[This is part 2 in a 2 part series on migrants in Europe]
In our previous installment on Europe’s migrant crisis, we explored the April 9 disaster that claimed hundreds of lives. A boat carrying an estimated 900 people capsized, drowning hundreds. The catastrophe occurred following the discontinuation of Italy’s operation Mare Nostrum, which balanced border enforcement with humanitarian aid, and was responsible for saving thousands of migrant lives. A new European Union-led operation – fronted by the union’s border control agency Frontex – has since taken over, with a significantly smaller budget, fewer personnel and boats, and a singular focus of enforcing border security over humanitarian aid.
EU foreign and interior ministers met in an emergency session following the April 9 incident – termed a “massacre” by the UNHCR – to hash out new guidelines for the union’s policy in the Mediterranean. Critics have called several of the measures – including plans to sink smugglers’ boats – a militarization of policy, ill-suited for dealing with the growing number of desperate refugees planning to enter Europe. The plan additionally calls for an increased budget, as well as a resettlement plan that would offer asylum to some refugees across the EU’s 28 member nations.
Yet another European nation that has been in the news – albeit for different reasons – is coping with a spike of migrants: Greece.
While Italy and Spain – two other top destinations for migrants trying to enter Europe – are struggling economically, Greece is in particularly dire straits. The nation’s sovereign debt crisis is an ongoing source of consternation for EU and IMF officials. The media is rife with talks of default and of a potential “Grexit” from the European Union – which would imperil the very premise of the union’s mission and identity.
With Greece’s cash-strapped government and its population disaffected with bailout-mandated austerity and ridicule from the international media, the nation’s economic and social environment is not equipped to adequately and humanely deal with the influx of migrants.
Mainstream politicians across the European continent have kept a weary eye on populist, anti-immigrant groups popping up throughout the union. Among the most virulent and hateful of these groups is Greece’s Golden Dawn – a neo-nazi group with its own paramilitary that has been implicated in a number of assaults and murders. Benefitting from the economic downturn and the heterogenization of European society, Golden Dawn and other extreme right-wing parties are providing a frightening, hateful, and ultimately very dangerous outlet for people who feel helpless.
While its leadership has since been charged with operating a criminal organization (the trial was recently postponed) and its electoral popularity has shrunk, the relative success of Golden Dawn in attracting a base of support nonetheless reflects the disastrous consequences of underfunded, non-holistic, and piecemeal approaches to the continent’s inter-related migrant and domestic social crises.
Detained migrants live in squalid, dehumanizing environments that fuel the demeaning and racist perceptions propagated by groups like Golden Dawn. From exacerbated health to diminished life prospects and social standing, migrants’ living conditions – generated through government neglect, inhumane policy, and underfunding - ultimately make the process of otherization easier for hate groups.
As Doctors without Borders/Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) has noted, many migrants face indefinite detention with little to no medical care, often kept in unsanitary and confined environments. The organization has provided care for some migrants who have been detained for over six years, evidence of a policy that permits Greek authorities to let migrants languish until they volunteer to head back to their nation of origin. Many of these migrants, of course, are refugees, and simply do not have the option to self-deport. Invisible Suffering – an MSF report six years in the making – details a number of disorders plaguing detainees, including upper respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal diseases, anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic disorders.
Solving the migrant crisis while improving migrants’ living condition will not be easy, especially in a county whose citizens are reeling from economic insecurity and many of whom are dependent on charitable social services such as soup kitchens (indeed, one of the ways that Golden Dawn appealed for support was by offering food and other forms of social assistance to struggling Greeks). Nonetheless, it is often necessary to step back and see the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate social issues. By exploring the ways in which the plight of migrants, struggling Greeks, and hateful political ideologies are part of the same puzzle, NGOs, government officials, and aid works can begin to construct new and nuanced strategies for ameliorating these issues.