Hammer, Sickle and Four logo
The Internationalist
  October 2020

Greek Refugee Crisis Redux:
Made in Germany

Thousands march in Berlin on September 20 in solidarity with refugees with nowhere to stay after the badly overcrowded Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece burned to the ground. Signs called to evacuate the camp and say “we have room.”  (Photo: Stephanie Loos / AFP)

See also: Greece: Moria Fire Ignites More Racist Repression (October 2020)

On September 9, the day after the blaze that consumed the Moria refugee camp in Greece, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Berlin, Germany, marching from the main train station in a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy for the refugees and outrage over their treatment. That same day there were demonstrations of 1,800 protesters in Leipzig and 1,200 in Hamburg, according to the DPA news agency. One of the speakers at the Berlin demo called Moria “the biggest slum in Europe” (Die Tageszeitung [taz], 10 September). The main slogan was “wir haben Platz” (we have room), another was “Leave no one behind.” A main focus was on the children who make up more than 45% (7,200) of the estimated 16,000 refugees living in and around the Moria camp on Lesbos, according to the web site InfoMigrants (25 November 2019). Even larger demonstrations took place on September 20 in cities around Germany.

The demonstrators’ demands were largely directed at the hardline anti-immigrant interior minister Seehofer and federal chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on them to open arms to the refugees. Yet they are the ones directly responsible for keeping the refugees in camps in Greece and elsewhere, as a way to minimize the number of asylum seekers reaching Germany. According to the Seebrücke Alliance, 170 German cities and municipalities have offered to take refugees, but have been blocked by the federal government (RBB, 9 September). While speakers at the September 9 demos called for a “social Europe,” the EU’s racist treatment of refugees is intrinsic to the German-dominated imperialist alliance.

Eventually, Merkel announced that about 2,750 people would be taken in, including several hundred children requiring medical attention. This was a publicity stunt, as many of them would come from elsewhere in Greece, and their requests for asylum had already been approved before the Moria fire. Moreover, detention centers in Germany are in bad condition and asylum seekers there have been hard hit by COVID-19. The chancellor’s main argument was to claim that the migration problem was not Germany’s alone, but “more of a European responsibility.” Yet Dublin III and other regulations stipulating that refugees be sent back to the countries where they first entered the EU (like Greece and Italy) were decreed due to German pressure. And under the “Orderly Return Law” passed last year, over 10,000 refugees were deported from Germany from September 2019 to this past February, with another 13,000 deportation cases in the works.

While the right wing whipped up anti-immigrant hysteria, the admission of more than 1 million refugees in late 2015 was not driven by “humanitarian” concerns. Germany’s bourgeois rulers have a problem. For years, the country’s birth rate has been in freefall, outpacing even Japan’s declining rate in 2015. “Germany’s falling birth rate means the percentage of people of working age in the country – between 20 and 65 – would drop from 61% to 54% by 2030,” said the director of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (BBC, 29 May 2015). Germany would face higher wage costs as a result, according to a board member of global auditing firm BDO. “Without strong labour markets, Germany cannot maintain its economic edge in the long run.” When images of drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi rocked the world amid a mass migration from Syria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel found her solution.

Hence the so-called “open-door” policy. Over 1 million refugees were admitted into Germany in the autumn and winter of 2015. Many were from the educated, urban, non-Islamist Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish petty bourgeoisie of northern Syria, opposed to Bashar al Assad’s Baathist military regime but repulsed by the cutthroat jihadist “rebels” bankrolled by the CIA and U.S. State Department. An article in The Atlantic (26 July 2017) analyzed “Why Germany's New Muslims Go to Mosque Less,” noting that recent “refugees veer away from religion.” Given an opening, they sought to escape the Middle Eastern cockpit and headed for the relative stability and calm of western and northern Europe. Merkel used these refugees as a source of cheap, skilled labor to shore up Germany’s labor market – and to score a PR victory for the Fourth Reich, demonstrating German imperialism’s supposed magnanimity.

