Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Sanctuary and Civilisation

This article was published by the Sewanee Review.

At the dawn of Western civilisation, the greatest Athenian dramatists extolled their city’s compassion for those who sought protection from pursuers, human or divine. In Aischylos’ Erinyes, Orestes, pursued by the Avenging Furies, finds absolution in an Athenian court chaired by Athena herself. In Sophokles’ Oidipous at Kolonos, Oidipous, wandering blind in self-exile across Greece, is assumed into the heavens after being granted sanctuary in an Athenian grove. In Euripides’ Herakleidai, the king of Athens risks war with Argos to provide political asylum to the children of Herakles, fatherless and with a death penalty hanging over them.

None of these asylum-seekers is blameless. Orestes has killed his mother; Oidipous has killed his father; the Herakleidai by their very existence threaten the royal line of Eurystheus, king of Argos. Yet all were somehow manipulated into their predicament by the gods or by fate, all have suffered for it, all are exiled from their homeland and all are unwelcome anywhere else in Greece.

The Athenian audience was flattered to be told that in all Hellas, it was their city that combined strength with generosity. As the children of Herakles cling to the altar of Zeus in Marathon, Euripides puts the following words into the mouth of Demophon, son of Theseus and king of Athens: “If I am to allow this altar to be robbed by a foreigner, it will be thought that it is no free land I govern but that I have betrayed suppliants for fear of the Argives. And that is nearly enough to make me hang myself.”[1]

The word ‘asylum’, though a modern coinage in English, derives from the Greek άσυλον, meaning ‘unviolated’. The word itself suggests that protecting the weak from the strong who mean them harm is not only a moral duty of the righteous; it forms an integral part of our sense of justice and is a pillar of the law, which replaces brute force in civilised society.

The notion of justice as mercy or protection was relatively new compared to the notion of justice as punishment, as a pair of temples at Rhamnous in northeast Attica suggests – the temple to Nemesis, or retribution, is thought to be older than its neighbour, the temple to Themis, or Rule of Law[2]. But thanks to the Athenian tragedians, the strength and will to provide sanctuary to the pursued, and even to forgive them for terrible deeds, have, through the church and the law, formed an inseparable part of our Western ideal of civilisation.

Our era’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its third session in December 1948, crystallises the concept of asylum within a single sentence: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”[3] The framers of the Geneva Convention regarding the Status of Refugees, initially signed by 26 countries in 1951 but by 145 countries today, defined a refugee deserving asylum as someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”[4] The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights[5] fully enshrines these rights.

Today the world is in a refugee crisis, and demand for asylum has never been higher. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 70 million people displaced[6] from their homes by war, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation. About one third of those are displaced outside the borders of their country, making them refugees. It is the greatest number ever recorded.

These numbers frighten voters and lawmakers in the developed world and are putting faith in 5th century BC Athenian values to the test. Can we afford to be as brave as King Demophon, or as generous? After all, Demophon made a political decision to protect the children of a famous Greek hero, and Athens’ political independence into the bargain. He was not asked to deal with a constant flow of people, nor to integrate refugees from different languages, religions and cultures.

Discourage, deter, dismay

The great surge of asylum-seekers that entered Europe in 2015 was initially met with a surge in humanitarian sentiment. Europe attempted to play by the book, and enforce the Geneva convention.

German chancellor Angela Merkel struck the opening political chord for the continent, when she said on 4 September[7] that year, “It is certainly correct, that whoever wants to come to us for economic reasons, must be told, ‘you cannot stay long-term, we cannot manage that.’ But who flees misery, war, political oppression, there we have the responsibility to help, based on the Geneva conventions for refugees, based on our asylum policy and on article one of our constitutional law, whether we want to or not.”

Germany expected its open-door policy to bring 800,000 asylum-seekers[8]. By the end of the year more than a million walked into Germany, opening the Balkans to a column of humanity stretching from Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, through North Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria to the Bavarian border.

