Welcome to Europe: You Are Stuck in the Laboratory

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In the south-eastern corner of Europe, Greece is heavily affected by the economic crisis. Greece is used as a laboratory for neoliberal policies that impoverish the population – and create social unrest and confusion. Meanwhile, fascists and neo-Nazis spread hate from Parliament and assault people in the streets, posing a serious danger to migrants.

BY Kirstine Nordentoft Mose & Mikas Lang • Illustration by Armsrock


Not an unusual story

On Monday the 5th of November 2012, 29-year-old Waleed Taleb, an undocumented migrant from Egypt, was found chained to a tree on the Island of Salamina west of Athens. His body bore evidence of a severe and brutal beating. Taleb’s boss admitted to tying him up, accusing him of stealing from the bakery he worked in. Taleb, however, had a very different story to tell the police. His boss had attacked him, together with a group of others, in order to take away his wage and the money he was bringing to his colleagues that day. After this, the Greek perpetrator was allowed to go while Taleb is in prison for not having a legal residence permit.
As the story of Taleb shows, it involves high stakes being a migrant in Greece at the moment. We sat down with members of Crisis Mirror, a Copenhagen based group that includes people experienced with living and struggling in Greece, to get a better grasp of the situation. One of member of the group explained the situation for migrants like this:

“I think that being a migrant now in Greece, in Athens, must be one of the worst things you can experience in your life. Greece has become some kind of concentration camp for Europe.”

According to Salinia Stroux, an activist with many years of practical experience working with migrants in Greece, there are several reasons for the current situation for migrants: The economic crisis, the repressive migration policies, and lastly the rise of the neo-Nazis. These factors are reinforced by negative discourse in the media, where migrants are interrelated with “criminality” and “ghettoization”.’

Economic Crisis and Massive Debt

As many will know, the Greek state has a massive debt. The so-called “Troika”, consisting of the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) continuously lends money and imposes new cut-backs, lay-offs, and other austerity-measures in return for loans. This leads to what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his 2010 essay “A Permanent Economic Emergency” describes as a state of emergency: “We are now entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent: turning into a constant, a way of life.”

Echoing Žižek, a member of Crisis Mirror portrays the situation like this: “Everything is happening so rapidly that you cannot absorb all the changes that are happening. This state of emergency becomes normal with the neoliberal reconfiguration of politics and economy.”

These changes include higher taxes, cuts in wages amounting to a rough average of 33 % as of last year, and public pensions being withheld, while public institutions such as schools and hospitals face dramatic cuts in their bud-gets. With the latest round of austerity-measures the state introduced a fee for going to the hospital, signalling an end to public welfare in Greece.

The loan-conditions set by the Troika is an example of structural adjustment programmes similar to what countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia faced in the 1980’s and 90’s, containing widespread privatization and deprivation of public services and goods, and causing several revolts. A part of the Greek debt, like in many countries, especially in Latin America, adheres from a right-wing military dictatorship. Therefore many compare Greece’s situation to that of Argentina in the early 2000’s. Argentina eventually declared bankruptcy in 2002. Crisis Mirror describes the Greek loans clearly:

“The loans are going directly to serve the Greek debts. The money that the EU lends Greece is not going to the Greeks but to pay off the debts, so it actually ends with the banks. The money flow goes through the Greek banks, as the middle men, and then back to the banks, which are mostly European banks; especially German and French banks.”
That the loans are not helping the economic situation is clear, as the public debt has risen from 127 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 170 per cent in 2011, according to EUROSTAT, the official office of statistics of the European Commission.

Greece sealing the borders

The story of the migrant and refugee situation in Greece is strongly interrelated with European migration policies. Here the Dublin II regulation from 2003 comes into play. The Dublin II determines which EU country is responsible for the treatment of asylum-claims. According to the Dublin II, an asylum-claim is to be treated in the first EU country the claimant was registered in. As a consequence of this, the different EU countries send refugees back to the first country they were registered in.

Being a country on the external border of EU, many refugees enter Greece first. Therefore the asylum-system in Greece has been under much pressure in the last decade. In January 2011, The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) consequently stated that the asylum conditions in Greece were so critical that it is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights to deport refugees back to Greece. Since then it has been illegal according to the ECHR to do so. Still many migrants are stuck in Greece, some trying to hide under trucks going further into Europe. On the other hand, according to Salinia Stroux, the Greek government ends up doing the work of the EU:

“The Greek government is doing exactly what Europe wants: sealing the borders, arresting everybody, detaining them for as long as possible no matter if their deportation is feasible or not and deporting as many as possible.”

