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Discourses at the Frontline: Greek Approaches to Migration

0 Comments 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

A woman waits to leave the registration center in Kos, Greece. Photo credit: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


by Ruby Gropas

Across Europe, discussions on migration broadly fall within two categories: discourses of danger on the one side, and humanitarian discourse on the other.

As regards the first, and particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, migration has been dominantly framed by discourses of danger. Perspectives may vary, but there are underlying themes of threat, danger, invasion, and insecurity. At times, the emphasis is put on the threat that migration-related diversity brings to a country’s identity and its cultural, political, civic and even religious values. In other cases, the emphasis is on economic arguments; these may range from the effects of labor migration on depressing wages and increasing informal employment, to what has become widely referred to as “welfare tourism,” basically the perception that migrants abuse European national welfare systems at a time when these are already vulnerable to the economic pressures of globalization or austerity. Or, alternately, concern is voiced with regards to the challenges migration poses to public law, order, safety, and increasingly, national security. References to the rise in criminality, or more occasional fears about epidemics or public health and safety conditions compromised by immigration have recently taken much more complicated and dire dimensions due to the associations made between migration, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. A range of qualitative studies has explored the “securitization” of migration, or in other words, the social construction of migration as an existential threat on the part of political and other influential elites[1]; this securitization has become mainstream in both older and newer receiving societies and even more so in countries like Greece that are European Union (EU) frontline states.

This discourse, however, is not left unchallenged. In effect, across Europe and in Greece as well, it is contested and opposed, not just by media and civil society actors but also by a notable portion of political elites. The humanitarian conditions that migrants are fleeing from, as well as the inhuman conditions they face throughout their migration (and often also upon arrival in the destination societies) are passionately touted as urgently requiring a paradigmatic shift in the way European countries deal with immigration and immigrants (see, for instance, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crepeau’s, May 2015 speech[2]). In this discourse, the focus is directed towards structural conditions and policies that lead to irregular migration. Thus, it is the restrictive and inflexible immigration regimes that European countries have adopted that have been conducive to criminal networks of smugglers or traffickers flourishing at and around Europe’s borders. Moreover, it is the exploitative conditions of the neoliberal global economy that have pushed migrants to leave their countries of origin only to find themselves in equally precarious conditions in countries of destination. Growing attempts to “seal” the borders, which have been strongly encouraged by ever more vocal nationalist and populist actors, are seen as responsible for the tragic cost in lives and suffering that is taking place daily. As many studies have highlighted, representations in the media often present a humanitarian understanding of the migrant’s unfortunate condition, and this is evoked in emotional, gendered, and personal stories with strong, explicit references to social justice, ethical policies and humanitarian responsibility (Horsti 2012).

We find both these discourses in Greece. But before briefly discussing them, some background is necessary.

Greece, together with Italy, Spain and Malta, is one of the EU frontline states that over the past twenty years has experienced a continuous shift in its migration landscape. It has gone from a country of origin to a country of transit and destination (with a total immigrant population of just under 8 percent of its total population).[3] Since the mid-2000s, Greece’s land and sea borders have, in turn, faced intense irregular migration and pressures from asylum seekers, accompanied by dynamic changes in the range of nationalities attempting to cross these borders and the types of immigrants entering. Mixed migrant flows – including irregular economic migrants, forced migrants and refugees, unaccompanied minors, and victims of trafficking – have been arriving from as close as Iraq and Syria and as far as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa (Angeli et al. 2014). The country was ill-equipped to deal with unauthorized arrivals, particularly in such extremely high numbers, and the situation critically worsened with the economic crisis after 2009.


Boy in Kos Greece

A boy in Kos, Greece after crossing from Turkey. Photo credit: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


In 2010, Greece’s National Action Plan attempted to develop the country’s first holistic migration management plan. It was essentially defined by a clear securitization approach. Border controls were tightened through Operation “Shield” (Aspida) as 1,800 border guards were transferred along the Greek-Turkish land border, a border fence was completed across the 12.5 km land stretch used as the main entry point in the Evros region, passport controls were increased, and the harbors of Patra and Igoumenitsa in western Greece were technologically upgraded, aiming to target transit migrants seeking to leave for Italy and then the rest of Europe by ferry. In parallel, the socialist Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government pursued an aggressive internal policy of apprehending and detaining irregular migrants; daily police patrols (operation ‘Xenios Zeus’) attempted to identify and detain them pending expulsion. This “criminalization” of irregular migrants was reinforced through an extensive detention policy of up to eighteen months (the maximum period that is prescribed in the European Community Return Directive, and for exceptional circumstances only) for both irregular migrants and asylum seekers (Angeli et al. 2014).

As this “criminalization” of migration was unfolding in practice and in national legislative changes, it was also massively unfolding in public discourse. Dominant discourses in the Greek political sphere and even more so in the media have been infused with apocalyptic images of “waves” of desolate and desperate migrants swarming Greece in order to reach their dreams in Europe. Seen in these terms, the evident response is to consider solutions that focus on “fighting” illegal migration by cracking down on trafficking and smuggling networks and increasing border controls.

