Refugee welcome begins to wear thin in Greece | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.04.2016
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Refugee welcome begins to wear thin in Greece

Greece has stood apart from many European countries in welcoming refugees from the very beginning of the crisis. With borders now closed, Greeks' hospitality may be coming to an end. Omaira Gill reports from Athens.

A month on from Europe's highly controversial deal with Turkey, the European epicenter of the refugee crisis finds itself home to over 50,000 people stranded and facing an uncertain future. Greece, already crippled by an economic crisis and so far a transit point for refugees, is now settling down for the long haul and facing the new reality of hosting the arrivals long-term rather than waving them through.

The much-criticized agreement between the European Union and Turkey has shuddered into action with a reluctant Greece in the role of Europe's gatekeeper, already short-staffed and uncoordinated. Stuck between a hostile Europe and hard-line Turkey, Greece has found itself with few friends in its - up to now - sympathetic attitude towards the refugees.

A complex history of oppression, forced population exchanges and Greek immigration overseas meant that the refugee situation was perceived differently in Greece than in other European countries. On that basis, Greeks were initially more welcoming, said Spyros Economides, director of the Hellenic Observatory and associate professor in International Relations and European Politics at the London School of Economics.

"[The refugees'] background was acknowledged as being desperate, their motivation borne out of a survival instinct and Greece only a stop along the way," he said. "But once these flows of people got larger, perpetual, included many who were not refugees per se, and could not be shifted onto other parts of Greece/Europe, they were seen as being a more problematic and divisive presence."

Refugees sit in front of tents and wait at Idomeni on the Greek side of the boder to Macedonia

Greece is still trying to figure out how to cope with the many refugees and migrants now stranded there

"It has now become a socio-economic as well as a political issue. Small communities do not wish to see the establishment of camps in their neighborhoods/regions which have every chance of becoming permanent," said Economides, highlighting that between an ineffective government and hostility in communities where camps are built, "refugees are stuck in the middle of a growing perfect storm."

His point was illustrated by incidents in Veria, northern Greece, where residents threw pigs heads into a new camp built there and an irate priest was filmed threatening dire consequences if a nearby Christian shrine was tampered with by the camp's residents.

Extremists feed on discontent

In the background, the ever-present extremist far-right party Golden Dawn wastes no chance to capitalize on the discontent, recently organizing an 'anti-Islamization' march in Piraeus which descended into violence when they clashed with anti-fascist groups as riot police looked on.

"The emergence of Golden Dawn has highlighted the existence among a small part of Greek society of racist extremism. The majority of Greeks do not share this attitude, even though the coalition government is propped up by a xenophobic nationalist party (ANEL), but are insecure about migration and the establishment of non-ethnic Greek communities," said Economides.

Golden Dawn party lawmaker Ilias Panagiotaros stands along far-right protesters during a rally against the construction of a new transit camp for refugees and migrant

Golden Dawn has taken advantage of the refugee crisis where it has seen the opportunity

"Migration into Greece is a very recent phenomenon and hence alien to many Greeks," he added. "When this becomes a non-European influx, the insecurity grows and the short-term consequences are ones of confusion and introversion. This does at times lapse into xenophobia but over time recedes," he said.

One person who has felt the full force of anti-refugee sentiment is DW correspondent Marianna Karakoulaki, who has been covering the refugee crisis from Idomeni for over year. She has noticed a steady change in attitudes as the months have worn on. "I'm not sure if these [anti-refugee] sentiments are emerging now or if they were always there in the first place," she said.

"In the last two months I've noticed a strong separation in attitudes towards the Syrians and everyone else, that the Syrians are refugees, but no one else is. They say: 'The Syrians are fleeing war, but why are the Afghans and the Pakistanis here? These are not refugees, they are illegal immigrants.'"

Karakoulaki herself has received numerous threats online, including death threats and harassment from nationalist Greeks attacking her for using the term "Macedonia" rather than the UN-sanctioned "FYROM" in her work as well as from foreigners hostile towards her compassionate reporting on the refugees. "It's got a lost worse in the last month," she said.

Disconnect between actions and thoughts

Theodoros Rakopoulos, a post-doctorate researcher in social anthropology at the University of Bergen, Norway, has been volunteering in Idomeni. His academic work revolves around solidarity and cooperative initiatives, including the alternative economy that emerged with the Greek economic crisis. The refugee crisis in his home country is not an area of his professional expertise, but rather of personal interest.

"One could say that solidarity is vested in a longer history of solidarity sentiments that has to do with understandings of hospitality, accommodating and assimilating the foreign. This is not an egalitarian institution as such. It affirms the self over the other, and anthropologists have been talking about this a lot in the Greek case," he said.

"I've had discussions with people in Idomeni who are not invested in any broader framework, who might even express some Islamophobic sentiments, but are spending their time and energy in soup kitchens in Idomeni. There is an interesting kind of contradiction in the private domain. You find this astonishing wave of sympathy, which is juxtaposed with an unprepared state."

With the borders shut and Greece left to cope with a new reality, a sense of unease has descended as the country tries to fathom what lies ahead, combined with the added stress of a far from certain economic year.

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