Home / Articles / Small Islands, Global Challenges: Greece, COVID, and Mediterranean Migration
Last spring, as Italy, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and other European countries fought to contain the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, a spate of articles discussed how and why Greece’s response to the pandemic had proved so successful despite the country’s existing economic and political challenges. Some outlets, such as the New York Times and the Brookings Institution, attributed the relative success to the Greek government’s efficient deployment of health care resources and rapid institution of transmission mitigation measures. Others, like National Geographic, saw it as a product of Greeks’ habituation to crisis management and the role compassion plays in Greek culture—a positive, if somewhat essentialized, spin on the Western media’s view of contemporary Greek life as a story of struggle and perseverance amid dysfunction and stagnation.
That was last year. This spring, the story is much different. Amid a startling surge in both COVID-19 cases and deaths, Greek authorities have been hit with the dual burden of reimposing a lockdown to fight the virus and managing dissent to that lockdown. The Greek propensity for mass public protests, which by their nature violate pandemic public health protocols, has added to the burden and deepened the sense of political discontent. In early March, for example, Greece’s prime minister and leader of the center-right New Democracy Party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, complained that opponents of his conservative government were encouraging the protests in order to “exploit the flammable material that is the fatigue from (lockdown) measures” rising among regular Greeks.
Speaking broadly and from an American perspective, the Greek government has handled its response to the COVID-19 pandemic well compared to peer nations. Even in the midst of the current surge, a cumulative death rate of 72 per 100,000 is less than half that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Italy. It is even 20% better than the results achieved by Germany, which has long been the go-to country when pro-technocratic Americans want to highlight effective bureaucracy and popular assent to the public good.
However, the roots of present problems with Greece’s pandemic management could be glimpsed through the gaps in its strategy after its initial successes in spring 2020. During a surge late last summer, the government used uncreative, scolding-based rhetoric to try to stop young Greeks from partying at bars and beaches. During the Europe-wide surge in the fall, Greek authorities made many of the same mistakes as elsewhere, namely by imposing restrictions while still attempting to maintain the nation’s return to normalcy by initially keeping children below high-school age in school and allowing foreign entries. As expected, they were quickly forced to backtrack on both points. Further, the Mitsotakis government systematically excluded opposition media outlets from a €20 million fund set up to distribute lockdown messaging, essentially subsidizing struggling pro-government outlets. As has been the case in so many other countries, this act of pro-New Democracy patronage unnecessarily contributed to a discourse in which obedience to and defiance of public health orders have become politically coded. In recent months, many Greeks, particularly on the left, have even charged the government with turning a blind eye to police using public health orders to justify excessive force against leftist protests and people living in known left-leaning communities.
Beyond these domestic considerations, however, is the impact of pandemic politics on Greece’s refugee population. Greece remains one of the primary entry points to Europe for refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia, and houses thousands in a variety of refugee camps. Throughout the pandemic, troubling questions have persisted whether the Greek government is as committed to controlling the virus within large and growing refugee communities as it has been among its citizens. As early as April 2020, when Greek leaders were being fêted in the international press for their COVID-19 response, Human Rights Watch charged the Greek government with having done little to make it possible for refugees in overcrowded and undersupplied camps to adhere to effective mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, post-contact handwashing, and mask-wearing. At the time of HRW’s report, nearly 35,000 people lived on the islands of Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos, and Chios in camps designed to hold a maximum of 6,095. A year later, there are still about 15,000 on the five islands. This may at first glance appear to be a positive sign that Greek authorities have moved to speed up the asylum process and thus reduce risk of transmission in the camps. Yet, as Oxfam argues, it is as much the result of the rules imposed by New Democracy that have made it much harder to win asylum cases. As a result, appeals are more limited, and deportation orders are much more swiftly carried out. In some cases, refugees have been unofficially—and perhaps illegally—deported, by means of Greek police trucking asylum-seekers back across the border to Turkey or, more callously, loading them in inflatable rescue rafts and pushing them eastward into Turkish waters.