The government is undertaking new measures to arrest and control as many migrants as possible. According to Salinia Stroux, it is clear that there are no limits to what can happen in regard to migration-policies:

“On August 4th, 2012 the new government started the ‘Xenios Zeus’ operation – ironically named after the god of hospitality. Until today the police have temporarily arrested 48.402 migrants of which 3.668 were finally detained. Only every 13th arrested person could finally be detained because all the others had regular residence permits. In this period the police controlled and arres-ted migrants not only in public space but also in shops, internet-cafes and in private homes and hotels. They searched 419 houses of migrants.“

Salinia explains how the police usually arrest masses of persons and transfer them to police stations. Then only after hours of detention do they finally control their papers.

Migrants are the cheap labor and the scapegoats

In the context of the economic crisis, migrants in Greece ends up being exploited as cheap labor and at the same time blamed for taking the work from supposedly ‘Greek people’. Salinia Stroux paints a clear picture of the current social situation:

“It becomes more and more difficult – for everybody – to survive in Greece, specifically for the more vulnerable parts of society such as migrants. At the same time there is still no social welfare system for anyone, no functioning reception system for refugees and no integration policy for migrants. People are left to survive by their own means on the streets, without shelter, food or basic medical aid. Most people are collecting garbage in order to earn 1-5 Euro a day by recycling – if they are lucky.”

And in the shadow of the economic crisis the exploitation of migrants becomes a means to survive for some. A member of Crisis Mirror explains how farmers exploit migrants:

“Migrants were and are still being exploited as cheap labor power. There have been a lot of cases where migrants worked in the fields. Then because the migrants didn’t have papers the landowners would call the police: ‘Arrest the migrants and deport them.’ So they would work the whole summer and when the pay-date would come, the landowners would call the police so they wouldn’t have to pay them.”

Facing these massive economic problems and unwilling to admit their own faults or to confront the EU, the political elite in Greece tries to use the migrants as scapegoats:

“In the main public discourse by the government and the fascists the migrants are the most important problem of Greece. ‘It is not the crisis – it is the migrants’. For example, the government claims that the migrants living in Athens are a danger to the whole society, because they supposedly carry diseases and are perpetrators of crime. Crime is overemphasized in the production of the image of the supposedly dangerous migrants and not unemployment, as is the case in other EU countries, because the barbaric labour regimes of Greece, particularly those that the migrants have to uptake in the country are widely known. The governments of both socialists and conservatives started the racist campaign against the immigrants, constructing them as a ‘social problem’. The government of Greece legitimises the rhetoric and the murderous practices of the Nazis, who supposedly are better at solving the particular problem that the government produced in order to create a scapegoat and orientate public anger related to the barbarous neoliberal attack against the Greek society.”

This hostile climate in which migrants are easy scapegoats creates the possibility for the escalation of the situation.

Want a job? Greeks only!

In the midst of this economic state of emergency, with its confusion and blaming of migrants, there is Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) an outspoken neo-Nazi party on the rise using a swastika-looking symbol and praising various figures of Nazi Germany. The rhetoric of the party is reawakening the rhetoric of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. Golden Dawn has 7 % of the seats in parliament at the moment, and their popularity is only increasing. In some of the latest polls they were reportedly getting 12 % of the seats in parliament, according to BBC. A member of Crisis Mirror tells how Golden Dawn present themselves as protectors of the people:

“They say that they oppose the austerity-measures; that they oppose the EU and what it is doing. And they put all this into a ‘conspiracy level’, like the New World Order, the Zionists, the Jews, but of course when it comes to privatization and when it comes to what capital wants to do, they never react. They proclaim that they are going to beat, eventually, the rich. At the same time they beat only the poor.”

The poor, who are beaten, are in this case mostly synonymous with the migrants, as they are the most precarious and marginalized group in Greece. But according to Golden Dawn, this is not the case. Their enemy is clear: Migrants. Golden Dawn present themselves as being in solidarity with the general population; however, this “accidentally” always coincides with the opportunity to hurt migrants. One never hears of the neo-Nazis attacking corrupt politicians, foreign banks, or other institutions that actually bear responsibility for the Greek problems.

One can see a prime example of this neo-Nazi practice in their job-centres. The economic crisis has taken a heavy toll on the Greek labour market. The unemployment rate is around 25 % and half of the youth are without jobs, according to Stathis Kouvelakis’ article “The Greek Cauldron” from November 2011. In the face of this, members of Golden Dawn have tried to win popular support by creating private job centres in various cities. This is seemingly a nice display of solidarity. However, these jobs are ”Only for Greeks”. The Golden Dawn definition of a Greek is “a Caucasian with at least one Greek parent,” as members of Crisis Mirror tells. This job service entails that the Golden Dawn thugs, infamous for their violent behaviour, try to persuade or, occasionally, blackmail business-owners to fire migrant workers.

