Fire and Fury: Greece and Its Migrants

Refugee in a Lesbos camp with pro-migrant and anti-migrant graffiti (photo: Mstyslav Chernov; source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the onset of the twin catastrophes that were the 2015 Migrant Crisis and the European Financial Crisis, an obscure far-right party started making gains in the southeast European country of Greece. Golden Dawn comes from humble beginnings. Founded in 1985 by Nikolaos Michaloliakos for a “fringe group of fanatics who simply gathered in their offices and praised Hitler,” the Golden Dawn Party skyrocketed to the halls of the Hellenic and European Parliaments to become Greece’s 3rd largest political party in 2014.

The rising Golden Dawn asserted itself as the most powerful openly fascist neo-Nazi party in Europe, garnering 9.39% of the Greek vote in the 2014 elections. As Greece took much of the brunt of the European Financial Crisis, Golden Dawn rose with the agitation of Greeks across the Mediterranean nation. Golden Dawn provided a simple, visible, and vulnerable scapegoat for the average Greek citizen’s woes: migrants. The neo-Nazi party lived up to its fascist roots and led its supporters to openly attack migrants, leftists, Jews, and anyone who dared to disagree with them. Its reign of terror against marginalized populations amounted to the terrorizing, injury, and even murder of several members of the aforementioned groups as the media (both Greek and international) and police looked on with curiosity. The Greek police had an especially complex relationship with Golden Dawn. Many victims of the fascist party’s attacks reported not feeling safe reporting Golden Dawn violence to the police, and some victims reported that the Greek police ignored or even aided in the attacks. These reports are, of course, disputed by Greek police, but their dismissal of these claims is not helped by Michaloliakos himself boasting that 60% of the Athens police force voted for Golden Dawn in the 2012 elections (even before the height of Golden Dawn rule). Victims of Golden Dawn attacks—migrant and native Greek alike—indicate that police consistently prioritized cracking down on migrants—ignoring problems with the coincidentally anti-migrant Golden Dawn party. 

“Everybody says that the Golden Dawn are bad fascists, nationalists…The truth is, they are not wrong. We are all those things.”—Nikolaos Michaloliakos

Golden Dawn finally crossed the line when its members attacked and murdered Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas (stage name: Killah P) in Keratsini, a suburb of Athens. Fyssas was notable for his strong anti-fascist stance—a view amplified by his celebrity. Police eventually intervened after the rapper died, but witnesses report that Athens police stood by while Golden Dawn members attacked Fyssas. This 2013 murder devolved into a years-long legal battle that was finally decided on October 7th of this year. In the largest prosecution of fascists since Nuremberg, Nikolaos Michaloliakos and several party leaders were convicted of running a criminal organization and several other charges related to violent crimes (including Fyssas’ death). Golden Dawn refutes these charges as an organized conspiracy to delegitimize it as a representative of the true Greek people, but (for now) the party is officially defunct.

A memorial to Fyssas at Athens Polytechnic University (photo: Nagarjun Kandukuru; source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, Golden Dawn is only part of this story. On September 8, the Moria Refugee Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos burned to the ground. A camp built for 2,200 people, the Moria Camp saw over one million migrants and refugees pass through its fences and was a notorious symbol of the Greek (and wider European) mismanagement of the 2015 Refugee Crisis. At the time of the fire, Moria contained more than 12,000 residents (33% of whom were under the age of 12), was rampant with sexual violence, and wholly lacked the resources to meet the basic needs of a population even a fraction of its size. Residents describe Moria as a place even worse than the homes they fled to get to Greece. Unrest began in the weeks before September 8 when 35 migrants tested positive for COVID-19. The camp underwent a harsh lockdown, and the “time bomb” that was the Moria Camp finally exploded. Agitation began en masse and manifested in several protests throughout the camp. To many both inside and outside Greece, it is clear that the Moria Camp has been a crisis waiting to happen for years. The Greek government’s mismanagement of the Moria Camp is indicative of a pervasive attitude of hesitance and ambivalence regarding migrants, and it betrays an attitude of ignoring humanitarian issues with the country’s migration policy in order to posture as tough on migrants—a trend no doubt amplified by Golden Dawn’s rise in popularity.