Hungary took a stand on the opposite end of the policy spectrum to that of Germany. In June 2015 it had begun construction of a concertina wire fence along its southern border with Croatia and Serbia. The policy was effective, but only for Hungary. Hungarian refugee arrivals dropped from almost 100,000 in October to just 315 in November, when the fence was complete. Refugees continued to flow into Europe, walking through Croatia instead, and the precedent of re-erecting communist-era fences across European borders had created a new danger to Europe’s system of open internal borders.

As the numbers crossing from Turkey into Greece grew between August and October, it became apparent that German policy was acting as a pull factor, and that Asia’s supply of asylum-seekers would oversubscribe Europe’s hospitality. It was Austria which acted. In February 2016, it created a separate refugee monitoring system with the police chiefs of the former Yugoslavia, prevailing on North Macedonia to put up barbed wire along its border with Greece. This effectively closed the Balkan route and became the first in a series of deterrent policies.

Two more such policies quickly followed. In the second week of March, NATO started patrolling the north Aegean to spot refugee boats and alert the Turkish coastguard to pick them up before they reached Greek waters. And on March 20, the EU-Turkey agreement went into effect, calling on Turkey to “readmit, upon application by a Member State… all third-country nationals or stateless persons who do not, or who no longer, fulfil the conditions in force for entry to, presence in, or residence on, the territory of the requesting Member State.” This in theory meant that EU members could ask Turkey to readmit refugees, creating a reverse flow.

These three deterrents produced a dramatic drop in arrivals on the Greek islands, from an average of 2,700 a day in early 2016 to 300 a day by the end of March, and double digits after that.

Deterrence through Asylum?

The EU also adopted other, subtler deterrents. After 2015, increased refugee arrivals meant that the EU annual asylum caseload more than doubled to over 1.3 million. The European Asylum Support Office sent teams to Greece and Italy to help national asylum services. Although those national services make final decisions on cases, EASO has great influence, carrying out interviews and making recommendations.

A September 30 decision by the European Ombudsman[9] found that EASO had not met its own professional standards in a landmark case, resulting in the deportation of a gay Algerian man, referred to as Mr. X. Homosexuality is illegal in Algeria, and the legal aid group that represented the man, Advocates Abroad[10], has lost touch with him and fears the death threats he received may have been carried out.

The European Ombudsman ruled that “EASO’s failure to address adequately and in a timely way the serious errors committed in Mr. X’s case constituted maladministration.” EASO admitted that the questions were “inappropriate” and the case officer had “made a serious error of judgment.”

Legal aid groups say Mr X’s case is emblematic of a broader trend. In a series of letters to EASO, Advocates Abroad catalogued repeated breaches of EASO procedure in hundreds of interview transcripts.

These include failure to establish whether an asylum applicant is a minor, which alters their legal status; failure to provide the applicant and their lawyers with transcripts of the interview as required, or to allow an applicant’s lawyer to be present; failure to provide reliable interpreters; and failure to pay caseworkers overtime, meaning that interviews have to be interrupted at 4pm when working shifts end.

More seriously, legal charities accuse EASO of conducting its interviews as interrogations, repeatedly asking the same question in an effort to find inconsistencies. This makes an honest confession of traumatic experiences such as rape, loss of family members or torture extremely difficult, say lawyers representing refugees.

Most seriously of all, lawyers say, EASO appears to be using the EU-Turkey Statement to declare asylum-seekers inadmissible to the EU and send them to have their cases heard in Turkey, much as the Trump administration has sent asylum-seekers to have their cases heard in Mexico.

An existential political problem for the EU

These apparently deterrent practices stem from the effect the migration crisis is having on European politics. Nationalism has been strengthened and federalism weakened, not just in eastern Europe, but in Italy, where a right wing interior minister prevented rescue ships from docking in Italian ports for much of 2018-19, France, where the far-right National Front party took one third of votes in the 2017 presidential election to place second, and Germany, where the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland is outperforming mainstream parties in the former communist east.

