Illustration: Fanis Kollias
Translation: Gigi Papoulias
In June 2020, recognized refugee families, most of which had just arrived in Athens from the Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, were unable to find housing and remained homeless for days, sleeping in Athens’ Victoria Square. June 1, 2020, marked the implementation of the Greek law which terminates the provision of shelter for 11,237 refugees and beneficiaries via the ESTIA housing program.
“They arrived at Victoria Square, as others had come before them about five years ago. Back then we had said we were caught off guard. Now what do we say? I was there today”, wrote George Tsiakalos, Professor of Pedagogy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in a Facebook post dated June 14.
George Tsiakalos, along with his wife, Sigrid Maria Muschik, have been providing support to these families not only in recent months, but continuously − since the early days of what became known as the “refugee crisis”.
Before his professorship at Aristotle University, Tsiakalos was a professor at German universities; he has written many books, mainly on the subjects of racism, social exclusion and pedagogy; he has participated in the EU High Level Group of Experts on Literacy; and his important work has contributed to ensuring the right of Roma children to formal education.
George Tsiakalos has dedicated himself to defending the rights of asylum seekers arriving in Greece. Since 2015, he has been traveling around the country, highlighting cases of human rights violations, writing and commenting publicly, while, at the same time, his home has always been open to people in need.
We had the opportunity to meet Tsiakalos and, among other things, talk about the reality of those who were abandoned in Victoria Square and the thousands of asylum seekers who remain trapped in Greece, (when they should be in other European countries); the discriminatory policies of the European Union at the expense of mobile populations; and about “early deportations”, a term Tsiakalos uses to describe the EU asylum system, which aims to prevent the arrival of refugee populations on the continent.
The issue of refugees in our country, and in Europe, is at a critical juncture. In Greece, the “decongestion of the islands” lead to the “occupation” of Victoria Square by people coming from the islands. In other words, thousands of people who received asylum in Greece have now been forced into homelessness.
In Europe, the German Presidency has promised to solve the issue, and so has the EU Commission. You’ve been closely following developments for years. Could you explain where we’re at currently, and how things are developing?
The answer is that we’re at the most worrying turning point for Greece and for Europe, since the so-called “refugee crisis” began. Worrying, because for the first time, the governments of European countries are questioning the basic principles, values and international treaties that have characterized societies since the post-WWII era. And, unfortunately, we see Greece at the forefront of these developments.
On the subject of the “occupation” of squares in Athens by homeless refugees from the islands (usually families who have nowhere to stay) − based on the information we have, often the authorities on the islands had promised these people that confirmed housing was available to them in Athens.
In the end, what happens to these families? And what’s the Greek government’s agenda?
From the very first day, I was with the homeless families sleeping in Victoria Square. I first noticed them by chance, when I was passing by the square. There was a total of 48 people, eight families, many young children, one of them a 14-day-old infant. The next day another 30-35 people arrived. Some said that “the refugees have occupied the square,” but the correct wording is “the refugees were abandoned on the streets, by the services that forced them to leave Moria promising that they would be housed in apartments in Athens.”
In other words, the government sent an “international” message that it was finally transferring refugees from the islands to mainland Greece, but what the government did not do was take into consideration the most basic measures for the housing of these refugees. I don’t know if this is due to a lack of coordination between the services or it was an act done on purpose, which is intended to show that the problem is supposedly no longer manageable. The latter may be the case and is part of the government’s agenda.
Thus, what exactly do you believe is the intention?
The current government’s refugee policy has gone through two phases. In the beginning, when the current government came to power, they stated that the problems could be easily dealt with, as long as there was a willingness for change, which, the government claimed, was something that didn’t exist in the previous government.
First, its policy aimed to reduce the time it took to process asylum applications, and then undertake immediate deportation of those who are not granted asylum. Secondly, the policy aimed at the immediate decongestion of the islands by transferring refugees to various locations on the mainland. They quickly realized that neither could the processing time be reduced as much as they had anticipated, nor was the deportation process as easy as they had imagined.
On the contrary, they were right about the possibility of decongestion on the islands. Mr. Koumoutsakos, as the relevant minister, began the process of transferring refugees to the mainland, and stated on September 6, 2019 that the understanding that refugees should remain on the islands was imposed by the joint Europe-Turkey declaration did not correspond to fact. However, while reactions on the mainland were minimal and insignificant and were dealt with quickly and effectively, this policy was abandoned suddenly and without explanation and, instead of tackling the issue with appropriate measures, the refugees began to be seen as “invaders” – with this being reflected in practice.
Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric sets the tone for corresponding behaviors. In this case, too, presenting the refugee issue as a threat and not as a humanitarian challenge is a conscious political choice, not only of the Greek government, but also of the governments of many other European countries, as well as the EU itself. In this context, the image of homeless refugees in a square is used by governments to establish the view that the problem is no longer manageable, and that it supposedly makes sense to generate and fuel negative reactions from locals.
Thus, even the re-emergence of the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn and others like them, under the guise of “outraged citizens,” precedingly acquires elements of legitimacy. Because of what happened in the past, we already know where this can lead, the question is whether the government has learned its lesson from the past.
