Sitting in the sunny, relaxed port town of Mytilene, Greece, the political world feels very far away. But in the days leading up to Sunday’s elections, it is here that the biggest battle for the future of Greece and Europe is taking place: Mytilene is the site of a massive wave of people trying to reach Europe.
These are the refugees whose lives Greek and European forthcoming policy choices will affect. Until their fate is decided, hundreds of refugees are sitting under trees in the blistering afternoon sun.
Sept. 20 will be the third time Greeks go to the ballot this year, if you include the July 5 referendum over whether to accept further austerity measures demanded by the troika — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Polls show that left-wing Syriza and center-right New Democracy are in the lead, but surveys vary, and the winner is still very hard to predict. Though the incumbent parties have clung to their popularity, this vote will be very different: Greeks are voting not just on the economic policies that will shape their lives but also on the future of the Syrians and Afghan refugees lining up outside ticket offices, hoping to secure passage on the next ferry to mainland Greece on their way to Western and Northern Europe. There, closed borders, fences and tear gas await them as a growing number of refugees scramble toward a better life in Germany, Sweden and elsewhere.
Last week Hungary greeted a group of Syrian refugees trying to reach Germany with water cannons and tear gas. A video shot by a passenger shows the Turkish coast guard using a a water cannon on a dinghy full of refugees crossing from Turkey. Incidents like these are taking place across the routes that refugees are using, and they reflect a toughening stance by governments like that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has taken it on himself to block those fleeing conflict, torture and death from reaching a better life, in the name of an imaginary, besieged Christian Europe.
The same rhetoric has taken hold in the Czech Republic and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and its consequences are tearing the European Union apart. The financial crisis and the negotiations between Greece and its lenders brought an end to the free movement of capital within the EU (Greece is still imposing capital controls); now Germany and other countries are bringing back border checks, ending the freedom of movement that defined the idea of the EU almost from the start. As the violation of basic human rights in refugee holding facilities across the continent is tolerated, the EU of solidarity exists only in the imagination of Brussels officials.
While Germany has sped up the processing asylum seekers and takes care of Syrian refugees with a rather generous welfare package on arrival, its initial promise to accept 800,000 people this year was quietly abandoned after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement proved too controversial. With the excuse that “too many are coming,” Germany quickly reimposed border controls. As is the case across the EU, the motive to keep foreigners out is therefore largely political.
In Greece the national dialogue has long focused on austerity politics and economics. This can’t go on — not least because there is little left for Greeks to lose. Austerity is now an uncompromisable reality. It will be harsh and will almost definitely hit those who are already worse off even harder. Politicians from most of the main parties are now simply arguing who will manage it better.
In the midst of this sense of hopelessness, New Democracy has adopted the same refugee-bashing line as Orban and other right-wing politicians across Europe in order to mobilize voters. Its members of parliament accuse Syriza of operating an open-door policy. They believe that closing the land border between Greece and Turkey, along the Evros River, was a great idea, essentially pushing people to take the more dangerous sea route, with hundreds of them drowning in the process.
This rhetoric could prove dangerously seductive: According to the German Marshall Fund’s trans-Atlantic trends 2014 survey, 84 percent of Greek respondents said they were worried about immigration from outside the EU, 56 percent wanted a more restrictive refugee policy and 75 percent disapproved of their government’s handling of the issue. The refugee situation has worsened significantly since the poll was conducted. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that in July alone more than 52,242 refugees — more than in all of 2014 — arrived in Greece, putting the total at 160,000 so far this year.
Syriza took power in January, and Greece has seen the biggest inflows of refugees during its time in government. The party seems reluctant to stress the subject, but Yiorgos Palis, the party’s candidate in Lesbos, worries that if Syriza loses ground, Greece will begin to treat refugees aggressively and inhumanely. “The policies New Democracy enacted before were almost criminal” he told me before taking to the stage at a party rally. “We will definitely have more deaths.”
“Until last week, we hosted as many refugees as there are residents” of Lesbos, he said. “There was a lot of widespread tension, in both groups. Now normality has been restored. At the peak of the crisis, the far right showed its face … but I now think people will look at Sunday with a cooler head.”
Despite Palis’ optimism, the situation remains precarious. In Kara Tepe, the main facility where refugees are processed in the region, the situation improved after more officials were sent from Athens to help with administrative matters. But there are still thousands of people stuck in Lesbos. In a facility in Moria, overcrowding and clashes between refugees and the police occur often.
The United Nations is helping improve poor conditions. It’s effectively doing the job of the Greek police, who simply don’t have the staff to tackle registering and processing all the refugees. Nevertheless, many refugees are de facto detainees for 24 hours, and with the new facilities that are being set up by the state and the EU, a harsher government could choose to detain people for longer. In March in a facility in Amygdaleza, thousands of refugees were kept for more than 18 months, contrary to Greek law.
All these actions are playing into the hands of the most extreme voices. Politicians who consider themselves on the center right — from Britain to Hungary and now Greece — are inviting more trouble than they bargain for by pandering to voters’ unfounded fears. In doing so, they are flirting with the end of the EU as we know it, threatening to turn the union into a series of voluntarily treaties, to be enforced or ignored at the whim of national governments.
The idea that the EU can be taken seriously as an economic and political entity as long as this is happening is reprehensible. At the edges of fortress Europe, people are dying daily trying to reach safety. If we Europeans fail to receive them, we will build walls between ourselves and the world and, even worse, between our neighbors and ourselves.
So when Greeks go to the ballot box on Sunday, they will be voting not just for themselves but for humanity — Syrians, Afghanis, Hungarians, Italians and everyone else. One hopes they will make an effort to shape a positive vision of the country, of Europe, of our world. And the same goes for other Europeans. The original idea of a united Europe was to prevent the massive conflicts that once tore the continent apart; once again, we are faced with this mandate, but on a global scale. We must never again allow small-minded interests to drag us down.