The real winners of Greece's elections: refugees

Beyond all the talk of debt, austerity and welfare payments lies a less-hyped but far-reaching consequence of Greece’s election bombshell: a dramatically more welcoming policy to migrants and asylum seekers.

The left-wing Syriza party, which trounced the anti-immigration New Democracy party in yesterday’s elections and holds 149 seats in the 300-seat parliament, has pledged to open Greece’s borders and increase support for migrants already inside the country.

"Syriza takes a strong stand against the demonizing of immigrants and undemocratic measures like concentration camps and border walls,” the party’s head of migration policy, Vasiliki Katrivanou, said after the vote.

“We will take steps to improve so called “ghetto areas” in benefit of everyone living there: Greeks and immigrants," she added. “We consider our win at the polls a victory for all Greeks and all migrants.”

Matthaios Tsimitakis, a Greek journalist and political analyst, said he expected a major shift in government policy.

“The previous government was based on the right-wing ideology that dominated politics…Syriza is moving in a different direction. Immigrants are not a threat to national security; they are victims of international wars. They need integration to become productive members of society and not a burden."

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently nearly 44,000 asylum-seekers in Greece, in addition to 3,500 recognized refugees. According to the Greek Council of Refugees, the total number of Syrians entering Greece surpassed 30,000 in 2014.

The influx is growing rapidly: UNHCR said 43,500 people were apprehended by Greek authorities at the Greek-Turkish borders in 2014, a 300 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The country had a 19 percent acceptance rate for asylum seekers in the final quarter of 2014, far lower than the European Union (EU) of 48 percent.

Syriza is set to immediately address the backlog of asylum cases while
providing protection for the most vulnerable of asylum seekers.

Pushing back on ‘pushbacks’

The Syriza government has also vowed to curb security forces’
alleged practice of forcing migrants and asylum seekers arriving from
Turkey back across the land and marine borders.

The previous administration denied such claims, but UNHCR has
recorded asylum seekers being sent back to Turkey, boats of migrants
ignored by the Greek coastguard despite distress calls, and physical
violence by law enforcement personnel.

A Greek tragedy

Ahmed, a refugee from Syria, has made numerous unenviable decisions since fleeing Damascus, including taking a treacherous journey by sea to Europe.

His four children, aged between four and 11, were shaped by the civil war destroying their country. “I used to pretend it was a game, when the bombs were falling, instead of crying. Soon we began to know the difference between the different types of weapons,” explains eight-year-old Rusul.

Their story is far too common - according to Save the Children, one in three Syrian children who have fled the conflict have endured physical harm by being “hit, kicked, or shot at.”

After fleeing Syria, the family travelled to Egypt via Lebanon but found themselves unwelcome. With few options left, they fled to Libya, opting for the dangerous sea voyage to Italy. But when their boat was close to Malta, a commercial vessel discovered them stranded at sea and dropped them off in Greece. It was their third attempt at reaching Europe.

“Of course I never want[ed] to risk the life of my children. My entire struggle has been for their future. But how can I leave them behind on their own when bombs are falling?”

Having finally arrived in Greece to apply for asylum, Ahmed said he received almost no support due to tightening anti-migration policies. Stranded in Athens for over a year, he and his family live an almost invisible existence, confined to a clandestine location due to constant police raids and in a crime-riddled community of Athens that has been grappling with its own socio-economic woes.

As their six-month deportation order has expired, they are now in an even more precarious situation in terms of their rights to apply for asylum. With meagre finances, Ahmed awaits an opportunity to leave Greece through Macedonia by foot.

Tighter border controls have pushed smugglers to take ever more extreme
measures. According to the International Organization for Migration, last
year at least 4,077 refugees died crossing the Mediterranean to reach
Europe – many heading for Greece.

Syriza MPs have been at the forefront of questioning coastguard
authorities alleged to be pushing back migrants at sea, with the party’s
leadership publicly accusing Greek border patrol of being culpable for
the boat tragedies on the Aegean Sea and frequently calling for

When asylum seekers and migrants arrive in Greece, the majority are taken
to detention centers. Upon their release, the majority are given a
deportation order giving them only a limited amount of time to return to
their home countries.

Elektra Koutra, an immigration and human rights lawyer based in the capital Athens,
has helped secure protection and asylum for such families with
minors, especially from Syria in recent years. She says asylum seekers
do not understand the legal repercussions of their deportation orders and often stay
beyond the expiration.

“One of the children I represented saw someone die during his journey
and experienced high levels of stress while on his own, yet he was given
a deportation order and no support," she explained.

Dublin trouble

One other key issue is the Dublin agreement, which Syriza has called to be renegotiated.

The agreement, signed in 1990, stipulates that asylum seekers in the EU must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in – rather than
being able to travel to other European states first. As such, a
disproportionate percentage of cases fall upon the shoulders of southern
European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain that are natural
frontiers to migration.

Greek politicians have long claimed that the country, which has seen its
economy shrink by nearly a quarter in five years, cannot cope with the
asylum seekers.

“The problem with the EU system of asylum, especially the Dublin
agreement, is that it is based on a flawed notion that all member states
are able to provide the same level of protection to refugees,” Koutra

While Syriza may want to reform the Dublin agreement, there appears to be little appetite in northern Europe. As such, the party may well
seek to galvanise political support in neighbouring southern European

Koutra warned that such changes were unlikely in the short-term. “It will
require calling for special support in processing asylum cases and
relocating asylum seekers to other member states based on the 2001 EU
Directive on Displacement,” she said. The directive allows for the
voluntary transfer of refugees between EU states.

Syriza’s task appears mammoth. With the Greek economy still in tatters,
addressing the needs of thousands of refugees, while at the same
garnering support from EU members who are already lending the country
its economic lifeline, will certainly test the prowess of the coming

Yet for thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, their election might just be a chink in fortress Europe.