A further influence in reducing the numbers in Greece’s island camps has been a series of high-profile disturbances and outright disasters in the camps, most horrifically a fire that burned Lesbos’s Moria camp to the ground in September 2020. Greek authorities blamed the fire at Moria, which was built for 3,100 and at its height held more than 20,000, on arsonists from among the camp’s Afghan occupants, eventually arresting four men and two boys. The official story is that the fire was started as a protest against pandemic lockdown measures, although refugees who spoke to Middle East Eyepainted a more complicated picture that occurred in phases: first, an anti-refugee protest on the island by Greek “ultra-nationalists” chanting “throw them in the sea” on the same day as the fire; later, a peaceful demonstration at the camp that turned violent when inter-ethnic fighting among the detainees broke out; and finally, an official response to the unrest in which the police fired tear gas rather than using de-escalation tactics. The two boys, who claim they were not at the camp on the day of the fire, were nonetheless convicted in juvenile court in March 2021. The remaining four men await trial.
Less discussed, but no less disturbing, than the Moria disaster is the ongoing saga of the VIAL camp on Chios. VIAL has operated under the official title of a “reception center” and has since 2016 been a window into the changing status of refugee conditions on Greek islands. One of the most notorious of the European Union’s so-termed migration “hotspots,” VIAL stands as a primary example of both EU leadership’s overall good intentions on managing the flow of people and their inability to bureaucratize and handshake their way out of a once-in-a-century refugee crisis. In 2016, one journalist who visited said VIAL “makes prison look like a five-star hotel.” Later the same year, a group affiliated with the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn attacked the Chios camps with Molotov cocktails. In a cruel mirror a few months later, a Syrian man in his 20s performed self-immolation in the camp to protest the conditions. Although VIAL was originally constructed to house 800 people, by 2018 nearly 2,000 refugees sat waiting for decisions on their fate in the camp’s squalid conditions. And by 2020, 3,000 additional people had somehow been crammed into VIAL’s already-tight confines, with yet another episode of fire leaving hundreds homeless in April 2020—this time, the result of unrest over fears that COVID-19 had invaded the camp.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown how a variety of seemingly unrelated and intractable problems can be solved simply by the government stepping in and, at long last, doing something—in the United States, conundrums as diverse as child nutrition, policing, and infrastructure have received more energetic government responses due to spotlights shown on them during the pandemic. When it comes to migration and refugee policies, however, one must look deeper than the surface level, always plumbing for the domestic, regional, and global political objective of any shift. Indeed, just as at Moria, VIAL has changed radically in the last year, as New Democracy has focused on removing the international PR stain on Greece’s good name symbolized by embarrassingly overcrowded and unruly refugee camps. Those actions point in opposite directions. Successive measures have been based on building new camps elsewhere to redistribute refugees from the most benighted hotspots and also using the reforms as cover for much harsher deportation rules. Despite its cynicism, this plan has been efficiently carried out. In early April 2021, Greece’s Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi announced proudly that VIAL’s population of inhabitants had fallen from 5,712 when he took office to less than 1,000. The figure will only continue to decrease: New Democracy wants VIAL gone from the earth.
None of this should be particularly surprising. As a party and cadre of ambitious leaders, New Democracy has a prima facie interest in holding power, and its base is always going to come from the center to the right. Thus, it needs to seize opportunities to redirect Greek animus regarding refugees. In a context where New Democracy pursues policies where refugee agglomerations are erased by redistribution and deportation, there is therefore no need for Golden Dawn’s fascist nationalism. New Democracy’s more ordinary patriotic nationalism serves just as well to reduce and remove the problem of large, filthy, chaotic camps (and their inhabitants), without attracting uncomfortable international attention in the process. Whether such policies offer long-term solutions to the European migration challenge, or improve the lot of those in movement themselves, are other matters entirely.
This is not to equate Golden Dawn and New Democracy. They are vastly different from each other—more distantly related in the world of the Greek right than, for example, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Alternative for Germany. Rather, just as my first article in this series showed with regard to the Maltese left and the improbable Lega-M5S coalition in Italy, it is possible for a variety of political actors to use the refugee crisis to access a widely felt European opinion on immigration that “enough is enough” and, in so doing, attempt to bend the narrative to serve their own political goals. The irony is that moderate approaches to migration response can hurt individual refugees nearly as much as extremist ones. One hopes, as my next article will explore, that a third way between well-meaning inertia and hardline reaction is possible in the Mediterranean world. Those who have lived through the crisis, and especially those who have died in it, deserve no less than a national and international strategy that can put aside political point-scoring and values life above all.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.