Tensions on the Greek islands have been skyrocketing in the last month following an aggressive government-led smear campaign against volunteers and NGOs helping migrants and refugees. The government has accused NGOs of collusion with smugglers and passed a law requiring all NGOs working with migrants to submit information concerning their membership and employees. We spoke with Christos Lazaridis of the Greek Forum of Refugees, an association of refugees and migrants’ communities based in Athens. The main goal of the network is to empower these communities to advocate for their rights and their obligations as potential citizens of Greece and Europe. At the center of this mission is the self-advocacy team which is consisted of people with a refugee, stateless or asylum seeker background, advocating for themselves on the issues they consider pressing.

Can you tell me more about refugees and migrants and activists in Greece? What kind of forms of activism do you see in Greece?

The Greek case is peculiar. Greece remains a transit country, meaning that the majority of the refugee and migrant population do not wish to live in this country. We do not see many cases of activism among refugees and migrants. Activism revolves mostly around the claims to asylum to other countries and the accessibility to basic human rights (access to health care, proper living conditions), rather than their rights as potential citizens of this country. Refugees and migrants’ activism is very difficult also because these people remain excluded. Those on the Islands are stuck in camps like Moria, which has a capacity for 2,500 people, but is hosting around 25,000 people. This is outrageous.

We have people that have been staying in camps for over 4 years and in such conditions they are not able to include themselves into the society, as they have not seen the world outside the camp and they are compromised with the idea that the State and the NGOs will provide for them. This is a disease. We need to work towards a holistic inclusion. And we need to do so immediately in order not to lose another generation.

However, there are, always, people with strong convictions about how inclusion and integration can be succeeded. We try to find these voices and raise them up. And we do so by bringing them at the center of our mission. Our self-advocacy team is a perfect example. There are no better advocates for these issues than refugees and migrants themselves.

When we meet these people, people who already have the will to raise their voice and that are looking for accessibility, we give them space, we step back and we support them to step in front and advocate for their rights and obligations.

How does your organization gain trust among migrants and refugees’ communities?

We are completely transparent in the way we operate our mindset and ideas. We do not address them as ‘beneficiaries’ of a project because this would create the feeling that we would provide a service for the duration of a project and then leave them alone. We avoid treating them either as victims or as receivers of help. We try instead to empower them, we provide them with all necessary tools and space. We understand our role as facilitators to their decisions. They are people, they have the right to decide on their own and they should do so.

Going more into recent developments, we heard that the government just passed a law to “better monitor NGOs working with migrants“. Can you tell us how it perceived?

As you said, this law concerns the monitoring of NGOs operating on the field and especially inside the camps. For the past four and a half years, NGOs contributed to sharing the burden of the situation and the so-called refugee and migrant ‘crisis’. To be honest, I do not like to use the word ‘crisis’ – this is not a migrants’ crisis, but rather a political one due to the lack of proper policies to address what is happening.

NGOs took up a very important role but, at this moment, they are targeted with very aggressive rhetoric concerning their transparency. And this is how this law has been communicated. In practice, this law will do what is necessary. Of course, there is a need for understanding and mapping down who is operating in the camps, which is what this law is about. Transparency must be evident, but the government has communicated about this law in a very aggressive way, implying and in times, clearly, stating that NGOs are deeply corrupted.

This kind of rhetoric increases the tensions and allows for misinterpretations from people and groups that are waiting for opportunities to attack NGOs and volunteers. We are, obviously, not against any form of transparency, because many people wish to contribute and help and they need to be properly coordinated and organized.

What we oppose is the rhetoric that embraces this law, because it targets people who work in the field, people who are already exhausted, I must tell you. When high-level politicians say they are all corrupted, they generalize in a dangerous way as they do not refer to specific cases. This has created a very dangerous political climate.

What are the consequences of this rhetoric?

Seven people were arrested because, on 4 February, they were conducting street and house searches with batons looking for people working for NGOs in the village of Moria. The police found their weaponry which indicated that they were acting as a “control squad”. It has been proven that many of the people that operated in this way during those days were connected with Golden Dawn, a far – right wing party, which is currently under process for being a criminal organization, in a Trial that has been ongoing for the last 4,5 years.

Recently, an employee of Doctors Without Borders was attacked in Lesvos. The organization published a press release regarding the incident, stating that violence has dangerously increased and requesting the Government to act immediately on the situation (https://msf.gr/magazine/giatroi-horis-synora-katadikazoyme-ton-propilakismo-ergazomenoy-mas-sto-horio-tis-morias ).

This kind of activities finds fertile grounds in the narratives that prevail in the public sphere. The same day, February 3, there was also a protest of about 2000 migrants and asylum seekers, causing extreme reactions from the local people. I received a report from volunteers working in Lesvos informing me that a group of people that were very violent hit a car and completely destroyed it. In the car, there was a volunteer and two asylum seekers.

The aggressiveness intensified since the increase of the influx to the Island in the summer. These Islands are, already, overpopulated, and this raises tensions, peaking in the last weeks. Local authorities from the Islands came together and called for a state of emergency in the Aegean Islands. These authorities are pressuring the government to take immediate measures. However, they do not seem willing to cooperate with the central authorities.

They say they do not want camps in the Islands – which is impossible given the fact that this is Europe’s entry point. The government has promised to speed up policies to move people from the Island to the mainland. But, this is clearly not working at the moment. There are so many people on the Islands that have been expressing great solidarity throughout the years, but it seems we have lost that momentum because of the lack of proper decisions by the last governments.

We still miss a national integration plan and it is perfectly clear that we do not wish to accept our role as a host country. But this is, always, connected to Europe. What does Europe want from Greece?

Do episodes of violence against migrants and volunteers happen in the mainland as well?

The Racist Violence Recording Network collects evidence of all racist attacks that happen both in urban areas and on the islands. The Greek Forum of Refugees is one of the founding members. In cooperation with them, we saw that the attacks have decreased around the time the Golden Dawn trial started. Because this criminal organization is under the public eye, these extremists do not operate that much. But now we are seeing an increase of attacks in connection to the aggressive rhetoric of public officials.

How is civil society reacting to these pressures?

There is an enormous lack of cooperation and communication among civil society organizations. I understand that each one does something different, but let us agree that everyone wants to help. But fear and insecurity prevent them from creating space for cooperation. But there is also a sort of competition which, in my opinion, needs to be coordinated, organized and focused on helping the people to restart their lives.  But we should not be fearful. There is a need for courage, there is a need to build more bridges. Right now, we are witnessing a sort of battle between two tendencies: we want refugees, we do not want refugees.

From my point of view, these two options are false and problematic. We have to face reality; migration will not stop. We can either live with our fears and identity insecurities or we can collaborate together and work together towards a completely new approach. We cannot stay in our comfort zone, we need to face and communicate with the people who do not share our opinion instead of only pointing the finger at the things that do not work. You need two people in order to dance tango.

What can the European institutions do to support?

I can speak for my organisation, the Greek Forum of Refugees, which is part of many European networks: PICUM, ECRE, the European Civic Forum, among others… which are doing a great job of intermediation between the field and the national and European policy-makers. But there is always the need to have people from the field. Refugees must join the table where decisions affecting their lives are made.. We need to bridge the distance between what is happening on the ground and the Brussels’ bubble. We also have to look at the situation of Greece as a European and international issue. It is not just a Greek matter!