In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world
Part 1/2 (abstract)
Presented at the No Border Camp, Bulgaria, August 25-29, 2011
Greece has become an experimental laboratory for policies to be applied to the rest of Europe - hence, we believe, understanding what has happened here in the last three years is of crucial importance. The country is now at a crossroads: Will people who are currently resisting the full-scale assault of the IMF realize that they must form an alliance with all the oppressed? Or will they fall victim to the oldest trick in the bosses’ book –and turn against the even more oppressed?
Below we will try to describe a process by which the State first used the attack against immigrants as a counter-insurgency technique after the December 2008 riots, and then allowed the escalation of a humanitarian crisis in certain neighbourhoods of Athens, thus giving birth to fascist populism and Nazi militias.
2008-2009: Immigrant participation in Greece’ social movement rises!
Let us begin with a few examples just before and immediately after the December riots, which illustrate how a growing migrant population, comprising maybe 50% of labour power in the traditional sense, was starting to claim their rights in a combative way and was posing a serious threat to dominant social relations. (To these one should also add numerous hunger strikes and suicide attempts in detention centres and police stations by refugees desperately protesting the appalling conditions.)
On April 18, 2008, East Asian immigrant workers labouring in the strawberry fields of Nea Manolada, in the South Peloponnese, where 90 percent of the country’s strawberry production is concentrated, staged a strike against the local strawberry agribusiness. The landlords responded with violent rampage. They threatened and beat workers with clubs, fired shotguns in the air, and threw dynamite at the workers’ protest rally. Gaining the support of the local communist party and some anarchists, the migrant workers stood their ground and forced the landlords to concede to 3 Euros per day rise, increasing their wages to 25 Euros.
On September 8, 2008, Afghani refugees fell victim to a port police attack in the harbor area of Patras, Greece, where a refugee settlement of boxes made of carton and plastic hosted over a thousand inhabitants, all restlessly hoping for a lucky ride to Italy hidden in some heavy duty truck. The Red Cross confirms that, as a result of the attack, at least three were taken to hospital with serious injuries. The reaction of the Afghani community to what proved to be yet another act of retribution (due to the active participation of Afghan immigrants in the Patras No Borders Actions two weeks earlier) was immediate. The clashes that ensued were severe and soon overwhelmed the police forces, which failed to block the protesters' entrance to the harbor area. 12 policemen were hospitalized while the less-than-independent Red Cross publicly accused the police of unlawfully interrogating the injured refugees in the clinic.
On November 11, 2008, 15 immigrant workers from North African countries (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), active members of the Forum of Immigrants of Crete, began a hunger strike. The hunger strikers were all residents of Chania and they demanded residence permits, which would allow them to continue living and working in Greece legally. While the authorities repeatedly tried to break their will, local society, from students to taxi drivers, showed their full-hearted support. Their victory (papers and travel documents) came only a day before the killing of Alexis Grigoropoulos and the breakout of the December Riots.
On the night of the 23rd of December 2008, Konstantina Kuneva, a Bulgarian migrant worker in Athens, secretary of the Panattic Union of Cleaners and Domestic Personnel (PEKOP), was attacked by two men who ambushed her as she was returning from work and threw sulfuric acid to her face. Her face, head, hands and back were severely burned. She lost one eye and for days it was not certain whether she was going to survive the attack. She remained in the intensive care ward for months, suffering serious sight and respiratory problems. She had to undergo at least seven surgical procedures to merely recover. Α combative social movement in solidarity with the migrant cleaner and her family was built almost from scratch, continuing the December riots and giving the struggle specific political focus, arguments and determination. On the 27th of December 2008 anarchists and leftists occupied the headquarters of ISAP (Athens Piraeus Electric Railway, where Kuneva had worked). There followed the occupation of the Labor Center in Thessaloniki on the 29th of December 2008, and of more labour centres in various Greek cities in January 2009. The offices of the company where Kuneva had worked were attacked in broad daylight. A coalition of grassroots trade unions was beginning to take shape, promising to go beyond the self-destructive compromises of institutionalized syndicalism. Three months later, in March 2009, the Rector’s Office and the Admininstration Building of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki were occupied in protest against the subletting companies hired by the Universities. Konstantina Kuneva, a migrant worker, a mother and grassroots trade unionist, had become the most influential and emblematic figure of the social movement.
