- Created: Thursday, 16 December 2010 11:11
- Written by Andrew Alexander
FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011
Greece is in the middle of its worse economic crisis since the end of the Second World War. It has just received €30bn from the EU to help stabilise the economy – in return for cutbacks on public spending, pay cuts and a rise in the pension age. Unemployment is over 10%. In response, the Greek people have taken to the streets in mass protests. The ruling class is on the back foot. It is seeking to split the working class and to divert blame for the economic turmoil from itself. Racism is spreading as the poorest in society, most notably economic migrants and asylum seekers, are targeted.
Between 1991 and 2001 immigrant numbers in Greece rose from 1.6% to 7% of the population; by 2005 the figure was 8.6%. The embattled Greek state has been quick to capitalise on this sharp increase.
Like all capitalist states, Greece requires a certain degree of immigration to form a body of cheap and exploitable labour to fuel economic growth. Historically, Albanians, particularly young Albanian men, have fulfilled this role. In 2001, Albanians made up 56% of the immigrant population. Modern Greek infrastructure has been built to a large degree on Albanian labour, similar to the role Irish workers once played in Britain.
Greece considers large parts of southern and eastern Europe – such as Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia and to a lesser degree Bulgaria – as coming under its sphere of influence. In this sense Greece has imperialist pretensions in the region.
This position intensified during the war in the Balkans in the early 1990s. As the US and Germany promoted Croatian separatism, Greece kept its ties to Serbia – despite NATO forces using bases in northern Greece to bomb Belgrade. Despite 95% of the Greek people being against the war, and many politicians claiming also to be opposed, the country remained within NATO and therefore involved in the war. This put the Greek ruling class in an advantageous position as NATO forces carved up Eastern Europe; the Russians could only stamp their feet on the sidelines but Greece remained part of the process, while maintaining close ties with Serbia.
When the peace ‘settlements’ came, Greece was therefore in a key position regarding rebuilding and investment of capital in the area. It also was in a position to dictate who and how many of the refugees it would take in. Unlike Montenegro and Macedonia, which were powerless to stop a huge wave of immigration into their borders, Greece, as both an EU and NATO member, could dictate the labour requirements that it needed from the war-torn area.
This fresh growth of immigration, along with those coming from the ex-Eastern bloc countries, helped lead to a steady rate of growth in the Greek economy throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century.
Crisis spreads racism
Then the global economic bubble burst, and blame was directed away from the banks and corrupt ruling class and towards the poor, in particular ethnic minorities. Roma, who form about 3% of the population, are being scapegoated for many social ills. Despite most Roma being long-term residents in Greece, voices among the Greek right – echoing recent policies in France and Italy – are calling for Roma to be forcibly deported to Romania. Albanians and Eastern Europeans are also bearing the brunt of the crisis. Not represented by the Greek trade unions, they are being forced into the worst jobs with no security and little access to state benefits.
But the worst treatment is reserved for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Turkey, who do not appear in official immigration figures. Conditions in the internment centres where they are imprisoned are so harsh that the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, has described them as inhuman.
According to The Guardian (25 October 2010): ‘On islands such as Samos and Lesbos, which border the Turkish coast, it is not uncommon for as many as 30 men to be kept in a room sharing a single toilet and filthy mattresses. Basic commodities such as soap and razor blades are rare. Without interpreters, bewildered refugees, mostly from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in Asia, are unable to communicate with officials.’
In 2009, hundreds of migrants in a detention centre on Lesbos demonstrated against their treatment. Children as young as 12 went on hunger strike, set fire to mattresses and attacked guards. Amnesty International has urged Greece to stop treating asylum seekers and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, as criminals and holding them in detention centres.
According to a BBC report in July, the Avlona detention centre north of Athens, which is supposed to house young Greek criminals, typifies the situation described by Amnesty. It contains 360 teenage boys, who travelled alone from Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The boys are locked up four to a cell for 15 hours a day. The detention centre is infested with cockroaches, and inmates are not even given basic items such as toilet paper. They rely on charity for essential supplies, or work for other prisoners to earn money to supplement their meagre rations.
There is no chance that the European Union will bring pressure to bear on Greece to improve these inhuman conditions. On the contrary: the imperialist countries of Europe fear that such migrants will find their way to their own borders, and so Greece is tacitly encouraged to police migration from Africa and Asia and to lock migrants up. Such protests as there have been are almost all by local people who have brought food and clothing for the detainees; the Greek left has completely failed to organise effectively in support of the migrants, focusing its energy instead on the unionised working class.
But it is essential in this time of capitalist crisis that Greek progressive and socialist forces, who demonstrated in such significant numbers against austerity measures, join in solidarity with the migrants. This is the only way the Greek working class can effectively fight. Such solidarity is a prerequisite for the emancipation of not just migrant workers and asylum seekers but the Greek working class as a whole. The ruling class knows this and will seek to divide any movement by intensifying racism towards migrants. For the Greek working class, solidarity is strength.