What do you think about, when you think about Greece? In recent years, perhaps their economy – but also that it is a first world
country, member of the EU, even its beautiful weather and beaches. But on a recent Council of Europe visit, I witnessed a country not just
hampered by the financial crisis caused by the straitjacket of the Euro but
plunging into social chaos, too.
I have deep reservations about sending taxpayers money abroad, but if we
are going to do so there is a case for providing foreign aid closer to home. Greece, a nation of 10million people, is now struggling to contain a
million illegal asylum seekers. The streets of Athens, away from the city
centre, are starting to become a battleground between gangs of illegal
immigrants, and neo-Nazi vigilantes.
Millions of the worlds poor from Africa Asia and the Middle East are
heading to Europe in search of a better life, and for many Greece is the first
country they arrive at. Expecting to find the streets paved with gold, they instead find a country
which is bust, with little patience or resources for new arrivals. Hundreds of thousands of young men congregate in Athens with no money,
job, home or papers. Local people feel insecure and accuse the migrants of
being responsible for a crime wave.
Cuts to pay and funding, at levels unthinkable in the UK, have left the
Greek police understaffed and demoralised – and in no position to deal with the
problem. In their absence support has been growing for a Neo-Nazi party called
Golden Dawn. Marching through the streets in black uniforms, they demand to see
the papers of any traders who look foreign and violently smash up their stalls
if they are not satisfied.
I visited a square which we were told was under the control of Golden
Dawn. The migrants who used to congregate there had been moved on violently. An
Orthodox Priest I spoke to was supportive of the action, as was a senior police
officer I met who claimed that Greeks were showing their frustration. We were
being openly observed throughout the hour we spent there.
Golden Dawn have 18 seats in the parliament and are expected to do far
better at the next elections. In response the government, desperate to be seen
to be doing something, have taken to publicly rounding up paperless migrants in
the city. Most quietly released a few hours later but some are locked up
for a year just for having no papers. It’s a high-profile campaign curiously titled Operation Xenios Zeus, which
translates as ‘Hospitality’. I have spoken up many times in Parliament to support a greater use of
prison and the immediate deportation of bogus migrants. But I would never
support detaining anyone in inhumane conditions for 12 months simply for having
In eight years as a Special Constable, I have seen many police detention
facilities in the UK. They are basic but humane places to keep people for a few
days. The facility I saw in Athens would have been similarly acceptable to keep
about six people in for to to three days. Instead. about 30 people were crammed in and were
being kept there for a year. There was one shower but no TV, no sign of books,
no segregation for prisoners and very little lighting. The only relieve from
boredom were the cigarettes supplied by friends, and, surprisingly, by Greek
police officers who openly told me how angry they were that they were being
forced to keep people in such conditions.
30 people of a range of nationalities kept in a dim airless giant cage
with no access to any facilities for a period of a year. This, in a first world
country, is simply unacceptable. What should worry us all is that most of the migrants I spoke to, in and
out of jail had one thing in common – they all want to come to the UK. This would be a disaster for us, undermining wages, schools, the NHS and
our benefits system.
I have never been able to support the increase in the foreign aid budget
at a time when we are having to make cuts elsewhere. A few years ago I visited
an African country which receives a large amount of UK aid and saw for myself
the luxury cars its MPs can afford to drive around in. However, it could be in our interest to divert some of our foreign aid
away from corrupt African dictatorships towards a collapsing European
democracy. There are sound reasons for funding border guards, humane detention
facilities, and the swift deportation of illegal immigrants into Greece back to
their country of origin. If we do not tackle the crisis with the Greek borders
then it will quickly become a crisis on our border or worse still inside our