Greeks protest government crackdown on refugee squats

An estimated 2,500 refugees and migrants live in squatted buildings in Athens – some of which are at risk of eviction.

DO NOT USE - Protest against eviction of refugee squats in Athens , Greece
A Greek court ruled that three squats - including City Plaza - must be evacuated [Kelly Lee Lunde/Al Jazeera]

Hundreds of Greek protesters and refugees have demonstrated in Athens to voice opposition to a court’s ruling to empty out squats, several of which provide residence to refugees and migrants.

Marching from the City Plaza refugee squat in central Athens, around 700 people made the trek to the Ministry of Migration building in the capital’s Klafthmonos Square on Friday.

They chanted in support of squats and their residents, carrying signs that read “City Plaza is our home” and “Hands off squats”.

Solidarity demonstrations were also staged in cities across Europe, including in Germany, Austria, and Belgium. Many of the rallies were held in front of Greek embassies.

Earlier this month, a Greek court ruled that three squats – including City Plaza, the largest of its kind – must be evacuated. The other two buildings slated for eviction are Papouchadiko and Zoodochou Pigis 119.

Aliki Papahela, the owner of the Hotel City Plaza building, which sat empty in the capital for six years after the business shuttered in 2010, had filed appeals for its evacuation in court.

“This attack, in general, is against the [refugee solidarity] movement,” said Nasim Lomani, a 36-year-old member of the Solidarity Initiative for Political and Economic Refugees, arguing that the measure will leave the squat’s more than 400 residents without accommodation.

“There are more or less 4,000 empty buildings in the city,” said Lomani, who fled his native Afghanistan as a child and came to Greece more than two decades ago. “They could use them [to house refugees].”

READ MORE: Greek leftists turn deserted hotel into refugee homes

Founded in April 2016, when activists occupied the building, the City Plaza squat offers space for families to live in hotel rooms and access to refugee-run and activist-administered healthcare, education and dining, among other services. Most residents play a role according to their own abilities.

The squat boasts of providing temporary housing for more than 1,500 people, many of whom have now moved on to residences in Greece or elsewhere in Europe, throughout the last year. 

City Plaza is organised on principles of self-administration and direct democracy. Activists and refugees make decisions about their activities by reaching general consensus through discussion and debate.

‘Feeling like they aren’t humans anymore’

Activists argue that City Plaza and other squats like it provide an alternative to the decrepit conditions in camps, where asylum seekers struggle with overcrowding, a lack of resources and scarce access to quality healthcare, among other problems.

Referring to living conditions in camps, Lomani said: “They [the government] managed to [make the refugees] feel like they aren’t humans anymore.”

The Greek Ministry of Interior did not reply to Al Jazeera’s requests for comments on the squat’s pending eviction.

READ MORE: Greek anarchists organise for refugees as ‘state fails’

Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis has called on the government to empty squats for refugees and migrants, arguing that the refugee crisis “does not legitimise anyone occupying arbitrarily public or private buildings to house those persons”.

In an open letter to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Kaminis claimed the conditions in squats are “as poor or worse” than camps.

In March 2016, the European Union and Turkey struck a deal to stem the flow of refugees and migrants from Turkey. That deal allows Greece to deport people who arrived after March 20 of last year back to Turkey, where they can apply for relocation to Europe. 

The agreement resulted in more than 60,000 refugees and migrants being stuck in limbo in Greece.

Hotbed of solidarity activism

Several of the city’s dozens of squats are situated in Exarchia, a predominantly anarchist and leftist neighbourhood that has become a hotbed of refugee solidarity activism since the crisis exploded two years ago.

In addition to refugee squats and others like them that provide residence for anarchists and other activists, activist-administered social centres and soup kitchens are dotted throughout the city. 

READ MORE: Why some refugees in Greece are being driven to suicide

Greek activists have held mass demonstrations in solidarity with refugees and migrants, calling for the closure of camps and the full integration of asylum seekers into society and the economy at large.

On March 19 of this year – the one-year anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal – thousands of Greeks and refugees took to the streets in Athens and elsewhere against that agreement and called for an overhaul of the EU’s migration policies.

Syriza’s about-face

After the left-wing Syriza party took power in January 2015, the government promised to radically overhaul Greece’s immigration policies by providing citizenship to second-generation migrants born in the country and closing migrant detention centres.

Yet the ruling party’s ostensible reversal on these promises has bred widespread discontent among solidarity campaigners.

The Syriza-led government was largely standoffish towards squats when the refugee crisis exploded, but it has taken an increasingly harsh stance in the last year, carrying out a spate of evictions.

Before sunrise on March 13, Greek police raided a pair of squats in Athens – one that provided housing for refugees, another that was inhabited by anarchist activists. Around 200 people were detained for several hours.

Last July, police stormed and emptied three squats in the northern city of Thessaloniki, briefly detaining dozens of activists and refugees.

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In April 2016, police on the island of Lesbos surrounded and raided the No Borders Kitchen squat, a social centre for asylum seekers stuck on the island. Hundreds of activists and asylum seekers were arrested, and bulldozers ploughed through the squat and left only rubble in their wake.

Petros Constantinou, the national director of the anti-racist group Keerfa and a city councillor in Athens, estimates that the capital’s dozens of squats provide residence for around 2,500 refugees and migrants.

“They cannot evacuate them,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone, accusing Syriza’s leadership of appeasing right-wing groups by clamping down on squats. “Many of the councillors in Syriza – not the municipality – support these occupations.”

Constantinou added: “The reality is that they cannot impose open suppression … What is real is the disgusting policy against the refugees, and so many people are disgusted by Syriza opening detention centres and isolating refugees in camps.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera