Xenophobia and racism in the island communities: yet another loss caused by the EU - Turkey "Deal"
The Greek islands where the Reception and Identification Centers (R.I.Cs) are located, also known as “Hot-Spots” (on Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos), are at the heart of the EU – Turkey Statement implementation. Nowadays, many tend to forget what the locals on the islands remember well, that the Hot Spots, before they turned into R.I.Cs, were created and introduced as registration centers for the newly arrived refugees and migrants. The registration process was designed to be completed within 72 hours. Immediately after the Statement of 20 March 2016, the Hot Spots were transformed into “closed camps”, although this plan quickly collapsed. In practice, Hot Spots have now been turned into “open” confinement spaces, while the sustainability of the Statement increasingly depends on the restrictions of movement imposed on those arriving on the five Aegean islands.
Along with the refugees and migrants who endure the tragic consequences of this reality, the local communities have been through great tensions due to the implementation of the Statement during the past two years. Even though the locals experienced the mass arrivals in 2015 with tolerance and even with chivalry, the emergence of a considerable number of confined people living under miserable conditions has triggered a xenophobic delirium in parts of the local population. Violent racist attacks against the refugees as well as attacks in citizens showing solidarity to refugees and employees of NGOs for the support of refugees have been recorded on the islands of Chios, Leros and Samos. The political processes that came after the Statement, the risky diplomacy on the EU political agenda, and the manipulation by the government and the local authorities in their effort to balance the growing tensions, have created suspicion and have provided the opportunity for groups with vested interests and far-right political parties to negatively influence the islands’ political climate.
The infrastructure of the Hot Spots was never adequate to host large numbers of people and especially vulnerable groups. Refugees and migrants were hastily stashed in iso-boxes, UNHCR tents and summer tents in between trash and effluent. Insecurity and violence are dominant in these spaces. The rampant deterioration in the mental health of refugees and migrants and the exhausting living conditions that have been imposed on them have an immediate negative impact on their prosperity and lives as well as that of the inhabitants of neighboring villages surrounding the Hot Spots. This reality has led to frequent tension and further alienation of the local communities regarding the refugee population which is now trapped on the islands.
Two years after the EU – Turkey Statement was announced, the situation on the islands remains extremely problematic. The municipal authorities and local teams are in discordance with the views of the Minister for Migration Policy. They are using legal and political means to prevent the planned expansion of Hot Spots in Moria, Lesvos, and Vial, Chios. This does not mean that the locals disagree with the European migration policy. Their reaction is mainly the result of the realization that the Aegean islands are being used as a safety zone in order to prevent, delay or discourage those who are trying to reach Europe.
Arsons, attacks with brass knuckles, vandalisms hate speech and discord. In the last two years, the list of racially motivated attacks against refugees, migrants and attacks against Greek citizens showing solidarity to refugees is long, and is fueled by the impasse that the majority of the refugee population is experiencing and to the new situation the local community is finding itself in following the EU – Turkey Statement. The tension on the Aegean islands is particularly high – refugees and locals both have reached their limits, because of the creation of Hot Spots and the confinement conditions.
This timeline presents some indicative incidents of all the hate crimes that happened on the islands in the previous two years.
Following serious episodes during the previous night, more than five hundred Syrian refugees (mostly families) confined in the Hot Spot of Vial following the onset of the “Deal”, open the doors of the Hot Spot and walk 10 kilometers to the city port. They will stay there as a sign of protest, requesting that they be allowed to leave the island. Eight days later, under a state of terror caused by far-right groups, the port is evacuated by the police and the coast-guard and the refugees are transferred to Souda camp in the city. This incident will signal the beginning of a series of racist attacks and pogroms mostly by far-right extremists that will last a year and will fall partially under control with the conviction of Golden Dawn member Mattheos Mermigkousis.
Motorized patrolling locals on Leros spread terror on the island, verbally abusing and threatening refugees; meanwhile, members of NGOs and volunteers receive threats and some leave the island. On July 7, there was a riot of refugees in the Hot Spot. Tensions continued in the following days.
Attacks against journalists and a paralympian
Protest gathering in Chios central square against the refugee and migration policy. (At the end of the gathering, a group of 150 people moves towards the Souda refugee camp, chanting the National Anthem and shouting slogans against migrants and refugees). The gathering is led by Golden Dawn members and local journalists are attacked.
huffingtonpost aljazeera youtube
Demonstration of Moria’s residents outside Mytilene City Hall, on the initiative of Moria local council. Members of the far-right who had entered the demonstration attack four passing-by women, known for their solidarity with the refugees. The Lesvos’ MP of New Democracy party, Charalambos Athanassiou, in his announcement, hailed the protest, stating that he stands with “your sincere fight for the rescue of our Lesvos”. On the same day, according to testimonies outside Moria, a resident of the area attacks a refugee mother of four.