What’s your view on reactions such as the rally of “outraged citizens” in Victoria Square, this past June?
One could discuss them, if in fact the “outraged citizens” were locals from the neighborhood and not far-right extremists and Nazis from all over Athens, and if the protestors actually addressed those responsible for the situation.
What’s the truth? On Lesvos, the refugees were told, were promised, that they would settle in apartments in Athens, but they were deceived and abandoned on the street, and for three days no authority showed up to take responsibility and provide a solution. The neighborhood locals were the ones to come to their aid, by providing necessary items, and quickly setting up four portable toilets, at their own expense, to keep the square clean. When an infant developed a high fever, they arranged for a doctor to come, and transported the family to the hospital. The relevant public services appeared only on the fourth day to record the needs.
After an intervention by the City Council of Athens, transferring the refugees to Eleonas camp (where supposedly there was room for them) was offered as a solution. But it turned out that the refugees were deceived again. This has been the situation from day one and it has only continued.
In your opinion, what are some immediate solutions?
The previous government had already begun to close the housing centers in mainland Greece and to create new ones on the islands. We know that the proposal for the refugees to remain on the islands and suffer, came from McKinsey, the private consulting firm which was commissioned by the EU to develop a proposal on tackling the refugee crisis − with a fee of one million euros.
We know what the tragic consequences of this policy were. Decongestion of the islands must be a primary undertaking, and this must be done in conjunction with a comprehensive housing program on the mainland. To this purpose, a program such as the ESTIA program is suitable – the renting of apartments, tourist units that are empty due to the pandemic, and, if necessary, modernizing some of the existing housing centers. It would be more beneficial if empty apartments which are owned by municipalities, (wherever, of course they exist), were used for this purpose.
The City of Athens has a lot of apartments which came into its possession by EFKA (Social Security Fund). But the government decided to set up three new reception centers on leased land on the islands of Samos, Leros and Kos, although they claim they are interested in decongestion of the islands. The funding that was calculated and approved for this is €132,680,000. If this money, or at least a part of it, was given to the municipalities to renovate and equip the empty apartments and buildings they own, these houses could be used both now and later, not only by refugees but also by Greek families in need.
The City Council of Athens has already adopted a relevant resolution. The EU funding used for renting apartments will be given to the Municipalities, which would benefit the citizens. This can be implemented immediately, offering a solution to the pressing issues. But obviously it’s a political decision not to implement any of these solutions.
But the housing problem also stems from another government act: many refugees remain here under Greece’s responsibility, although they have been accepted by other countries. It concerns those refugees for which, under the Dublin III Regulation, another country is responsible for them. And these cases number in the several thousand.
Do you mean that they’ve already been accepted by another country or that they should be accepted by another country, and yet Greece forces them to remain here?
We oblige them to stay here, at least for longer than necessary. The Dublin III Regulation stipulates that the asylum application submitted by the members of the same family in Greece is transferred and decided upon in the country where another family member had previously applied for asylum.
This is usually called “family reunification” but at its core is an act that makes it easier for asylum authorities to process requests by combining information from all family members. In these cases, the asylum application is made here, it is transferred electronically to the other country, which must respond within two months. If they get a positive response, the refugee family can leave immediately. From 2015 until now, Greece has systematically delayed all these processes.
According to the data from the Greek Asylum Service, in February 2020 the number of refugees who had been accepted by other countries but had not been transferred yet, was 3,229 people. Allow me to point out that once the other country has accepted the request, it cannot do anything to prevent the transfer, unless a period of six months has elapsed, in which case they must remain in Greece. This has happened in the past, I hope it will not happen in the future.
In other words, over 3,000 people, who are currently in Greece, can leave immediately?
Yes, if Greece gives them the right to do so, in accordance to the Dublin Regulation they are given priority, to organize their own trip, declare it to the Dublin Unit, and obtain the document for their free passage. But let’s not get into details.
The point is that the delay does not only happen after the acceptance by the other country, it also happens in all previous phases. There are thousands of cases that fall under the Dublin Regulation, but have been given a set time to apply for asylum by the end of 2021 or later. Although their application will not be judged in Greece, but will be transferred to another country and then they will be able to leave quickly, they are detained in our country for more than two years, artificially increasing the number of refugees.
Isn’t this practice strange? The Greek governments are interested for Greece not to have many refugees; it would be logical to facilitate the fastest possible transfer to other countries of those who so wish and are accepted by them.
Many people in our country find it difficult to believe that this is happening systematically, or when they accept this fact, they seek to find the cause in the bureaucracy or blackmail by other countries, with the government caving due to our deep economic crisis.
Fact is, it is an implementation of the official policy of the European Union called “deterrence policy”, which means taking measures to deter those who in the future would seek to come to Europe. A few years ago, a prominent member of the ruling party described this policy: “They have to do worse here than in their own countries. Hell must be like paradise in relation to what they will endure here.” Of course, this policy does not have the effect the government is seeking and for a simple reason.
