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Trapped in Greece

It is no good simply blaming bad government in Athens for the massive problem caused by EU-bound immigration

To criticize Greece, and pontificate on how it ought to climb out of the hole it is in, has become a sport for columnists everywhere. Few can resist the temptation to confidently tell the Greeks what they ought to do about their fiscal policy, public companies, civil service, etc. For them the maladministration of immigration is just one more example of Greek fecklessness, evident in the huge mass of immigrants trapped in Greece amid the depths of crisis. Of course, decades of bad government have much to do with the present issues. Yet the acute problems Greece is now facing are also the symptom of a European failure.

A rash of attacks on immigrants by gangs from the extreme right has highlighted the explosive situation in Greece. The EU has made some advances in the control of illegal population flows on its southwestern flank, by means of the Frontex program, and agreements that oblige countries such as Morocco and Tunisia to readmit nationals of third countries who try to reach Europe by way of their territory. But Turkey refuses to arrest such persons, or readmit them. Greece has sealed its land border with fences, but cannot prevent the flow from the Turkish mainland to the dozens of Greek islands just offshore.

Thus immigrants and asylum-seekers arrive in their thousands, fleeing from poverty and violence in lands such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; but also those who, turned away from Italy and Spain, proceed from Algeria, Sudan or Somalia. While the EU prides itself on having controlled the flow in the Western Mediterranean, ignoring the sad lot of those trapped in Mauritania, Morocco and Libya, European interior ministers shrink in horror at seeing similar situations in Greece. What appalls them is not so much the deplorable conditions in which these people languish, as the presence of a huge pocket of desperate pariahs in a state within the Schengen free-circulation space. This is why they are redoubling their efforts to curb attempts to move on from Greece to any other EU country.

European interior ministers applaud the Greek government's Xenios Zeus campaign of constant roundups

So here we have Greece, in the depths of its crisis, practically alone with a problem that it long neglected. The hard anti-immigrant line not only of the extreme right, but of the governing New Democracy party, makes few distinctions between categories: legitimate petitioners for asylum, those who dream of reaching other EU countries, those who worked in Greece for years but lost their jobs due to the crisis: all are portrayed as an unsustainable burden. Many Greeks understand that these people are victims, but the government's declared strategy is to make things as hard as possible for them, to dissuade others from coming.

So terrible situations occur. Whole quarters in central Athens have become open-air dormitories, where the gangs of Golden Dawn sow terror with knives and iron bars. Afghan youths, whose families spent their entire savings on an uncertain passage to Europe, are trapped in human-trafficking networks, or prostitute themselves for small change in squares and parks. Young Africans crouch behind bushes in the port of Patras, hoping for a ride on the undercarriage of a truck bound for Italy. Syrian families, having escaped from the civil war, live dispersed in detainment camps in deplorable conditions.

How easy it is to blame Greece for this disaster. But if the recent years of crisis have shown us anything, it is that the problems of Greece are the problems of Europe. European interior ministers applaud the Greek government's Xenios Zeus campaign of constant roundups of anyone looking foreign. The European Refugees Fund supplies some skimpy financial support for those sent to detention centers. With this the European Commission considers its work to have been done. The EU washes its hands of a problem in which Greece is both culprit and victim. And, in the Europe that poses as a paladin of human rights, hundreds of thousands of people are living a life of misery, fear and humiliation.

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