Fires in Greece: when migrants become scapegoats

The Greek region of Evros, devastated by fires last summer, is also the external border of the EU: there is a strong temptation to blame the fires on the migrants who cross it. Experts, however, point out the responsibilities of the Greek institutions.

Published On: January 17th, 2024

© Eleni Saitanidi/Shutterstock

Nearly four months after the devastating wildfires in Evros, the Greek government has taken drastic measures to address the two factors that it had proclaimed as principal causes of this unprecedented disaster: climate change and illegal migration.

Meanwhile, findings of post-fire autopsies in the affected region tell a different story, revealing on the one hand deficiencies in state mechanisms with regards to the prevention and management of natural disasters and, on the other hand, insufficient evidence to back up allegations of intentional arson against asylum seekers crossing the border.

‘Self-proclaimed sheriffs’

‘Self-proclaimed sheriffs’ and ‘bounty hunters driven by racist motives’. This is how deputy prosecutor of Alexandroupolis Triantafyllia Papageorgiou described in her verdict of December 12, 2023, the three local men who had been arrested last summer in Evros for the kidnapping of 13 illegal migrants (8 of Syrian and 5 of Pakistani origin).

Back in August 2023, during the nightmarish days when extreme wildfires were raging in the region, the three offenders – two Greeks and one Albanian, all residents of Evros – had been convinced that migrants had crossed the Greek-Turkish border ‘with the purpose of starting fires’.

The nationalist ‘Rambos’, who had been patrolling the area in search of ‘intruders’, not only kidnapped, but also ridiculed migrants by filming them while being caged up in the back of a truck.

In the video that they proudly posted on the social media, one of the offenders was heard referring to ’25 pieces loaded in the trailer’ and urging locals to ‘self-organise and go get them before they burn us all up’.

The public prosecutor examining the case asked for all arson-related charges against the migrants to be dropped, speaking of “no serious indications of guilt” and suggesting that the 13 defendants should only be charged with trespassing. On the contrary, the three local men have been jailed and are awaiting trial.

Evros at the heart of anti-migrant discourse and practice

It is not the first time that local people in Evros, the external border of the EU, are taking the law into their own hands. In the previous years, locals have been repeatedly documented ‘helping’ authorities to shield the national borders.

Ever since the 2020 Greek-Turkish border crisis the region of Evros has become notorious for anti-migrant discourse, especially along the homonymous river. Moreover, there has been strong evidence of human rights violations in the form of unlawful and humiliating forced returns.

However, it is no coincidence that last summer locals felt a stronger need to protect their homeland by all means. Public sentiment was fortified on the one hand by the extreme volume and impact of the disasters caused by the wildfires, which were the largest ever recorded in the EU, on the other hand by inflammatory official statements implying that refugees are to blame for this catastrophe.

In a press conference that took place in late August with the Evros wildfire still burning, PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis had made the following statement : “It is almost certain that the cause is man-made. And it is almost certain that it was lit on routes used by illegal migrants”.

At ‘war’ with migrants and climate change

Throughout the last months, the government resorted quite a few times to seeking scapegoats to justify a series of national disasters and thus mitigate its responsibility.

After blaming migrants for the devastating fires, the Greek government attributed the cataclysmic floods that followed to the ‘effect of the climate change’. Addressing a large audience at the annual International Fair of Thessaloniki, in September 2023, the Greek PM had characteristically said that “Greece is facing a war in a time of peace” and had additionally announced €300 million in extra funding to fight ‘climate war’.

At the 4th EU-Western Balkans summit held on December 13, 2023, the Greek Premier asked the EU to provide more funding for migration and climate change.

Two days later, on December 15, 2023, the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Dimitris Kairidis, would present before the Greek Parliament an amendment to the law foreseeing that third-country immigrants who had been residing in Greece for 3 years (until November 30, 2023) could be granted the right to legal residence permit by the Secretariat of Decentralized Administration.

The amendment was approved by the Parliament on December 18, 2023 with 262 MPs voting in favour and only 32 voting against.

Through the narrative of a ‘war’ against climate change and illegal migration, the Greek government has tried to alleviate public rage, especially of those severely affected by the wildfires of 2023 and the consequent floods, and certainly to require the provision of extra EU funds.

Nevertheless, there are strong voices, especially amid the scientific community, claiming that Greece should not repeat the usual mistakes and instead invest more in the prevention and management of wildfires.

Prevention is key

Dr. Palaiologos Palaiologou is part of the Greek cohort (led by the University of the Aegean with Prof. Kostas Kalabokidis as the Principal Investigator) of the FIRE-RES project – a 4-year initiative (2021-2025) funded under the European Union’s H2020 research and innovation programme, aiming at developing a holistic and integrated fire management strategy to address Extreme Wildfire Events all over Europe through 11 Living Labs, implementing different Innovation Actions.

Talking to OBCT, Palaiologou stresses the importance of prevention and more efficient management of wildfires, meaning, i) both state mechanisms and citizens being prepared to face a potential wildfire, especially during the summertime, when extreme heat is expected in Greece, ii) the state learning from previous mistakes and not repeating them when trying to suppress a fire; iii) the state making good use of scientific knowledge accumulated, iv) but also, the state using regular, trained staff in a proper and efficient manner, that enables them to perform in the best way possible.

Commenting on widespread scenarios of organised arson plans in Greece attributed to foreigners, Palaiologou has been one of the experts who have publicly expressed skepticism:

“Evros has entered a spiral of destruction from 2011 and on, with over 100,000 burnt hectares in only 12 years…”, commented Palaiologou. “Instead of searching for conspiracy theories or investing great amounts in fire suppression – mostly with aerial means – the state should consider whether it is taking the necessary steps to efficiently prevent and manage extreme wildfires through informed fuel management programmes implemented at the right scale and widespread use of indirect firefighting tactics, such as backfires (fighting wildfire using fire to remove the forest biomass before the wildfire reach and consume it)”.

Palaiologou stressed that – in inspections conducted all over Western Attica, Evros and Rhodes with the University of the Aegean in 2011, before everything burned down – his team had noticed that forest thinning had not been made where it was necessary and management was limited to “boutique projects”, i.e., small projects in unsuitable locations that have little to no effect in altering the behaviour of a potential large-scale or extreme wildfire.

Original source:

logo FIRE-RESThis material is published in the context of the "FIRE-RES" project co-funded by the European Union (EU). The EU is in no way responsible for the information or views expressed within the framework of the project. Responsibility for the content lies solely with EDJNet. Go to the FIRE-RES page

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