There are hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants and refugees in Europe, living apart from their families. In all countries there are laws that provide for the possibility and the right for visas to be issued to family members for the purpose of family reunification. However, since 2016, the relevant national laws have been poorly implemented or in practice suspended. Germany is a prime example: In 2016, it completely suspended enforcement of this law for two years and then decided for the number of people to be issued the relevant visa, not to exceed one thousand per month. Therefore it will take 10-15 years for them to be able to make use of this right they already have today.
This is the reason thousands of women with babies and young children choose the perilous voyage across the sea and endure all this suffering. The deterrent policy does not deter anyone, because the decision to immigrate specifically for this category of people is a singular opportunity to protect their family, an institution that is otherwise praised most by conservative politicians.
We’ve heard that lately Germany has been responding negatively to Greece’s requests in relation to Dublin. What’s happening with this issue?
Germany has no possibility of responding negatively to the cases I mentioned, namely the reunification of spouses and minor children. But the Dublin Regulation also covers cases of reunification for humanitarian reasons, such as illness. Such cases are determined by the assessment of the service, and since the competent minister in Germany is Horst Seehofer, this assessment is often scandalously negative.
Judging by the rulings handed down by the German administrative courts, which have generally vindicated the refugees’ requests – this only proves that such initial denials are unacceptable behavior.
Horst Seehofer currently plays a key role in the refugee crisis, as Germany holds the EU presidency this term. There’s been a sense that there will be initiatives to agree on a common policy to deal with the problems, thus alleviating the burden that so far Greece, Italy and Spain have been shouldering. What’s your assessment?
The sense that such efforts will be made has already been weakened by Horst Seehofer himself, who said that if there are solutions, they will be given during the next term of the Portuguese presidency. However, it is certain that we will see intense activity towards the acceptance of a common policy, which will be in complete contradiction with the values and principles, which until now we considered to be the foundation of European civilization.
Let me state it more clearly: The leaders of European countries have no problem with the number of immigrants and refugees, they have a problem exclusively with immigrants and refugees coming from the war-torn and impoverished regions of Asia and Africa. May I remind you that the conflicts in Asia (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria) are a result of unsolicited US and European intervention, and there is poverty and there are conflicts in Africa, as a result of the long-term US and EU economic infiltration, which has led to financial decline and in addition, their political and military interventions have keep corrupt leaders in power.
For the victims of this policy, who are forced to seek protection far from their homelands, Europe believes that the international treaties and laws that it has created should not apply. In the first case − the refugees from Asia − it’s an attempt to justify the catastrophic military interventions against their citizens. The intervention in Iraq was carried out because they allegedly had chemical weapons that threatened the West. It turned out to be a lie, but the country was destroyed, it became a haven for jihadist gangs, the political situation never normalized, people are in danger and had to flee to save themselves.
By refusing to grant asylum and protection to these people, the countries whose intervention brought disaster are sending a message to their citizens that the operation has succeeded, and there is absolute security in Iraq. The same is true of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are now being called upon by the United States and Europe to join the government, even if their very presence was an excuse for military intervention, even though they have established a regime of terror throughout most of the country.
Only Europe’s attitude towards the refugees from Syria is different, and this is due to the fact that its declared enemy, Bashar al-Assad, is still in power. In the second case, of refugees from Africa, we’re dealing with a classic case of racist policy, based on people’s skin color.
You say that Europe has an issue only with these two categories of immigrants and refugees, and not with the large number of immigrants and refugees in general. What is this view based on?
On indisputable data, which is accessible to all. I’ll start with the question: does Europe need immigrants or, on the contrary, is it as some say, “Europe cannot handle any more immigrants”?
Europe, due to the low birth rate of the last decades, needs a large number of immigrants to be able to handle problems with the economy, and especially of its insurance systems. The problem here is more acute than in any other part of the world. At the same time, Europe is the one that has all the material potential to absorb a large number of immigrants very quickly. Given the above, it pursues in practice a policy of attracting and accepting immigrants, but excluding the categories I mentioned earlier. Let me give an example.
In 2017, the number of those who crossed the Aegean and the Mediterranean was 171,000. This number was considered particularly high and led to more, and stricter, measures to reduce it. These measures have huge financial costs as they concern ships, weapons, personnel. And the measures have also resulted in the death of thousands of people in the waters of the Mediterranean. But in the same year, 662,000 immigrants from Ukraine and 193,000 from China, essentially from Hong Kong, passed through and received a residence permit. A simple comparison of numbers answers the question of whether Europe “can handle” more immigrants and refugees. We see that anti-refugee rhetoric is based on a blatant lie, which aims to intimidate those who don’t know the truth.
By the way: the number of immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe has been high since 2016, as Poland, in need of labor, has accepted irregular immigrants from its eastern borders. As a rule, Poland did not offer asylum and protection, but they did grant residence and work permits. At the same time, while Poland treated them and used them as immigrants, in Brussels, Poland described them as refugees and thus justified their refusal to participate in the distribution of those coming from the Aegean and the Mediterranean, saying that Poland had accepted more refugees than Greece, Italy and Spain as a whole.