A fire started. That is all that can be confirmed. The Greek government was quick to blame the resident migrants and decry them as disrespectful to their Greek hosts, but there are also several accounts of far-right groups of Greeks initiating the mass arson. Either way, there are now thousands of homeless migrants, and the Greek government is scrambling to curb the rising rates of COVID-19 and settle families and children in the nearby Kara Tepe camp. In the chaos, the same Lesbos community that had once welcomed refugees and driven out the Golden Dawn with antiracist community organizing is now attacking migrants and setting up roadblocks to prevent the Greek military from delivering supplies to the now-former Moria Camp residents fearing that the migrant population will become a permanent fixture in their lives.

A picture of the Moria Camp before the recent fire with anti-migrant graffiti reading “NO BORDER, NO NATION” (photo: Catherine Lenoble; source: Wikimedia Commons)

Golden Dawn may be down for the count, but its impact is irreversible. As a third crisis—COVID-19—once again threatens Greece, anti-migrant tensions escalate and new fascist parties like the Greek Solution Party rise to take Michaloliakos’ place. Even once pro-migrant regions like Lesbos seem unable to resist the increasing xenophobic desperation brought on by the pandemic and its consequences. Even more concerning than the Greek Solution is the 2019 electoral victory of the mainstream center-right New Democracy party over the incumbent leftist Syriza party. Since the 2015 Migrant Crisis, there has been an ever-blurring line between the radical right and the radicalized right in Europe. Like Golden Dawn, New Democracy was also founded by Nazi-adjacent political factions, but until recently, its internal radical right has remained latent within the party. Golden Dawn didn’t create any new constituents in the 2014 Elections; it enticed voters away from New Democracy. New Democracy even entered discussions to add Golden Dawn to its Parliamentary coalition in 2012. Now that Golden Dawn’s leadership is facing substantial jail time, New Democracy is mobilizing its far-right wing to regain the votes it lost to Golden Dawn and reassert dominance over Greek conservative politics in a political system where, thanks to Golden Dawn, racism and patriotism have become synonymous.

The current New Democracy government’s reticence to recognize migrants’ basic human rights is betrayed by their utter mismanagement and abuse of Lesbos’ migrant population both before and after the Moria Camp’s fires, even abdicating its responsibility to support migrants to ill-prepared NGOs operating in the region. The hesitant New Democracy government offers a more moderate path than Golden Dawn to areas like Lesbos that are becoming increasingly more willing to take it, but it is unfair to just blame Greek partisans for the country’s utter neglect of its migrant and marginalized populations. The rapid transition from Syriza to New Democracy and the rise and fall of Golden Dawn paint an inaccurate portrait of a Greece that is far less anti-migrant than it truly is. The plight of migrants and minorities in Greece is far more a product of the continuation of the status quo rather than changes made by dedicated politicians. The Greek police who ignored victims of the Golden Dawn in Athens are the same Greek police that tear gassed protesting migrants in Moria. The Lesbos that drove out Golden Dawn members from demonstrating in its region is the same Lesbos that garnered an 8% vote for Golden Dawn in the September 2015 Snap Elections (an increase from the January 2015 Elections). And the Greece that, despite seeing its members terrorize and attempt to purge the country of migrants, regarded Golden Dawn with amusement until it dared to hurt a native Greek—one of their own—is the same Greece that decides the Moria migrants’ fate today. While there are many Greeks who are pro-migrant and have protested actions of the Golden Dawn and New Democracy parties, Greek media, police, and society as a whole created a Greece that produced a Golden Dawn, not the other way around. Until Greece undergoes a fundamental change in its attitude towards migrants and marginalized groups within its borders, any partisan changes in Parliament are superficial at best. The migrants of Moria and beyond will continue to suffer in a limbo that simultaneously imprisons them and refuses to provide for them as an ambivalent Greece passively looks on.