Seeking Refuge: Greece, long hostile to migrants, turns hospitable under Syriza

In recent years, immigrants living in Greece could expect regular harassment and detention at the hands of police and the far-right Golden Dawn party. But now they feel safe on Greek streets, for the most part.

John Kolesidis/Reuters/File
Greek police escort immigrants to be checked for their documents at the center of Athens in March 2012, as part of a massive roundup of allegedly 'illegal' migrants. Under previous Greek governments, such efforts were frequent and often crossed the line into harassment. The new Syriza government has been working to change that.

The last few years in Greece have not been easy for immigrants like John. Originally from Nigeria, he fled to Greece when his life was threatened at home. But Greece has become in recent years a hostile place for people like him.

Far-right, anti-immigration party Golden Dawn grew in popularity, and racist attacks on migrants in the street became common. As Greece's economic crisis helped fan the flames of xenophobia, the police launched an operation to round up undocumented migrants, which meant often abusive police stops of anyone in the street who looked foreign. And the government detained thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, sometimes for prolonged periods, and often in squalid, overcrowded conditions.

“The last two years, black men were afraid to walk in the streets. Because we were targets of the police – they stop you for nothing. The last two years, I wasn't going out,” says John, who asked to be identified only by his middle name because he is currently undocumented.

But in January, leftist Syriza party won elections after campaigning on promises to end austerity and overhaul Greece's immigration policy. The new government quickly ordered the controversial police operation to end. It didn't take long, says John, to feel the change.

Now he can walk down the street without fearing that he will be harassed by police or attacked by Golden Dawn supporters. “The new government is giving us hope,” he says, adding that he prays for Greece's new leaders every day. “They are trying.”

Rights advocates say the new government's attitude toward migration is refreshing, and they praise the steps it has taken so far to change policy. But they also say some changes are being implemented unevenly, and the government has yet to fully deliver on others. And Greece's dire financial situation means reforms that require spending are difficult, if not impossible, to implement quickly.

“We’ve seen a very positive change. We have a government that says they want to change the situation. It’s easy for [civil society] to communicate with them. It’s a favorable environment for us. But of course it’s not all good,” says Spyros Rizakos, director of Aitima, an organization in Athens that provides aid to asylum seekers and refugees. “So this is the situation: good intentions, but difficulty in realizing them.”

A better relationship with migrants

The new government was swift to begin keeping its promises. In addition to ending the police sweep aimed at immigrants, it created a new ministry to deal with immigration policy. It set up an agency to deal with asylum applications, meaning refugees and asylum seekers no longer have to go to police to handle their paperwork.

Greece's Coast Guard appears to have ended illegal pushback operations in the Aegean Sea, which entail pushing boats of would-be migrants back to Turkey. And the government ordered the release of migrants detained more than 18 months, undocumented migrants held more than six months, asylum seekers, minors, and members of vulnerable groups.

“The first thing we did was to change the perspective of how we deal with immigrants,” says Tasia Christodoulopoulou, new alternate minister for immigration policy. “Because the previous government used to deal only with detention.”

That government broke EU and Greek law by systematically detaining asylum seekers, and by arbitrarily detaining for prolonged periods irregular migrants, including those who could not be deported. Rights groups and the European Court of Human Rights found that the conditions in detention centers were inhuman and degrading.

Eva Cosse, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch, says the creation of the ministry for immigration policy is a positive step, particularly because it will deal not just with irregular migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, but also regular immigration. “As a natural consequence, we hope that there will be better policies, because it will be a holistic approach,” she says.

But rights advocates also say the implementation of reforms hasn't always been even.

'You need a long time'

Mr. Rizakos says in some cases police are still detaining refugees and asylum seekers, like a Sudanese man he recently spent 10 days trying to get released. Unaccompanied minors are still being detained because there are not enough spaces for them in residential shelters. And while Rizakos applauds the opening of the asylum service, he says not enough offices have been opened, leading to long backlogs and areas without service.

Another significant problem is the official reception system on the Greek islands, where the huge increase in the number of arrivals has overwhelmed the system and left many people without adequate shelter, food, and medical care.

Amir Elnour Adam, secretary general of the Sudanese Refugees Association in Greece, says police harassment and attacks by Golden Dawn supporters have decreased. But he says there are many problems that remain: many asylum seekers have trouble accessing healthcare, and access to education is even harder. Asylum applications drag on for years, and many, like Mr. Adam, are given papers they must renew every three months, which means they are not allowed to work.

He says he believes the new government wants to make things better. “But the problem is to change the system, you need a long time. They need four to five years to fix it,” he says.

Ms. Christodoulopoulou acknowledges that problems still exist. She said her ministry is working to find new places in shelters to house minors in order to get them out of detention, and is trying to improve the situation on the islands, both difficult tasks given Greece's financial situation. She also acknowledges reports of asylum seekers being detained, and says there is a need for more coordination.

But Rizakos says despite problems that remain, the shift in the government's attitude has been reflected in society. “There are some good signs, and positive signs in Greek society.” He says people, and even municipalities, are doing more to help migrants, which he attributes to the new atmosphere created by officials.

But he adds that if the thousands released from detention are not protected and accommodated, and end up on the streets, hostility toward them could once again increase. “The dynamics are very volatile,” he says.

Eleftheria Astrinaki contributed to this report.

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