The EU Presidency and the Bottom of the Aegean Sea

Three survivors of the Farmakonisi incident give a press conference with the help of a translator about the incident on Syntagma Square in Athens. (Photo: Angelos Kalodoukas)Three survivors of the Farmakonisi incident give a press conference with the help of a translator about the incident on Syntagma Square in Athens. (Photo: Angelos Kalodoukas)

The European Union presidency transferred to Greece on January 1, 2014. Just 20 days later, a familiar story from the European borderland was repeated. A boat containing refugees from Afghanistan and Syria was found by the Greek Coast Guard in the waters off Farmakonisi Island, near Turkey. According to victims and the officers of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Athens, the coast guards began – illegally – towing the boat back toward Turkish waters.

However, the small boat – packed with people – capsized. Nine children and three women were drowned. Two days later, with the help of NGOs and UNHCR, the surviving victims gave their testimonies, live on television, where they described how coastguards physically prevented them from saving themselves and their family members. The coast police rushed to publish contradictory testimonies, allegedly given by the same refugees involved in the tragedy. However, the Athens office of UNHCR and refugees associations immediately expressed grave doubts as to the validity of these so-called testimonies. The following day, it was reported by the Afghan Community of Greece that police officers detained six of the surviving victims despite their holding the required documentation and identification detailing clearly who they were. Allegedly, the police tried to intimidate the refugees.

Tactics such as those employed by the Greek Coast Guard at Farmakonisi have become commonplace along European borders. In December 2013, Amnesty International reported that European and Greek border authorities were preventing Syrian refugees from reaching European territory, leaving them without help in the water, assaulting them and destroying or confiscating their property. Also, in December 2013, a sound recording of a chief of Greek police was published in which he stated to fellow police officers that, “We should make their lives unlivable,” in reference to refugees. To anyone who is familiar with the current situation in Greece, the chief’s statement is hardly shocking, given the sheer number of reports detailing xenophobia and racism within the Greek police force.

One of the Farmakonisi survivors who lost his family in the water cries as his words are translated to Greek by an Afhgan/Greek activist. (Photo: Angelos Kalodoukas)One of the Farmakonisi survivors who lost his family in the water cries as his words are translated to Greek by an Afhgan/Greek activist. (Photo: Angelos Kalodoukas)

The Politics of Pushing Back

However, it must be recognized that this is not an issue of policing only; it is deeply political. A statement from Minister of Shipping and the Aegean Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, who is responsible for the coast police, did not express condolences for the 12 deaths, blamed everyone who complained, saying that they are trying to harm Greece and stating that nobody wants to open the gates of the country to every refugee. However, he is not alone: The rhetoric and practices of much of the current Greek political leadership have, for some time now, reflected the opinion that the deaths of people along the borders are an acceptable and even desired policy for the prevention of undocumented migration. For example, current Minister of Health Adonis Georgiades proposed, in a 2011 interview with Crash magazine, that minefields should be replanted along the Greek-Turkish borders to prevent refugee flows. The same year, his advisor (and former MP) Thanos Plevris said, during a public event, that border security requires the deaths of people who attempt to cross the border, as an effective deterrent.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, was more restrained in his statements, never calling explicitly for the deaths of refugees at the borders, however, his true political intentions were revealed in December 2013, when he boasted in the Greek parliament that his government succeeded in influencing the EU to implement the South European governments’ agenda regarding “illegal migration,” using “tactics of pushing back, which were banned until today.” The Farmakonisi incident would appear to be a typical example of such once-banned tactics, which, according to the Greek prime minister, fit a wider European agenda. The explicit budget priorities of many European states are border security, detention centers or war operations around the world rather than the protection of the refugees of these wars.

Eshanolla Safi, one of the victims of the Farmakonisi tragedy, is probably one of the best examples of the wider attitude of European authorities toward refugees: He lived in Norway as an asylum seeker for about six years until he was deported back to Afghanistan. However, his life was in danger, and together with his family, he tried to return to Europe. He saw his wife and children dying in the Aegean Sea while he was not allowed to help them. However, both Norwegian and Greek armed forces participate in NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Making Life Unlivable

Refugees (documented or not) are targeted brutally and en masse not only within the framework of border-policing, but also in the context of urban policing. In the case of Greece, the police operation “Xenios Zeus” is a prime example of Mr. Samaras’ governance. Since its inauguration in August 2012, the operation has seen the detention of over 80,000 people of color, the vast majority of whom have broken no law, according to police press releases. Most of these innocent people have eventually been released, however. By September 2013, around 5,000 remained imprisoned, mostly due to lack of documentation, in new detention centers built across the debt-ridden country. The conditions in these centers have been condemned by reports. Beyond the mere policing and legal dimensions, the political implication of these governmental policies is that targeting a substantial proportion of the population of the country simply because of their skin color directly follows the agenda of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

The conspiracy theory promoted within the extreme-right circles seems to be that migrants enter the country within the context of a well-organized plan to take Greece away from Greeks. It is framed as a kind of a war wherein attacks against the “invaders” are to be expected. The adoption of such rhetoric by the government was reflected explicitly in Mr. Samaras’ 2012 pre-election campaign, when he claimed that illegal migrants have become “the tyrants of society” and that “our cities are occupied by illegal migrants” and that “we have to reoccupy them.”