The refugee crisis has defied consensual policymaking in the confederal EU system, strained the EU executive, exposed the continent’s economic inequalities, often suspended the Union’s open internal borders policy, brought its neo-fascists into national parliaments and coalition governments, induced Britain to leave, and threatened to dissolve the European project.

Meetings of interior ministers and government leaders at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-16 produced bizarre proposals that revealed the level of panic in the room. Greece was often accused of failing to protect its own – and Europe’s external – maritime borders, despite the fact that member states in 2015 weren’t responding to the Hellenic Coast Guard’s requests for additional patrol boats and thermal cameras. In one council meeting, a delegate asked the Greeks, “Why don’t you just sink the [refugee] boats [from Turkey]?” prompting the outburst, “I can’t fucking believe it!” from then EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, before she stormed out of the room. Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas loaded two dozen ambassadors from EU countries onto a coastguard vessel and sped them to the international waterline between Greek and Turkish coasts. “This is the maritime border,” he told them. “Tell me how to defend it.”

At the December 2015 EU summit, Greece was asked to build a concentration camp for 50,000 refugees – a proposal it parried with a suggestion that the EU subsidise refugee rentals in Greece’s ample vacant real estate. A year later, Czech President Milos Zeman suggested that Greece should populate its thousands of rocky islets with refugees, a proposal that would have cost billions in infrastructure, but also a fate Greece has only ever imposed on political exiles during the Cold War. The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman[11] suggested that the EU outsource its refugee problem entirely to Greece, in return for substantial debt relief.

This blame game at Greece’s expense took a new form after 2016, with some EU leaders accusing the Greeks of not taking advantage of the EU-Turkey Statement to reject and deport more asylum applicants quickly. “I think Turkey has adhered extremely well to the refugee agreement,”Dutch Premier Mark Rutte told parliament on the agreement’s second anniversary. “It’s how Greece is implementing the agreement that needs looking into, not Turkey,” he said.

The most successful attempts at European solidarity also reveal the limitations of European policymaking. Take Relocation. Asylum-seekers have to apply in the first EU country they arrived in. Usually that means Greece or Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain. As the Greek and Italian asylum services became overwhelmed, the EU authorised a two-year Relocation programme[12] that relieved them of asylum cases by distributing them to other member states. However, it was restricted to nationalities with average EU asylum approval rates of 75 percent. This excluded Afghans and Iraqis, whose countries were at war and who clearly deserved greater consideration. Asylum mechanisms in recipient countries ground along so half-heartedly, fewer than 35,000 cases were relocated, less than a quarter of the agreed target.

Relocation also exposed a vast rift within the EU. Six member states – Denmark, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – either refused outright to shoulder any of the southern periphery’s asylum burden, or took on a token handful. For the countries of eastern Europe this was a deeply hypocritical stance. All of them had poured economic migrants into Europe when communism collapsed in 1990. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had, in 2003, gone against the European consensus to support the Second Gulf War, which destabilised Afghanistan, Iraq and ultimately Syria, producing the current refugee flows.

The Relocation programme was not renewed when it expired in September 2017. This has meant that Greece, which according to its population size and GDP had been assigned a weighting of 1.6 percent of asylum cases in the EU, is now processing more than 11 percent.

Greece alone

Greece’s gradual capitulation to deterrent policies is the inevitable result of its membership in the European Union. It needs Europe’s help and cannot ignore EU demands, because when Europe fails to come up with common policies, Greece is burdened.

After remaining relatively stable for three years, refugee arrivals across the Aegean are growing again, from about 3,000 a month at the beginning of 2019 to about 10,000 a month by the end of the year, something Greek officials often attribute to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wish to press Europe into greater financial concessions (Turkey receives $3.3bn a year in refugee aid from the EU), and diplomatic concessions on a series of issues.

