Greek Wildfires spur anti-migrant sentiment, racist accusations

Erroneous news reports, politicians fan flames of prejudice

ATHENS: As Greece was hit by wave after wave of wildfires this week, asylum-seekers found themselves at the receiving end of several allegations they started fires, leading to an anti-migrant frenzy online. At least two news reports implicating migrants were soon denied. The verbal assault intensified after a group of 13 Pakistani and Syrian men were accused by locals of being caught red-handed trying to light a fire outside the city of Alexandroupoli, in the Evros region bordering Turkey. One of the locals on Tuesday posted a live Facebook video showing the migrants stacked in a trailer, boasting that he had caught them for trying to “burn us.”

“Don’t show them … burn them,” another user commented on the feed. The 45-year-old man was arrested alongside two alleged accomplices, with authorities insisting that “vigilantism” will not be tolerated. The three detainees have been charged with inciting racist violence. The migrants were charged by a prosecutor in Alexandroupoli with illegal entry and attempted arson. But a government source told Kathimerini daily that the evidence so far suggested migrants could more likely be linked to accidental arson by making campfires, rather than premeditated.

A picture of the alleged arson device posted on social media showed two car tires crammed with styrofoam and wood. The 45-year-old caught for detaining the migrants — dubbed the “Evros sheriff” by Greek media — was placed under house arrest Friday. The man, who lives in the area after emigrating from Albania, claimed that he intervened after seeing the migrants attempting to light the device in bushes near a supermarket. Heightened fears in the area have also given rise to media misinformation.

A man and two alleged accomplices are escorted to court to hear charges against them relating to incitement to commit racially motivated crimes of violence or discord, as well as racially motivated kidnapping and endangerment on August 25, 2023.

An Evros news portal on Tuesday said that 20 migrants had been arrested outside Alexandroupoli after exchanging gunfire with police. Authorities later denied this. Similarly, national TV station Open on Wednesday issued a correction after erroneously reporting that two migrants had been caught lighting a fire in the neighboring region of Rodopi. Northern Greece has been engulfed in a mega fire that originally broke out Saturday and required over 14,000 evacuations, including at a local hospital. Lightning sparked the fire, according to Alexandroupoli’s mayor Giannis Zamboukis.

By Thursday, the various fronts had merged into a line stretching over 15 kilometers (nine miles), burning over 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of agricultural land and forest. The area is just a few kilometers from the Turkish border. Migrant crossings aided by smugglers occur on a regular basis. In 2020, tens of thousands of migrants tried to break through this remote northeastern area, clashing for days with Greek security forces.

Work on extending a 37.5-kilometer (23-mile) steel barrier to block the path is to be completed by the end of the year. After the first fires broke out Saturday near Alexandroupoli, pictures and videos have been posted on social media claiming to show makeshift arson devices created by migrants crossing the border with Turkey.

‘They want to destroy us’

Anti-migrant sentiment is strong in Greek border areas, where locals accuse asylum seekers of stealing and say reckless driving by smugglers poses a serious traffic risk. “I am absolutely convinced that the fires were caused by migrants,” Evros resident Christos Paschalakis told AFP. “They burn us, they steal from us, they kill us in road accidents,” he said. “I have no doubt that the forest fire was started by migrants,” said Vangelis Rallis, a 70-year-old retired logger from Dadia, a village near a key national park that also burned last year.

“They burned it last year, and this year they returned to finish the job. They may have even been paid to do it. They want to destroy us,” he said. The issue also sparked political controversy this week after Kyriakos Velopoulos, the leader of nationalist party Greek Solution, joined the attacks on migrants and praised the man arrested for illegally detaining them.

An MP for Velopoulos, Paris Papadakis, also called on locals to “take measures” as migrants were allegedly “obstructing” fire-fighting plane pilots. “We are at war,” Papadakis said in a Facebook post. In national elections in June, Velopoulos’ party and two other far-right groups posted their highest ratings in northern Greece. In the Evros region, Greek Solution scored nearly nine percent of the vote.

Wildfire victims

Of the 20 people killed in this week’s fires, it is believed 19 were migrants. One group of 18, including two children, was found Tuesday near a village 38 kilometers (24 miles) from the Turkish border. Another migrant was found dead in the area of Lefkimmi near the Turkish border a day earlier. The head of Evros’ border guards, Valandis Gialamas, told AFP he expects more bodies of migrants to be found, as crossings from Turkey have increased in recent days.

Amnesty International on Wednesday called on Greece to “urgently evacuate all those stranded in the Evros region and who are unable to move safely due to fires, and to ensure that refugees and migrants who have entered into Greece irregularly can seek asylum and are not illegally forcibly returned at the border.” – AFP

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