On March 2, 2009, hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan clashed with riot police for hours in the streets of Patras. The disturbances were sparked off when an Afghan man got seriously injured while trying to board a truck entering the city's port. After the accident, dozens of fellow refugees attacked the vehicle throwing rocks and other objects. Later on, the tension escalated, leading to protesters setting up barricades and blocking streets near the port. In response, the police deployed riot units and used tear gas in an effort to disperse them.
On May 22, 2009, in Athens, 1,000 immigrants holding a spontaneous demonstration turned around cars to barricade central streets and clashed with the police, who fired tear gas, stun grenades and used excessive violence against them. The protests started after a Greek policeman’s defacement of a copy of the Quran, owned by an Iraqi immigrant. The religious motive tells only half of the story, since it was actually the muftis, the religious leaders, who persistently tried to get the angry immigrants off the streets and end the riots. Besides the obvious underlying causes (bosses’ exploitation, state indifference and police harassment), what sparked off the rebellion was that para-state fascist groups had started working on what was later described as “post-December counter-insurgency”. the State counter-attack.
Counter-insurgency seems to have been a well thought-out strategy, and it followed the realization on the part of the ruling minority that the December riots, and, after that, the movement in solidarity with Konstantina Kuneva, had gotten way out of hand: Local assemblies in Athens were becoming more frequent and more steady, grassroots syndicalism was starting to appear as a viable option for all, self-organized parks were cropping up where the town council had designated parking areas, and it looked like there was an antiauthoritarian social center in every small town in the country.
The strategy did not direct itself against students, young Greeks, or people working in strong sectors of the economy. Their turn was yet to come. The main target of this first phase of the attack against society was the underdog, the underpaid or completely abandoned sans papiers, those who had managed to become a considerable subject of struggle, and had furthermore made themselves visible in the December street clashes. We witnessed a State and media classic: Now the fighting sans-papiers had to become the scapegoats, so that they would cease being a potentially uncontrollable threat. Below a few exemplary moments:
On May 9, 2009, fascists attacked the squatted old Court of Appeals (Old Efeteio) building, where numerous homeless migrants found shelter. Immigrants and others in solidarity who were inside the building fought back the fascists, who, as expected, were aided and encouraged by riot police units.
May 2009: Fascist para-state groups began their reign of terror in the Athens neighborhood of Aghios Panteleimonas, where everyday thousands of homeless and jobless immigrants and refugees play the dangerous game of escape and survival. The fascists even locked the local playground so as not to let “Greek blood be contaminated by Afghanis”. The local church of Aghios Panteleimonas, of which the priest was supporting the local immigrants in defiance of fascist threats, fell victim to an arson attack that destroyed its ‘kitchen for migrants’ resources. On May 27, the Minister of Public Order announced the launching of a mass-scale pogrom against immigrants in the center of Athens after the European Elections. He pledged to “cleanse” the centre of the city from immigrants and displace them in what he called “a ghetto” at the outskirts of Athens.
On June 11, 2009, the Minister of Public Order announced the creation of 11 detention centres. The announcement was made only days after the European Elections of 2009, in which the ruling party of Nea Demokratia occupied second place with its percentage dropping to 32,3%, while the electoral power of the far-right party LAOS rose to 7,2%. On July 12, 2009, the Greek police raided and burned to the ground the near 15-year-old refugee camp in the town of Patras. (The area in front of the beach was at last free, and construction plans for posh apartments and tourist facilities could now begin.) Some days later, all immigrants living at the “Old Efeteio” building in Athens were evicted. August 2009 was the month of numerous police raids, evictions, mass arrests, clashes and a string of overt collaborative operations between police and fascist scum. In the first days of August, continuous storming of the centre of Athens by various police forces took place with hundreds of immigrants arrested. Police also evicted immigrants en masse from two buildings in the centre of Athens (which were designated by the prefecture of Athens as hazardous for public health or something) and arrested a total of 86 immigrants. During the eviction on Verantzerou Street, neighbours and immigrants holding flags of Somalia gathered in support of the arrested people, among whom there were also some PAME (Communist Party trade union) members and a Communist Party MP. At some point, the Somali women reacted vocally and attempted a sit-in protest, but the cops confined them again to the building in order to isolate them from the approaching journalists. In the same period, Nazi scum expanded their activities from the neighbourhood of Aghios Panteleimonas to Attiki square, around which many immigrants live. The fascists came to the square and began to bludgeon whatever lay ahead of them; they sprayed people’s faces with some unspecified gas. During one of these attacks, at least three refugees were transported to hospital, while many others were injured. Around the square there was a large police force, which not only did nothing to help the victims, but on the contrary chose to mass-arrest mainly Afghan refugees.
