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Border Violence, Right-Wing Mobilisation and the Misplaced Blame for the Fires in Northern Greece

As more than 20 displaced persons were found dead amidthe raging wildfires in the Evros region of northern Greece, and the spread of racist, alt-right conspiracy theories have led to attacks against others, the events of this summer have once again demonstrated the very real interplay of multiple, simultaneous crises and how they affect the most vulnerable, in the most serious ways.

As more than 20 displaced persons were found dead amidthe raging wildfires in the Evros region of northern Greece, and the spread of racist, alt-right conspiracy theories have led to attacks against others, the events of this summer have once again demonstrated the very real interplay of multiple, simultaneous crises and how they affect the most vulnerable, in the most serious ways.

More than 20 People On the Move Found Dead Amidst Raging Wildfires

Wildfires have been raging in the Evros region of northern Greece for what is now almost two weeks, and have scorched an area of more than 800,000 acres. Countless communities have been ordered to evacuate, as dozens of homes have been destroyed already. Most importantly, however, more than 25 human lives have been lost. While this most devastating news made headlines internationally, most victims were discovered too late, and remain unidentifiable. The reason: they were people on the move.

On 22 August, which marked the fourth day of raging wildfires in the Evros region, the charred remains of 18 people were found in a remote and wooded area called Dadia. This gained immediate media attention, as news agencies had until this point made no mention of any deadly consequences of the fires. In the days that followed, more bodies were discovered. The medical examiner who was called to the multiple scenes determined that the fire had been their cause of death, and it was announced that efforts had been put forth to collect biological material from the remains in order to begin the process of identification. According to multiple reports, the majority of the victims were men, while all of them were under the age of 35. Moreover, it is reported that two of the bodies were children between the ages of 10 and 15.

The spread of this tragic news led to heavy reactions by local and international humanitarian activists, ascribing these deaths to the border policies of the EU. By contrast, the response by Greek officials once again demonstrated limited accountability, demonstrated by the press release issued by the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum. Ironically, in his statement, Minister of Migration and Asylum, Dimitris Karidis, attempted to classify the inhumane policy of intensified border control as nothing less than life-saving:

Despite the persistent efforts of the Greek authorities to protect the borders and human life, this tragedy stands as yet another reminder of the dangers of irregular migration. Against the backdrop of these tragic events, we highlight and denounce, once again, the murderous activities of criminal smugglers and those who facilitate them. Human trafficking endangers the lives of migrants, both on land and at sea, every day.”

Meanwhile, there is no information available on whether an investigation has been issued to determine whether the emergency mechanism that has been put in place by the Ministry for Climate Crisis and Citizen Protection, which is an SMS sent to all phones within reach of an evacuation order, was also received by the victims. However, this is merely one of many questions that can and should be posed to examine why people on the move had no exit strategy to escape the deadly fires. Since displaced persons have been led to fear authorities, forcing most to make any attempts at crossing border regions clandestinely, there is no doubt that opportunities for protection from the fires were extremely limited.

Therefore, there is no doubt that the current politics of Fortress Europe, defined by the strict, increasingly violent, and often illegally perpetrated border security measures, were the root cause of the fatal consequences of the wildfires in northern Greece. Especially since the Evros region, sharing a border with Türkiye in the east and Bulgaria border in the north, is notoriously known for its role as a crossing path for displaced people, it is the responsibility of state authorities to foresee and prevent such tragedies.

How the Right-Wing BlameGame Mobilises Extremists

According to Politico, the fire affecting the Evros region since 18 August, is Europe’s largest fire since the European Forest Fire Information Service (EFFIS) began its data collection in the year 2000. While firefighters, volunteers and many of the affected locals have been tirelessly responding to the emergency on the front lines, an unprecedented hunt for scapegoats has magnified the turmoil sparked by the record-breaking destruction of nature and livelihood. The first such reported case was perpetuated by a 45-year-old male Alexandroupoli resident, who on 22 August forcibly locked 13 people of Syrian and Pakistani origin in his trailer. The man was calling for a pogrom against migrant communities on a video livestream on social media, claiming that they were responsible for the fires. According to Greek news agencies, two more men were arrested on suspicions of aiding him.

In their statement on the arrests of the three men, the Hellenic Police emphasised that Greece is a “constitutional state vested in democratic and humanitarian principles”, and as such, “vigilantism is not tolerated in any form”. However, this statement was accompanied by the mention that since the beginning of August, the Hellenic Police has on a daily average “prevented approximately 900 illegal entries into the Evros region”, and arrested “hundreds of traffickers”. As long as this harmful narrative is perpetuated by institutions and authorities, members of the alt-right will feel legitimised for the very false vigilantism police officials allegedly do not support, which will continue to be based on the belief that people experiencing flight migration are a general threat to national security.

This becomes evident because the three perpetrators called the police themselves, intending to turn over the alleged arsonists. Their assumption that police authorities would focus their attention on their victims rather than them makes it clear they believed they would be safe from police prosecution. Indeed, alongside their arrest, authorities created a charge sheet concerning the 13 victims, based on the testimony of the three kidnappers. The brief names grounds for suspicion of dangerous arson, and the construction and possession of incendiary devices, as well as “illegal entrance into the country”. On 26 August, Greek newspapers reported that 4 of the 13 individuals were dismissed by authorities after undergoing interrogation. Three days later, the remaining 9 were also discharged.

Unfortunately, the case of the truck driver dubbed “self-proclaimed sheriff” by Greek media, was not the only call for violence among locals these past two weeks. On 23 August, messages from a group chat were leaked, which showed local residents of the areas affected by wildfires intending to go on patrol to illegally detain people who are marked as migrants and refugees.

As the climate crisis will continue to intensify wildfires and increase their frequency, groups that may be targeted in scapegoating reactions must be protected. Simultaneously, national governments and the EU must both acknowledge that their current border security policies are becoming deadlier, leading to immeasurable tragedies. While actions such as illegal push-backs are one aspect of this problem, incidents like the death of dozens of displaced people due to the fires in the Evros region must be received as another reminder of the deadly consequences of the Fortress Europe policies.

Therefore, Project Elpida alongside 26 other civil society organisations have published an open letter pointing to the dangers of the far-right narratives that allow people to mobilise and target people on the move.

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