The EU’s Refugee “Crisis” in Greece, Year Four

The asylum bill introduced by the newly elected conservative government of New Democracy in Greece raises the obstacles for the integration of asylum seekers even more. It adds an additional layer of difficulties on top of an already dysfunctional reception system put into place by the previous Syriza-led governmental coalition. Haris Malamidis argues that the term “crisis”—which is often used to describe the increased mixed migratory flows in 2015—better captures Greece’s troubled condition with respect to its identity and the values that inform its migration policies.

Haris Malamidis, The Hellenic Foundation of European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)


Four years have passed since the so-called refugee “crisis”, with migration still dominating the everyday political discourse in Greece. The term “crisis”—which is often used to describe the increase of mixed migratory flows in 2015—is widely debated. Framing it as “crisis” reveals a rather euro-centric approach to human mobility, which does not take into consideration increased migratory flows in other geographical regions. According to IOM, the number of people that migrated from the MENA region to Europe in 2015-2016 is significantly lower than the number of those who migrated to other regions of the world or those who were internally displaced in their countries of origin. The term “crisis” seems to better capture the troubled political condition of Greece with respect to its identity and values than the idea of an alleged external threat. This identity crisis with regard to migration is reflected in the reception and integration of around 90,000 refugees and migrants that have stayed in Greece since the 2015-2016 flow according to UNHCR.

When examining migration management in Greece, we should always take into consideration three contextual factors:

  • In 2015, when the refugee “crisis” reached Greece, the country had already been under the structural adjustment programs imposed by EC, ECB and IMF for five years, with the national government confronting severe limitations in exercising its fiscal policies. Specifically, in the summer of 2015, when the migratory flows increased, Greece was negotiating bail-out agreements with its creditors. These discussions led to a dead end, with Greece’s exit from the Eurozone (the so-called Grexit) standing as a very real possibility. In this respect, the refugee issue came second in the governmental agenda, overshadowed by the Grexit negotiations.
  • Being a frontline member state, Greece experienced the outbreak of the so-called refugee “crisis”. Nevertheless, mainstream political discourses advocated that Greek borders are also Europe’s borders, elevating responsibility-sharing into a pivotal issue. The EU’s response on responsibility-sharing came mostly in the form of the provision of economic assistance from member-states to Greece, and to a lesser extent as actual transfers of asylum seekers from Greece to other member states. This, in turn, increased the sentiments of an unjust treatment by the EU among Greeks.
  • The closure of the Balkan passageway by early 2016 and the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016 were crucial developments that raised the burden for migration management in Greece. The closure of the Balkan corridor reduced the flows of refugees moving to other member states, while the EU-Turkey Statement led to a large number of asylum seekers being trapped on the Greek islands until the end of their asylum application processes. In this respect, both developments forced a number of asylum seekers to settle in Greece and increased the need for integration policies.


Left-wing inability


Once Greece signed a third package of austerity measures in the summer of 2015 and the danger of a Grexit was reduced, the refugee “crisis” reappeared in the agenda of the Syriza-led governmental coalition. In stark contrast to the rise of xenophobic discourses promoted by a number of political parties in other European countries, the new government embraced a welcoming culture of humanitarianism. Granting access to public healthcare provision and changing the securitization discourse that prevailed in the previous years were important developments Syriza is credited with. However, its humanitarian intentions were not a sufficient basis for properly managing the unbearable situation in Piraeus port and the open informal camp of Idomeni at the borders with North Macedonia, where thousands of people remained stranded once the Balkan passageway was closed in the early 2016.

The government’s inability to live up to its humanitarian discourse was compensated by a number of informal and formal civil society actors. Individual citizens and collective grassroots initiatives were among the first actors to take care of asylum seekers, by providing food, medicines, and shelter in squatted buildings and their private homes to host the newcomers. Quite quickly, a number of international and domestic NGOs followed, with social workers and lawyers offering daily assistance to asylum seekers. The role of civil society became rather critical once the government ordered a number of refugee camps to register asylum applications, as well as when these camps turned from temporal to permanent residences of asylum seekers. These developments severely damaged the living conditions of asylum seekers, as well as the humanitarian profile of Greece.

By allowing refugee camps to become overcrowded, Syriza invited sharp criticism from both its right-wing adversaries and its left-wing supporters. Positive steps with respect to migration-related long-term problems, such as the provision of citizenship to second-generation migrants, did not reduce the criticism. Although political collectives and NGOs were undeterred in providing their services to asylum seekers, the initial welcoming and solidarity environment expressed by local communities started to fall apart. The initial empathy expressed to refugees fleeing war or persecution was eclipsed by xenophobic reactions against the unknown “other”, with the example of parent associations publicly prohibiting refugee minors from attending schools only being the tip of the iceberg. As such, the humanitarian discourse found its limits due to the government’s inability to effectively manage the wellbeing and smooth co-existence of migrant and local populations.


