On a Wednesday morning at the end of November, an angry crowd gathered outside a hotel in Sparta. A group of 180 refugees was expected to arrive at any moment. They had been evacuated from the Greek islands, where conditions have reached a new nadir. On Lesvos, for instance, more than 16,000 people are crammed into facilities designed for around 3000.
The mayor of Sparta said he hadn’t been informed in advance. ‘I hope this situation ends with the people that have just arrived,’ he told the TV cameras. (A total of 750 were being distributed across the Lakonia municipality, which has a population of 35,000.) ‘Our municipality is already under strain. The day before yesterday five hundred people from Pakistan arrived to work in Geraki. This is not possible. Are we the dumping ground of Greece? We have no growth, no nothing. They shut down the universities, the hospital, they’ve taken away everything.’
In the mayor’s words, the refugee crisis merged with the presence of precarious migrant labourers, the effects of a decade of austerity, and a general sense of abandonment. The anti-refugee demonstration at the hotel in Sparta wasn’t an isolated incident.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been prime minister since July, when his New Democracy party won a landslide victory over the incumbent Syriza. ND’s election campaign focused on two issues: the Macedonia name deal and Syriza’s handling of the refugee crisis. Both included heavy doses of nationalism and hysteria. ND repeatedly accused Syriza of being unwilling to guard Greece’s borders ‘properly’, and even suggested that they were inviting refugees to make the crossing from Turkey.
Since coming to power, Mitsotakis has admitted several times that the deal with Northern Macedonia must stand, and more than a few ND cadres unofficially admit that they’re happy Syriza made the deal, as it means they don’t have to take on any of the political cost. On the refugee crisis, they have changed their tune from ‘Syriza is to blame’ to ‘Europe has abandoned us to deal with this issue alone’ – something that most mainstream analysts have pointed out repeatedly over the years, only to be attacked by ND officials as Syriza-sympathisers.
But some MPs are pushing things ever more to the extreme. One recently suggested that refugees should be sent to ‘sparsely populated islands’, and that shouldn’t be ‘a taboo’ – he seemed to have in mind both Australia’s hellish Manus Island prison, and the fate of exiled political dissidents under the Colonels.
The former prime minister Antonis Samaras, still a powerful force in ND, has gone even further: in a recent speech he adopted the far-right rhetoric of the ‘great replacement’, suggesting that Greece is under threat of ‘irregular colonisation’ by refugees and immigrants. Samaras is an MP for Sparta’s neighbouring region of Messenia.
ND is now proposing to introduce ‘closed detention facilities’ and speed up the asylum process (i.e. deportations). As President Erdoğan threatens to allow millions of refugees to come to Europe, the new Greek government, finding itself faced with the hatred it whipped up for cheap electoral gain, is opting to double down on cruelty.