When the state tries to strengthen its control over the inhabitants, it uses the tools of systemic oppression. Such tools are most often used against the weakest groups, at those at risk of exclusion, without legal protection. In Greece, which for many refugees and immigrants is the first stop on the way to a better life, those groups can become an easy target for the ruthless policy of the authorities.
On the 17th and 18th of April, in several cities across Europe and Australia, there was a series of protests against the rising authoritarianism in Greece. The initiative was organised by groups of Greeks living abroad, who wanted to express their objection against police brutality, limiting civil freedom and the inhumane treatment of refugees in their homeland.
The protesters claim that the government led by the centre-right party New Democracy uses the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to increase the power of the police, also at previously independent universities, and to deprive the citizens of their rights to protest .
Not just isolated incidents
But police brutality in Greece is hardly a new issue. In 2012 Amnesty International published a report describing numerous cases of power abuse by the Greek police forces. The organisation claimed that the Greek government should stop considering the abuses “isolated incidents” and start perceiving them as parts of a bigger, systemic issue. Otherwise, the violence will only increase with complete impunity.
Part of the report focused on the ill-treatment of vulnerable groups, including refugees, migrants and the Romani community. In some cases, even the witnesses of racially-motivated attacks, who tried to help the migrants or defend them, fell victim to verbal abuse from the police officers or got arrested. Many victims of racists attacks chose not to report the situation to the authorities because of the irregular status of their stay in Greece. Their concerns were justified.
According to the AI report, the injured migrants, in need of immediate medical assistance, were not taken to a hospital, but to a police station in order to check their legal status. At times, the police violence had the form of passivity, lack of intervention and ignorance towards any cases of racially-motivated crimes. But the Amnesty International release also documents cases of destroying the residence permits of the migrants, using force during identity checks and beating and kicking the asylum-seekers .
Pandemic as an excuse for misuse of powers
The pessimistic predictions of Amnesty International were fulfilled as the issue of police violence in Greece only became more serious. And the coronavirus pandemic became the perfect excuse for new abuses.
Since November 2020, Greece has tight restrictions in place to control the spread of the virus. The citizens are allowed to leave their houses only after sending a text message to the authorities. The police forces control if the citizens conform to the rules, and any disobedience is penalised. And the punishments can be rough.
On March 7th, during a routine police patrol, a group of police officers stopped a man at the Nea Smyrni square in Athens, threw him on the ground and attacked with metallic batons . The recording of the attack quickly became viral and caused a public outrage and a wave of protests against police brutality.
Three policemen were injured during one demonstration in Athens . The people detained due to their participation in the protests claim that they experienced physical abuse at the police stations, that they were threatened with sexual violence and denied medical assistance . In response to the events, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the nation should not be divided and condemned the citizens’ aggression towards the authorities .
Limiting the freedom of the press
In January, based on a presidential decree, the Greek police published a new manual for operating during demonstrations. According to the instructions, the journalists can only cover the events from special zones, pre-assigned by the authorities .
The official reasoning behind the decision is the concern for the safety of the reporters, however the journalists claim that if their safety was ever in danger, it was usually caused by the police themselves.
Some of the foreign journalists working in Greece assert that their work was supervised and restricted by the greek authorities and law enforcement officers. The biggest restrictions are imposed on the reporters who cover the situation of asylum-seekers and describe the conditions at refugee camps .
Last year, several journalists who worked on Greek islands in refugee camps were arrested. The curtailment of the freedom of the press is being justified by the fear for spreading the coronavirus. Strangely enough, the Greek authorities do not seem to have the same fear when it comes to overcrowded refugee camps.
Making the work of NGOs more difficult
Last year, all non-governmental organisations that worked with migrants were obliged to register with the government. If an organisation failed to conform by the rule, the workers and volunteers could not enter the refugee camps anymore. The government representatives claim that the registration is needed for better “transparency and accountability” of the NGOs but the migrant-support institutions expressed strong objections and concerns .
Many small and recently-founded organisations might find it impossible to fulfil the requirements for the registration. NGOs workers, with which the author of this text got in contact with, believe that the new law can lead to criminalisation of the activities undertaken by small organisations. Not only the migration-related institutions were affected by the new rules, but also organisations which support other vulnerable groups, such as drug users.