The backlash was immediate. In 2016 state elections, the fascistic Alternative for Germany (AfD), which campaigned on a vicious anti-immigrant platform, surged in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, receiving double-digit percentages of the vote. In the 2017 federal elections, AfD won 12.6% of the vote and took 94 seats in the Bundestag (parliament). In what could be confused for a passage from Mein Kampf, prominent German writer Botho Strauss captured the reactionary bile secreting throughout parts of the country: “I would rather live in a society that is dying than in one that, out of economic and demographic speculation, is being mixed together with foreign peoples and made young again” (Der Spiegel, 2 October 2015).

In an overture to AfD’s supporters, seeking to save her embattled Christian Democratic government, Merkel sought to foist the refugee “problem” onto Turkey. She cut a deal in 2016 with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that would confine Syrian refugees to Turkey in exchange for €3 billion (euros) in economic “aid.” At the time, some 3 million refugees were stranded in Turkey. Erdoğan was happy to act as Germany’s border guard in exchange for some leverage over the EU. At the same time, far-right governments were on the rise all over Europe, most notably in Hungary and Poland, where the regimes of Viktor Orban and Andrzej Duda viciously opposed taking in any refugees and defied Germany’s control over the imperialist bloc, looking instead to racist U.S. president Donald Trump.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Turkey’s Erdoğan has been dangling the threat of “unleashing” migrant refugees into Europe as leverage for his invasion and occupation of northern Syria. In late February and early March, the Turkish government bused thousands of refugees to the Greek-Turkish land border, where Greek border guards and soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at people trying to cross into the country. The Greek government also suspended asylum applications for a month, carrying out summary deportations. And in a page taken from the CIA playbook, migrants were detained incommunicado at “black sites” near the border (New York Times, 10 March):

“Several migrants said in interviews that they had been captured, stripped of their belongings, beaten and expelled from Greece without being given a chance to claim asylum or speak to a lawyer, in an illegal process known as refoulment. Meanwhile, Turkish officials said that at least three migrants had been shot and killed while trying to enter Greece in the past two weeks.”

Police were aided by racist vigilantes, both on the border islands and along the land border, who formed patrols and roadblocks to round up migrants, assaulting aid workers and journalists (New York Times, 7 March). Hostility to refugees has grown so much in recent years that in March, some 1,000 people armed with shotguns and firebombs besieged police in an army camp on Lesbos, protesting plans to build new camps. Sentiment on the Aegean islands has not always been hostile to the refugees. When large numbers arrived in Lesbos in 2015, islanders helped bring them in from the sea, donating clothing and food out of a sense of solidarity. The current hostility is a direct result of the Greek government policy (first under SYRIZA, now ND) confining the refugees to the islands while making life for local residents unbearable.

Germany’s response was typical of its strategy of delegating its dirty work to Greece. “I thank Greece for being our European aspida [shield] in these times,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission (and former German “defense” minister) at a press conference with Mitsotakis (The Guardian, 3 March). On that occasion:

“She announced €700m (£609m) in EU funds for Greece, including €350m available immediately to upgrade infrastructure at the border. The EU’s border management agency, Frontex, is scrambling ‘a rapid border intervention’ squad that includes one offshore vessel, six coastal patrol boats, two helicopters, one aircraft, three thermal-vision vehicles, as well as 100 border guards to reinforce 530 Greek officers at land and sea borders.”

The Moria fire in early September upped the urgency for German imperialism, prompting the European Commission to release its so-called New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The pact’s draconian provisions make it easier for EU border countries like Greece and Italy to fast-track deportations. It proposes “a faster asylum border process involving decisions within 12 weeks and swift returns for failed applicants,” with “flexible options” for how EU member states would take part, i.e., “taking in recent arrivals, ‘sponsoring’ returns … [or] providing immediate operation support” (BBC, 23 September). In a 4 October Foreign Policy piece, one bourgeois commentator described the deal in apt terms:

“In an attempt to appease central and eastern European countries hostile to admitting asylum-seekers, the commission suggests, in an Orwellian turn of phrase, that they should operate ‘relocation and return sponsorships,’ dispatching people refused entry to their places of origin. This sort of task is normally reserved for nightclub bouncers.”