Of course it was an absurd claim, but unfortunately it was also reinforced by those in our country who insist on calling people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries immigrants, even “clandestine immigrants”. They all claimed that they were doing good for our country, but in reality they were undermining it in the worst way. Unfortunately, they are still doing the same thing today, with the support of government officials.
These are relatively unknown facts to most people. Can you tell us how the EU reacted to this situation?
The EU’s reaction documents the fact that other measures apply to migration and asylum on Europe’s eastern borders, and other rules apply to migration on the southern borders. In a recent paper, entitled “Whose Enemy at the Gates?” Chiara Loschi and Alessandra Russo examine the different ways the EU has handled (irregular) migration at the two gateways, Ukraine and Libya.
Their answer is clear: when it comes to the same issue European policy is not the same across all borders, its policy depends on the policy adopted and defended by the countries directly involved. If Poland is not hostile to the Ukrainians, the Belarusians, etc., then the whole of Europe opens its borders. Thus, under pressure from Poland, the EU, in May 2017 tackled the problem of irregular migration by removing Ukraine from the list of countries requiring Schengen visas. The “irregulars” or “illegal immigrants” as they would be called by some in our country, became legal overnight and are no longer a threat, they can travel freely to any EU country.
And? Are they traveling?
There are currently around 2.5 to 3 million Ukrainians in the EU, with hundreds of thousands of them in other European countries besides Poland. If the same was true for Afghans or for citizens of any other country, who seek to enter Europe illegally via Greece, then they too would be able to freely travel to any EU country, and that country would decide whether it would allow them to stay or not.
However, while Greece agreed that Ukrainians were no longer a threat to Europe and made it easier for Poland, Greece did not make the same request of citizens passing through our country. Greece didn’t even veto or raise the issue, but most of all Greece didn’t ask for anything in return. For example, Greece could have agreed only if the EU would accept the free movement of people who are granted asylum in Greece. But Greece did not do this. Who benefits from this position and political behavior? It’s up to each of us to examine.
However, the example of Ukraine clearly shows that Europe has no problem accepting large numbers of immigrants and refugees, and reveals that there are no, by definition, enemies and friends among immigrants/refugees. The EU makes enemies on paper and, whenever they want, during one session they turn enemies into friends, and keep others on the list of dangerous and unwanted. From there on, the EU behaves accordingly towards that group of people.
What does “behave accordingly” mean?
Again, I will use the example of the refugees from Afghanistan.
Germany is deporting well-integrated Afghans, whom its employers say are essential to running their businesses. Employers are generally opposed to deporting refugees from those countries. The same goes for nursing staff. Well-integrated nurses from Afghanistan are being deported, and at the same time the health minister is traveling to Mexico to attract 40,000 nurses, who will receive language courses, travel expenses, a residence permit and a job.
So you see that this is a political choice, which is implemented even despite the reactions of the locals and against the interests of the economy. Do you think that this happens by chance and for no reason? Certainly not. It serves a purpose: It sends the message, aims to influence popular opinion that Afghans are not in danger in their own country, even if international organizations consider Afghanistan to be the most dangerous region in the world, enduring 40 years of foreign invasion, armed conflict, and to date, US and EU military presence. At the same time, it sends the message that the security of the country is at stake.
Thus, legitimizing emergency measures of patrolling and the militarization in the Mediterranean, all of which would not be possible, and accepted by society, if it wasn’t for the threat of the “refugee-enemy”.
There has been an impressive number of migrants entering the EU from Eastern Europe in recent years − unbeknown to many people, who believe that the EU can’t handle any more migrants. Are there similar examples that support your view of racist policies towards refugees from Africa?
Official United Nations figures show that of the 10 countries with the highest numbers of displaced persons due to war and persecution, five are in Sub-Saharan Africa, four in Asia (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar) and one in Latin America (Venezuela, where leaving the country is related to food shortages, and not to war or armed civil conflicts).
Immigrants and refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa mainly use the Mediterranean route (to Italy and Spain) to reach Europe, and then the Aegean route (to Greece). These are the most dangerous routes in the world. According to official figures, from 2014 to 2019 more than 19,000 people lost their lives (it is considered certain that the actual number is much higher). Of those who try to get to Italy, it is estimated that one in six loses their lives.
In addition to those who lose their lives in the Mediterranean, there is a greater number of people who lose their lives in the Sahara or in the slave markets of Libya. What is the actual number, which makes Europe consider them the greatest threat, which justifies spending hundreds of millions a year to prevent them from coming and even rescuing them when they are shipwrecked? In 2018, 58,525 people made it to Spain and 23,037 to Italy. In 2019 the numbers were 25,731 and 11,471 respectively. These include people from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, who make up the largest percentage and typically use various routes.
Asked to comment on FRONTEX’s confirmation that the number of illegal entries at Europe’s southern borders has fallen sharply, Fabrice Leggeri, Director of FRONTEX stated: “Of course the numbers are lower now, but the migratory pressure on Europe remains huge.” That is, even though the arrivals from sub-Saharan Africa have decreased, Europe will continue to state that there remains a huge danger. And it will continue a policy that can rightly be called, “Black lives don’t matter in the Mediterranean” in stark contrast to the movement in the US.