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At the end of November 2020, the Greek government passed a new law which prohibited the NGO workers from disclosing any information about the negligence and abuses which occured in Greek refugee camps . According to the rule, the workers and volunteers cannot publicly share anything related to the camps’ residents and the operations within the institutions. People who work for the NGOs asserted that the new law would not stop any information from leaking out of the camps, as the refugees themselves can share everything on their social media. It is just a means of asserting power and control over migrant-support organisations.
– [When it comes to the tragic situation of refugees in Greece] the NGOs can do nothing. We cannot legally protest, and the European Union just lets it happen. You cannot stop this from happening. It’s getting tiring to constantly show people that we need to respect human lives in the Mediterranean – says Andriana, a resident of Athens who works in a migration-related organisation and agreed to talk about the current situation in Greece.
Police’s work is getting easier
While the freedoms of the NGOs are constantly restricted, the Greek police officers are only getting more power. This summer, around one thousand policemen will be equipped with mobile devices capable of instant facial recognition and fingerprint identification .
The target of the project is to equip about 10 000 police officers with the new tool. Documents published by the police confirm the new device will be used to quickly identify immigrants who had exceeded their legal stay in Greece. Numerous opponents of the idea expressed their concerns for privacy violations and a possible increased number of wrongful arrests, especially taking into account that facial recognition systems are not very accurate with people of color .
– It’s difficult. You feel like … someone is [always] watching you, coming after you. And it’s not a good feeling – says Ali, a Yemeni artist about a life of a migrant in Greece .
A chance for a change?
The participants of the March protests against police brutality remark that these events significantly differ from other demonstrations taking place in Greece in the recent years. The protests were not limited neither to the centre of Athens, nor to groups of anarchists or leftist activists. They took place all over the country, even in the usually quiet and calm neighbourhoods and were joined by whole families and people from the academic community.
– It stopped being a political movement and started being a general movement. People said that they have had enough. A systemic change is needed – said one of the participants of the protests against police’s brutality to the author of this text.
The Greeks opposed the police brutality so unanimously that there appears to be a small chance for a change in this matter. Stopping, or at least limiting the impunity of the police officers, seems to be a logical step to take by the Greek government in order to protect their reputation. But even if the decision is made only to appeal to the general public, what truly matters is the final effect. Still, supposing that the extent of police violence will be limited, the situation of migrants and refugees is something of a different issue.
– When you focus only on blaming the police, it is easy to forget about the many years of neglecting refugees by the European Union and the Greek government. And that is convenient to the people in power – says Sofia, a Greek citizen currently living abroad, who assesses the situation in her home country for SalamLab.
– Obviously, the police brutality has to stop. But it is worth considering why the police and other authorities even have the right to decide who will be allowed to stay on our country’s territory and who will be sent away. Because if somebody has that much power over the lives of other people, they will surely overuse it at some point – Sofia adds.
 Pressenza Athens, Initiative Against Authoritarianism in Greece,
 Amnesty International, Police violence in Greece: not just ‘isolated incidents’,
 Andriani Fili, University of Oxford, The Violent Hellenic Police,
 AP News, Youths protesting police violence attack Athens precinct,
 Stavros Malichudis, GuitiNews, Police Violence: Concerning Treatment of Migrants and Reporters during Covid-19,
 Apostolis Fotiadis, BalkanInsight, Growing Alarm over Threats to Media Freedoms in Greece,
 Emma Wallis, InfoMigrants, NGOs in Greece told to register or cease operations,
 Frey Lindsay, Forbes, Greece has intensified its crackdown on refugee NGOs with a new confidentiality law,
 Lydia Emmanouilidou, The World, Greek police roll out new ‘smart’ devices that recognize faces and fingerprints,
 Drew Harwell, The Washington Post, Federal study confirms racial bias of many facial-recognition systems, casts doubt on their expanding use.
Cover photo: Migrants clash with police near the Idomeni border train station in northern Greece in 2015. Credit: Darko Vojinovic via Freedom House on flickr.com.