How far right rhetoric has infected mainstream debate on immigration

By Mike Phipps

On October 7th, seven leaders of Greece’s leading neo-Nazi organisation, Golden Dawn, were convicted of running a criminal organisation. The verdict came after five and a half years of trial and 453 days in court and was greeted with relief by large demonstrations of anti-fascists outside the court.

The three-judge court in Athens convicted a rank-and file member of the murder of an anti-fascist rapper, while others were convicted of organising an attack on migrant fishermen. “But the criminal-enterprise conviction was strategic,” explains Paul Mason, “taking in the effective leadership of the party, plus Giannis Lagos, currently an independent member of the European Parliament.”

At its peak eight years ago, Golden Dawn got 14% in the polls. This was more than a parliamentary party of the far right – it was a violent, armed organisation with a paramilitary wing modelled on Hitler’s Nazis. It took a major mobilisation by political parties, NGOs and other civil society initiatives, as well as politicians, academics, intellectuals, artists, and others to push back to the margins this cancer in Greek politics.

At its height, Golden Dawn carried out a two-week-long attack against immigrants in the centre of Athens in May 2011. According to investigative journalist Dimitris Psarras, “Dozens of immigrants were wounded, some of them seriously, and one died. Similar pogroms initiated by Nazis against immigrants occurred throughout Greece in preceding years.”

Today the organisation is formally broken. But its influence has not been extirpated. The Speaker of Greece’s parliament thought nothing of hiring a former Golden Dawn MP and spouse of its leader as a staffer.

Golden Dawn also retains strong support among Greece’s police – the riot squad in particular. Psarras goes so far as to argue that “the police used the organization to do its dirty work in repressing mass demonstrations.” Voting behaviour among the police has shown high support for Golden Dawn at elections.

So last week’s verdict is important and provides some much delayed justice to the victims of Golden Dawn. But by focusing only on the judicial case, argues Augustine Zenakos, “we run the danger of underestimating the fact that Golden Dawn was only the overtly criminal expression of a proliferation of xenophobic and nationalist ideas which have been gaining ground in Greek society all through the previous decade and continue to be widespread today. In this proliferation Golden Dawn was only one player, and arguably not the most important one.”

Even in the elections of September 2015, after three murders and serious criminal charges already levelled against it, Golden Dawn came third, with 480,000 votes and 18 seats in Parliament. Zenakos asserts: “Specific players in politics and the media are complicit in creating a political environment where previously marginal discourse was legitimised, where it gradually became acceptable to discuss xenophobic or nationalist ideas… where policies that would only a few years earlier have been widely considered brutal, authoritarian, or even fascist, were now implemented with a democratic stamp of approval.”

In short, Golden Dawn is part of a landscape of ideas which are shared by centrist politicians and much of the media. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Greece’s asylum policy.

The New Humanitarian reported recently on how a 24-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan was picked up by police outside a grocery store near the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. “Less than 12 hours later, after a long journey in the back of a dark van, the police deposited him around 400 kilometres from Thessaloniki on the banks of the Evros River, which runs along much of the land border between Greece and Turkey.”

This occurred despite the fact that he was a registered asylum seeker with a valid International Protection Applicant’s Card that gave him the right to stay for six months, and prohibited the authorities from removing him from the country while his asylum request was being processed.

The police beat him and, along with 10 other asylum seekers, put him into a small, inflatable boat and forced him to cross to the other side of the river, pushing him out of Greece, and out of the European Union.

Known as pushbacks, these collective expulsions are prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights. While Greece has carried this unlawful policy at the Evros border for years, the tactic of rounding them far from the border and taking their possessions, including their immigration cards is more recent, according to Human Rights Watch.

The tactics is routinely used at sea. Last month the Guardian reported how a rubber dinghy containing 30 refugees was intercepted by the Greek coastguard. “Eight officers in blue shorts and shirts, some wearing black masks and armed with rifles, forced the group – more than half women and including several minors and six small children – to come aboard at gunpoint. They punctured the dinghy with knives and it sank.“

The group were detained through the night without access to toilets and drinking water and their possessions were confiscated. In the morning they were put into a life raft and sent into Turkish waters. It was too small and some people were forced to swim.

Under Greece’s right wing New Democracy government, the use of these illegal pushbacks has surged. The Greek Helsinki Monitor reports that nearly 1,400 people were pushed back between March and July of this year, though the true number may be far higher. There have been fatalities reported in what is an inherently violent policy.

The Greek government denies that this is official policy, but it fits a broader pattern of cracking down on asylum seekers. Since taking office last year, the government has cut access to public healthcare for newly arrived asylum seekers and introduced a new law to exert control over NGOs working with refugees. It also suspended the processing of asylum applications for one month, which the UNHCR denounced as having no legal basis.