The levels of official institutional repression of immigrants rose considerably since December, due, on the one hand, to the general strategy of counter-insurgency and the subsequent imposition of a quasi-police state by a weak and staggering government, and on the other hand, because of the participation of many immigrants in the uprising. A social laboratory, testing the creation of fascist reflexes, was gradually being allowed to develop in the centre of town, not far away from areas practically dominated by the social movement. Para-state attacks on immigrants and mass propaganda in Aghios Panteleimonas formed part of an effort to create a social basis for organized fascism and the creation of semi-armed nationalist patrols. The attacks were clearly part of a parallel 'strategy of tension', used to undermine the ground gained by the December riots.
Τhe first days of the new PASOK regime.
By September 2009 all detention centres, police stations –and whatever other places were used as sans papiers prisons– were crammed with immigrants. In October 2009, the leader of “Socialist” Party (PASOK) and newly elected Prime Minister George Papandreou used the Global Forum on Immigration & Development proceedings in Athens to sketch out government measures which would stand for a ‘humanitarian turn’ away from the policies of recent months. He said it was necessary “[t]o stimulate the participation of immigrants in the political life of the country, through the possibility of Greek citizenship acquisition, particularly of course for the so-called ’second generation’, whereby [he suggested] the acquisition of citizenship by birth for every new person born on our territory.” In the same month, the then newly installed Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection Spyros Vougias visited Pagani, the infamous detention Centre on the island of Lesvos that had been targeted during the 2009 Lesvos NoBorder camp two months earlier. Shortly after Vougias’ visit, Pagani was closed. The closedown was announced officially in December, when Vougias also spoke of a new screening system that would replace the existing detention centres (and in effect cancelling the plans for 11 detention centres that had been announced by the former government).
In this period, the strategy of “counter-insurgency” was triumphantly completed. The atrocities of police and fascists, as well as the racist political rhetoric and inhuman anti-immigrant legislation were now the best alibi for the new government. Announcing detention centres and then cancelling the plans, increasing the pressure of detention and torture and then closing down Pagani are the best examples of how, through the careful State and media control of political discourse, ‘public opinion’ can be manipulated into seeing amazing progress where there is only a temporary regress to a prior condition of oppression and apathy.
The Egyptian fishermen’s strike, the shift towards Evros and the involvement of IMF
Just after Christmas 2009, around 250 Egyptian workers employed on the fishing boats of Nea Michaniona (a village near Thessaloniki, Northern Greece) went on strike to protest against the severe decrease in their income over the previous months, a decrease that followed the drastic decline in shrimp exports to Italy and Spain. The strike lasted over three months and ended when the strikers were financially exhausted. The historical significance of the strike was great, as it occurred at the beginning of the crisis in Greece and was pointing in a new direction of struggle amidst a severe social conflict: New social alliances were being built to resist the bosses’ attack, while neo-Nazis came in to support the small ship-owners, thugs attacked the strikers in their homes and –on another occasion– injured an MP and members of the communist party who were supporting the strikers. Egyptian fishermen were actively supported by many antiauthoritarians and leftists, but not to the degree a real movement should (and definitely could at the time). We must also note the financial support that the Egyptian fishermen received from the 19 Filipino sailors who lived on the boat AETEA SIERRA anchored 6 nautical miles away from the port of Piraeus, “a floating prison” where they had been abandoned unpaid by the Greek boat owner. 1
The struggle also had concrete results: At different moments, Egyptian fishermen working at other Greek ports were given a pay rise, so they would be prevented from joining the strike.
