Migration governance in Greece and the first steps of the new government: Securitization and lack of integration measures

Tihomir Sabchev

9 August 2019


At the general election in Greece on 7 July 2019, the center-right party of New Democracy recorded a major victory against the left-wing SYRIZA, winning an absolute majority of seats in the Greek Parliament. Immediately after, notable changes in the field of migration governance, especially in regards to the reception and integration of forced migrants, started taking place in the country. Within its first month in office, New Democracy closed down the Ministry of Migration Policy that the previous government had established, suspended the issuing of social security numbers to forced migrants and initiated measures to strengthen the sea and land border with Turkey, promising also to speed up migrant returns. From institutional rearrangements to practical interventions and discourse, almost every component of the new government’s response to migration seems to be based on the logic of securitization. What New Democracy tends to almost entirely neglect so far is the integration of both the recently-arrived refugees/asylum seekers and the rest of the immigrants legally residing in the country.


New rules of the game: Towards securitization of migration in Greece

To begin with, the day after the elections New Democracy’s government undertook a number of institutional changes. Its first step was to close down the Ministry of Migration Policy, which was the major governmental body managing issues of reception, asylum and integration in the last three years. Migration governance competencies were moved to the Ministry of Citizens’ Protection, which is also responsible for public order and security (Police, Coast Guard, Civil Protection, etc.). As a result, the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection received a mandate over a very wide range of issues – from first reception and detention to asylum decisions and integration.

A week later, the new prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis organized a consultative meeting on the issue of migration with governmental officials and the EU Commissioner for Migration Avramopoulos. After this meeting the government announced its six priorities in the field of migration governance. In short, the emphasis was put on increasing border security, initiating legal changes to speed up asylum procedures and improving reception conditions for the migrants entering the country. In addition, the government stressed upon the need for strict implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement, confirming the pre-electoral commitment of its leader Mitsotakis that “The decongestion of the Greek islands must be done in the correct geographical direction – towards Turkey therefore and not towards the Greek mainland”. The EU Commissioner Avramopoulos also joined the securitization spirit of the event, making references to the “Eastern Migration Front” in his post-meeting interview. Importantly, as the Vice-Mayor for migrants and refugees of Athens noted, all the officials invited at this consultative meeting on migration represented governmental bodies that have competencies closely related to the logic of security, while those representing different fields of integration (e.g. education, labor market, healthcare, housing, etc.) were completely absent.

The shift towards securitization was also evident from the initiatives announced by the new Alternate Minister for Migration Policy Giorgos Koumoutsakos. The measures of the government included, among others, strengthening the collaboration with FRONTEX and increasing the cooperation with IOM to speed up migrant returns. In fact, the practical results of the former are already visible, with the EU border agency giving Greece a blimp that will help the country monitor the sea around the islands. In addition, at the end of July the new government proceeded with the first of the promised returns, sending 32 irregular Pakistani immigrants back to Islamabad. While one should acknowledge the role of the previous SYRIZA-led government in paving up the way for these initiatives, the commitment of the new government is to reinforce them. Finally, New Democracy’s migration strategy includes increasing the cooperation with other states in the Mediterranean region and signing bilateral agreements with a number of other countries to tackle human smuggling.

The securitization of migration governance in Greece could be easily identified also in the discourse of the new government’s officials. During the programmatic statements of New Democracy in the Greek Parliament,  the Alternate Minister for Migration Policy referred multiple times to migration as a problem. In order to tackle it, the government planned to introduce a new approach to migration management based on “democratic rigor”, with respect for the rules and the rights of everyone. In fact, the whole statement was dominated by the announcement of measures ensuring public order and security. In line with this rhetoric, the Alternate Minister even referred to the town of Vathy on Samos, which is in close proximity to the island’s hot-spot, as a ‘besieged town’. In this way, refugees were effectively being presented as a threat to Greek society, rather than being viewed as people who actually escape war and persecution.

The main argument that the new government uses to justify its shift towards securitization is the idea that each migration policy should be assessed on the basis of two criteria – the respect for human rights and the security of the host country. Without security, the Alternate Minister Koumoutsakos argued, the human rights of both the refugees and the host society are inevitably undermined, giving as an example the tragic conditions in the hot-spots that the former government’s “non-policies” and “obsessive looseness” led to. Indeed, it should be acknowledged that SYRIZA’s period in government was characterized by an abyss between the human rights rhetoric of its representatives and the systematic alleged violations of the human rights of migrants and refugees in the country. To mention just few examples, there were multiple evidence for illegal pushbacks of refugees in the Evros region, a recent judgement against Greece by the ECtHR for inhumane and degrading treatment of unaccompanied minors and, of course, the appalling conditions in the hot-spot of Samos where migrants live without access to basic needs like running water, electricity, heating, adequate sanitation and healthcare, etc. New Democracy’s promise to ensure human rights through more security, however, also seems to deliver questionable results in practice so far. Less than two weeks after the new government stepped in, a video from an incident close to the island of Agathonisi showed that the Greek Coast Guard pushed a boat with 34 migrants, 14 of whom children, back into Turkish waters, where they were arrested by the Turkish Coast Guard. The comment of the Alternate Minister for Migration Policy was that the video does not show clearly what happened and one cannot say if the event took place in Greek or Turkish territorial waters.

