Abstract: Greece, a country that is geographically at a crossroads of regions and cultures, East and West, North and South, was at the heart of a deep economic crisis 10 years ago. The Greeks saw their family income drop dramatically and unemployment soared as well. In the meantime, the country had already become a staging ground for a significant number of people from so-called Third World countries, who were looking for a better future for themselves and their families in Europe because of war, political instability, or poverty in countries they came from. The peak of refugee and migration flows in 2015-2016 was nothing but a culmination of many people being trapped in the country as the Central European states closed their borders one after the other.
This double crisis has created a cocktail of flammable conditions on the public scene. Much of the population developed phobic syndromes and embraced conspiracy theories, according to which international centers of power decided to exterminate the country by this way. At the political level, public discourse has become increasingly radicalized, and elections have shown an increase in power of both ends of the political spectrum. For a long time, society seemed just to walk on a tight rope.
On the other hand, however, the events of either political prudence or humanitarian support for suffering people being in the country were not missing. The commitment to the European perspective (albeit diminished) and the positive attitude towards refugees and immigrants continues to constitute the other pillar of contemporary ambivalence that characterizes Greek public discourse in general. Greek society seems to be fully following the wider global environment, searching its own identity in a fluid moral background.
PDF Keywords: Refugee crisis, ethics, morality, risk society
Some years after dawn of 21st century, Greece has been caught in the vortex of a complicated (economic, social, political, and finally cultural) turbulence, which has brought about radical changes in economic situation, as well in the attitude and ideology of Greek citizens. As a typical crisis form, it occurred as a rift in the grid of the current that didn’t result from the will of a section of society. For people this meant unsolved problems, unexpected and painful continuity breakdown, confusion of balance mechanisms, decrease of resources available to deal with it, that is a violent and disruptive deregulation in their life by unexpected, uncontrolled, and emotionally overwhelming external factors.
Its primary causes may lie at the root of our socio-economic system’s inequalities, so even it began with the 2007-2008’s Wall Street Crisis, it grew mainly because of Greek economy’s structural distortions. For five to six years then, and despite the IMF-European austerity measures implemented and foreseen structural transformations in tax system, public administration, labour market and professions, debt and public deficit had increased (reaching to 365 billion euro), the official rate of recession increased to 4–4.5%, unemployment skyrocketed, and liquidity became even more problematic. All these meant cuts (often rapid) in wages, pensions and benefits; regulations for labour flexibilization and privatization, and series of taxes, a routine for bankruptcies and business closures, within rhetorics of “state of emergency” and “economic war”, which resulted in a feeling of insecurity experienced by great parts of population. Wages in the public and private sectors were reduced by 10 to 30% towards the goal of a “internal devaluation” or “competitive deflation”. Unemployment in the private sector has reached almost 1,300,000 citizens; this is approximately 28% of the economically active population (whereas in 2008 it was less than 8%), with the 24–35 age group being most significantly affected. Given the severity of the crisis and the lack of any prospect for growth, unemployed were unlikely to find a new labour position in a short period of time, which lead to greater insecurity. Moreover, the absence of a public network to support the unemployed in re-entering the labour market was disastrous, especially for middle-aged people. During the first five years of crisis also, Greece had lost almost 25% of its Gross National Product (GNP), the largest ever loss world-wide in a period of peace. Almost all social layers faced not only downward mobility and loss of social status, but also a severe existential threat, as they witnessed the gradual reduction of all social security measures. This whole thing was nothing but a vicious circle as each new tranche of the loan was mainly going toward paying off Greece’s international loans, rather than making its way into the economy, so government still had had a staggering debt load and a de-investment frame, that it could not begin to pay down unless a recovery takes hold.
All those shaked the backbone of the Greek economy and society, namely middle class. Small and medium-sized enterprises “cleared” up so it was just larger companies that survived. Social workers’ testimonies speak for the appearance of a new underclass after a 25% increase in homelessness, while former professionals were seeking food at charity meal centers and clothing every day, at a rate of 35 times more than 10 years ago. Most crisis’ side effects were shown up: dramatic number increase of suicides and drug addicted, drastic reductions also in public health and medical expenditure, lack of personnel and means in hospitals, psychiatric patients ejected from institutions, people who forage through municipal rubbish bins at night, pensioners working out with rejects at fruit and vegetable markets, mergers of schools, as well reduction of teachers’ numbers, and social displacement.
