After a major crackdown in Athens over the weekend, Greek police say they will deport more than 1,600 illegal immigrants in the days to come. 88 people were sent back to Pakistan on Sunday; some 8,000 people have been detained and most released.
There are about 800,000 legally-registered immigrants in Greece and at least 350,000 who are not. About 90 percent of illegal immigrants who enter Europe do so through Greece, via the land border it shares with Turkey and its numerous islands.
Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Greece
Illegal immigration has become a growing concern and a politically sensitive topic in Greece and one seized upon by far-right party the Golden Dawn. Indeed, last week, members of the Golden Dawn passed out free food outside the Greek parliament but only to Greek citizens who provided personal information, including their blood type.
Greece is in its fifth year of recession and the Greek government is down to the “crucial weeks” of talks with the “troika,” the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission, to ensure that it is following through on pledges made in a bailout agreement. The country is (again) due to run out of cash unless it receives the next tranche of bailout funds. Greece has so far made cuts of 11.5 billion euros; these will likely mean further cuts to pensions and salaries, higher taxes and reductions in government services and agencies.
It all does not bode well for Greece to better tackle the needs of the numerous immigrants who have found their way to its borders.
Amnesty International has accused Greece for treating asylum seeks as criminals and holding them in detention centers. Greece has countered that the European Union should help it address the issue, on the grounds that it bears a disproportionate burden.
Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias: “The immigration problem is perhaps even bigger than the financial one”
Regardless, the issue of illegal immigration exposes some ugly attitudes among politicians. Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said immigrants are a “bomb at the foundations of the society and of the state” and that the “best thing that could happen to them” is to return to their home countries.” According to the daily Ekathimerini, Dendias told Skai radio that “Our social fabric is in danger of unraveling. The immigration problem is perhaps even bigger than the financial one.”
Dendias also compared the “invasion of immigrants” to the arrival of the Dorians who are believed (there is no conclusive historical evidence) to have migrated from the north to the Peloponnese in the south at the end of the Bronze Age (around 1100 BCE) and to have played a role in the fall of the ancient Mycenean civilization, which is evoked in the epic poetry of Homer.
The code name of the crackdown operation, Xenios Zeus, also drew on Greece’s past; Xenios Zeus evokes the chief of the Olympian gods in his roles as patron of hospitality and guests. According to Dendias, the name shows that the campaign is “designed to restore the basic human rights of immigrant people in Greece.” But Dendias seems to be operating according to his own definition of human rights:
“The way illegal immigrants lived they had no human rights. They were crammed in rundown, unhealthy basement apartments. They were conned by smuggling rings into believing they would be able to get a job and travel to Europe.”
“Xenios” not only means “host” and “guest.” It also means “stranger” and is the root word of the English “xenophobia.” Dendias’ code name may be even more appropriate than he realizes.
In the face of uncertainty about the country’s economic fate, tourism has been down in Greece though a rash of bookings by the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have given it a bit of a boost. Viewpoints like that of Dendias unfortunately suggest that Greece is a place that welcomes only some within its borders.
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Photo of Pakistani immigrants in Athens by kouk