Continuing tensions in Greece over that State’s handling of the refugee crisis contradicts a carefully constructed public image the ruling right wing Nea Demokrita (New Democracy) wishes to project to a domestic and international audience. The issue of illegal ‘push-backs’ of migrants has continued to generate outrage, controversy, and outright denial in European media. This contradictory policy is reflected in events over this past week, as an attempt by the Greek President to honour a noted refugee-rescuer resulted in swift push-back by members of the ruling party keen to downplay such defiant gestures.
Technically head of state – although her role is primarily ceremonial – Greece’s first female President Katerina Sakellaropoulou had issued a list of Greek citizens who were to be honoured for their contribution to society in various fields. The conferral ceremony was part of a wider series of events held last weekend commemorating the forty-seventh anniversary of the restoration of Greek Democracy.
Those chosen to be honoured were drawn from various fields, including academia, medicine, and the arts. Amongst them was activist Iasonas Apostolopoulos, who over several years has been working as a sea rescuer of refugees around the Mediterranean Sea. Currently working with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) on such missions, Apostolopoulos has previously received honors for his humanitarian actions from the Mayor of Palermo, and the Danish Navy.
He was invited to attend the ceremony on Saturday 24th of July at the Presidential Hall. According to his testimony, however, he received a phone call from the Ministry of the Exterior on Friday 23rd July – after midnight – informing him he would not be decorated after all. Not only was this a highly unusual turn of events, but Apostolopolous had already been publically named as a recipient of this public honour. The cancellation was bound to stir controversy.
Worryingly, hours before Apostolopoulos had been informed by phone news of the cancellation was leaked on Twitter and Facebook by Konstantinos Bogdanos, a member of parliament from the ruling party of Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy). In his post, Bogdanos described the refugee rescuer as an ‘aggressive critic of the border policy and our security corps,’ and attached social media posts of Apostolopoulos critical of the well-documented illegal push backs by the Greek authorities, which have been linked to refugees drowning at sea.
The process of “pushing back” is designed to prevent migrants from arriving in a jurisdiction, or immediately returning them once they have arrived there. It prevents asylum seekers from declaring themselves as such, from presenting papers or other documents to the authorities, or even from receiving basic first aid or other essentials such as food, medicine and drinking water.
The practice has become all too commonplace as ‘Fortress Europe’ attempts to prevent and discourage the movement of victims of war and its economic consequences, and, increasingly, climate change.
"At one point a guy passed five metres away from me with a machete, a massive knife, and I heard the noise of stabbing."
Report from @fellipelopes7 inside Camp #moria, Lesboshttps://t.co/SG7JB7k4Gq@CaoimheButterly @IrishRefugeeCo @openarms_found @RefugeeRescueUK @seawatch_intl
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) January 26, 2020
Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy justifiably claim the burden of dealing with the refugee crisis has fallen disproportionately on them, a situation exacerbated by the regulations surrounding the Dublin Protocol and the increasing militarization of Frontex, the European Border Patrol Agency.
This burden has also fallen on non-EU Turkey, which is commonly believed to be foisting refugees onto their Greek neighbours, who in turn are forcing these unfortunate travellers back into the jurisdiction of the Turkish Coast Guard. The fear, frustration and terror suffered by those on the receiving end of these often fatal tactics is unimaginable.
Pushback by Greek security forces has received wide attention in the international media, and a recent Oxfam report from June 2021 described the practice of pushbacks at the Greek border are ‘persistent and systematic’.
Nonetheless, Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, has claimed that these allegations are ‘clearly unfounded’, despite eyewitness testimony, mobile phone footage from on board migrant vessels being attacked, and the testimony of the Turkish Coast Guard and other authorities. The practice was also thoroughly investigated in a recent New York Times article, less than a week before Apostolopoulos was defamed as a traitor to his country.
The influential journalist Elena Akrita attended the ceremony. The following Sunday, she posted her response on her Facebook page: ‘What is 100% cross referenced is that the entire Far Right section of Nea Dimokratia fell on top the issue. They riled up a big fuss and managed to take his name off the list.’
The affair has brought a wave of outrage on social media, and is bound to reach the chambers of Parliament over the coming days and weeks, as left wing parties SYRIZA and MERA25, have already issued statement demanding explanations.
To some extent Apostolopoulos’s exclusion has backfired on those behind it, as it has brought the issue of illegal pushbacks of refugees back into Greek public discourse, and indeed the wider world.
The plight of refugees seems to be forgotten by those justifying the tactic of preventing safely landings on Greek territories such as Lesbos.
In reponse to this controversy, Iason Apostolopoulos made the following statement to independent media The Press Project:
Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to deal with whatever is going on in Greece. At the moment I am in the central Mediterranean Sea on board the rescue boat Geo Barents, of Doctors Without Borders.
Our priorities here are different. Since the 2nd of July, we are pinned down by Italian maritime police in Augusta port, they won’t let us sail, we can’t even come ashore and they keep us anchored.
A few miles away, hundreds of people every day struggle for the lives on decrepit blow up boats, facing the waves but also the utter indifference of European authorities.
Any people who manage to survive, are returned to the slave markets and torture centers of Libya, in joint operations of Frontex and Libyan Navy.
This is the reality that we are experiencing and whoever doesn’t want us to talk about it, is covering up and essentially supporting a European border regime which everyday produces mass death, violence and misery.
The debate over the tactics the EU is using to discourage migrants from attempting to reach its borders will continue. In the meantime, activists like Apostolopoulos can expect varying levels of opposition from state actors. Events in Greece this past week have shown how deep the divisions are between those seeking humanitarian solutions and those seeking complete control of the narrative around the refugee crisis.
Feature Image: Felipe Lopes