In a broader sense all these were equal to a collective humiliation, by loss of social and cultural capital and threatening to personal and social freedom, security, recognition, and agency. Walking down at previously crowded – but already deserted public areas with many closed-down shops, beggars and homeless feed total insecurity and a phobic attitude towards the future, and a sense of a collective depression after all; and as we all know, emotions of a pending catastrophe can often be more emotionally exhausting than the catastrophe per se. Financial scenery triggered a public sentiment of a ‘national trauma’, in a common feeling that the ‘sacrifices’ were done in vain since the strict economic policy had no effect. This caused a social distrust and disrespect in institutions, that in turn lead to either low-effort action or to anomic acts.
It was a kind of volcanic situation with huge riots and many protests ending in violent clashes with the police, members of parliament physically attacked, while others resigned. Rapture, rivalry, separation, and conflict on both the real and the imaginary level of the ideological, social, and cultural value system were so severe, that any argument supporting European Union or endorsed economic measures was regarded as an ‘act of betrayal’ while any argument against them, bared the risk to be colored as nationalistic and conservative. However, it was the dominant pessimism in general that reigned over in form of disgust and an extended mistrust for the political order as well. Any economic progress, or modernisation of society brought about in the last forty years had seriously been opposing and doubted. Hate speech soon passed the lines to be adopted from politicians who invested in othering and fueled the debate with a rhetoric of blaming and opposing ‘outsiders’. In other words, economic crisis worked as tool of legitimation of xenophobic sentiments and a means to capitalise on blaming for the situation either the “disrespectful” towards the Greek state Europeans or the “job-stealing” immigrants. Political extremes, especially far right or even neo-Nazis, were fed from “patriotic” crisis analysis, at least attractive to marginalized and disaffected social groups or youth. Their anti-global articulation fit with a sense of “defending national sovereignty” against the “New World Order”, spreading so xenophobia and racism, explains their rise and momentum among the frustrated Greeks, despite their lack of offering any possible solutions.
This was just the one part of the story. On the other side there is a series of facts that are the reasons for huge populations movement. These are war conflicts, political persecutions, low levels of economic development, environmental and demographic pressures, opening of borders, etc. Like butterfly effect, bad conditions in many countries sent hundreds of thousands of people to Greece (as well in other countries). Wars, instability, and poverty are quite strong for governments to prevent migration. Thus, having Greece achieved a high degree of economic and social development as a country of the European Union attracted a big number of immigrants. Country’s accession into European Union raises expectations for better living conditions within it, while Greece’s long coastline of and big number of islands make the control of the borders difficult and practically offering so an easy access to immigrants. Finally, as there was a mass influx in a short period with large numbers of people fleeing their places of residence for an asylum country, we should speak for a refugee and immigrant crisis.
But how many those people were? United Nations High Commission for Refugees says that for 2015 alone registered in Europe the arrival of 1,015,078 asylum seekers and economic immigrants. Of those, 856,723 arrived through Greece. In addition, 143,634 reached the Greek islands until March 2016. In the period 2006-2015, according to the Greek Ministry of Interior, more than 1.8 million people entered the country illegally, while in the same period 175,000 were deported (most of them of whom were of Albanian nationality). The distribution of inboxes differs significantly between the two sub-periods. In the first one (2006-11), those coming from another European country (mainly Albania) make up almost 50% of the irregular inbound, most of whom are economic immigrants, while in the second period (2012-15), three nationals make more than 80% of total, that is Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where conflicts continue to rage. Most of them are men but there are also many minors (about 25%). Before European countries decide to close their borders (Spring of 2016), just 2% of them applied for asylum as almost all were moving towards northern Europe. Besides this, let’s consider just that only in Lesvos Island, where there are 85,000 inhabitants, local police had recorded more than 300,000 entries for first 10 months of 2015. Finally, in 2018 33 camps, “temporary hospitality structures”, and “hot-spots” are active in Greece (26 in mainland and 7 in islands) hosting about 30,000 people, while about 22,000 have a temporary accommodation to cities’ apartments, and 22,000 have been relocated to European Union Countries.
Thus, two crises intersected. The entanglement of the ‘debt crisis’ and the ‘migration crisis’ – that transformed since 2015 into a ‘refugee crisis’ – morphs new modalities of negative view of “Otherness”. Already before the peak of the refugee and migration crisis, foreigners were approaching 10% οf population, and this number for an almost homogenous society (especially until the decade of 1990) was not easily manageable. And then, in post-2014 period – when Greece entered the state of ‘experiencing a crisis within a crisis’, feelings of frustration focused on benefits that refugees and asylum applicants were receiving. Previous opposition to strangers who push down further the wages and salaries and make even more difficult to find already scarce jobs, started soon to grow up updating to abomination and suspicion. Even more, as tourism is one of the main income sources for local people, a high seasonality key activity, refugee influx’ explosion striking the high tourist season did them no favor. Pictures from refugees in islands’ coasts were traveling overseas and decrease in arrivals and every other relevant index justified local complaints.
