Vasiliki Andreadelli won’t let Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party scare her from helping refugees arriving on Lesbos.
The 56-year-old resident of the Greek island is a nurse and founder of Iliaktida, a nonprofit organization which provides housing and recreational activities for unaccompanied refugee youth.
“It is very important to take part in protests against Golden Dawn because it is a fascist and racist party. It is very important that they cannot scare us,” said Andreadelli, who was born and raised in Lesbos, the third largest Greek island and at its shortest point about four miles away from Turkey.
Andreadelli was instrumental in building resistance against Golden Dawn, an extremist political party whose swastika-tattooed spokesman and other leaders describe themselves as ultranationalists and call for non-Europeans to be disallowed from living in the country.
In the summer of 2015 Golden Dawn supporters started to preach anti-migrant rhetoric to the people of Lesbos as the refugee crisis on the island was hitting its peak. But Andreadelli and many others on Lesbos — public officials, human rights workers and island residents — stood up against the far-right campaign. Andreadelli helped organize a protest against the group in November 2016. She also organized community activities where residents could learn about and meet the refugees on the island.
Since early 2015 the island of about 87,000 residents has seen more than a half a million people clamor across the Aegean Sea on rubber dinghies, mostly fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Golden Dawn, the world’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II was a political opportunity. And Lesbos seemed a natural place to build a base of support. It wasn’t.
Golden Dawn was founded in the early 1980s, but became a political force in Greece’s national elections in 2012 over concerns about the Greek economy and high levels of unemployment. For the first time the group won seats in parliament that year. The group’s original political position was anti-immigration but leaders started to add stronger anti-refugee statements to its political messages when more boats began reaching the shores of the Greek islands starting in the spring of 2015.
After Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced his resignation on Aug. 20, 2015, and called for early elections, Golden Dawn saw an opportunity.
In an Aug. 22, 2015, statement on the Golden Dawn website, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the secretary general of the party said, “In the islands of the eastern Aegean there is a literal invasion occurring and there has been no answer from the Greek state, which has left our border citizens at the mercy of the alien invaders.”
With snap elections approaching, Michaloliakos appealed to voters.
“Give Golden Dawn strength so there can be a solution to the problem of illegal immigration,” he said. “We didn’t cause those wars. We didn’t create all these refugees. Greece can’t handle any more illegal immigrants.”
On Lesbos, Golden Dawn’s official activities were relatively few in the lead up to the elections, but its supporters pushed hard to gather support.
Golden Dawn had opened its Lesbos office in May 2014, less than a year after the arrest of its top leadership by Greek authorities on charges of running a criminal organization. The Lesbos branch was relatively quiet compared to other local branches of the party, according to Antonis Ellinas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cyprus who has studied Golden Dawn’s rise in Greece. His research shows that party members and supporters held seven official activities in Lesbos between May 2014 and April 2015. Activities included Golden Dawn leadership speaking to small community groups, giving speeches to large gatherings, disseminating party newsletters and community service projects like handing out food or cleaning historical monuments. Meanwhile, in comparison, the western Greek islands in the Ionian Sea, such as Corfu, had 63 activities from December 2014 to April 2015.
Fotis Plegas G./Reuters
If Golden Dawn’s official organizing was limited on Lesbos, members and supporters eagerly spread the party’s anti-refugee message.
“Prior to 2015 election Golden Dawn’s activities were limited but gaining support,” said Marios Andriotis, the spokesperson for Lesbos Mayor Spyros Galinos. “Their office was active but not in the form of rallies and events. The members were trying to reach out to the people via Facebook and social media.”
Andriotis says that the party’s popularity hit a peak in the summer months of 2015 during the worst time of the refugee crisis.
While Lesbos officials, aid groups and island residents worked to adapt to the crisis, Golden Dawn supporter stokes the fears of those on the island who felt threatened by the refugees.
“The Golden Dawn party members tried to spread fake news stories through the internet about refugees harming or hurting people on Lesbos,” said 65-year-old Christina Chatzidaki, a board member of Coexistence and Communication in the Aegean, an independent association on Lesbos which organizes peace building programs, including events about refugee integration and peace with neighboring Turkey.
“In the islands of the eastern Aegean there is a literal invasion occurring and there has been no answer from the Greek state, which has left our border citizens at the mercy of the alien invaders.”
The Lesbos government built reception centers for the refugees and two camps for housing them. They built Kara Tepe refugee camp in April 2015 to provide shelter and services for refugees and the Moria refugee camp in October 2015 at a hilltop former military base on the southeastern part of the island.
The camps became targets of Golden Dawn’s anti-refugee messaging campaign. So did the man who oversaw their construction: Galinos, the mayor.
“They attacked the mayor verbally several times and members of Golden Dawn tried to visit the village of Moria to instigate riots against building the refugee camp there,” said Andriotis.
“Golden Dawn supporters were telling people on Lesbos to sink the refugee boats and send them back. They were saying to protect Greece’s borders,” he said.
PRI contacted the Golden Dawn Party’s office in Athens for an interview but they did not respond to requests.
Golden Dawn went on to win about 7 percent of the vote in Greece’s legislative elections in September 2015, or about 380,000 out of 5.4 million votes nationwide. The party won 18 seats in the 300-member parliament, respectively and became the third biggest political party.
