Learning from the Greek Experience of the Refugee Crisis

By Panayote Dimitras, originally published in the 2016 Autumn edition of Humanitie Magazine.

Panayote Dimitras has been the spokesperson of the Greek Helsinki Monitor since co-founding it in 1992. Here he writes about the refugee crisis, and the Greek response to it. 

Panayote Dimitras

Panayote Dimitras

Since the beginning of 2015 over one million refugees/migrants arrived by sea to Greece with the aim to continue to other European countries. Some 60,000 of them were stranded in Greece following the closure of the Balkans route in March 2016. Greek central government authorities functioned mainly as “monitors” of the phenomenon failing to provide almost all services and rights to those persons. Instead it was mainly civil society, including Greek and international NGOs, who provided assistance to those in need. This was a surprising but not unprecedented development in the country which, along with Hungary, holds the EU’s most xenophobic public opinion.

Greek authorities have gladly joined the EU-Turkey agreement aiming at stopping the refugee flows and returning them to Turkey en-mass. These measures demonstratively violate the refugees’ fundamental right, and refugees “responded” with the filing of asylum applications by the thousands. This prevented their immediate expulsion back to Turkey, however asylum services began rejecting these applications claiming that Turkey is a “safe country,” in a blatant disregard of European-wide case law to the contrary.

Asylum appeals committee started to overturn these decisions, correctly arguing that Turkey cannot be considered safe. The government’s response was to change the law so as to introduce new asylum appeals committees dominated by judges from Greek courts. These courts have a cumulative record against upholding the human rights of refugees, as reflected in scores of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights finding Greece in violation.

In the meantime the flow of refugees to Greece from Turkey was marginalized as a result of the closing of the Greek-Macedonian border, and new routes to EU countries, mainly through Libya to Italy, started being used by the refugees. Then came the coup in Turkey, followed by the crackdown by the Erdogan regime. Soon after, the number of refugees crossing to Greece from Turkey started to slowly but steadily grow. It is feared that it may become substantial again, overburdening the asylum services, and as much as doubling the number of refugees stranded in Greece, while waiting for ways to join relatives in other European countries.

In this bleak situation, there is one piece of good news. This crisis, often bordering on chaos, has not benefitted the extreme right parties. While support remains steady for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, it is dwindling for the government partner Independent Greeks. The situation also has not caused any  major incidents of racist violence. While we need to remain vigilant, it seems that humanity remains a positive force.


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