This is a timely issue, with the murder of African-American George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May sparking demonstrations and protests and with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining global momentum. But what’s happening here? So is it “Black Lives Don’t Matter” in Europe which upholds a European Court of Human Rights?
Is there any doubt? The fact that these are “black lives” which causes the Director of FRONTEX to make statements about “huge immigration pressure” is made clear by another group of migrants and refugees: in 2018 and 2019 in Spain 35,568 and 91,765 people sought asylum and protection, respectively, from five Latin American countries. They came by plane, as these countries do not require a Schengen visa. In this case we have a significant increase in arrivals, but this is neither news nor an issue for Europe. It is also not news that in Spain the request for protection of 39,715 citizens of Venezuela was approved for humanitarian reasons (with only 205 rejections).
During the same period, the largest number of similar approvals for citizens of Sub-Saharan Africa was 35 people who were Nigerian citizens (with 82 rejections). The comparison of this year’s numbers is revealing. From January to July 24, 2020, a total of 32,060 people came to Greece, Italy, Spain, Malta, Cyprus and Bulgaria (most from Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa, a few from Sub-Saharan Africa). At the same time, 38,269 people from South American countries applied for asylum and protection in Spain alone.
I don’t think I need to say more to justify the view that in practice, a racist policy is being implemented. And this is the belief of those who closely follow what’s happening in the region. A typical example is the recent announcement by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), one of the most authoritative legal networks, in collaboration with the research agency Forensic Architecture at the University of London on repatriations at the Spain-Morocco border.
According to the announcement and a recent study by Forensic Architecture, black citizens of Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to legal routes to Spain and, therefore, to international protection. And this is precisely the result of the racist policies applied at the Spanish-Moroccan border. The organization’s Deputy Director, Christina Varvia, has argued that Europe continues to systematically discriminate against black migrants and refugees.
To preempt any misunderstanding, when I compare the difference in how the European Union treats Ukrainians and Latin Americans who wish to come to Europe and ask for protection, to the Afghans, Iraqis, and people from Africa, I do not believe the former should receive as negative a treatment as the later. On the contrary, I believe all people in need should have the possibility to submit their petition without first putting their life in danger.
Through this juxtaposition I highlight for one the hypocrisy of those saying Europe can bear no further immigrants, and also the flagrant negative stance towards the victims of military interventions of the USA and their European allies, and the openly racist policies towards people from Africa.
Of course, in Europe people don’t say that they have a problem with people of color when it comes to migrants and refugees, but they talk about different religions and different cultures, which makes their integration difficult.
Yes, that is what’s being said, so let me add some information on this subject. The majority of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are Christians, mostly Catholics − there are almost as many Catholics in that region (235 million) as there are in Europe (285 million). Immigrants and refugees from the region speak the languages of the former colonial countries, i.e. English or French. Therefore, they objectively face fewer integration problems than all the other groups.
Their only particular problem is the racism of many Europeans and especially European governments. So I wonder: if Muslims are a problem for Catholic Poland, what is the problem with Catholics of Africa? Do the words of Polish Pope John Paul II count for anything? The Pope stated that he wanted to emphasize, with his actions, the “commitment of all the faithful to Africa”? Are Poland’s citizens, and the Catholics of other European countries, who say they are troubled about the arrival of non-Christian migrants and refugees, not concerned with the Pope’s own belief and the official position of the Catholic Church regarding the issue of migration in Africa?
“Support on all continents,” Polish Pope John Paul II called for in his apostolic exhortation on Africa, which he presented in the Cameroonian capital on September 14, 1995. Europe is doing something different today, with Poland leading the way with this inhumane policy. Poland, the homeland of the Pope, who in his exhortation described the values and cultures of African societies in the most positive words and with absolute respect. So, since neither religion, nor culture, nor ignorance of European languages is a problem for even the most conservative Europeans, do I need to say more to explain the roots of the EU’s hypocritical and inhumane policy towards people from Africa?
What do you expect from the initiatives of the German Presidency to resolve the refugee issue?
I don’t expect a solution, because European governments, while decisively participating in creating conditions that give rise to mass migration in the world, are trying to keep refugees away from the countries I mentioned earlier.
In public discourse in Europe, mainly by governments, it is presented as self-evident that Uganda, with a population of 40 million with a GDP of 24 billion (per capita 634), can host 1.4 million refugees and that Germany, with a population of 82 million with a GDP of 3.5 trillion (per capita of 42,000) considers hosting 1.1 million refugees an unbearable burden. UN figures show that impoverished countries, such as Ethiopia, Sudan or Bangladesh, have received 27% of refugees, and 85% along with developing countries.
The political decision to prevent the arrival of anyone from these countries leads to a series of measures, the most important of which is the so-called externalization of asylum, i.e. to countries outside Europe. In essence, the “Fortress of Europe” using threats and few gifts, turns many poor countries into ditches and embankments. Many talk about the expansion of Europe-Fortress. The Transnational Institute (TNI) and Stop Wapenhandel (“Stop the Arms Trade”) call this policy “Expanding the Fortress” in a joint publication. This policy will be promoted by the German presidency, this will be its promise to Greece.