During the months of the fishermen strike, there was a shift in the sans-papiers entry routes from the Aegean to the land border of the Evros river on the Greek-Turkish borders, with the number of people crossing the borders ranging from 100 to as high as 250 per day. Also, after the destruction of the refugee shanty town in Patras, a large number of sans-papiers trying to get to Italy set up a makeshift camp in the forest close to the Igoumenitsa port.
In 2009 and 2010, crossings from Spain, Malta and Italy decreased. As FRONTEX reported in its 2010 Annual Risk Analysis: “The bilateral collaboration agreements with third countries of departure on the Central Mediterranean route (Italy with Libya) and the Western African route (which Spain signed with Senegal and Mauritania) had an impact on reducing departures of illegal migrants from Africa… In 2009, illegal border crossing on the Eastern Mediterranean route totalled 41,500, or 39% of all EU detections. Most of the detections were reported from the Aegean Sea, followed by detections along the land border between Turkey and Greece”.
In its 2011 Annual Risk Analysis, FRONTEX stated that “in 2010 the eastern Mediterranean route became the main channel of irregular migration into the EU … the most dramatic change of 2010 occurred at the Greek borders with Turkey (land and sea), which recorded a 45% increase between 2009 and 2010. Here, detections of illegal border crossing soared on previous years as the dominant routes used by migrant smugglers continued to shift. The Greek-Turkish land border in particular saw massive increases in migratory pressure”.
The first months of 2010 were marked by never-ending staged discussions about how the government ought to take drastic measures “to save the Greek economy”. Finally, on Friday, April 23, 2010, the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou called on the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to “activate the aid package”… For a while, it looked like a strong and experienced movement was ready to fight back.
May 5, 2010 events
On May 5, 2010, during the biggest workers’ demonstration since the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship in 1974, and while a huge crowd was trying to storm the Parliament, terrible news came: Three or four people dead in a burnt down bank! … Mass media journalists and technicians who were on strike immediately went back to work to report the tragic event. The prime minister announced the news in Parliament condemning the “political irresponsibility” of those who resist the measures taken and who “lead people to death”, while the government’s “salvation measures” on the contrary “promoted life”. An aggressive operation by the riot police followed: The huge crowd was dissolved and the whole centre returned to the hands of the police. Some media went as far as to criminalize resistance and protest in general. The change in the terms of the discourse offered the government precious time, as the unions didn’t call for a general strike for the day the new bill was to be voted. The radical milieus were shaken, and there was a stream of self-critical texts by numerous anarchist, antiauthoritarian and leftist collectives and individuals, often containing a drastic rethinking of the cult of violence2. But the most important consequence of the terrible Marfin bank tragedy is that it made the blood in peoples’ veins freeze. The traumatizing shock acted as a potent sedative.
Although there was some hope that the demos in Thessaloniki in September (during the International Fair, where the Prime Minister traditionally announces the financial plans for the following year) would trigger off a new round of resistance, and despite several 24-hour general strikes throughout the year, mass resistance was practically halted for a year.
Storm troops in the humanitarian crisis
In September 2010, the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, called the asylum situation in Greece a “humanitarian crisis” and urged the Greek authorities to speed up the asylum system reforms.3
As we have seen, during the last months of 2009 and the first months of 2010 there was a big increase of sans-papiers crossing the Greek borders. Because of the Dublin II Regulation, all these people were –and still are– trapped in Greece.4 Even before the rise in the numbers of sans-papiers entering Greece there was great tension in the neighbourhoods of immigrants and refugees. In the current context, it is plain to see that the government consciously and systematically encouraged the escalation of the crisis. Far right groups started attacking immigrants on a regular basis both at Aghios Panteleimonas and at Attiki square, but also in other neighbourhoods of Athens, like Neos Kosmos. Attacking immigrants with knives, clubs, molotov cocktails, smashing and burning their homes, stores and makeshift mosques, became common practice. The hate campaign and the scapegoat rhetoric formed an explosive combination with the talk of the deepening crisis: In 2010, municipal elections (November 7) the Golden Dawn nazi party elected a member in the municipal council of Athens. The Nazi victory was celebrated accordingly…
On November 10, 2010, near a gas station on the national road connecting Ioannina and Igoumenitsa, a racist opened fire against a group of five immigrants. A 23-year-old Kurd from Iraq was injured in the genitals. On November 19, the police arrested as a suspect for the attack a 38-year-old Greek owner of a gas station, who was stupid enough points into the EU, are notoriously difficult. Most asylum-seekers receive no assistance. Many live on the streets, including women and children (…) This is a humanitarian crisis situation which should not exist in the European Union.” 4
After they cross the borders, they are held at some detention centre (usually for a few days, unless they apply for asylum: in this case, as a form of punishment, they are held for months), then they receive a paper by the police stating that they must leave Greece by themselves within a month. Then everybody goes to Athens, hoping to find a way to go to Italy. A small number goes to Patras or Igoumenitsa, to try to get onboard a ferry to Italy. The vast majority remains in Athens, waiting for smugglers to tell them that their lucky day has arrived. After some months they have spent all the money they have saved for the smugglers and they find themselves living on the streets or at some abandoned house or sharing a rented basement with no help from the State and no possibility to earn some money.