With video: keeptalkinggreece.com (video) youtube
November 17-19, 2016
Multitude of racist attacks in Souda. The Night of Broken Glass for the refugees in Chios.
Serious attacks by a group of around thirty people, using molotovs and large stones, took place against refugees and migrants as well as citizens showing solidarity with refugees in the camp of Souda, Chios. The episodes continued for three days, resulting in the serious injury of two refugees and the burning of at least 100 tents.
April 20, 2017 – Chios
Battery and threats by far-right extremists against refugees and the Chios Police Chief. Far-right extremists are causing new episodes in response to a Basque NGO’s intention to use a former clinic site to provide services for refugees and locals. Members of Golden Dawn almost hit the island’s new Chief of Police. Three people are injured from an attack with stones by persons belonging to the far-right at the Souda refugee camp. The police arrests seven refugees and migrants, who were reportedly defending themselves. There has been a preceding protest of the locals, led by a priest holding a hate speech against the establishment of the clinic. On the same night, refugees are attacked on a main road in Chios town. Golden Dawn member Mattheos Mermigkousis is sentenced to 12 months of imprisonment for public incitement to violence based on racial discrimination (article 1, Law 4285/2014). It is the first conviction on Chios based on the anti-racist law.
Xenophobia and racism, the toxic consequences of the EU – Turkey “Deal” on the local communities: Case study – Chios island
The violent implementation of the EU – Turkey Statement, that led to the confinement of 1500 refugees, in just two days, on Chios island, has caused chain reactions in the months to follow. An significant part of the local community slipped into extreme positions. Many were led or chose to behave and act in a racist manner. Violent attacks against refugee camps, racist pogroms, clashes with the police, attacks on journalists and citizens showing solidarity, attacks on the offices of groups that support refugees, and, even, militia are only some of the things that happened in the past two years and a first for the island. The implementation of the Statement has poisoned the local community.
The first victims were the local groups that stand with refugees and have been active for many years, as well as their members, who were targeted attacked by extreme groups as the ones mostly accountable for the arrival, stay and support of refugees on the island. Next in line, were the refugees living inside or outside Souda camp, culminating to the racist pogrom in November 2016 that resulted to refugees and citizens showing solidarity being injured. To this day, only one of the alleged perpetrators of the attacks has .
The great tension of the events and the implementation of the Statement at any cost has led Chios Municipal Authorities to backtrack. From the Chios Mayor’s decision to borrow 750.000€ for the purchase of the building of the Hot-Spot (“Vial”) and his active participation in managing “Souda” camp within a year, we are now at a point where the Mayor is filing lawsuits before the courts, asking for the Ministry to be evicted from the Hot Spot and trying in every way to prevent its expansion.
The backtracking of the Ministry for Migration Policy and of the Minister in charge and, mostly, the tough aspect of the EU – Turkey Statement imposing restrictions on movement, as well as the subsequent confinement of refugees within the island, has overthrown the balance and the memories of the locals themselves about being a refugee. In the explosive climate of the two years of the Statement’s implementation, the local community has shifted in its majority and reacts to even the short stay of refugees and migrants on the island. In a recent research (12/2017) of Kapa Research on North Aegean, the refugee / immigration issue is considered by the locals as the most important issue for all the North Aegean islands, even more important than the issue of unemployment or the economic crisis. It is not by accident that the locals have organized a series of public events, such as protests, every time there is a rumor for the creation of pre-removal detention centers, crowded gatherings at Chios’ central square, or the official position of the hotelier association to not rent their hotels rooms to refugees.
In the two years since the implementation of the Statement, Chios island – just like any other North Aegean island, seems to have lost a piece of its soul and to deeply worry about its future.
Observing the refugee problem from the front line, for almost four years now, one can notice a shift in the public opinion in Chios, from holding indifferent opinions to now holding racist and xenophobic ones. This is, of course, one’s initial perception of things, because, gradually, xenophobic views have come to dominate the media, the social media or isolated local events.
This shift and the partial crystallization of this first perception gradually begun shaping itself after the implementation of the EU – Turkey Deal, with the confinement in the island of thousands of refugees and migrants, the worsening of the living conditions and the absence of any future prospect for the confined ones.
Great responsibility lies with the government and the European Union, the municipality of Chios and the local actors, the media and, of course, civil society itself, which, from being an active part in the management of the refugee problem’s consequences evolved into a passive receiver of xenophobic views and racist outcry. And the ones responsible here are not only those who can yell more loudly than the others, but also those who, in the best of cases, are listening to or tolerate them.
Journalist – website manager, astraparis.gr