Right-wing securitization


Already in the first months after its arrival in office, the newly elected conservative government of New Democracy managed to demonstrate its intentions regarding migration policies. Combining a technocratic approach with a securitization discourse, the new government transferred the entire portfolio of the former Ministry of Migration Policy to the Ministry of Citizen Protection—the Ministry responsible for internal security forces. Although moving some groups of asylum seekers from the over-populated camps to mainland Greece in the summer and autumn of 2019 was appraised as a positive step, the government seemed to further increase the bureaucratic difficulties that asylum applicants face. In particular, New Democracy removed the right of asylum seekers to a Social Insurance Number—a development that excludes them from accessing the health system and the labour market. Most importantly though, the new asylum bill transfers the right to appeal negative asylum applications in the civil courts, excludes UNHCR representatives from the asylum committees, erases post-traumatic stress from the vulnerability criteria, and excludes asylum seekers who resist their transfer to other shelters from the right to asylum—developments that will severely increase the bureaucratic difficulties for asylum applicants. On top of that, in its effort to bring back “order” in the Athenian city-centre, the new government has already evicted six refugee squats, with its more than 400 tenants transferred to remote refugee camps.

The eviction of refugee squats is not something new. Evictions also took place when Syriza was in office, at the time justified with reference to the illegal violation of property rights. Nevertheless, the presence of different police units, such as the drug squad, alongside judges and municipal employees during the eviction processes, associates migration with criminality even more and serves as a reminder of the excessive police operations against irregular migrants during the previous New Democracy administration. What is more important (but still not new), is that the securitization of migration shows the unwillingness of the new government to move towards asylum seekers’ integration policies.

Looking at the eviction of refugee squats only from the perspective of property rights violations reduces the role of these shelters to their illegal status. Considering, however, that for more than three years the residents of the squats have developed their lives in the respective urban districts—sent their kids to the nearby schools, developed social ties with the neighbourhood, and so on—and now they have to start again from scratch, reveals that the integration perspective is not taken into account. Moreover, there seems to be no concerns for the asylum seekers and refugees themselves, and the difference between residing in buildings in city centres and in tents in remoted campsites.


Lack of an integration plan


Pictures from the Moria refugee camp in Lesvos bear witness to the failure of the Greek reception system and reflect the identity crisis mentioned earlier. Greece’s official welcoming environment towards asylum seekers was in position as long as asylum seekers used Greece as a transit to Europe. Once it became clear that asylum seekers are “here to stay”, the welcoming environment became quite blurred. To understand this better, we should shift our attention to the absence of a broader culture of integrating third-country nationals in Greece.

Greece has always perceived itself as a transit country for asylum seekers, while the official state policies were quite hostile towards irregular migrants. As such, the only integration policies in place were limited to issuing temporary residents permits, with the vast majority of long-term migrants getting accustomed to the rules and habits of the country without any institutional support. The two national integration plans introduced by New Democracy in 2013 (GSPSC 2013) and Syriza in 2019 (YPEMO 2019a) remained only on paper, without finding any practical application. Greek language courses, vocational training, access to social services and a wide variety of integration activities were (and still are) left solely to NGOs, formal civil society actors, informal solidarity structures and a few municipal authorities. As such, migration in Greece continues to be treated as a “temporal problem”, which remains invisible unless it touches upon criminality.


Inability and securitization at the European level


The lack of an organized integration plan is not unique to Greece. Rather, it reflects a broader attitude that the EU maintains in terms of migration. The initial attention European institutions paid to search and rescue operations has shifted, with the EU’s practical assistance to refugees now being limited to recommendations for not taking the dangerous trip to Europe. The value of solidarity that the EU expressed towards refugees has equally changed its orientation, became more self-referential, and acted as a leverage mechanism when negotiating with member states, and particularly the Visegrád Group. Although the EU advertises its respect for the rights and values expressed in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as NoVaMigra’s research shows (Parolari et al. 2019), these seem to refer mostly to EU citizens, and only to a limited extent to individuals in general.

However, as NoVaMigra’s research findings suggest further (Dimitriadi and Malamidis 2019), the unilateral actions of member states installing fences and intra-EU border controls also seem to be fuelled by the unilateral agreements of European institutions, which did not take into consideration the demands of member states (The EU-Turkey Statement, for example, was never brought into the European Parliament). The common denominator of these developments is that migration is still approached by member states as a problem that needs to be solved, and by the EU as poverty management. This is also reflected in the unsuccessful attempts to reform the CEAS, the Dublin Regulation as well as the recent relocation agreement between Italy, Malta, Germany, France and Finland that drives the transformation of Greece into a great “hot-spot” located at Europe’s south-eastern borders, as Euronews reported. As long as there is not a common approach towards the social inclusion of migrants, the refugee identity “crisis” will continue unabated.





Dimitriadi, A., and Malamidis, H. ‘Talking of Values: Understanding the Normative Discourse of EU Migration Policy’. Deliverable 2.1 for the H2020 NoVaMigra project, published online September 2019, doi:10.17185/duepublico/49360

GSPSC (2013, April 23). National Strategy for the integration of third-country nationals. General Secretary of Population and Social Cohesion. Ministry of Interior [Εθνική Στρατηγική για την ένταξη των πολιτών τρίτων χωρών. Γενική Γραμματεία Πληθυσμού και Κοινωνικής Συνοχής. Υπουργείο Εσωτερικών]

Parolari, P., Facchi, A. and Riva N. (2019). Report on the normative content, genesis, historical background and implementation of the EU Charter. Deliverable 1.3 , Norms and Values in the European Migration and Refugee Crisis (NOVAMIGRA)

YMEPO (2019, January 17). Presentation of a “National Strategy for Integration”. [Παρουσίαση της «Εθνικής Στρατηγικής για την Ένταξη»]. Ministry of Migration Policy. Retrieved from]


Dr. Haris Malamidis is a post-doctoral researcher at the The Hellenic Foundation of European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). He can be contacted at


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