We may say then that racism and xenophobia grown in post-austerity frame were largely on economic grounds rather than merely racial. By Bauman’s terms Greek society approached the point of “refugee tragedy fatigue”. Within a population rapidly changing (with half a million young Greek scientist leaving country to find a job abroad while entering newcomers from different cultures), even many of those who did not share the bluntly xenophobic allegations that migrants have caused, or worsen the crisis, believe that ‘hospitality’ to ‘them’ has become impossible due to scarce resources. Austerity conditions are indeed extremely convenient for racism and xenophobia to rise. Even though, Greeks’ attitudes towards immigration are quite ambiguous and contradictory: most of them, especially those in the middle groups, are anxious about immigration, due to country’s wider problems, but these concerns sit alongside deep humanitarian impulses. They do also doubt NGOs’ role (for their operations, because of evidence that huge resources sent to them were not well spent, resulting in a loss of trust), and feel anxious about unknown people’s gathering in borders (where neighbor Turkey is constantly making claims), terrorism, and in general security nonetheless.
Τhere is one more subtle point here. It is well known that religion plays a key role in Greek national identity (in a way common of few other European Union nations) and in shaping attitudes towards the “Other”. Evidence from Pew Research speak about 90% of the adult population belonging to the Christian Orthodox faith, with 55% feeling that it is very important to them. As most of newcomers are Muslims, this makes things more difficult, as we may attribute a suspiciousness in the Greek society to a naive connection between Islam and international terrorism as well as to the confusion of Muslim identity with the Turkish one. Things are quite complicated given Greek-Turkish relations as, much more, this unfair connection may be explained by the longstanding presence of Muslim minority in Greece Muslim, that is often connected with the continual diplomatic collision between two countries (and not with a breaking down of Muslim ‘otherness’). In general, and even though Muslims’ rate of birth is much higher than Christians, social research shows that Greek people reject discriminations (e.g., to accept only non-Muslim refugees), judge those who criticize Islam as ignorant or racist, and recognize that Muslims are discriminated against in Greece. Anyway, it is very important that Greeks’ majority believe that they have a duty as a Christian country to help and provide the needs of those entering Europe as refugees or migrants. Of course, this is not irrelevant to the Greek Orthodox Church’s general attitude (despite its close interest to defend the national identity), expressed by its indiscriminate social work. Moreover, we speak about a high traditionalist institution, with a tradition emphasizing to assist helpless and foreigners.
To be honest, at least since September of 2015 it wasn’t easy to witness that Odyssey of myriads suffering people, free of heavy sentiments. People tired, landing on plastic boats, others drowning in the sea, or walking in the hot sun, or in the rain, carrying children and old people. Children, men, women, barefoot, hungry, exhausted. Within their own ordeal Greeks were witnessing people arriving, people sleeping in tents in the middle of the square or at the nearby streets, people leaving and people arriving once more. The same pattern over and over again. Arriving from the islands, to travel by railway, buses, or taxis, to keep on their journey through the Balkans. Poor people, captured amid generalized disorientation and fear, people with “precarious lives”, lives with value less compared to others; people “invisible”, who stay on the margins of public life, people whose very humanity is very much questioned. Even those who could not leave and remain here, however, face daily state shortages, administrative chaos, and the “monster” of bureaucracy. Especially those who live in the isolated structures of hot spots, have the freedom to move, but without means and employment, they just survive. All this misery and sadness was impossible not to raise and mobilize large sections of Greek society.
This was the main reason that many official or unofficial social networks were activated trying to alleviate the traumatic experience of immigration. They did help newcomers to face the basic needs (food, housing etc.) and they created a quite safe net towards the new and reluctant to accept them society. It was/it is a Solidarity Movement that attempted to help them get familiarized with this new frame (language, values, traditions, religion, politics, food, interpersonal relationships, skills for jobs, etc.). It aimed to a kind of integration through cultural compatibility, and thus social receptiveness.