Golden Dawn does not stop at providing this overtly racist “service”. In addition, their gangs of thugs are reported to threaten, rob, and attack shops owned by migrants. Thus, it is clear that their aim is not to get people employed or to better the Greek economy as much as it is to exclude the migrants completely from the labour market and thereby worsen an already difficult condition for the most marginalized groups of the Greek society.

Attacked in their homes

In the shadow of the economic crisis and the construction of migrants as scapegoats as a legitimizing factor, violent attacks against migrants are increasing. As of the summer of 2012, there had been more than 500 registered attacks since the beginning of the year. As Salinia Stroux explains, this creates an environment of fear:

“All over Athens, but specifically in certain neighborhoods with a higher density of migrant population and a higher activity of the neo-Nazis, one cannot walk relaxed on the street or sit in a park or square as a migrant. You always turn around to watch your back and there is constant fear. Many people are even afraid while they are inside their homes, because fascists have attacked them even in their private space.”

The attacks are escalating, and according to Crisis Mirror the fascists have even started to attack children – exemplified through the story of an Afghan father and his son, who was attacked when going out of their home to find food.

When the attacks on migrants become an everyday phenomena, which no one pays attention to anymore, the state reacts only when it fits its agenda. According to Crisis Mirror, this is an example of the state of emergency becoming the rule, rather than the exception:

“The state is very strong and has good reflexes but it only reacts to parti-cular things. When it comes to immigrants, you can do whatever you want, there is not going to be any consequences. There have been many times, where Nazis were beating migrants. Eventually the police would arrest the migrants that were attacked. The law isn’t working, as it should. It is not about justice, it is about something else.“

In an interview with BBC a member of the Golden Dawn estimated that 60 % of the police force supported the party during the last election. This number is an estimation and, as Crisis Mirror points out, it might be exagge-rated to marginalize the police from the rest of the population. Regardless of the specific statistics, the current situation seems to have grave implications for migrants:

“This means that even for the ones who have papers and could file a report against a perpetrator of a hate crime to the authorities often cannot do so, because the police just denies to receive it. There have been almost no hate crime cases brought to the court in Greece and certainly there is almost no perpetrator who was punished by the juridical system. For this reason the neo-Nazis feel absolutely free to do whatever they like.”
In the meantime, anti-fascist groups and pro-migration grassroot movements try to empower migrants by providing Greek-language, legal assistance, and other kinds of services. Some migrant communities are also building up internal organizational structures, e.g. communal dinners, and other community building activities to protect themselves from attacks from Golden Dawn.

The Laboratory

It is illusory to speak of a “Greek” crisis. The EU’s austerity-measures, the Dublin II and the IMF’s involvement prove otherwise. Thus, what we are witnessing is a European, and, in some ways, Global crisis with particular and harsh social impacts in Greece. Tens of thousands of migrants are stuck in Greece as a result of the Dublin-trap, readmission agreements and the – according to Schengen Treaty – illegal control of internal EU-borders. All of Greece strives to maintain some sort of livelihood, with the migrants as the most precarious group in economic and social terms. The neo-Nazis are on the rise, posing a serious danger to migrants, homosexuals, leftists, and others who do not fit in their vision.

At the same time the political and economic elite benefit from the fasc-ist movement, as they help create a public discourse depicting migrants, not capitalism, as the cause of crisis. However, this is not their only function. The fascists also keep the left preoccupied so that they are not able to focus on the class war that is being waged from above in form of the Troika, the Government, and financial capital.

Crisis Mirror suggests that Greece and the rest of Southern Europe is only the first to experience severe crisis. Greece functions as a form of laboratory, where new neoliberal policies are being tested for future use. What they experience in Greece at the moment, could be a warning for the rest of Europe.


Stathis Kouvelakis: “The Greek Cauldron”, New Left Review 72, Nov-Dec 2011
Slavoj Žižek: “A Permanent Economic Emergency”, New Left Review 64, July-Aug 2010.
Paul Mason, “Alarm at Greek police ‘collusion’ with far-right Golden Dawn”, BBC, 17th October 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-19976841

Crisis Mirror

is a multidisciplinary and diverse political group based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Their purpose is to produce, share and redistribute counter-information about the capitalist crisis ongoing in Denmark and the rest of the world. By providing political analysis as well as organizing public events and actions, the group aims to mobilize people and show its solidarity to fellow movements, groups and individuals.

Salinia Stroux

has been working in the field of refugee support in Greece for the past six years. She is a member of the network “Welcome to Europe”, the grassroots project “Infomobile Greece”, and co-writer of the Pro Asyl funded reports: “Walls of shame”, “I came here for peace!” and “Human Cargo”.