28 November 2020

Fortress Europe updated: Turning borderlands into storage houses for unwanted migrants

Since early 2010, facing a severe economic and political crisis characterized by uncertainty and austerity measures resulting in rising unemployment and steep decreases in salaries and welfare allowances, Greeks have been emigrating in large numbers and Balkan immigrants who dominated earlier migration flows into Greece have also been ‘returning home’. Ironically, during this same period the number of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants from Asia, Middle East and Africa into Greece has also grown significantly. Thus, even as the economic crisis in Greece was deepening in the late 2000s, the country was becoming the major point-of-entry for undocumented migration into the European Union. Political upheavals in Asia and the Middle East, combined with toughening migration-control policies in Spain and Italy, have diverted immigration flows toward Greece. In 2010, 90% of all apprehensions for unauthorized entry into the EU took place in Greece (up from 75% in 2009 and 50% in 2008).

Most of the new immigrants are not entering Greece to stay but are using it as a first step into Western Europe. However, the implementation of the Dublin Regulation (allowing the processing of asylum applications only in the EU country of initial entry) means that most get stuck in Greece. This has turned crisis-ridden Greece into a ‘storage house’ for unwanted immigrants by the countries of the north. New immigrants are clustering in the major western ports of Greece as well as in the centre of Athens, where many attempt to acquire forged papers to leave the country. They live in poor conditions in deprived areas, joined increasingly by those Greeks whom are the most severely struck by the crisis, while fascists, particularly active in these areas, incite xenophobia and fear among local residents.   

The 2012 coalition government’s approach to ‘solve this problem’ was through the implementation of a sweep operation, cynically named after the ancient Greek God of hospitality Xenios Zeus, with the aim ‘to cleanse Greece of illegal immigrants’. According to estimates by NGOs, approximately 10,000 people have been imprisoned in Greek detention camps and many more are detained in police stations all around the country.

Although detention is officially a temporary measure for preparation for deportation, in practice it is used as a punishment for crossing European borders. Last year, the maximum detention period was increased to 12 months for asylum seekers and 18 months for undocumented migrants; as a general trend the maximum period is applied. Moreover, European law allows for re-detention if deportation is not successful. After release, people are therefore at risk of being detained again for several more months.

The EU and international organisations have repeatedly admonished Greece for the extremely low number of people granted refugee status, for administrative structures that make applying for asylum almost impossible, and for the inhumane conditions to which immigrants are subjected in Greek detention centers. However, in a recent report by EuroFrontex, Greece is praised for applying a systematic detention policy that, according to the report, appears to be working successfully in decreasing migration to Europe. In that report, Greece is not represented as a weak member of the Community failing to fulfill its obligations but rather as an active member working for the common good. Thus the inflow of disadvantaged persons continues to be framed as an aggressive invasion, the proposed solution to the ‘problem’ is to penalize entry. As long as those ideas continue to guide European migration policy so will the suffering of vulnerable migrant populations persist and the spread of racism, xenophobia and fascism across Europe will continue, especially in Greece and the other borderlands of the EU that are asked to perform its dirty work.

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