Faced with fences on its northern border, less than unanimous solidarity from Europe and growing refugee flows from Turkey that it cannot control, Greece has become a buffer state. It still receives financial aid from the EU executive in Brussels, but asylum recipients must remain on Greek soil and be integrated into Greek society. Integration in, say, Germany, with a robust manufacturing economy and a need for workers is one thing. In Greece, which is just beginning to recover from its worst ever recession and still has statistical unemployment of 17 percent, it is quite another. It is as though the US left Arizona or New Mexico to absorb refugee flows from South and Central America.

It is perhaps unsurprising that while Greece has displayed a very humane attitude towards refugees, it has also displayed the same political panic as other European governments, resulting in paroxysms of severity. The first came in early 2012, when human smuggling operations were not yet fully developed into multinational businesses and refugee flows still amounted to mere thousands a year. The Greek economic crisis was then at its height. Greece had gone bankrupt in May 2010, and had to be bailed out twice by its fellow members in the Eurozone. By 2012 the government had cut public spending by more than half, as demanded by its creditors, and this was having a recessionary effect on the rest of the economy and driving up unemployment.

Many economic migrants found themselves out of work along with Greeks, sleeping on the streets. Crime rates rose, and the burgeoning neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, which would enter parliament for the first time in May with seven percent of the vote, was making a name for itself by sending muscular party members to banks to accompany the elderly home with their monthly pension. The socialist-conservative coalition then in power began roundup operations on the streets of Athens. Undocumented migrants and refugees were cleared out of city squares and parks, and sent to half a dozen detention centres around the country. These were the days when politicians still believed the refugee crisis could be contained if it was treated as a law and order problem and, for a brief two years, it worked, but this containment came at a high moral price.

Greece did not acquire an asylum service until 2013, and the police, who handled asylum cases until then, were not trained to adjudicate them. The result was an infinitesimally small rate of approvals (below one percent) and a glacially slow pace of registration and interviewing. Inevitably, many applicants were kept in detention for the full 18 months the law allows in the absence of a court conviction. Rather than release them, the conservative government, which had assumed power in June 2012, simply renamed detention ‘administrative restraint’ and kept them locked up. The official reason was that they were in deportation proceedings, but Alexandros Konstantinou, a human rights lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, had a different view. “Even nationalities that may not be deported because of the situation in their country, such as Somalis, Eritreans and Syrians are detained,” he said. “This is a strong indication that detention is not being used to facilitate deportation, but has other aims, such as discouragement of further migration.”

Not only did ‘administrative restraint’ run counter to European law and the spirit of the Geneva Convention, which sees refugees as supplicants rather than threats to society; it led to direct abuses of humanitarian law within the unseen confines of these camps. Inmates were not always allowed unrestricted access to doctors, lawyers and international aid workers. They were poorly fed, poorly housed and often beaten on a whim.

In 2014 I interviewed a Pakistani man who said he and another inmate had contracted Hepatitis C in the Korinth detention centre. Azher Abbas told me, “Police said to both of us: ‘you aren’t ready to die yet. You still have some months to go. When you’re close to death we’ll let you out.’ On long-distance calls to his mother, Abbas would tell her that everything was fine, but when I spoke to him he was visibly weak and may have had only months to live.

Abbas learned not to complain about the poor sanitation while in detention. He explained what happened when the 80 people in his dormitory asked guards to remove a man who had scabies: “They beat us so badly that a lot of people went out of their minds with fear.... From that day, no one complained again, because we realised that if any of us got sick or died, we just couldn’t tell anyone. We had no rights.”

In May 2016, the UN’s rapporteur for human rights, Francois Crepeau, visited Greece’s closed camps and police stations[13]. He acknowledged that Greece had faced “the biggest migration movement in Europe since 1945 and it has done so mostly on its own resources at a time of extreme financial restraints.” But he also deplored the extensive use of detention. “I have met unaccompanied children locked in police station cells 24/7 without access to the outdoors for over two weeks and was informed that some may stay for a month,” Crepeau said. “Children should not be detained, period.”

