“Let me tell you this,” former Greek Minister of Public Order and Citizen protection Nikos Dendias told Skai Radio in January 2014. “There’s a difference between Sweden facing immigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union, who have a certain level of education, who are Europeans in the broad sense of the word, and Greece, which is facing immigration from Bangladesh and Pakistan.”
Dendias’ focus on Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in the interview makes little statistical sense given that the plurality of the roughly 40 000 undocumented migrants arrested in Greece in 2013 were Albanian (36%). Indeed, Albanians are the largest immigrant group in Greece, accounting for at least half of the 1.5 million foreigners living in the country (over 10% of the population). Albanian Greeks were also the targets of crackdowns and mass deportations in the early 1990s, making their rhetorical absence somewhat confusing. Of course, as Dendias explains, South Asian migrants are distinct because they “belong to another culture … come from a different world than us.”
This exchange is important because of how it illustrates that South Asian migrants have become strong projections of national anxiety in Greece, including in state institutions, where far-right parochialism has become increasingly common.
Following Golden Dawn’s surge in popularity during the 2012 Greek parliamentary elections, when it won twelve seats and became the third-largest party, attacks on darker skinned and culturally “alien” immigrants skyrocketed. According to lawyer Thanassis Kampagianni, who spoke with Vice News, “Golden Dawn’s racist attacks were more and more against Pakistanis, Afghans, and Bangladeshis.” Pakistanis were particularly at risk of violence, due to being the largest community at 80 000 (more than half of which is undocumented). South Asians were also broadly affected by Islamophobic rhetoric elsewhere in Europe and worldwide, which normalized the idea of Muslims being a threat to both Greek fiscal stability, and Christian national identity.
Indeed, although far-right parties like France’s National Front have been careful about inciting anti-Muslim violence in their own countries, in order to ensure their electoral appeal, xenophobic language doesn’t end at national borders. Racist and Islamophobic rhetoric has been made international as a result of globalized media, and Greek attitudes to South Asians in particular have been deeply affected by provincial discourse in the United Kingdom.
European political parties and state authorities tend to look to the UK for inspiration when it comes to Muslim immigrants, since the United Kingdom is regarded as having the experience and historical wisdom to manage them effectively. This is particularly the case when it comes to Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Afghans, who have longstanding communities in Britain, and former colonial links. It is likely that if British immigration policy was less regressive, then Muslims would broadly find themselves in less combative situations in Europe, especially if they’re South Asian. There would be precedent for different policies, xenophobic attitudes would have more difficulty in reaching critical mass, and there would be fewer pressures on Athens to aggressively police its borders.
Greece is particularly affected by British racial discourse because the growth in its South Asian immigrant community is quite recent. This is a result of numerous factors, including that immigration controls have tightened in Northwestern Europe since the 1960s, Greece is often viewed as an entry-point to the rest of the Schengen Zone, and the War on Terror has led to an increase in migration in general. The latter is perhaps the most important reason for the growth in Syrian and Afghan migrants to the country.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of Greeks are said to oppose increases in immigration, it is tempting to be optimistic following the election of Syriza, which has promised to overhaul Greek immigration policy. Dendias’ comments about Pakistanis and Bangladesh were in early 2014, which was a different Greece in political terms, and one in which Syriza’s pledge to provide a pathway to citizenship for second-generation undocumented immigrants would have been dismissed as impossible.
Syriza has also worked to close the country’s infamous detention centers, amidst a landmark trial currently taking place for 69 Golden Dawn members, including all 18 of its former and current MPs. Party leader Nikos Michaloliakos is one senior party leader being held on numerous charges related to the murder of anti-racist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013.
However, it is important to be conscious of the full extent of the problem, which requires more than electing a new government to fix. For one, European immigration policy is in tatters, and the EU still lacks a comprehensive framework for providing migrants with legal aid, medical care and emergency shelters. There is little reason to believe that an increasingly xenophobic northern Europe will consent to providing Greece with the resources and institutional support that it needs to fully pursue an alternate course.
This is in addition to the fact that the Greek far-right has penetrated the country’s police force and judiciary. The Greek police overwhelmingly supports Golden Dawn, with analysts concluding that over 50% of them voted for the group in 2012. Not only does this allegiance make it difficult to counteract street violence, and enforce anti-racist laws, but it also raises the possibility that in many cases, the Greek police has been assisting Golden Dawn in its activities.
Additionally, while the Fyssas trial is certainly progress, it doesn’t change the fact that there have been numerous alarming judgements in recent years. For instance, survivors of a pushback operation in Farmakonisi have been forced to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights after a naval court in Piraeus closed an investigation into the coast guard’s alleged responsibility for the drowning of twelve Afghan refugees. Last July, a judge in Patras acquitted farmers who shot 28 Bangladeshi strawberry pickers after they demanded six months of unpaid wages.
These rulings were condemned by numerous organizations, including the Greek Council for Refugees, and led to widespread protests. However, the fact that they even happened is evidence that the far-right retains an ability to advance its objectives by relying on procedural failures, or even assistance, from the Greek judiciary.
Syriza’s own efforts have also been slower than anticipated. It missed its initial target to close detention centers by mid-June, and has been fiercely criticized for not releasing inmates quickly enough. These criticisms are legitimized by the fact that migrant suicides have continued to occur since Syriza pledged to shut down the centers, as a result of deplorable conditions.
All of this is in further addition to the fact that the Troika has made it clear that it wishes to fragment Syriza’s coalition, and force Tsipras from power, in order to enforce its austerity demands. This would be a disaster for Greece in general, but it would be particularly savage for undocumented migrants, and South Asians living in the country. The Troika’s success would rely on the renewed assistance of oligarchs and political elites who are at best oblivious to migrant concerns, and as seen in Dendias’ quote, perfectly willing to cater to widespread xenophobia.
Furthermore, Golden Dawn may have been pushed to the fringe, but the far-right still exists in Greece, and its institutional impact could easily push against many of Syriza’s gains in the past six months. Right-wing provincialism has already entrenched itself, and continues to make a significant impact on the national character. As just one example, for decades, Athens has been infamous for lacking an official mosque. This has forced many worshipers, particularly if they’re undocumented South Asian Muslims, into makeshift masjids like shops, apartments, and garages that are officially illegal.
The purpose has obviously been to prevent culturally ‘foreign’ Muslims from having a space in which to explore, discuss, and leverage their sociocultural and religious identity, while protecting local desires for a culturally homogenous Orthodox Christian Greece. Indeed, the discourse surrounding the issue has become so extreme that it caused the first major controversy of the ruling coalition. In May, Syriza finally managed to vote through an amendment that allowed for a mosque to be constructed in Vontanikos, after tense debate, but it did so with fierce opposition from its junior coalition partner. One MP from the Independent Greeks went as far as to call the building of a mosque “unacceptable and provocative.”
As with much of Greek immigration policy, conflicts between the ruling coalition and its European opponents need to develop further before we can make speculations about the medium to long-term. It seems clear that it will be quite some time before Greek Paki Muslims are able to legally gather for prayers without controversy, let alone make political demands from the state.