Yiannis Mouzalas: An activist at the Ministry of Migration Policy: possibilities and limits

Featured Yiannis Mouzalas: An activist at the Ministry of Migration Policy: possibilities and limits
Dimosthenis Papadatos-Anagnostopoulos
The government's commitments to lift first home protection from foreclosures and to bring painful changes in the social insurance system (lowering of pensions and state subsidies, raise of retirement age limits), as well as the suffocating surveillance by the troika (or, rather, quartet) that leaves no room for replacement of the most odious measures with equivalents, suffice to explain why the Finance and Labour Ministries are currently the least enviable seats in the Cabinet. However, there is no doubt that the position of Deputy Minister of Migration Policy, ex-activist with Doctors of the World, Yiannis Mouzalas, belongs to exactly the same category. On October 28, three shipwrecks near the shores of Lesvos, Samos and Agathonissi left behind no less than 18 dead refugees, among them 12 children, and tens of missing persons. Within nine months, the government that attempted a paradigm shift in the Greek migration policy counts more deaths in the Aegean than what even the most pessimist among us would dare to imagine when ex-PM Antonis Samaras, implementing his intolerant far-right policy against refugees and immigrants, boasted illegal push-backs from the Parliament's podium.
Since the beginning of 2015 and according to the Ministry of Migration Policy’s calculations, about 420.000 refugees passed through the Greek borders, while the Coast Guard counts about 75-80.000 rescued persons at sea. It is no coincidence, though, that the morbid list of the drowned keeps growing.  Thousands of people keep coming in dinghies with no concern for their safe passage, and the fence the Pasok government built in 2012 on the Greek-Turkish border (along Evros river), of which Samaras was proud, forces refugees to put their lives at risk trying to pass onto the North Aegean islands by boat. Despite all the pressure by the antiracist movement, and even though everyone (even Angelos Syrigos, who was responsible for the migration policy of the previous government) accepts the need to secure a lawful and safe passage for the refugees, the government has no intention of bringing the fence down, at least until some kind of agreement with Turkey is made. Minister Mouzalas said that he agrees with the request to demolish the fence, “from an ideological point of view”,. However, he explained, “from a technical viewpoint, it cannot be done right now”.
Despite the dire economic situation in Greece, and even though commitments to the creditors leave the already scant hospitality houses with no resources and no personnel, during last week's EU mini-Summit on the refugee crisis, the Greek government committed to receiving 30.000 more refugees. What's more, five accommodation and identification centres (“hot-spots”) will open on islands/points of entry (Kos, Leros, Samos, Lesvos and Chios), while two more centres with a total capacity of 10,000 people will open in Athens and somewhere in northern Greece so that the examination of asylum requests is not overwhelmed when the flows intensify. During the previous EU-Summit, European Council President Donald Tusk had created expectations that, were Greece to assume increased responsibilities on the issue, that might lead to some fiscal leeway. However, at the recent mini-Summit, EC Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis grounded the Greek government, declaring that all its obligations must be observed on time and in their entirety.
The EU tactics on the refugee crisis, namely the continuing militarisation at the borders, its geostrategic games with Turkey at the refugees' expense and of course its intensifying efforts to allow the fewest possible refugees to reach the northern Europe, don't seem to discourage Mouzalas. On the contrary, he thinks Greece will take advantage of “the historical change of course in Europe”, meaning the relocation schemes instead of the detention measures that were prevalent until recently. So, although the 160.000 relocations to EU countries planned for the next two years are minimal compared to the 3 million refugees currently living in Turkey, as far as the Minister is concerned, “the crucial first step is taken: Germany will allow 1 million into its borders”. As regards “hot-spots”, which have already been condemned for inhuman conditions, his approach is similarly “realistic”: refugees, the Minister admits, are bound to be treated better than undocumented immigrants, for whom “the law will be enforced”, i.e. they will be sent back. Mouzalas justifies this on the grounds that the incoming flows to Greece are mainly (70-80%) refugee flows, so they “deserve” the best part of our attention.
Mouzalas attempts to strike a difficult balance. On the one hand, he complies with an EU logic that tries to keep the refugees as far back from its borders as possible, with restricted openings, intolerance towards economic migrants and incentives to Turkey to receive refugees despite its notorious human rights record. On the other hand, the Greek government opens or tolerates spaces of temporary hospitality for refugees in squares, parks, indoor stadiums and other facilities all over the country, frequently taking advantage of the local communities' solidarity reserves. For the time being, the climate of xenophobia cultivated by the previous ND-Pasok government has changed considerably, and this is something to be credited to the government. Yet how long the new mood of hospitality and solidarity will last, and which side the scale will tip in the end, is (also) an issue for the antiracist movement.

Translated by Dimitris Ioannou