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Greece before the presidential elections: A migration policy review

Nea Dimokratia, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been in government since 2019. In the context of migration, these years have been marked by isolation, exclusion and criminalisation. In our current advocacy blog, we review the past 4 years.

Despite Greece having been a site of first arrival for refugees and migrants since the beginning of the 20th century, this fact became heavily politicised and the country gained international attention for its geographical location as an “external European border” since the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015. Since the electoral victory of the centre-right party Nea Dimokratia and its presidential candidate Kyriakos Mitsotakis in 2019, the government has come under repeated scrutiny due to a sharp increase in pushbacks on land and on sea, as well as the construction of new, closed-off and strictly controlled camps. While the situation of asylum-seekers and displaced people in general is far from the only highly contested topic in view of the upcoming general elections, it still ranks as high-profile. On 21 May, Greece will vote again. In this blog entry, Project Elpida lays out the most important developments and policies introduced since Mitsotakis took office and provides an outlook for what’s to come if he scores another win this May.

Nea Dimokratia Wins the 2019 Elections

Within the first few months since Mitsotakis had come into power with Nea Dimokratia in 2019, the government enforced a legislation which significantly eases the processes of deportations for asylum seekers whose applications have been denied. According to a 2019 news report by POLITICO, the then-newly elected party stated that these policies echoed the general preference of voters, as pre-election surveys had shown that the issues regarding the refugee- and migration movements into the country had been a priority for the people who would be taking to the ballots. Indeed, at the time of the change in government, UNHCR’s High Commissioner Filippo Grandi had been on a visit to Greece, upon which he reported that “patience and hospitality are now less visible than before”. However, Mitsotakis’ politics over the last four years cannot be described as being marked by a serious effort to create an equitable system for both locals and refugee-migrants. Rather, his polemic rhetoric alone arguably promotes further conflict, and the countless human rights breaches committed during this legislative period have worsened the overall situation for displaced people who are hoping to arrive safely in the EU.

When the Prime Minister visited the Ministry of Asylum in May of 2021, he described a strategy of “six critical points”. Firstly, he stated that he seeks the “protection of borders at sea and on land”, and secondly, a strict distinction between refugees and “economic migrants”, which more easily allows for the “return” of those who do not have a “right to international protection”. Another critical point of his politics has been the establishment of closed, controlled infrastructures. Moreover, he emphasised an alleged need for “transparency of NGOs that are involved with the management of the refugee issue”. One consequence of this phrasing is the increasingly systematic criminalisation of humanitarians in Greece. We have already talked about the case of Sarah Mardini and Séan Binder in a previous blog. Finally, he described his last point as obtaining “justice for everyone who has the right to remain in the country” upon acceptance of their application for asylum, accompanied by the “concentrated effort of integration” for the recipients of Greek asylum. Further, he spoke of the reduction of arrivals in Greece, which had, according to him, fallen from 72,000 in 2019 to 15,000 in 2020 and “just 2,500 in 2021”. This reduction, he stated, was significant, and had been “felt particularly on the islands of the Aegean”. The Minister of Migration Notis Mitarakis agreed that this was a development worthy of great importance, along with the reduction of so-called “smuggler-activity” at the country’s border regions.

By using the narrative of “border protection”, the representatives of the ruling party legitimise reactionary theories of displaced people being a supposed threat to public safety, a sentiment which has significantly risen across the EU in the last decade. Additionally, the decline in numbers of arrivals is undoubtedly linked to the increase in illegal pushbacks and deportations since Nea Dimokratia came to power . Even though the Nea Dimokratia insist on dismissing all reports on pushbacks as Turkish propaganda, Mitsotakis sort of admitted to these practices himself. In November of 2021, the PM spoke on the issue on ITV’s show Good Morning Britain, stating that Greece had accepted more than 50,000 asylum applications in the last three years, and that “therefore no one has the right to accuse Greece of not respecting human rights”. How true can this last statement be considering the rest of this televised interview? Shortly thereafter, he responds to the question whether his government participates in the pushbacks of dinghies by stating the following: “We don’t allow boats coming from Turkey to enter our territorial waters”, and that it was the responsibility of the Turkish government to honour its role as stipulated in the EU-Türkiye agreement. In 2022, he defended this particular stance further at a Strasbourg plenary, countering the numerous reports of illegal pushbacks by human rights activists and international humanitarian organisations, such as UN agencies. Mitsotakis once again claimed that the creator of these allegations – which are all based on thorough investigations and the evidence often discovered by international bodies – is the Turkish government, as part of a wider propaganda strategy. Not only does this reflect a striking lack of accountability and transparency on the government’s behalf, but these public statements have the potential to additionally heighten tensions in Greek-Turkish relations and partially undermine efforts to resolve a long-lasting enmity.

Will Mitsotakis Really Build the Fence?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ policies have repeatedly gained international attention. The construction of numerous highly surveilled and shielded-off camps, his heated and unprofessional reaction to the questions by Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel, and his policies of increasing police presence in Greek urban centres and on many islands have been reported on exhaustively. However, it is important to not only consider the developments of the past four years, but also retain an outlook of what could possibly lie ahead were he to be elected again this May. As alarming reports about European MPs considering the construction of a fence along the Greek-Turkish land border have surfaced in the past months, it has become clear that the Greek PM is not opposed to this idea. Mitsotakis has announced this past week that the existing fence alongside the border of Türkiye to the Evros-region, which is currently approximately 37 kilometres long and was built in coordination with the EU border agency Frontex, will be expanded by more than another 100 kilometres. These plans, he assured the Greek parliament, will be enforced “with or without EU money”, and they are calculated to cost 99,2 million euros. While the parliamentary opposition denounced this shocking revelation, it is yet unclear what would happen if a different party is elected before the completion of the fence’s construction, or if the election results result in a coalition. Moreover, Mitsotakis has been continuously praised by the EU for his migration-politics. Therefore, even if fences might currently seem to be a step too far for the majority of the Union’s key representatives, the possibility of this inhumane project receiving significant support by the EU in the future is not completely out of the question yet.

While Nea Dimokratia has been responsible for an escalation in human rights violations through the politics of illegal pushbacks since 2019, the ruling party alongside most EU member-states has also received some praise for the reception of people fleeing the full-scale invasion of Ukraine from February 2022 onwards. According to a news report by the New Humanitarian, approximately 72,000 Ukrainians had entered Greece in the first four months since Russia’s offensive, with more than 18,000 having applied for protection under the EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), which had notably never been used before. A spokesperson for the Greek Council for Refugees stated that the reception of Ukrainians had been very positive. As concerns were expressed about the difference in treatment between those fleeing the war in Ukraine and displaced persons from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Syria, it became clear that the system the former were able to access was completely different. An advocacy coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Greece shared that while she approved the then-recent structures provided for refugees from Ukraine, she and others in the humanitarian sector had long been advocating for the opening of safe routes for other groups, as well. The striking difference in the treatment of specific communities highlights the injustices committed in the past four years even further. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the EU and all its member states to call on their proclaimed universalist humanitarian worldview and end human rights abuses regardless of the ethnic background of any person on the move. Instead of backing politicians such as Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Union must hold governments accountable for not adhering to international law.

The aegis of Kyriakos Mitsotakis since 2019 has been characterised by migration policy of isolation and a prioritisation of national territory, no matter what clandestine methods he has to use. The rhetoric of refugees being perceived as a threat to internal security and destabilisers of the country has now become commonplace. It is uncertain whether this will change even if SYRIZA wins the elections, but it is certain that an election victory would reinforce Mitsotakis' approach, which would likely push the policy of sealing off the country even further

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