Inevitably, Greece was forced to adopt subtler defences. In April 2017, Greece told rejected asylum-applicants that they could either exercise either their right to appeal, or their right to assisted voluntary return to their home country with an airline ticket and a $550 handshake, but not both.

“This was done to counteract the abuse of the asylum appeals system,” Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas told me. He pointed out that appeals are often used as a time-buying device to make arrangements with smugglers.

“They have five days to make that decision,” Afsha Karim, a volunteer lawyer with the legal aid charity Advocates Abroad told me. “That’s not enough time to go see a lawyer, assess your case, decide whether you want to appeal or whether you want to go back home. There’s just too much hanging on them. It’s too much pressure.”

The current conservative government is going through another paroxysm of severity. It has toughened Greece’s asylum law to make the five-day appeals deadline mandatory for everyone. It is again floating the idea of closed camps and increased deportations, policies that carry enormous legal and practical problems.

Even before the asylum law was revised, the complex application process could itself be seen as a labyrinth full of bureaucratic trap doors. Refugees cannot easily undergo it without legal aid, and for that they depend almost entirely on charities.

“The law obliges the state to provide you with legal aid, but last year only one in five appealants got a lawyer,” says Konstantinou of the GCR. “Yet the law requires you to fill out an affidavit in Greek explaining the substantive and legal reasons why you’re appealing. That effectively excludes a lot of people.”

Greece’s experience suggests grounds for optimism

Throughout the Cold War, Greece was surrounded by authoritarian regimes – a thousand kilometres of Iron Curtain along its northern border, and to its east Turkey, which was either covertly or overtly under the control of its military. The result was that Greece’s borders were sealed from the outside and immigration was all but unknown.

That changed when communism collapsed in Europe. Beginning in the summer of 1990, Albanians, Bulgarians and Romanians began to walk across borders into Greece, where they inserted themselves at the bottom of society as a new working class. A conservative estimate is that a million irregular migrants worked here illegally in the 1990s, increasing the population by ten percent overnight.

Greece had no immigration law, let alone integration mechanisms, but in 1995, 2001 and 2005 it carried out three amnesties that legalised migrants who could prove five years of continuous residence through utility bills, rental agreements and bus passes. Surviving for that length of time implied they had been absorbed by the economy. The amnesties brought more than half a million people onto tax and social security rolls.

In time, Greece legislated a legal residence status for newcomers and even attempted to create a worker recruitment system. Employers were asked to send job descriptions to the government, and they were posted at Greek consulates abroad. Having started from a state of complete innocence, Greek governments and society learned to see immigration as a force for the economy.

Well after its Aegean border with Turkey, too, became fluid, Greece opened a path to citizenship for non-Greeks. As a socially conservative and homogenous nation, Greece was one of the last European Union members to allow citizenship through naturalisation rather than by birth. It wasn’t easy. Every party that came to power between 2010 and 2018 passed a different version of the law (three in all). These parliamentary debates didn’t always bring about the best in people. In 2013, conservative MPs petitioned their prime minister to reserve jobs in the military and police for ethnic Greeks on national security grounds, even though this flew in the face of constitutional equality before the law. They were perhaps encouraged to this tribalist ejaculation by the cabinet secretary telling the Hellenic League for Human Rights the previous December that “he doesn’t care, in his capacity as a representative of the government and [the] New Democracy [party], about the League’s work and human rights, nor about the country’s international obligations.” But such ugliness was short-lived. Eventually all parties settled on a minimum of five years of residence for adults and nine years of Greek schooling for minors as proof enough of an earnest desire to put down roots.

