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Greece and the refugees

Pavlos Zafiropoulos, AthensSeptember 19, 2015

With Syriza and New Democracy effectively tied in the polls, a once marginal issue takes on added significance in Sunday's election, writes Pavlos Zafiropoulos from Athens.

Griechenland, Flüchtlinge in Athen
Image: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

"Elections are coming and Kos has a choice. If it votes for Syriza, it will become Pakistan. If it votes for Golden Dawn, and Golden Dawn governs the country, it will return to being Greece." So said Ilias Kasidiaris, the parliamentary spokesperson of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, on a recent pre-election visit to the island of Kos.

Over recent months, many tens of thousands of refugees have made the risky crossing to Kos and other islands in their attempts to reach northern Europe. While many residents have sought to assist the refugees with food and clothing, the mass arrivals have put the islands under considerable strain during the height of the tourist season. Kasidiaris' comments were a clear attempt to parlay concern over the influx of refugees into votes for his xenophobic party.

That the issue of irregular migration has exploded both in terms of numbers and international awareness at a time when Greece is in election mode has added yet another wrinkle to an already confused political landscape.

For the vast majority of voters, the economic crisis and the implementation of the third memorandum agreement remain by far the dominant issues of these elections. Yet the refugee crisis has also been growing in prominence as Greeks head to the polls on Sunday.

three people on street copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos
The plight of the refugees could play a key role in the electionsImage: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

Not so marginal

In two televised debates between party leaders, the issue was given significant airtime. And with all recent polling indicating that the two biggest parties, Syriza and New Democracy are locked in a dead heat, even marginal issues could prove to be decisive.

In government Syriza adopted a softer approach toward migrants than its predecessors, closing detention centers and ceasing what many believe were illegal push-back operations on the sea borders. New Democracy in turn has accused Syriza of inaction and negligence and has stressed the need to secure the sea borders and distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. All however agree that solutions at the level of the EU are essential.

But whether any one of the main parties can exploit the issue to bolster its support remains very much an open question. In a recent survey conducted by the polling company GPO, when respondents were asked which party's policies on migration they most agreed with, 20 percent answered in favor of New Democracy compared to 19.3 percent for Syriza.

"Their percentages are almost equal," the head of GPO, Takis Theodorakakos, told DW, "but far below the percentages of the vote the parties are expected to receive in the election. That indicates that the Greek public has not clarified its own position on the issue… They certainly want to be hospitable to these people, but at the same time the country is suffering from an enormous crisis which economically makes it very difficult to absorb so many people arriving as refugees in Greece."

posters in a park copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos
Do they know what they're saying 'No' to?Image: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

In the same GPO poll 8.5 percent of respondents said they agreed with the policies of Golden Dawn with regards to migration (which treats migrants as hostiles and emphasizes detention and aggressive military-led border operations) compared to the roughly 6 percent of voters that say they will vote for the party.


Yet while Golden Dawn's xenophobic rhetoric may well win it a degree of additional support - particularly in areas that have been strongly affected by the influx of refugees - as yet it does not appear to be a major vote winner for the party. Indeed, Kasidiaris' inflammatory remarks aside, overall the party has been relatively muted on the issue of the refugee crisis, preferring instead to emphasize its opposition to the memorandum in an effort to court voters disillusioned by the country's bailouts.

"Golden Dawn is not raising the volume over it," Dimitris Christopoulos, an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Panteion University told DW. "They do that first because they are on trial and want to play the good guys for the court, but secondly also because they see that people do not seem to react to it."

Part of the reason for the latter is undoubtedly Greece's own history, as many continue to have memories of times when Greeks were themselves refugees. They therefore sympathize with the new arrivals, particularly those from Syria.

Impromptu camps

In central Athens, surrounded by cafes and residential buildings, Victoria Square these days often resembles an impromptu camp as hundreds of migrants and refugees rest for a few days before continuing their journeys. Many locals, such as longtime resident Panagiotis Kourtis, say the concentration of so many people in an area without basic facilities has created unhealthy conditions. While many Athenians can be seen assisting the refugees with clothes, food and even toys for the many children, it is clear that the situation is untenable.

girl and woman holding baby copyright: Pavlos Zafiropoulos
Responsibility for the refugees must be shared, say many GreeksImage: DW/P. Zafiropoulos

Yet Kourtis, who is 48 and whose father's family were refugees of the Asia Minor disaster in the 1920's, does not blame the refugees themselves, but the lack of planning and infrastructure to accommodate them. "I do not believe it is any issue that the parties should be split over. I believe the entirety of the Greek political world, united, must press Europe to take on greater initiatives and responsibilities."

It is a sentiment echoed by many others, including Konstantinos Krouskas who has operated a restaurant on the square for 35 years and who says that the large concentration of refugees has driven away customers, halving his profits. "The only way forward is with a unity government," he says, "so that the responsibility is shared."

A common refrain heard from parties, voters, and analysts alike is that the refugee crisis is a "European problem that requires a European solution."

As such it may come with a silver lining of opportunity for both Greek and European political leaders to reaffirm the principles of cooperation and solidarity in tackling common problems. However the flipside is that if the EU fails to provide meaningful assistance, it could lead Greece down a more dangerous and fractious path.

"That would be a very negative development," Theodorakakos of GPO says, "because it would reinforce a climate of euro-skepticism that is very present in Greece, and which I personally believe is likely to grow stronger."