So, assigning a purely European issue to other countries. How do you see it? Do you agree?
No, I do not agree! It is an ineffective medium and long-term policy, costing thousands of lives, undermining the core values of our civilization and democratic political system, strengthening dictatorships in Africa and the Middle East, breeding and reproducing large-scale corruption and at the same time strengthening the neo-Nazi, far-right groups in Europe.
In this context, the countries of the South, mainly Greece, become hostages of blackmail through the utilization of immigration from neighboring countries. In other words, what the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan did in March 2020 at the Greek-Turkish border in Evros. What happened there? The Turkish president stated that those immigrants who want to leave the country and head to the Greek border station, are allowed to do so. This was something new, because Turkey has an agreement with Europe not to allow any immigrants to leave Turkey for Greece and Bulgaria, even when they have legal papers.
Exit is only allowed to other neighboring countries. This agreement precludes the possibility for someone to come to Greece legally and seek asylum and is one of the many forms of the policy of externalization of asylum. That’s why they are forced to come illegally. The Turkish president decided to suspend this deal for a few thousand people and one border station, with the apparent aim to blackmail the European Union and secure concessions on a range of issues. The result was that Greece closed its borders and responded to the efforts of the refugees with tear gas. «Greece under attack» was the slogan often used at the time to describe the situation – borrowed from 9/11.
The operation to prevent the approach of refugees or irregular entry involved the police, the army, the militia, forces from various European countries and the Greek far right. This veritable battlefield did not lack neo-Nazis from across Europe, who came to take part in the war of white Europe against the “barbaric East”. We recall that similar events took place in 2016 on the Greek-Northern Macedonia border. That country suddenly closed its borders and erected a rudimentary fence. Some refugees in a symbolic move tried to remove a small part of the fence a few meters long. The police of Northern Macedonia responded by using tear gas and rubber bullets against the refugees who were on Greek soil.
I was there, I experienced the incredible barbarity and injuries of several people, and I still have on my desk the rubber bullet (a rubber-coated metal cylinder 3 cm in diameter, weighing 40 grams) that could have caused me serious injury. Greece back then strongly protested against the behavior of its neighboring country. Today such behaviors are taken for granted for the whole of Europe and for our country.
Can you further explain what exactly this policy of externalization of asylum is, and how exactly it leads to problems for Greece?
From early on, European policy aimed to keep immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa away from Western and Northern Europe. Until 2001, people from all over the world, who wanted to seek asylum and protection in Europe, could take a plane to any airport and apply there on arrival.
As a rule, they would choose one of the wealthier EU countries, mainly Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium. Also, those from North Africa would come via sea on ships. These were legal trips, as long as they had a valid passport from their country, and the right to enter the country of destination was verified by the police authorities at the airport or port, as was always the case until then. In 2001, the EU decided that this check should be carried out by airlines and shipping companies before departure, and that those who do not have a Schengen visa, (for countries which require them), should be excluded from boarding.
Fines for airlines and shipping companies that do not comply are devastating and threaten their very existence. This is a transfer of control to private entities outside the EU. Outsourcing is the term used in the financial sector. The countries of Southern Europe agreed to this decision, without taking into account that for thousands of prospective immigrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East the only routes were now from the Evros River (Greek-Turkish border) and the Mediterranean and only “irregular entries”. Thus, wealthy EU countries “got rid of” dealing with the arrival of people in need of asylum.
So, it was an indirect decision, made solely to the disadvantage of the Southern European countries?
Surely the same was true at that time for the eastern borders, which at that time were Germany’s borders, but later with the entry of the eastern countries into the EU, these borders were moved even further. After its entry into the EU, Poland found itself in a position similar to that of Greece – Poland having to deal with Ukraine, as Greece does with Turkey. At that time, the EU struck a deal with Ukraine to cooperate in the fight against “irregular immigration”, offering financial incentives and the promise that Ukrainian citizens would later no longer need visas to travel to the EU.
Similar agreements have been reached with many African countries, always with financial incentives and often with the promise of their citizens gaining access to the EU without a Schengen visa. The same promise was given to Turkey in the framework of the Joint Declaration in 2016. However, until today the promise of eliminating the visa requirement has been kept only in the case of Ukraine, and this is because the decision aims to serve a) the needs of the Polish economy and b) to address the undesirable fact (for the West) that many thousands of Ukrainians sought and received asylum in Russia.
On the subject of “Europe and refugees” we know a lot about Turkey’s role and the impact on Greece, but little is known about what’s happening in African countries, with the possible exception of Libya, which from time to time, new information emerges on the situation there. Currently, what’s happening in Libya?
For Libya, we know that officially Europe equips and finances organizations that, if their members happened to be in Europe, would very well be described as “terrorists”, “mobsters”, “slave traders”. What has been well documented countless times are accounts of the murder, rape, torture, arrest and sale, as slaves, of people from Sub-Saharan Africa, and the blackmailing of families back in their homeland for ransom, so that their captured family member is not executed. All this is known to EU leaders.