The philospher Karl Popper, an Austrian Jew whose family fled to Britain, suggested in The Open Society that the great postwar project of mankind was to transition from tribal societies to open ones. Greece’s gradual maturing in this direction, under European tutelage, suggests grounds for optimism. It is still possible that an uncontrolled flood of migrants and refugees could snuff out goodwill, but Greeks, who hold the gateway to Europe from the east, are not attempting to close it altogether – only to monitor it, control it, filter out those in need of protection, and teach them Greek.

Greece had its brush with the far right, but Golden Dawn MPs lost all their parliamentary seats in last year’s general election [2019] and have been disgraced by court indictments accusing their party of being a criminal organisation.

If Greece can suffer the developed world’s biggest postwar recession followed by the biggest postwar refugee crisis while avoiding a lurch to the right and shouldering one of the heaviest asylum burdens in the EU, there is no reason why Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic cannot do it. Nor is there any reason why the United States should not offer to share a European asylum burden it was instrumental in producing.

Last October, political analyst Nanjala Nyabola wrote eloquently in Foreign Affairs of The End of Asylum, predicting that inaction will lead to the death of this “foundational principle of the liberal order” in “a low boil of ambivalence”. It is possible that she is right, and that 25 centuries after the Athenian tragedians, our generation shall whittle asylum away, ashamed to abolish the concept altogether, but afraid to truly implement it. The United States has halved the number of asylum-applications it accepts each year since 2016, as though exigency could be controlled through a quota system, while the EU, more exposed to Asia and Africa, has more subtly tried to discourage and filter out applicants.

State responses, however, are determined by efforts at political capitalisation and cannot be taken as entirely representative. If Western governments are struggling to find consensus, Western societies have proven themselves true to the spirit of asylum as a special form of hospitality. Grassroots groups formed to distribute food, medicine, clothing and money to the newly unemployed during Greece’s economic crisis extended that solidarity to refugees after 2015. Most of these donations were locally sourced, but many came from as far afield as northern Europe. Thousands of volunteers from Greece, Europe and North America who rushed to assist asylum-seekers in the emergency of 2015 have remained to found aid groups and informal volunteer organisations, while new volunteers keep cycling through. Others have sent donations.

Much of the asylum debate will turn on integration. Will refugee populations assimilate to a degree, or will they demand that host societies change? Here, refugee children have the advantage over adults. Thousands have enrolled in Greek school where they absorb language easily and form friendships spontaneously. To watch a Greek class visit the Acropolis now, after two decades of economic and refugee migration, is to see children of Greek, eastern European, Filipino, west African, Sub-Saharan and Subcontinental descent all chatting spiritedly in Greek.

Adults are more complicated. They take longer to learn the language, they haven’t the financial or human capital needed to generate work, and Europe doesn’t readily trust their cultural and religious identity. But it is easy to forget that just as the Puritans left Europe in search of greater social and religious restriction, muslims are coming to Europe in search of social freedom and the rule of law. This makes them aspiring Europeans. While they remain unaware of this, Greeks may sometimes speak in terribly racist terms about refugees in the abstract, but their behaviour usually softens when a refugee family is housed next door to them.

Just as the Greek economy absorbed eastern Europeans in the 1990s, society is gradually absorbing non-white, non-Christian asylum recipients. This is a stalactic process, and it divides incumbent populations across as deep a political rift as climate change and the debate about how (or whether) to save capitalism. But the fight for openness and principled rather than tribal decisions enlists people in unlikely corners, including the church, which has, in these desperate times, picked up the ancient asylum tradition. Last year, the diocese of Elis in the west Peloponnese caused outrage among some of its flock by announcing it would house muslim refugees in a disused monastery. A diocesian official, the Bishop of Oleni, justified the decision thus: "The church does not look at whether someone is a believer or not. It sees him as the image of God."



[1] Euripides’ Herakleidai, lines 240-250, Translation from Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University

[2] For more detail on the temples, consult the excellent app ToposText, which provides ancient citations related to the site.












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