As we may see from all these, double Greek crisis led to different attitudes. First, there was an introversion tendency, the enhancing of individualism, and the purification of means to attain the goal. The State was blamed, and institutions and political system lost their trust. Financial crisis especially created an accumulated frustration appearing to have citizens put in an “emotional recession” that have set ground for a sense of helplessness. Being trapped in this hostility, and feeling State and supra-national institutions (politicians, European technocrats, members of parliament) quite far, they saw foreigners as more accessible, as the convenient “others”. In such a confusion, and as UN were helping refugees, those beneficiaries of subsidies allocated to them (but not to Greeks) became the most suitable (and most vulnerable) enemy. Citizens started spoiling, as they were feeling that they are not the priority, their needs are not at the top of the political agenda, while in these times of austerity there is an ‘Other’ competing for the progressively vanishing resources. Ιn its most extreme form, this expressed by a climax of racist attacks against “invaders dangerous to society and the nation”. This was however something limited. Even so, if those sentiments occurred just in some segments, Greek society’s mistrust for the ability of their country’s institutions to manage immigration, as well disappointment from European Union’s failure to provide enough support, make it skeptical about the likely integration of migrants and refugees. Even moderate layers fear that under these circumstances, refugees and immigrants are too many to find the country the resources needed to host them. And, as we all know, in conditions of great uncertainty and change, many people feel an increased need for belonging, preferring to see the reality through the group identity lens. When the bigger group feels then threatened by hostile out-groups, and constructs “others” as “dangerous” instead of “victimized”, it gets easy for us to interpret this ‘empathy gap’ toward outsiders, as well to understand Greeks’ opposition to immigration, but not to immigrants. Besides, it is more common to be influenced to feel ‘them’ in a negative way and ‘us’ in a positive one.
Although morality was tested hard on this side, in another case it emerged. In solidarity structures actually, refugees, immigrants and Greeks came together in an unprecedented way. Despite the silence of the media (and their emphasis on the grim aspects of reality), poverty and need brought locals and foreigners so close, in a unique way. Perhaps there are relatively few Greeks activating in them, but the truth is that in fact there exists so many supporters “behind them” – even from skeptical ones or those who are afraid of. Probably, they feel like the Hares looking the Frogs in the Aesop’s tale: there is someone in a worst position than me; there is a bottom deeper than I have reached. Nevertheless, low numbers in volunteering express aforementioned reservation to support institutions, despite the great empathy to refugees. Of particular interest is the case of the solidarity explosion in the very middle of crisis, when a multiplicity of actors got involved, especially “common people” (including fishermen and villagers, local and international volunteers), next to solidarity activists, NGOs and humanitarian organizations They were present there, from rescue at sea to first-aid and reception onshore, in donations, in medical treatment, from welcoming exhausted newcomers in post, or welcoming their children in public schools, from assisting migrants crossing the northern Greek borders, or helping out those stranded later in camps. Of course, cooperation wasn’t always ideal, tensions and “burnouts” were present, however the point is that research has not yet come to an end about the interpretation of these initiatives’ precise nature.
We believe that after crisis’ traumatic experience, Greeks changed the way they see life. Older mistakes, moral values, and quality of life in daily routine have been re-estimated and re-evaluated. A radical change was brought to the tropes of interpreting, experiencing and narrating reality. However, not all of them share a common understanding and meaning assigned to what they have experienced. One part of society remains Eurocentric/western-centric and finally atomo-centric, by adopting and replicating selfish and myopic policies. Its rhetoric is moralistic and a little bit narrow-minded. Another one decided to develop different moral skills from this test: they doubt the (negative) content of term “crisis”, understanding it at least as an opportunity and challenge for something better rather a problem.
In conclusion, we just saw the deconstruction of ethical and ideological barriers that before the economic crisis kept away from mainstream politics a rhetoric based on xenophobic sentiments and racism. The prolonged economic downturn in Greece has created a sense of disempowerment among Greeks, giving space to suspicion to “others”, dehumanizing them. Against that, a new morality was raised. It was/it is a conviction and an action against the threat of extremism, offering both hope and realism. On solidarity’s field, structures of feeling were set up, and the exchanges of experience resisted to hostility, carrying society beyond selfishness. After all, this was not just a matter either of morality, or humanity, or international law. It is also a realistic political practice that faces new challenges. Within distractive hate rhetoric, their defense of refugee rights was an investment in society’s justice, as the point wasn’t any more just the integration of foreigners, but the integrity of democracy. Moreover, in a still ongoing great difficulty, many Greeks recovered their sense of self-confidence and hope, affirming that hospitality and rest inclusive values still exist as core elements of Greek civic identity. They shifted public interest in foreigners, recognizing that they are a particular mosaic in our culture, and realizing that the real problem are wars and inequalities, not people suffering. They accepted that facing migration issue is just a fight with ourselves’ dark sides. This is the Greek heritage, as Xenophon writes in Oeconomicus (I, 14), that for Plato wealth is not limited to material goods but extends more to human relationships. This is also the Christian heritage, as the eternal and divine archetype of Good Samaritan teaches that the closest one is the foreigner, the alien, the culturally and religiously different. Besides, this is the main reason that those who say in research that volunteer for ethics are those related to religion. All this is a valuable social capital that should be considered and developed. Greeks overcame the suffering of financial debt through this moral bailout. It is nothing but a hopeful rejection of hate speech in action.
is Assistant Professor at the Department of Theology at The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
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Philosophia 29/2022, pp. 39-50