But it is not just Greece: the persecution of refugees is on the rise across Europe. German police have been accused by the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee of mistreating asylum seekers. Hungary routinely violates the rights of asylum seekers. The Italian and Czech authorities have also been implicated in illegal pushbacks. In Croatia, testimony was taken from 29 refugees who were attacked by masked officers brandishing knives.

The EU itself is complicit in this policy. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, has praised Greece for being the “shield” of Europe. The European Commission borrowed the narrative of xenophobic parties across Europe, when it nominated a commissioner for ‘protecting the European way of life’—responsible for migration and security combined. As observers noted, “The verb was later changed to ‘promoting’ but the divisive, ‘othering’ undertone remained.”

As reported on Labour Hub two years ago, It was the EU, in 2015, which began herding migrants into ‘hotspots’, such as the notorious camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, to ensure the identification, registration and fingerprinting of people on a systematic basis. Migrants from countries considered to be ‘safe’ were issued with deportation orders, without being informed of their individual right to claim asylum. Amnesty International documented many allegations of the use of force and beatings, as well as “the denial of basic assistance including medical care, food and water” to obtain fingerprints.

“In return for implementing the ‘hotspot’ approach, other EU member states promised Italy and Greece to relocate some 160,000 people across the EU. However, this never materialised and the holding centres have effectively become detention centres for people, now reclassified by the EU as ‘economic migrants’, awaiting forcible return.”

The failure of this policy was highlighted by the fire in Moria, once described as “one of the most hated prisons in Europe.”  Greece’s largest migrant camp, which was originally built for 3,000, but housed over four times that number, burned down in September. Over 13,000 people were stranded, destitute, on a road in Lesvos up to a week later.

Perhaps the EU hoped to turn a page on this indictment of its failed policy.  But its New Pact on Migration and Asylum, unveiled last month, has been characterised  as “effectively a pact between European states against migrants”, aimed at “keeping most migrants from the global South out at all cost.” It seeks to do this “by continuing to erect chains of externalised border control along migrants’ entire trajectories.”

The EU’s approach is not just punitive, it is not going to succeed. As the drivers for immigration from the poorer countries become ever more obvious, it is equally clear that only a policy based on global economic justice and conflict prevention is likely to be effective at stemming the flow of migration.

The rhetoric of ramping up the demonisation of migrants has infected political discourse in the UK too. The Home Office is proposing the use of nets to prevent migrants from crossing the Channel in small boats to claim asylum here. The Guardian reported that the tactic was the latest “to be under consideration by ministers and officials alongside locking migrants up on oilrigs, sending them more than 5,000 miles away to Ascension Island in the south Atlantic and using water cannon to create waves to push back vessels.”

And it’s not just the government. Recently, a Labour peer, Lord West, was forced to apologise after calling for the detention of asylum-seekers in “a concentrated place” such as camps. Such language shows the penetration of hostility to asylum seekers into mainstream discourse.

Fortunately, there is some pushback against these attitudes. The influential Runnymede Trust recently issued a report, From Expendable to Key Workers and Back Again: Immigration and the Lottery of Belonging in Britain. It called, amongst other things, for the scrapping of the government’s Hostile Environment as well as the No Recourse to Public Funds policy, and the ban on asylum seekers working while their claims are processed.

In a new initiative, Migrants Organise has facilitated the creation of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement Charter, setting out some demands and principles articulated by migrant communities. In doing so, it hopes to bring together different migrant communities and seek to situate migrant rights within the broader racial justice movement that has surged in recent months.

The Charter contains some radical demands: an end to the asylum dispersal and destitution policy, to immigration enforcement, raids, detention and deportations, and to charging in the NHS, as well as for full equal access to education, welfare and the right to work for all migrants and people seeking asylum. It also sets out a number of legal demands, including guaranteed access to free and good quality legal advice and representation, and a guaranteed right to appeal.

Last weekend saw a number of coordinated activities against the government’s Hostile Environment policy, from Abergavenny to Halifax, involving migrant-led groups, together with community associations, anti-racist organisations, renters’ unions, climate groups, healthcare workers, and many more.

Zrinka Bralo, CEO of Migrants Organise, said: “This is only the start.” A key focus of future campaigning is the disproportionate impact on migrant communities of coronavirus, in part because of government-imposed barriers to healthcare access. A new report highlights this in detail and emphasises the fear that migrants have of accessing healthcare because of the government’s Hostile Environment policy, as a key factor in higher death rates.

Image: Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Author: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.