Framing Solidarity as Terrorism: Greek Media and Refugee Squat Evictions in Athens

13 September 2019

Country: Greece

by: Marianna Karakoulaki

downloadIn the early hours of 26 August 2019 Greek police officers stormed four buildings in the centre of Athens. Greek media outlets aligned with the recently-elected Neo Demokratia ruling party claimed that the squats were home to drug traffickers, and other hardened criminals. However, journalists’ photos of refugee families and children being forced out of their accommodations and taken to police stations tell a different story.

Squats are common in many European cities, including Athens. Historically, they have been home to artists, anarchists and leftists. However, since the beginning of the refugee crisis—and later, the EU-Turkey deal with trapped thousands of refugees bound for Germany in Greece for the indefinite future— these squats became life-saving alternative housing for refugees and migrants unable to access or afford other accommodation.


For many, it has been a positive experience. After fleeing war zones, and living in refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon, living in an abandoned hotel has unfortunately been described as a “paradise.” According to a research paper by University of Warwick’s Vickie Squires testimonies of refugees “indicate that many new arrivals reject the politics of pity and care that predominates when they become integrated vulnerable humanitarian subjects under conditions of generalised crisis.” In other words, the squats provided an alternative to camps and otherwise out-of-reach housing.

To read the Greek media, one would never know this. Major media outlets depicted the squats as decrepit and dangerous—without ever going to visit them. A few outlets tried to go so far as to construct an idea that the building was occupied by supporters and colleagues of the former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and targeted specific people. By making such targeted attacks and allegations, the media created an image of dangerous buildings with subpar conditions, dubious political connections and unknown or suspicious sources of funding.

Ahead of the most recent elections, this coverage became even more extreme.

But why is the Greek media so motivated to smear the refugee squats? Refugees are only one part of the story; the other part is the history of Exarcheia, and its history with leftist solidarity movements.

Most of the squats are located in Exarcheia, a neighborhood known for its radical leftist identity and long history with social movements—the most recent of which is showing solidarity with refugees and migrants. As such, the neighborhood has also been described in the media as the main hub of terrorism in Greece—a statement that is as politically-motivated as it is untrue.

Still, the narrative persisted in the Greek media. Just before the elections this past summer, Kyriakos Mistotakis stated that Exarcheia and the surrounding neighbourhoods are home to “a new generation of terrorists” and once elected he will ‘clear the area’ alleging that the new government is not capable or willing to do something similar. This statement ran in most major Greek media outlets; even a simple Google search will give 118000 results in 35 seconds. Other politicians who ran for the elections used the same argument for political reasons. The most infamous example is that of Thanos Plevris, a controversial political figure that comes from an extreme right wing background.

A few days before the elections, Plevris posted a video online in which he stood at Exarcheia square and in a very low voice said: “On 8 July we are giving Exarcheia back to its residents. Illegality and the no-go zone of Exarcheia is coming to an end.” This statement led to a wave of mockery on social media but seems to have worked with Plevris’ electoral base—he was eventually elected.

Once Nea Dimokratia was elected, it kept its promises. Only a few days after its election, the police tried to evict City Plaza in a widely-publicized operation. Yet the squat was empty as its residents were aware of this operation and left before eviction. Fast forward one month, and four more squats were evicted—only this time the residents were not so lucky. Even though the police claimed that the squats were the epicenter of drug trafficking—an argument only seen in the Greek media—pictures showed hundreds of people evicted, put on buses, escorted to police stations, and left without a home.

*Marianna Karakoulaki is a journalist and researcher based in Greece and the UK.