Tuesday, 7 August 2012

"Illegal Immigration"? - After One Week in Greece...


I have spent one week in Greece, and the heat, the good food and the sea have nearly let me forget that this is the country that finds its way into Europe’s news reports every day because of an economic crisis that is paralysing the continent. The cafés are a little less crowded than usually, many restaurants are empty, some shops have had to close, but I found the city centre of Athens to be bustling as ever (with tourists and locals alike). Yes, one can tell that there is an economic crisis, if one knows what signs to look for. What no tourist, no local, no human being can ignore, is a dark-skinned man fishing old tin cans out of a stinking garbage bin, placing them carefully into a shopping trolley. Writing my PhD on Europe’s asylum policy, I approached him, hoping that he could tell me what life is like for him in Greece. He smiled at me, told me he was from Pakistan, but that he didn’t speak English. He pulled a cell phone out of his pocket, and called a friend of his, passed me on to him. I explained what I wanted, but that it would be difficult for us to talk if he didn’t speak English. Not really knowing what to do next, I shook his hand, said goodbye, and wished him a blessed Ramadan.

1,600 refugees were detained by Greek authorities yesterday
I sometimes wonder what it is like to cross the Greco-Turkish border illegally, as around 100,000 people do every year, but if I tell someone that I want to attempt doing so myself, they will say that it is too dangerous, that you can get arrested, or worse. There are those for whom crossing that border is not part of their PhD research, or for whom it is not the topic of a good blog post, but who see it as the only way to secure a future for themselves and their families. They arrive here, in Europe, and are labelled illegal immigrants, not worthy of human dignity, left to collect the garbage off the streets, or out of the trash cans. There are a million ‘irregulars’ in Greece, 10% of the country’s population, most of them homeless, or crammed together in hopelessly overcrowded refugee camps, which are the worst in Europe. Racism is visible in this country, be it in the Pakistani ghettoes in Athens or in the news reports, where I have heard 101 times that the rapist was indeed Pakistani (does it really matter where he’s from?).

Let me tell you something: Accusing someone of illegal immigration is very much like accusing someone of having crossed a red traffic light that never turns green. It is impossible to apply for asylum in Greece; the success rate is something like 0.01%. However, it is also impossible to apply for asylum in another EU Member State. Greece has become a victim of the Dublin II Regulation, which states that asylum seekers have to apply for asylum in the country where they first entered EU territory. Due to its geographical location, this puts Greece in a bad position. The racism that has resulted from a totally incompetent handling of asylum applications reinforces the concept of the Fortress Europe, which foresees the building of ever-higher fences and walls around the continent. Dublin II is one of the corner stones of Fortress Europe (see this previous post for more). This is thus a call for a reform of Dublin II, and also an appeal to be sensitive to people who have given up everything to reach Europe. Europe is only good as it treats its poorest, and judging from that, I am not sure I see much good in it right now.

Harald Köpping

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