While Greece burned, politicians blamed migrants
In late August, as wildfires still raged in Greece, a video went viral. A man had filmed himself walking to the back of a trailer attached to a Jeep. He threw open the trailer door to reveal a group of men huddled inside, all of them migrants from Pakistan and Syria. He was holding the 13 men captive, he said, because he had caught them planning to set fires on the outskirts of the northeastern city of Alexandroupoli, the capital of Greece’s Evros region, that shares a border with Turkey.
“Let’s all go out and round them up,” the man says in the video, urging Greeks to follow his lead and perform citizen’s arrests on migrants. “They will burn us.”
The Greek police arrested the man who made the video, and he is currently awaiting trial. The police also arrested the migrants the man claimed he had caught attempting to start fires. They were later released without charges.
The video, and others like it, tapped into suspicions among residents of Evros that the wildfires were the fault of migrants, thousands of whom pass through the region’s thick forest every year en route to inland Europe. Simmering anger against migrants has bubbled to the surface in Greece, aided by social media, as locals seek to apportion blame for intense wildfires that have been torching their region since July.
More than 300 square miles of land along Greece’s border with Turkey have been devastated by the blaze, which is the worst wildfire ever recorded in Europe. Lightning strikes were suspected to be the cause, but the arrests of 160 people across Greece on charges of arson — 42 for deliberately starting fires and the rest for negligence leading to fires — have heightened local anger.
Speculation that foreigners ignited the fires was also linked to the charred remains of 18 suspected migrants, two of them children, found on August 22. The deceased, sheltering in the forest, appear to have been trapped as gale-force winds spread the blaze with devastating speed. One group was found huddled together, appearing to have clutched each other as the fire claimed their lives. Earlier this month, the Greek authorities said they had rescued a group of 25 migrants who were trapped in the Dadia Forest, where fires blazed for more than two weeks.
A few days after the video began circulating on social media, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stood in front of parliament to defend his government’s performance in the face of mounting cries of incompetence.
“It is almost certain,” Mitsotakis claimed, “that the causes were man-made.” He added: “It is also almost certain that this fire was started on routes that are often used by illegal migrants who have entered our country.”
Mitsotakis didn’t present any evidence to back up his certainty. Indeed, the only thing he conceded he didn’t know was if the fires were caused by negligence or if they were “deliberate.”
Armed militia groups, some linked to extreme far right political parties, seized on the tension to conduct illegal arrests. And elected officials, like the ultranationalist Paraschos Christou Papadakis, gave them a boost. “We’re at war,” Papadakis has been filmed saying. “Where there are fires, there are illegal immigrants.”
On X, previously known as Twitter, and Facebook, it is easy to find Greek users who contend that migrants are to blame for the fires and that the fires are indeed deliberate. In the comment fields on videos in which Greek vigilantes are filmed “hunting” and restraining migrants, it is not unusual to find people calling for migrants to be burned and thrown in the fire.
For decades, migrants have crossed through the forests and the cold, fast-moving Evros River to get from Turkey to Greece. Sometimes, they find themselves in no-man’s land, trapped on islets that appear to be controlled by neither Greece nor Turkey. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that migrants, if they make it over to the Greek riverbank, are sometimes turned over by the authorities to “men who appear to be of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin,” who are tasked with forcing the migrants onto rubber dinghies and leaving them in the middle of the Evros River. From there, the migrants either take shelter on an islet or wade back to the Turkish side where they are also not welcome.
Political scientist Pavlous Roufos, who has written extensively about Greek social movements and the 2010 economic crisis, told me, “There’s a kind of dehumanization of the migrant situation happening in Greece at the moment.” Now a professor at the University of Kassel, in central Germany, Rouflos monitors both the physical violence migrants face and the disinformation being spread online about their responsibility for the wildfires in Evros.
“What we are seeing online,” Roufos told me, “is just a fraction of what’s happening in these communities. You can multiply those videos by 20 or 30 to get the real picture.”
Local antipathy towards migrants in Evros shows, Roufos suggests, how little has changed since February 2020, when Turkey announced that it would open its western borders for migrants and asylum seekers looking to go to Europe. In what became known as the “Evros Crisis,” Greece responded by shutting its borders, suspending asylum laws and violently arresting and pushing refugees back over the border toward Turkey. Armed citizen groups, similar to those who rounded up migrants in Evros last month, stood shoulder to shoulder with Greek border guards to repel asylum seekers trying to enter Greece.
In September 2020, when fires tore through the Moria camp, a squalid housing unit for 13,000 refugees in a village in the northeastern Greek island of Lesvos, anti-immigrant groups helped police block people from getting to safety in neighboring towns. Six Afghans were convicted on arson charges, though human rights lawyers familiar with the case have argued that the refugees were framed and that their jailing was a matter of political expediency rather than justice.
During both events, there were huge surges of activity in online groups promoting extremist and anti-migrant narratives, according to a study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The researchers tracked nearly 2,000 Facebook and Twitter accounts that promoted harmful rhetoric around the incident: They pushed the narrative that refugees deliberately started the Moria fires and were, in some cases, burning their children to elicit sympathy. The accounts also pushed white supremacist campaigns like #TheGreatReplacement, which refers to a conspiracy theory that foreigners are seeking to culturally and demographically replace the white race.
The researchers wrote that their work “makes clear that the refugee crisis has acted as a catalyst for mobilizing a transnational network of actors, including far-right extremists and elements of the political right, who often share common audiences and use similar tactics.”
After the German government promised to accommodate 1,500 asylum seekers from Moria, German far right groups were also set off, with accounts linked to far right political parties, like the Alternative for Germany, spreading new rounds of hate and disinformation targeting migrants.
The spread of these narratives has coincided with the rise of the far right in Europe, where populist movements are uniting across borders and merging with previous center-right factions over issues like migration, identity and Islamophobia. Similar to Austria and Italy, Greece is seeing a shift to the right. Three ultranational parties won 12% of the seats in parliament in recent elections, and the ruling conservative New Democracy party has been accused of pandering to extremist agendas to keep poll numbers up.
“The toxic narrative against migrants has been going on for a long time,” Lefteris Papagiannakis, the head of the Greek Refugee Council, told me. “The violence was to be expected as we have already seen it in Lesvos in 2019,” he added, referring to racist attacks against migrants housed on the Greek island. Attacks in the past have targeted not just migrants but also rights activists and NGOs assisting refugees. Lefteris says he and his colleagues are “worried, of course.”
But the wildfires and the damage they have caused have catalyzed a fresh wave of anti-migrant anger. By implying that migrants might be arsonists, Greek politicians, including the prime minister, appear to have the backs of the vigilantes.
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