The activities of vigilante groups should be contained before far-right groups add fuel to the fire.
A wave of violent activities has been unleashed on the Greek islands and the Greek-Turkish land border, with vigilantes targeting NGOs, journalists, and migrants. Who are these new vigilantes? How are they connected to far-right organizations?
The decision of Turkish president Erdogan to suspend the halt of migrants within Turkey’s borders has caused a renewed attempt of about 13.000 migrants and refugees to enter the European Union via Greece. The Greek state promptly reacted by suspending the registrations of applications for international protection for one month while many of the newly arrived migrants were tried and convicted for ‘illegal’ entry with up to 4 years imprisonment.
With tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, Greek border police and military are defending the borders against unarmed migrants who are trapped in a no-man’s-land between two historically rivaling states. The police and military have been assisted by a growing number of armed vigilantes who patrol the border regions of the mainland and on the islands. These vigilantes turn violent against NGO staff and international reporters.
This culmination of vigilante activities has been especially welcomed by far-right groups that try to co-opt their dynamics. However, the atmosphere of an alleged state of exception that justifies violence has also been nurtured by mainstream politics and media over the last months. The recent violent mobilizations are, hence, understandable only in the context of an aggravation of political rhetoric against migrants and refugees.
Vigilantism on the Greek islands
The situation at the Greek border was a central issue in the national elections of July 2019. The now governing conservative New Democracy (ND) party had been campaigning for a restoration of law and order, which was supposedly the result of the Syriza government. With the expansion of border patrols and an acceleration of asylum procedures, the islands of Lesvos, Samos, and Chios were promised a relief from much of the pressure that they have been carrying since these specific islands became hotspots for migrants’ entrance to the European Union in 2015.
The island of Lesvos had been especially in the spotlight due to the unprecedented growth of the population of its infamous camp Moria, which, built with a maximum capacity of 3.000 inhabitants, came to host more than 20.000 migrants. In particular, locals complained about perceived insecurity and a decrease in tourist revenues.
Six months after the elections of 2019, the situation had remained much the same, a fact that caused conflict on various levels, reproducing the lingering center-periphery divide in Greece. The disillusionment with government action has been complemented with contempt for national and international NGOs. While the latter in fact provide for the basic needs of migrants arriving in Lesvos – such as legal aid, nutrition, clothing, shelter, health services and education for children – in public discourse they have been dubbed as smuggling organizations led by foreign interests with the intent to harm Greek sovereignty. Coupled with a strong sense of local identity, anyone who is not from the islands has been treated with suspicion.
In January 2020, the mayors of the islands took action with coordinated protests under the slogan “taking our islands and our lives back”. Some sympathizers took the slogan literally. They formed patrol squads and roadblocks that guarded the village of Moria, located next to the camp. They stop-and-searched cars and checked IDs, as well as repeatedly organized manhunts on migrants and acted violently against NGO staff. Some of its members are affiliated with the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, yet they did not act in the name of the organization. Soon the seemingly dispersed citizens began organizing armed attack squads that openly threatened violence and burned down a former refugee facility in Mytilene. In early February, a group of seven has been arrested.
Racist incidents on the island are not a new phenomenon. Back in 2018, residents of Mytilene attacked Afghan refugees who were protesting in the port area, spreading a pogrom-like atmosphere. The actions of some officials on the islands played a key role in legitimating violence. In November 2019, international NGO staff were threatened with a knife by the mayor of a smaller town in the north of Lesvos. The situation on the islands was further aggravated when the national government deployed riot police units from the mainland to secure the construction of new (but closed) camps for migrants on the islands.
A broad coalition fiercely opposed the plans of the government and were met by aggressive and violent action by the riot police. 21 arrests have been made. Finally, the construction of new camps was suspended and the units quickly left the islands. They also left an angry and empowered mob, which saw the victory over the police as a sign of strength and would soon turn against NGO staff and international reporters.
Since the Greek government declared the halt on implementing the current asylum legislation, far-right groups feel motivated to take the law into their own hands against those who have been publicly depicted as acting against the nation’s good. Hence, lynch mobs – acting with brutal violence by daylight – have repeatedly attacked persons they associate with NGOs.
Vigilantism in the Evros border region
At the same time, the situation at the mainland border with Turkey has been aggravated. Residents are patrolling to stop migrants from crossing the border to Greece. Equipped with hunting rifles, local residents have been filmed threatening refugee boats with violence. This largely happens in agreement with security forces. Far-right organizations seize the chance in staging themselves to the media as those restoring law and order.
A racist group called “Association of Hunters of Illegal Migrants” has been calling via Facebook to organize protection at the borders. Furthermore, MEP Ioannis Lagos travelled to the border to show his support for the “self-defense” of the population. Lagos has been a former Golden Dawn top official who recently formed his own party and uses publicity to make his party more visible. In press interviews, he stressed that he and his supporters have the full support of the military and police.
Meanwhile, a whole trek of far-right and neo-Nazi activists from all over Europe are heading towards the border region and the islands to allegedly defend European borders. Via social media, they produce pictures and videos which present them as the ‘true’ defenders of Europe. This self-perception, however, hardly corresponds to local reality.
In the Evros region, Identitarian activists have been expelled by local authorities while others have been violently ousted by local antifascists on Lesvos. As it is the case for the German far right, the situation at the Greek border is meant to obscure their weak political performance in the homeland. However, even though there has been proof that local far-right activists invited their international German peers, these transnational activists underestimate the complex linkages between local identities, suspicion against foreign interests, and the general distrust of German interference in national matters.
Nevertheless, local patterns of anti-migrant vigilantism and an outlaw mentality will prevail as they remain tolerated by local authorities. The heated atmosphere against migrants, NGOs, and Turks is about to expand vigilantism to such a scale that it might eventually turn against its own government. Given the complex role of paramilitary organization and violence in modern Greek history, the activities of vigilante groups should be contained before far-right groups add fuel to the fire.
Mr Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Candidate in Department of Political Science, Goethe University Frankfurt. See his profile here.
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