Particularly since the spring of 2012, Greece has experienced an unprecedented and disconcerting rise of the far-right and especially the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, along with widespread incidents of racist violence and intensely xenophobic discourse in the public sphere (Kouki and Triandafyllidou 2012). The nationalist and populist rise has framed migration as a “problem” that is out of control and that needs to be stopped so that space can be urgently reclaimed for Greeks who have been marginalized by immigrants in their own country. According to this line of argument, irregular migrants who work under the table are often presented as further exacerbating conditions for native Greeks in the labor market, particularly given the massive unemployment rates and rising poverty that resulted from austerity policies. Similarly, the need to return basic welfare services to Greek citizens, who are legitimately entitled to them, from migrants, who have been “free-loading and “abusing” the Greek state’s generosity, has also been a dominant discourse, not only from the political margins but also from the mainstream. As an illustration, the head of the Conservative New Democracy Party, and subsequently, the Prime Minister of Greece from 2012-2015, stated in a televised pre-election interview that “Migrants have filled up our [public] kindergartens and Greeks cannot find a place. This must stop.” (June 2012,

What is briefly described here in the Greek case neatly falls into the first camp of an intensely securitized discourse that represents migrants in “criminal” terms. In short, Greece is “invaded” or “inundated” by irregular migrants and asylum seekers, and the country is on the verge of collapse as it cannot accommodate the thousands seeking to make a life in Europe while the country faces extreme economic crisis. In this context, the discourse in Greece has extensively emphasized the European dimension. Migration pressures have thus been framed as a common European problem, and the need for European solidarity has been stressed in order to protect the country’s borders, that is “Europe’s” borders.


We are all immigrants graffiti

Graffiti in Lesbos, Greece. Photo credit: Stefanie Eisenschenk.


This all points to a rather somber picture. Thankfully, it is not the whole picture, as there exists a very vocal political discourse, with strong grass-root support, that lies at the extreme opposite of the above narrative. In the case of Greece, the humanitarian/ethics argument is certainly strong and has been articulated mainly by the political left, civil society actors and numerous governmental actors at the local and national levels. It has mainly been formulated in two core directions: the first has been with regards to asylum seekers and refugees, and the second has been with regards to the country’s second generation.

There have been consistent references to Greece’s emigration past due to poverty and to the painful historical experiences of Greek refugees from Asia Minor, Turkey, and Southeast Europe. References to this past have been used to trigger empathy and humanitarian responses towards the asylum seekers arriving at Greece’s shores, and also to emphasize that just as others helped Greek refugees in the past, it is now Greece’s turn to help those in need and to combat rising racism: “Greeks know what it means to be a Refugee” was a widely-used slogan.

Finally, a discourse that has been gaining momentum for over a decade in spite of major political and legal setbacks is the identity discourse best encapsulated in the slogans “Generation 2.0 for Rights, Equality, and Diversity. Equal Citizens. There are more Greeks like us” []. In June 2015, the Greek Parliament approved a new citizenship bill. In principle, once enacted, this new law could allow at least 100,000 children of third-country nationals born or educated in Greece to acquire Greek citizenship. During the public consultation process preceding the Parliamentary vote, this legislative change proposed by the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government was described as a “historical and national responsibility to change our citizenship code so as to enable children raised and schooled in our country to develop a relationship with the state (…) necessary to pass on to society the message of a nation looking into the future.”[4]

In these dire times of austerity politics, nationalist backlash and rampant xenophobia, it is hopeful to see that the securitization discourse is not the only discourse defining policies and responses to migration across Europe.


Ruby Gropas is Research Fellow at the Global Governance Programme of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS), European University Institute, in Florence. She is also Visiting Professor at the College of Europe (Bruges), Belgium, and holds a Lectureship in International Relations at the Law Faculty of the Democritus University of Thrace, Greece.


This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.


Angeli Danae, Angeliki Dimitriadi, and Anna Triandafyllidou, “Assessing the cost-effectiveness of irregular migration control policies in Greece,” MIDAS Project Report. 2014,

Horsti, Karina, “Humanitarian discourse legitimating migration control: FRONTEX public communication”, In Migrations:  Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Michi Messier, Ruth Wodak, and Renée Schroeder, 297-308. Vienna: Springer Science& Business Media, 2012.

Karyotis, Georgios and Stratos Patrikios, “Religion, securitization and anti-immigration attitudes: The case of Greece,” Journal of Peace Research, 47(1), 2010, 43-57.

Kouki, Hara and Anna Triandafyllidou, “Migrant and (In)Tolerant Discourses in Greek Politics,” ACCEPT Pluralism Report 2012/08. 2012.

Triandafyllidou, Anna and Ruby Gropas, eds., European Immigration: A Sourcebook, Second Edition, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2014

Wæver, Ole, “Securitization and desecuritization,” In On Security, edited by Ronnie D. Lipschutz, 46-86. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

[1] ‘Securitization’ is the process by which actors construct issues as threats to security. This security framework has been developed by the Copenhagen School and mainly through the works of Buzan, Waever and de Wilde (1998) and Waever (1995).

[2] Crepeau, François (2015), “From Enforced Closure to Regulated Mobility: The Need for a Paradigm Shift in Migration Policies,” RCIS Working Paper No. 2015/04, available at:

[3] See Triandafyllidou, Anna and Ruby Gropas (2014), ‘Greece’ in Triandafyllidou A. and R. Gropas (eds.), European Immigration: A Sourcebook, Second Edition, Aldershot: Ashgate.

[4] See interview with Dimitris Christopoulos at:

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