Also well-documented is the cooperation of the so-called Libyan port authorities, funded by the EU, with specific traffickers. So, in reality, migration is not hindered, control and trafficking are now in the same hands, (with the blessing of the EU), resulting in the rampant growth of corruption, the legalization of the slave trade in North Africa, and the murder of black people multiplying. But for Europe, the doctrine “no matter the cost, this policy will be followed consistently” is still in place. It is a policy launched immediately after the 2001 decision on air and sea transport.
What exactly happened then?
At that time, Europe began, and to this day has made bilateral agreements to “fight illegal immigration” with more than 20 African countries, always paying local leaders, regardless of the means those leaders use to prevent “illegal immigration”.
One can say: where there is a dictatorship, there is certainly also cooperation and agreement with the EU. The agreements concern prohibiting the exit of citizens who want to leave their country, or third-country nationals who are in a state legally and wish to leave for the North. In essence, this means imposing a regime of human rights abuses on free movement. It is the right that the West demanded from the countries of Eastern Europe until the collapse of their regimes in 1989.
The same right is now denied to African citizens, and prevents Africa from creating a space for the free movement of its citizens, like the Schengen Area in Europe, even though traditionally free movement existed, especially for seasonal work. It all started systematically at the 2002 EU Summit of Heads of State in Seville, with the decision to make relations with African countries conditional on their willingness to accept the implementation of a European policy to “combat illegal immigration”. For the first time, they proposed sanctions against countries that do not cooperate, with the then Prime Minister of Spain (José Maria Aznar) and the Chancellor of Germany (Gerhard Schröder) insisting, however most other countries were still opposed.
The then French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy opposed the German Chancellor, saying that “it is not possible to send a message that rich countries punish the poor.” But just a year later, Britain’s Tony Blair presented a framework for rewarding those who cooperate and punishing those who refuse. He called his initiative “A New Vision”. His proposals included setting up reception centers for asylum seekers in non-EU countries, including Albania, Croatia and Ukraine. He withdrew it shortly before the European Council meeting in Thessaloniki in 2003, but nevertheless relevant decisions were made there and the foundations for the policy were laid, resulting in the inhumane consequences we see today. That was and is the New Vision of Europe.
What does this policy mean in practice?
I’ll give you the example of a key state, Niger, that was called “Europe’s Migration Laboratory” by Daniel Howden and Giacomo Zandonini (journalists, experts on refugees and African affairs).
The state has agreed to block the exit to the Sahara, and has also agreed to take back all African nationals who had crossed Niger on their way to Europe, where their asylum applications were rejected, and they are deported. Thousands of West African migrants cross Agadez, the last major city before the border, each month on their way to the Mediterranean. There are many services to prevent them from crossing, as well as a mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which tries to persuade them to return to their home countries, providing them with financial assistance.
But even from reading it on Wikipedia one can learn that the most important part of this city’s economy is the transportation of migrants to the north, as it benefits not only traffickers but also local businesses, police, truck owners, drivers and others. All the data show that the number of migrants and refugees is not decreasing, but the cost of human life is increasing. The most important reason for the large increase in deaths is the fact that the authorized military units set up camp in the few oases where there is water, so that the refugees are forced to cross the Sahara bypassing the traditional caravan routes and thus face losing their lives.
I must say that in these areas there are also EU military forces present, mainly from Italy, France and Germany. And let me add that, those who benefit from the money spent on implementing this policy, are not in the least the citizens of those countries. The ones who benefit the most are the European arms and special equipment companies which provide for border security.
In your speeches in the past you have talked many times about similar phenomena in Greece. Are there similar phenomena even today?
Greece was the country where all the technologies and practices that are now widely used to combat what is called “irregular migration” were tested. The first impregnable fence on the European continent was built on its border with Turkey using NATO wire. A complete border monitoring system was installed here, consisting of thermal cameras, carbon dioxide detectors, and heartbeat detectors for people hidden in trucks.
But in recent years we have entered a new phase: The exploitation of the “refugee risk” for the development of military forces in our region, by all countries involved in the wars in the Middle East and Africa. At the request of Greece, Turkey and Germany, NATO agreed in February 2016 to offer assistance for the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea. Since then, six NATO ships have been in the Aegean with the exclusive mission of “contributing to international efforts to stem illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean Sea, through intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the Aegean Sea and at the Turkish-Syrian border.”
In the same area are the other NATO ships, which operate within the framework of their usual tasks, and also the ships of FRONTEX, the Greek and Turkish Navies, as well as the Greek and Turkish coast guards. It is understood that it is not “tackling the refugee crisis” that is leading to the mobilization of so many forces of war. It is the project of general militarization of the region, which in order to be imposed, presents as a danger those uprooted from their homelands due to wars and poverty. And just as in Africa there is competition between the USA, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and partly Italy, so it is in the Aegean, with the result that we have a strong military presence from all these countries.
As part of this, the American base of Souda in Crete was upgraded to allow the landing of B52 aircraft, while American aircraft carriers are regular visitors, for example the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier “Eisenhower” with its sixty airplanes and helicopters.