Furthermore, the situation on the Aegean islands in the last month demonstrated that the effective balance between respect for human rights and securitization of migration that New Democracy proclaims is more of wishful thinking rather than reality. First of all, arrivals on the Greek islands in July 2019 were significantly higher than those in July 2018. In addition, while 4,302 refugees arrived in Greece by sea in the period 1-28 July this year, the number of those transferred from the already severely overcrowded hot-spots to the mainland was only 1,650. Reception facilities on the islands remain extremely overpopulated with more than 20,000 people currently stranded there. The number of refugees in the hot-spot on Lesvos is two times beyond its capacity, the same is true for the one on Chios, while the one on Samos is currently six times over its capacity, with more than 3,500 people living in despicable conditions within and around a facility for 650. Contrary to the widespread popular myths describing an imagined invasion of young male illegal migrants, 35% of those stranded on the Greek islands are children, 60% of whom below the age of 12. Nearly all these children are denied their fundamental right to access to formal education. In addition, more than four thousand asylum seekers from those stranded on the islands have been assessed as vulnerable (families with small children, people with severe medical problems or trauma, etc.), which means that due to their condition they need to be transferred to mainland Greece. However, they remain in the hot-spots for an unknown period of time because of the lack of space in the reception centers on the mainland. As a result, rather than improving, the conditions on the islands remain tragic, especially on Samos, which has been turned into an open-air-prison that perpetuates human suffering and causes additional problems to its hosts rather than solving any. As a Doctors Without Borders’ representative recently stated, the vast majority of refugees arrive on the islands healthy, and only there they develop physical and mental issues because of the deteriorating living conditions. Thus, while it is still very early for any definitive assessments, New Democracy’s suggested balance between human rights and security seems so far more chimera than reality.  


Integration: Greek migration policy’s missing element

The lack of implementation of immigrant integration policies has been a long-standing issue in Greece and the recent increased arrivals of forced migrants additionally reinforced the already existing shortcomings in this policy area. Since 2015 nearly 40,000 people received refugee or subsidiary protection status in the country. In these four years, however, the previous SYRIZA-led government did little in practice for the integration of the newcomers. Shortly before the end of their mandate, SYRIZA officials could be often heard to use a widespread phrase attributed to the former Minister of Migration Policy Mouzalas: “The time has come to move from the sprint of reception to the marathon of integration”. In the Greek reality though, it still seems that the very long sprint of reception has not ended, while the marathon of integration is still yet to start. The few examples of limited success of refugee integration, as I have argued elsewhere, remain an exception of the general rule and are largely driven by the engagement of local authorities and NGOs.

Focusing back on the post-electoral reality, both the rhetoric and practices of the new Greek government have been dominated by a very strong emphasis on security while immigrants’ integration has been almost completely neglected. In his fourteen-minute programmatic statement in the Greek Parliament, for instance, the Alternate Minister for Migration Policy mentioned only once the word integration. Instead, his discourse was dominated by referrals to the “great asset of security”, and the “vital national problem” of immigration. While he envisioned a new “holistic” and “comprehensive” migration strategy, all the announced concrete measures were focused on enhancing border control and ensuring security, while none was related to integration. In addition, New Democracy’s officials have avoided referring to the National Strategy on Integration adopted by the previous government before the elections, which foresaw a number of measures for the integration of migrants and refugees in the labor market, the educational system, the local communities, etc., enhancing the role of local authorities in this process. In short, the new government’s strategy is rather narrowly focused on security and public order, while integration policies seem to be so low on its agenda that it is very difficult to spot them for the moment.

As regards practice, the first steps of the new government are far from anything that can be considered immigrant integration measures, unless of course integration is defined as stripping asylum seekers and unaccompanied children of a range of rights enshrined in domestic, European and international law. Just a few days after taking office, the new Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Nikos Vroutsis effectively suspended the issuing of social security numbers (AMKA) to forced migrants until any further clarification. As a result, all asylum seekers that had not obtained AMKA prior to that moment, as well as all those who arrived afterwards, are currently denied a number of rights and excluded from various services, to which they are legally entitled. The negative consequences for the affected immigrants include, among others, the inability to access the Greek healthcare system, to start legal employment or to enroll one’s children in a local school. It is worth mentioning that immediately after the new measure took place, the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs posted a tweet from his personal account stating “Our country is not an unfenced vineyard”.  

Last but not least, the situation of irregular migrants in Greece also changed to some extent and deserves attention for two reasons. Firstly, because it relates to the human rights dimension noted above (irregular immigrants are still covered by international human rights law), and secondly, because it demonstrates clearly the potential for setting completely different migration governance priorities at the national level, on the one hand, and at the local on the other. More concretely, the progressive local government of the municipality of Thessaloniki developed in the last years an Integrated Action Plan, which promoted the inclusion and integration of all locally residing immigrants, including people in a condition of irregularity. Along with other measures, the local authorities planned to introduce innovative human rights-based policies, providing support towards social inclusion and eventual regularization of stay. The new national government’s approach does not seem aligned with these objectives. Notably, in just 5 days the Greek police (which is under the Ministry of Citizen’s Protection, just as migration governance) conducted three “cleaning” operations on the streets of Thessaloniki, aiming at “check and identification of immigrants”. This resulted in the arrest of more than 200 migrants residing irregularly in the country, while the police announced that the operations will continue “with undiminished intensity”.

Overall, the securitization that New Democracy follows as a logic of migration governance leads to the neglect of important aspects of a very complex phenomenon. It seems that Greece is going to miss the opportunity to develop a coherent migration policy, that would facilitate immigrants smooth inclusion into the Greek society – from securing decent reception conditions though providing the necessary integration services and finally to the acquisition of citizenship. Rather than viewing migration as a national problem that will be eventually resolved with strengthening borders and increasing security, the new government should finally recognize and address the chronic lack of integration policy measures in the country, building upon recent positive examples at the local level. If New Democracy continues to neglect immigrants’ integration and follows its current approach to migration governance, it is little likely to see any improvement of the human rights situation of the migrants residing in Greece or those trying to reach it escaping war and persecution.