The refugee crisis is no longer really in the public consciousness as a pressing issue despite little being done to actually tackle the problem. However humanitarians at the front line of the problem are coming up with innovative solutions, and such a solution is in practice in Athens. The City Plaza Hotel is a deserted hotel in the Greek capital and local left-wing activist have organised a squat in the building in order to provide housing for refugees. As well as providing a practical solution to an urgent problem, this kind of grassroots activism is the kind of thing that other left-wing movements around the world should adopt.
Since Macedonia closed its border with Greece in March, it’s estimated that around 57,000 migrants have travelled to Greece but have then been unable to move further into Europe. Furthermore, the EU-Turkey deal signed in the same month gave refugees the choice of remaining in Greece or settling in Turkey. Unsurprisingly many chose to remain in Greece as Turkey is increasingly becoming more illiberal in terms of political freedoms, and terrorist attacks in the country are becoming increasingly common. This, naturally, created a problem for Greece. The Greek economy is hardly a paragon of strength and thousands of people are arriving to live lives that aren’t shaped by war and/or oppression. However the solution from grassroots activists has been organising refugees in political communities to make themselves as autonomous as possible.
In the City Plaza, families live in the rooms that used to house guests. Further, activists and fellow refugees offer services including healthcare, education, and dining, with participation in these activities voluntary and dependent on their own abilities. Because the squat is founded on the principles of self-organising and direct democracy, the operations of the squat are determined by a consensus that emerges from activists and residents. The hotel is also ideally placed as the nearby neighbourhood of Exarcheia is well known as centre of leftist and anarchist activism and one of the key support bases of the refugee solidarity movement of Greece. Reports from the camp, namely from Al Jazeera, show that the residents come from a different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, from Senegal to Iran, and the nature of the project has made tensions non-existent.
As well as providing a practical solution to an immediate problem, this tactic of community activism should be adopted by other left-wing parties and groups across Europe. In order to garner popular support, leftists need to organise and provide services where the state has abdicated its responsibility to do so. Historically this has proven to be true. In the 1960s in the US, the Black Panther Party set up community health clinics and the extensive Free Breakfast for Children Program. In addition to providing public good services, such activities challenge negative perceptions of left-wing groups and also build support in the community. To return to the Panthers, when US media sources demonised the party as full of hatred, the people who had daily contact with services run by the party didn’t buy what the media was selling. It is has to accept that a party is full of hatred when it is providing your children with free breakfasts and healthcare because people consumed with hate often don’t engage in altruism.
If left-wing populist parties are to sustain themselves, they cannot solely rely on enacting change through the route of parliamentary democracy. Whilst it is important that groups like SYRIZA and Podemos continue standing for political office, it is equally important to encourage grassroots activism to make positive social change. The City Plaza squat could have been created by a government agency, but the nature of the project has sustained it and that nature only comes naturally from the bottom up.
The City Plaza project is successful because there is a network of activists working in collaboration with the refugees themselves. It project functions because it is a mutually dependent ecosystem and I believe this is the future of political parties. Political organisations should no longer self-segregate between being parliamentary parties and mass movements, they should be one and the same. Not only would this increase the ability of the party to win parliamentary elections but it would allow parties to make positive social change on a local level irrespective of electoral success. This surely is something that should be aspired to.