Indeed, the militarization of the region is impressive and worrying. But we seem to be getting used to the idea of war. In a recent interview, well-known Spanish philosopher and author Josep Ramoneda sharply criticized the military references in public discourse that European leaders use to explain their decisions to contain the pandemic. Do you think that this rhetoric contributes to the acceptance even of militarization?
Of course it contributes, either out of ignorance or deliberately. However, in Greece the connection of COVID 19 with refugees and militarization becomes deliberate and completely overt. Immediately after the incidents in Evros that we talked about, the Minister of Defense stated that Turkey continues its attacks against Greece by sending refugees with COVID 19.
The first measure that has been announced and is already being implemented is the construction of a steel wall 5 meters tall, with a length of 38 kilometers on the border with Turkey, and the strengthening of deterrence measures in the Aegean. Do not be surprised by the ease with which national security can be linked to refugees and COVID 19. For the military-industrial complex there is no hesitation in presenting a poor woman with her baby coming in a boat from Turkey to seek protection, as a threat to the security of the nation. The term widely used is “hybrid warfare”. That is why organizations that are effective in rescuing refugees at sea, such as Alarm phone, are accused of spying against Greece.
We’d like to talk about the illegal deportations, that is, about the violation of non-refoulement, which lately has put Greece in the crosshairs of many humanitarian organizations and the international media?
But that’s exactly what we’ve been talking about, of course in its most modernized form. Most agreements with African countries are essentially nothing more than early deportations, so that there is no need for actual deportations along the “standard” EU borders.
That’s why it’s often written and said that the EU borders are in Niger, Mali, etc. In the scientific bibliography the EU policy in Africa, like that of Australia and the United States, is increasingly referred to as “Neo-Refoulement”, an ironic linguistic game using the term “Non-Refoulement”, which characterizes the current absolute ban on deportations. Greece and Spain are the ones where the “classic” − and unquestionably prohibited by law − form of deportation still exists. Τhere are so many relevant testimonies, they cannot be refuted.
And because I hear that this supposedly doesn’t happen, I’ll refer to FRONTEX’s internal documents, which were brought to light by German state television and by valid publications in Europe in August 2019. Those Greeks who are proud that we are “frontiersmen” and stir up memories of the heroes from the old days, should know that in reality we are in fact the ones the EU has entrusted with the “dirty work” in cases where the policy of externalization has failed, and of course without backing Greece up, if and when these cases reach the international courts.
In summarizing our discussion, we have early deportations, an EU that continues to discriminate against black people in Africa, a Greek government that serves political gains to the detriment of refugees rather than finding real solutions. Does this boil down to entirely pessimistic conclusions about the progress of what has been termed the “refugee crisis”?
I know a lot of people who come to such conclusions. I don’t share this opinion, although I recognize that the situation is at a critical point. But it’s critical not only for the people who need support, but especially for European countries.
How much longer will citizens have to accept the inconceivable spending on security systems to face a non-existent risk, when at the same time they further reduce spending for health and education, which already receives a smaller budget? To this day, fear-mongering is used to intimidate society, but I think this tactic has an expiration date. How quickly it will end depends on many factors, most importantly of course the mobilization of citizens and organizations, which are already resisting these policies. And it is varied.
Who would have imagined that a few years ago that the Protestant Church in Germany would resist government policy with an unparalleled vigor, chartering ships to save refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean? We are experiencing an unprecedented disobedience movement in the Mediterranean, without governments having the power to subdue it. Every show of strength on the part of governments only fortifies the solidarity movement. For the first time, the Protestant Church is gaining instead of losing members, in contrast to what has happened in the last five decades. And this can be attributed to the Church’s stance on the refugee issue.
Yes, but even political parties that integrate themselves with the Left are rooted in the logic of risk aversion, with perhaps a few exceptions.
The example of the Protestant Church, strange as it may seem, I think shows what will happen with the political parties that will realize that it makes sense, even as an electoral gain, to have a policy that, along with having a moral foundation, will reveal the impasse and ineffectiveness of the European policy so far, its economic consequences and the dangers it poses to democracy and prosperity.
The “refugee crisis” has indeed changed the political landscape in Europe by fueling far-right ideologies, generating far-right and Nazi parties and thus influencing traditional parties. But this trend is not self-evident, it has to do with the inability, so far, of those who resist with word and deed, to structure their rhetoric with all the elements of humanity and reason. Once this is understood, I expect the trend will be reversed. That’s why I don’t share the pessimism of those who simply observe what they see in the media − the brutality that seems to prevail.
As you know, I myself systematically monitor and record official policies and their barbaric effects. But I also systematically and closely monitor the actions of people, organizations and institutions that defend humanity and civilization with words and deeds. My personal optimism stems from the comparison of the potentials on both sides of the conflict: the resistance of the people to the onslaught of barbarism is enormous and capable of protecting human civilization.
I have no doubt about the result. The only question is: how many more victims will we mourn on the altar of an economic and political system of exploitation and inequality, where for its ruling priests human dignity and human life do not matter.