On November 15, 2010, four Greeks holding hunting rifles attacked two Palestinian immigrants on Castelli beach on the island of Crete and beat them up badly. They were both brought to hospital. One had wounds in his head and received 24 stitches, the other got a broken leg and arm.
RABITs, the Evros fence and the first cracks in Dublin II
On October 24, 2010, FRONTEX received a request from the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection Christos Papoutsis to deploy Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABITs) as well as operational means to increase the control and surveillance levels at Greece’s external border with Turkey. FRONTEX reported: “This is the first time since the creation of the Agency in 2005 that Frontex has deployed the RABIT teams – a group of specialized border guards made available by 27 EU countries to deal with emergency situations at the EU’s external borders. Due to the exceptionally high numbers of migrants crossing the Greek-Turkish land border illegally, Greece now accounts for 90% of all detections of illegal border crossings to the EU. In the first half of 2010, a total of 45,000 illegal border crossings were reported by the Greek authorities for all their border sectors. Greece currently estimates that up to 350 migrants attempt to cross the 12,5km area near the Greek city of Orestiada every day.”
In December 2010, the Minister of Citizen Protection Christos Papoutsis announced the construction of a barrier stretching for more than 200 kilometers along the Turkish border. By January 2011, the plan was for a 12.5-kilometer barricade fence along one section of the Turkish border in the Evros river region, in the Orestiada area. On January 21, 2011 the European Court of Human Rights judged that Greece is not a “safe country of asylum”. 5
The Court's Grand Chamber found that Greece's broken asylum system and appalling detention conditions meant that Belgium's transfer of an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece in 2009 under the Dublin II Regulation had breached the prohibition on ill treatment and denied him an effective remedy.
The 300 immigrants’ hunger strike
On January 25, 2011, 300 immigrant workers began a hunger strike in Athens and Thessaloniki, demanding equal political and social rights. 44 days later and after more than 100 strikers had been hospitalized with serious health issues, the State was forced to drop its intransigent attitude along with previous threats of deportation of the strikers and to negotiate officially with them, promising to meet a significant part of their demands:
• Decrease of the required residence time of migrants in the country in order to submit applications for residence permits to 8 years, down from 12 years before (this applies to every single migrant living in the Greek territory)
• Decrease of the required work credits from 200 to 120 (also for local workers)
• Decrease of the work credits required for insurance cover from 80 to 50 (this also applies to all workers, local and migrant)
For the 300 hunger strikers in particular, the allowance has been given for them to indefinitely renew their 6-month “state of tolerance” status until the time when they reach the time and conditions to receive a residence permit. During that time they will be allowed to travel twice every six months to and from their country of origin.
We have to note that this was the first big mobilization against the government and its IMF policies that was to some extent effective (it was followed by the Keratea residents opposition to a waste disposal project). Until then the government had full control and never before had backed down on any issue. The gains though were much less than they could have been, due to sectarianism in the Greek movement.6 (a clumsy response…
The day after the end of the hunger strike, in an attempt to satisfy its far right audience, the Greek government announced that a special flight was to be chartered –for the first time! – to deport 54 Dominican women and 19 men who had been under arrest for two months in Greece for illegal entry. The fact that the 73 sans-papiers were accompanied to the Dominican Republic by 139 [!] Greek police officers and two doctors and that the cost of the whole operation exceeded € 460,000 didn’t exactly help establish its propaganda message...)