Why is Athens Burning?

Because Prof. Blattman has been so nice to us this week, I thought I’d take a crack at answering the question he posed on his blog on the 14th: why is Athens burning?

I, (predictably?), think that the situation of refugees in the Greek capital might offer some clues.

For the asylum seekers who are stuck there, Athens has actually been “burning” for a while now. Greece has a dismal record on asylum, essentially refusing to grant it to anyone, ever, but E.U. policy requires refugees to seek asylum in the first member state they arrive in. Unable to get legal status, unable to move on to a different European country, and afraid to return home, refugees in Greece are stuck in limbo. They have been protesting in the streets since late October, after police allegedly attacked thousands of people queueing outside police stations to submit asylum applications. Fifteen were injured in that violent dispersal, and a Pakistani asylum seeker fell into a canal and died. The October protests were peaceful, but significant -according to the organizers, 3000 people marched on October 27th. Then, on December 6th, another police dispersal of asylum seekers outside the same police station apparently resulted in another man falling into the same canal. At that point, the protests escalated. A small group of asylum seekers rioted, setting fire to garbage cans and tree branches, and throwing stones at passing cars. tearing branches off trees and setting them alight.

Later that same day, more riots broke out in Athens’ Exarchia neighborhood, after the police shot into a crowd of youths who had surrounded their car and were throwing rocks at it, sparking the better-publicized youth riots that have raged for days in Athens and Thessaloniki. I am not arguing that the refugee protests were the cause of the other riots, but I do think that the refugee situation probably says a lot about what’s going on in Greece today.

In particular:

1. The Athens police aren’t very impressive. Not only did the police apparently use violence to disperse crowds doing nothing worse than waiting in line to submit asylum applications, they did it in an uncontrolled way that lead to an innocent person’s death. To me, this sounds like a ridiculous overuse of force, and it also demonstrates that the police are not savvy about crowd control measures. (If the situation before your arrival is “peaceful queues of people,” and the situation after your departure is “fifteen injured, one killed, chaos everywhere,” you don’t get good reviews from me.) Worse, they came back a few weeks later and did the exact same thing, with the exact same results, suggesting that they either thought the first operation was a success, or that they couldn’t be bothered to learn from their mistakes. Either way, not a good reflection on them, and definitely not a good reflection on whoever is supposed to be responsible for overseeing their behavior.

2. This suggests an unpleasant governmental attitude towards individual rights. While the Greek government clearly treats refugees worse than it does other groups, their behavior evidences systemic problems as well as specific prejudices. A system that places a priority on respecting individual rights would not lead to the exact same abuses being repeated, with the same unacceptable results. (The same canal? Show some creativity, guys!) Such a system appears to be lacking, and I would imagine that causes problems for non-immigrant Greeks as well. It’s worth noting that an incident of police violence sparked the youth protests as well, and that the police were the initial targets of the rioters’ ire.

3. A government in the business of fixing things wouldn’t act like this. The refugees who the police dispersed weren’t trying to do anything illegal -they just wanted to apply for asylum. But the government has erected ridiculous procedural hurdles to obtaining relief, such as the refusal to take more than 300 asylum applications in Athens per week, and the requirement that refugees wait in line outside the police station to have a hope of making it onto that list. When Human Rights Watch asked the commander of Hellenic Police Headquarters Aliens’ Division why the process could not be organized in a more dignified way, he replied that the applicants were “mostly economic migrants” who shouldn’t be allowed to “clog the system.” (Because of course it’s possible to determine migrants’ purpose by looking at how they stand in line on the street.) That this system is in place despite its clear ineffectiveness is bad enough. But it’s worse that the commander is in a position to offer such thin excuses. If his job were to solve problems, or even to prevent violent incidents like the two that happened outside his station, that would not be the case. It’s hard to know if that attitude is present in other areas of the Greek state, but I’m going to guess that it is, and that it’s a cause of serious frustration for the people who live there. If my government ignored the needs they were tasked with fulfilling, and responded with casual violence when I tried to pursue relief for everyday problems, I’d certainly feel a little riot-y myself.

4. Economically, the Greek government is being a jerk. I think that the refusal to accept the influx of refugees and other immigrants arises at least partly out of the same attitudes that have caused the economic frustration of the younger generation of Greeks. (This bit is a little more speculative, but bear with me.) In this frustratingly un-embeddable BBC video, the Prefect of Athens says that he wants to give the migrants free health care and housing, but that the E.U. must help with any more lasting solutions, because the volume of migrants is too high for Greece to manage. In other words, “we’ll give them expensive social benefits, but we won’t allow them to integrate into society or contribute to it. Let them eat health care.” It seems strange, as an American, to encounter such a position -people here tend to be more worried about immigrants’ burden on our scarce social services than their desire to get jobs picking fruit. In much of Europe, however, there is an attitude that jobs are more precious and scarce than benefits, and must therefore be conserved by the lucky few that have them. Combined with the strict labor laws, that creates a sort of crisis of employment liquidity, as no one who obtains a job is willing to leave it, preventing the position from ever opening up to anyone else. That, in turn, means that it’s pretty hard for people without jobs to get them, leaving a large chunk of the population alone with underemployment if they’re lucky, and frustration and idleness if they’re not. Yeah, I can’t think of any reason why that would lead to rioting either…

I’m not saying that any of those factors, on their own, are “the” cause of the riots. But taken together, I think they offer a window into why so many people might be frustrated enough to spend a few hours throwing rocks and torching trash cans. Well, that and:

5. Rioting is pretty fun. Or so I hear, at least -I’ve never really gotten to try it. But it sure looks like a nice way to spend a few hours. Lots of chanting, and smashing of things, and throwing of other things, combined with a brisk walk in the fresh air? Sounds like good times to me.

* Photo via Nikoskrelis’ photostream, flickr.

Amanda Taub

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