Outwardly, it would appear that Samaras’ government has many contradictory stances regarding the extreme-right. For example, during a speech given in October in Washington, DC, he stated that he opposes right-wing extremists and claimed a key role in the prosecution of Golden Dawn. Despite the arrest and subsequent criminal charging of important members of Golden Dawn, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, the reality is that Mr. Samaras has appointed as his minsters or advisers prominent members of the Greek extreme-right, such as Adonis Georgiades and Failos Kranidiotis.

He comfortably shares his parliamentary benches with other extreme-right MPs in his own party, such as Makis Vorides, who at one time replaced the now-imprisoned GD leader as the former leader of the youth section of the neofascist organization EPEN. Moreover, Minister of Police Nicos Dendias was allegedly involved with the far-right party ENEK, according to Left MP Papademoulis – a connection that Dendias denies.

Whether the minister of police was a member of the neo-fascist ENEK or not is less relevant than his recent statements during a radio interview in reference to the Farmakonisi incident. In that interview, he claimed that “the quality of the migrants” that Greece receives is “tragic” and that “they are from Bangladesh and Afghanistan” – it is not like European migrants that countries like Sweden receive – which indeed reflects an unapologetic racism. This statement comes one year after the police under Mr. Dendias attacked and evicted some of the largest anti-Nazi social centers in the middle of Athens, an action that arguably opened up space for racist attacks in areas of the city where that had not been possible before.

Right and Extreme-Right

In the context of party politics, up until September 2013, there was an explicit complicity between Mr. Samaras’ party and the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. Just a few months before the May 2013 arrests, Samaras’ New Democracy (ND) party blocked an antiracism bill that would have criminalized racism and Holocaust denial. Given that these are the most basic tenets of Golden Dawn membership, one can only see the blocking of the bill as an act of protection for Golden Dawn by New Democracy. In return, Golden Dawn supported Samaras’ government on at least two debatable decisions since June 2012: first, when the government shut down the Public Broadcasting Company (ERT) overnight and second, when it applied further tax exemptions to Greek ship-owning companies. Just a few days before the arrest of the GD’s leadership, a former ND minister, Byron Polydoras, talked openly about a potential collaboration between his Party and GD. He was not alone: Around the same time, government supporter and prominent journalist Babis Papademtriou described a responsible wing within GD and proposed a governmental coalition between it and New Democracy.

In the case of the Greek government, Golden Dawn has proven a very useful tool for Samaras in helping him to legitimate racist policies and implement what would previously have been unacceptable racially targeted operations such as Xenios Zeus. In reality, the rhetoric and practices of the two parties are very similar. Both demand the control and limitation of undocumented migration. Both advocate physical measures against migrants, whether it be by deliberately pushing them back into the sea, as in the case of the coast guards of Mr Varvitsiotis, or by the suggestion, caught on camera, of GD candidate Plomaritis to make soap out of migrants. In actual fact, these dangerously faux-farcical discourses such as that of Plomaritis’ or of GD’s MPs, such as Mattheopoulos (who sings with his band “Oh how much I love Auschwitz!”) have facilitated Mr. Samaras in furthering his own extreme-right policies. Within the context of such publicly abhorrent behavior, a governmental policy illegally detaining 80,000 people of color or “pushing-off” boats of refugees no longer appears so extreme.

The sympathy for extreme-right ideas is not a uniquely Greek phenomenon; conservative parties have joined governmental coalitions with the extreme-right in other European countries such as Norway or the Netherlands, while Austria and France saw a respective rise of such parties in the recent past. Moreover, the conservative British government appears to be adopting the anti-migratory policies of the English Defence League (EDL) and British National Party (BNP), limiting the rights of migrants, organizing stop and search operations, which exclusively target people of color on the London underground, etc. These situations arise within a wider nexus of informal attacks against migrants by neo-Nazis on the streets of European cities – with Greece recently becoming the center of attention.

The Farmakonisi case and previous incidents such as Lampedusa highlight that the border tactics employed by European border forces are in fact equally as extreme as the proposals of the European extreme-right, while there seems to be an ideological intimacy between centrist-right and extreme-right parties throughout Europe. Thus the question is posed: If both the extreme-right and European governments, facilitated by EU policies, target migrants simultaneously on the streets and on the borders, formally and informally, what is the practical difference between the EU, individual governments (like the Greek one) and the neo-Nazis?

The authors offer their thanks to Angelos Kalodoukas for the photos and Nasm Lomani who translated the photo captions and arranged for their publication.