By Josh Marxen
A severe depression, high and rising unemployment, and declining standards of living have divided the population. Tensions are high, fueled by issues such as xenophobia and racism. In this environment, what was once a fringe organization of right-wing ultranationalists has gained a degree of political power. Their influence is manifested in an effort to detain immigrants and minorities in internment camps.
This may sound like the Germany in the mid-1930s, but it is actually Greece in 2013.
After the collapse of the Greek public bond market in 2010, the Greek government chose to avoid bankruptcy by accepting a €110 billion bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, on the condition that they would implement policies of austerity. It would be an understatement to say that Greece is still struggling. Unemployment continues to rise, reaching a record high of 27.6% in May. According to EU standards, about 11% of Greeks lived in extreme material deprivation in 2011. Homelessness reached 40,000, a number unmatched by any other European country. Crime and drug use has also become a major problem.
This seems to be as far as most international media are willing to delve into the Greek plight. What has not been as prominent are some of the choices that some Greeks, and even the Greek government, have made in response to these hardships. The reaction involves the adoption of fascist ideologies, and the arrest and imprisonment of migrants, minorities, and the poor in internment camps.
The Golden Dawn Party is the closest thing to a fascist political party any European country has had since World War II. Although the group itself rejects this label, the party leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, has openly identified their movement as “nationalist and racist”. Their official symbol is an obvious redux of the Nazi swastika and Mihaloliakos has used the Nazi salute during public addresses. In the years since Greece’s economic collapse, the Golden Dawn’s popularity has grown in response to the difficulties that the nation faces. In the May 2012 parliamentary elections, they received 7% of the popular vote, a huge jump from the 0.23% they previously received. With each percentage point equivalent to three parliamentary seats, 21 Golden Dawn members sat in Parliament after this election. If Mihaloliakos’s rhetoric is any indication, the party is serious and ambitious. In a speech held after the elections, he stated that his first act in parliament would be to “get all the illegal immigration out! Out of my country, out of my home!” When asked he would accomplish this, he replied, “use your imagination”.
“Greece is only the beginning… you know very well [what that means]”, he said.
The influence of the Golden Dawn is not limited to the Greek parliament. There is support for the party among the Hellenic Police, some of whom have ignored police calls from immigrants and violent “street sweeps” by Golden Dawn members, wherein alleged immigrants are harassed and beaten. In 2012, the Hellenic Police began “Operation Xenios Zeus”, a focused effort to find and deport undocumented immigrants. Over 85,000 people have been temporarily detained to verify their migrant status. Of this number, only 6% of those detained were found to be residing in Greece illegally. Despite this, the Hellenic Police continue to arrest and detain people without warning, using various crude tactics including racial profiling. There have been several cases of excessive force and police brutality, one being that of Christian Ukwuorji, an African-American tourist who was detained and beaten unconscious by the Hellenic Police, even after presenting them with his American passport.
Operation Xenios Zeus also involves internment camps. As of July, there were five operational camps at full capacity, each holding up to 1000 people. While the original purpose of the camps were to hold those who had been identified as undocumented but could not be returned to their country of origin, the Hellenic Police have widened their crackdown, detaining not only undocumented immigrants but also other minorities and “undesirable” elements of the population. Those detained have come to include unregistered sex-workers, gays and lesbians, homeless people and the transgendered.
In addition to the obvious bigotry behind these detentions, the interned live in squalor within the camps. In what is considered the best of these camps, the Amygdaleza camp in the city of Attica, people live in minimally furnished, tiny containers; many are assigned to a single one. Food rations are minimal and few resources are allocated for hygiene or medical services. At the Pagani camp in Lesvos, there are 160 people living in a single 20 by 20 meter room, sharing a single toilet. The interned often have no way to contact family or lawyers and have little guarantee of leaving in the foreseeable future.
The government has announced plans to build at least 30 of these camps in the near future. But why? How can these policies operate without any interference?
One reason is that even those in parliament who are sympathetic towards those targeted view the internment camps as a necessary means of maintaining social order. When the first camp was opened in Athens last year, it was hoped that it would help curb soaring crime rates in the city. Another reason is that the Greek government has little choice but to implement such policies. As the gateway to other European countries (over 90% of illegal immigrants to European countries are caught in Greece), the EU has required the country to crack down on illegal immigration, even providing €250 million to fund the establishment of these camps.
To add to the matter, it was also announced that the camps will be used to house debt-workers in the near future. Citizens who are in sufficient debt to the state will be detained and forced to work off their debts in these camps. According to figures published by the Greek Ministry of Finance, a debt of €5000 is the threshold for internment, with a debt of €150000 equivalent to at least three years in a camp.
The current circumstance in Greece has somehow managed to elude the public spotlight. With the apparent exception of the UK newspaper The Guardian, most investigative journalism regarding the matter has been up to intergovernmental organizations, independent writers and NGOs such as the Human Rights Watch. The relative media silence on such an issue is astonishing. Some speculate that there is political pressure against reporting it too loudly. As Alex Politaki of The Guardian puts it, “by acknowledging the severity of the situation…the EU would also have admitted that the current state of affairs has been brought about by the so-called economic ‘rescue’ of Greece.”
Despite the continued uncertainty of Greece’s economic future, there does at least seem to be growing opposition against the extreme xenophobia, racism and fascism that defines the Golden Dawn’s movement. In the most recent parliamentary elections, the party lost three of their 21 seats. Additionally, the recent murder of a high-profile anti-fascist activist in Greece, allegedly perpetrated by a Golden Dawn member, has prompted legislators to consider labeling the party as a criminal gang. While this move could be interpreted as politicians seeking to force their opponents out of government, it at least suggests that the extralegal violence incited by the Golden Dawn will be met with some state opposition.
Still, while the extreme Golden Dawn’s power is decreasing, there remain other parties who exhibit similar sentiments in varying degrees. The conservative New Democracy, for example, ran on a campaign fueled by anti-immigrant statement; the plan to institute forced labor for indebted Greeks has the support of (or is at least unopposed by) the major parties including the left-wing Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement.
If this current direction goes unchallenged, Greece could become the first prison state in Western Europe (at least since 1930s Germany). Yet Greece is only one of many countries in economic turmoil, making the outcome of their circumstance–and their response to it–even more important. If other heavily indebted countries such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland follow suit, similar events can be expected to emerge across the continent.
Image by Steve Jurvetson