In Exarchia

Zoe Holman

The squad of armed riot police arrived at 5 a.m. on 26 August. The abandoned office block at Spirou Trikoupi 17, near Exarchia Square in central Athens, had been home to more than a hundred asylum seekers since 2016. The police hauled the men, women and children from their beds and loaded them onto buses, with no notice of their destination. Those without papers were taken to Athens’ main immigration prison to be deported. When the building had been evacuated, the police took their batons and smashed everything inside. The entrance was sealed with bricks and mortar.

Since taking office in July, the conservative New Democracy government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis has vowed to restore ‘order’ to Exarchia. A spokesman for the police union said the raid on the squat was part of an effort to ‘vacuum up all the garbage from Exarchia’. The effort, however, began under the old Syriza government, which evicted more than three hundred people in April.

When 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead by police in Exarchia in December 2008, his murder sparked weeks of rioting across Greece and the EU. Police buses have since remained stationed around the area, with squads entering only for their (not infrequent) clashes with demonstrators. The relative lack of law enforcement, combined with the neighbourhood’s distinct anti-authoritarian culture, has enabled the growth of grassroots organising. Free medical clinics, community kitchens and housing projects have sprung up, filling the gaps in social security left by the economic crisis.

Since 2015, the movement has extended its support to migrants, people whom the EU and the Greek state have overwhelmingly failed in basic material terms. Many of the 80,000 now stranded in Greece have found themselves in overcrowded ‘temporary’ camps – a former army barracks and industrial shipping port among them – without adequate social, medical and educational services, or everyday security. The camps are typically situated far from cities, in what looks like a deliberate policy of deprivation, segregation and isolation. Over the past month, the government has expedited deportation procedures and cancelled social security numbers for third country nationals, effectively cutting off refugees’ access to public health, education and employment. ‘Our country is not an unfenced backyard,’ the labour minister recently said.

Around a thousand asylum seekers are currently housed in squats around Exarchia. ‘There is a reason Exarchia became a harbour for people,’ an Iranian refugee activist told me. ‘It cultivated a sense of community and covered the needs of refugees abandoned by the state. Now the government wants to break up any form of connectivity that falls outside the system.’

New Democracy has sought to conflate refugee solidarity with the drug-dealing and other criminal activity on Exarchia’s unpoliced streets, all in the name of security. Under this banner, the government has abolished the university sanctuary law and deployed squads of commando-style ‘black panther’ police to central Athens. The Ministry of Migration has been dissolved and the refugee portfolio transferred to the Ministry of Citizen Protection.

The militarisation is also being felt on the Aegean islands, where the numbers of refugees arriving over the past month have risen to near 2016 levels. The handful of search-and-rescue NGOs still allowed to operate there report new levels of intimidation by the authorities. They fear Greece is moving toward the zero-tolerance approach imposed in Italy’s waters by Matteo Salvini. ‘There is a very tense feeling on the islands because everybody knows the government is trying to push through anti-refugee policies,’ I was told by a crew member of the human-rights monitoring vessel Mare Liberum. There are rumours that the ‘black panthers’ are also now operating on Lesvos.

With riot buses encroaching further into Exarchia this week, squat residents are getting ready for raids, barricading doors and windows. A friend from Gaza joked that he has more experience with bulldozers and heavy weaponry than the Greek police could ever level at him. I asked about his plans if he is evicted. ‘It is not about having a plan,’ he said, ‘it is about having a choice. The government will give us no choice.’

The protests meanwhile continue, with demonstrators of all ages turning out to face off against riot police: ‘We live together,’ they chant, ‘we work together, locals and migrants are class brothers.’ The riposte comes in the form of tear gas, stun grenades and pepper spray. ‘This is quiet still, it is summer,’ an Athenian friend told me at a gathering in the square, ‘but in a few months we will have another 2008, people will die in Athens this winter.’


  • 9 September 2019 at 1:37pm
    Konstantinos Doxiadis says:
    The 'university sanctuary' law you're referring too is a law prohibiting the police from entering university grounds under any conditions. It is an outdated law from the Junta which currently serves only the anarchist teams of students within the university, as well as creating a haven for drug-dealers and cigarette black markets. It is a 'sanctuary' which no other European state supports (or any civilised nation for that matter), so I'd be careful with the characterisation. Unless of course this style of uninformed, biased reporting is what you go for.

    • 11 September 2019 at 6:22pm
      Okjoij says: @ Konstantinos Doxiadis
      Certainly the 'university sanctuary' law to which the reporter refers does facilitate some of the activity you mention, but I fear it's a bit too easy, and not entirely accurate, to reduce it entirely to drug dealing and cigarette black markets (are cigarette markets any better if not 'black' btw?), particularly given the monumental historical context of the law. The reporter mentions that it is an established political tactic to "conflate refugee solidarity with the drug-dealing and other criminal activity." Certainly the 'sanctuary law' does merit some criticism, but one must think carefully about how criticism of the "sanctuary law" provides a smoke screen for an anti-refugee rhetoric. My personal experience of Athens (having grown up there as well) is that the predicament the reporter describes is if anything, slightly lenient as regards the suffering of refugees. Furthermore, if one leaves the more refined airs of Politeia and Kolonaki, and walks around Exarchia right at this very moment, the abundance of junkies shooting up in broad daylight, the barely concealed ubiquity of human trafficking, and the chaos that is apparent in the governments complete inability to cope with the scale of the refugee crisis, all suggests that the 'sanctuary' of the university is not exactly a cause for remorse among the executive forces - indeed, they seem perfectly happy to turn a blind eye as long as the price is right.