Golden Dawn increased its vote share on Lesbos from almost 5 percent to nearly 8 percent between the January and September 2015 snap elections.
“This was, on one hand, the outcome of a nationally applied strategy based on an anti-migrant rhetoric rather than of locally tested tactics,” said Michalis Psimitis, a professor of sociology at the University of the Aegean in Lesbos who specializes in social movements. “In other words, in that period Golden Dawn in Lesbos benefited from the general electoral rise of the party, given that its presence on the island has always remained weak and cautious because of the local anti-Nazi and anti-racist activism.”
In the end, it would be these anti-racist forces that would win out on Lesbos. After Golden Dawn’s modest electoral gains in 2015, local pressure on the group mounted. And last November, Golden Dawn closed its Lesbos office.
There’s no single reason why Golden Dawn’s message of anti-refugee ultranationalism failed to take serious hold on Lesbos. Those who know the island best say it was a combination of community organizing, local culture and history.
“There wasn’t much room for the Golden Dawn party. We are peaceful people who don’t like all of those kinds of troubles,” said Chatzidaki, the community organizer, who credits community pressures and protests in 2016 through the streets of Mytilene, the bustling capitol of Lesbos, with leading Golden Dawn to leave the island.
Lesbos has a long refugee history. So while the scale of the crisis was new, it wasn’t unusual for migrants to be arriving on the island.
“Locals have family that were refugees in 1923, there is a collective memory about this situation,” said Michalis Poulimas, who teaches sociology at Aegean University in Lesbos. Poulimas was referring to the 1923 agreement between Greece and Turkey to forcibly relocate Muslim Greeks to Turkey and Christian Orthodox Turks to Greece.
“It is very important to take part in protests against Golden Dawn because it is a fascist and racist party. It is very important that they cannot scare us."
Those working to manage the refugee influx also found ways to prevent the destabilization many in Lesbos felt from boiling over into hostility toward the refugees.
“The residents of Moira village weren’t happy at first to have the camp but the local officials offered to repair the roads and renovate a football stadium there in exchange for building the camp,” Poulimas said.
Some Lesbos residents saw their lots improved a bit over time. After suffering through the larger Greek economic crisis in 2014 and then a decrease in tourism as more refugees arrived, some locals found work with aid groups, took jobs in the camps or opened small shops outside them.
“If it wasn’t because of the refugee crisis,” Poulimas said, “many people in Lesbos wouldn’t have a job now.”
Andriotis also says the mayor’s office and local officials worked hard to counter Golden Dawn’s anti-refugee rhetoric.
“I don’t deny that there is a portion of the community that believes in far-right practices,” he said, “but the majority of the people could see the refugees were in distress and they needed help.”
None of this has been easy.
Eva Cosse, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Greece, says the mayor and some Lesbos residents weren’t as welcoming at first of refugees and that the camps at Lesbos have their share of problems including overcrowding and safety concerns for women and children.
“Some residents of Lesbos wouldn’t offer any help at first, like letting refugees charge their cell phones or they turned them away at businesses like barbershops,” said Cosse, who has documented the abuses unaccompanied refugee children face in the Greek camps and the prolonged detention of asylum-seekers.
However, Cosse notes that Lesbos has always had a strong civil society and a tradition of activism that put it in a strong position to face the crisis.
“Mytilini is a multi-cultural and vibrant place where students and activists from other parts of Greece are attracted to,” she said.
Psimitis, the sociology professor, also credits these activists with supporting refugees at a time when Golden Dawn and its supporters were damning the new arrivals.
“During the difficult summer of 2015, when sometimes 4,000 people arrived on a daily basis, it was this movement with its tens of hundreds of activists which supported the refugees in many ways,” Psimitis said. “if it wasn’t for this movement, the status of the refugees today would be much worse than it is now.”
Fewer boats are arriving on Lesbos’ shores these days.
In March 2016, Turkey signed a deal with the EU agreeing to accept back migrants and asylum-seekers that reach Greece. With Europe more unreachable than it once was, fewer people are making the journey. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were more than 3,700 migrants and refugees still in Lesbos at the end of June.
Residents of Lesbos say they worry about the European countries taking advantage of their hospitality for the refugees and turning their home into “Asylum Island.”
The northwestern town of Molyvos with its medieval remains is the island’s famous tourism destination. The town was hit the hardest after the images of devastated refugees arriving on it shores and walking through the town spread in news reports and social media in the summer of 2015. Residents say tourism dropped by almost 80 percent the following summer forcing many shops and restaurants to shut down.
“People stopped coming to Lesbos, the images of life vests and dinghies on the shore and residents felt abandoned,” Andriotis said.
Two summers later, the island hasn’t fully recovered. Hotel owners and shopkeepers say “repeaters” — tourists who had visited the island before the refugee crisis — are coming back to help support the businesses and show others that there isn’t anything to be afraid of, but it hasn’t been enough.
“It is time to rebuild the image of Lesbos,” Adriotis said.
For Andreadelli and Chatzidaki the rebuilding effort doesn’t include the Golden Dawn party.
“The next elections are coming and they [Golden Dawn party] will be active again. We will continue building bridges between Lesbos’ residents and the refugees that are here on the island,” said Chatzidaki.
Halima Kazem-Stojanovic reported from Lesbos, Greece.