regime that Europe knew before the French Revolution. Next to the disenfranchised underclass and the pauperised middle class appear the new seigneurs, a moneyed aristocracy that rises more and more clearly above the law. In order to save these super-rich from bankruptcy and déclassement, the current austerity policies are being implemented all over Europe. It is strategically important for these people to ensure a conflict between those who have nothing to lose in the present system, and those who still have a little to defend. So they have every reason to cultivate racism. As Silvia Federici showed in her majestic study Caliban and the Witch, a similar manoeuvre had been effected in the sixteenth century, when capitalism took off. At that time men had been placed against women, and a  particularly malignant form of patriarchy emerged through witch-hunts and legalised rape. Now it is natives versus immigrants. And the apprentice sorcerers have started work in Greece.

Here national tradition plays some role. In Greece the police, almost half of whom in Athens may have voted for Golden Dawn in the last elections, are being left free to impose its program on the streets. The judiciary refuse to uphold constitutional guarantees and basic rights, allow the neo-Nazis to run amok, and legitimise the modern gulag that is euphemistically being called “detention centres”. The administrators organise the creation of a Greek version of apartheid. The governing parties, the same ones that have ruled between them for almost forty years now and bankrupted the country, merrily take political responsibility for this nightmare. And the unelected and unaccountable Troika, whose ridiculous diagnoses and evil recipes sustain all this mess, prepares to impose them next on the other defaulting states of the European periphery.

A huge social and political experiment is now under way in Greece, whose outcome will influence developments all around Europe. For the first time structural adjustment to the needs of the capitalist world system is being imposed on a rich and developed country, well integrated with the core of the Eurozone. Those profiting from it shift the blame on the weakest – on immigrants and refugees. They look successful for the time being; the waves of radicalisation and mobilisation that followed the imposition of Troika policies in 2010-2012 seem to have broken on the promontory of racism. The state, the rich and the media energetically cultivate now notions and behaviours that they professed to abhor just a few years ago, imposing racism and supporting Golden Dawn in all possible ways; they need the people confused and neo-Nazis as auxilliaries in the eventuality of civil war, for which they are preparing. On the other hand, the mainstream Left remains mesmerised by dreams of European solidarity and of a comme il faut exit from the crisis, without any real conflict, and particularly without liberation from the European Central Bank.

Pauperisation, destabilisation, and all the rest of Greece’s misfortunes may visit other countries as soon as the financial bubble bursts there too and difficult choices are to be made. It remains to be seen who will be the first to draw proper lessons from the uncomfortable facts.

Political elites in many countries may play the cards of racism or the far right, especially if they prove winning in Greece. The building up of an authoritarian legal framework, the demonisation of foreigners, and the cultivation of extremists are not accidents, but logical steps in that direction. But what can the Left do? One might bet that it should, first of all, try to understand the depth of the current crisis, and not pretend that a return to 2007 is either possible or desirable. It could also prepare for polarisation, and not be surprised if it saw democratic guarantees like the rule of law melt into thin air. It should avoid all concessions on racism, since they only make repression and fragmentation easier and help the far right mobilise. And certainly it should make life as difficult as possible for governments like the one of Samaras and Dendias. Showing solidarity to the immigrants and refugees in Greece might be a good start here.

Spyros Marchetos teaches history of ideas at the University of Thessaloniki. He is the author of How did I Kiss Mussolini: The First Steps of Greek Fascism (2006)

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