Posts Tagged 'EU'

An island between tragedy and hope on the refugee trail

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By Nick Malkoutzis and Harry van Versendaal

More than 90,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on Samos this year as they flee war and destitution. It is three times as many people as those who live on this sleepy eastern Aegean island, which has been thrust into the frontline of global events. An informal network of local officials, volunteers and NGO workers has been created to support the arrivals, who often have a tragic story to tell but are always hoping that Samos represents the start of a better life.

The beach

A small empty bottle of children’s medicine, an open bottle of ayran (a Turkish yogurt drink), a colorful Ben 10 school bag, a pristine Iranian passport and dozens of fake orange life vests. These are among the items strewn across Kedros beach on the eastern Aegean island of Samos on a rainy November day. This is the detritus of the largest influx of refugees and migrants from the nearby Turkish coast that this island of less than 33,000 inhabitants has seen since the Asia Minor Greeks fled the onslaught of Turkish troops almost a century earlier.

More than 90,000 people, mostly Syrian refugees, have arrived on Samos by sea this year. This is much lower than the main Aegean gateway of Lesvos, which almost half a million people out more than 800,000 have reached in 2015, but is still several times higher than last year’s arrivals and makes Samos the third most popular of some 15 islands that have become stepping stones for refugees and migrants on their way to Central and Northern Europe, where they hope to find security and prosperity. Until they can make that onward journey, Samos will provide their first taste of the European Union for thousands of desperate people. It is here that they will be at the mercy of overburdened authorities, the vagaries of the asylum process and the kindness of strangers.

The storm the night before means that there have been no new arrivals at Kedros or elsewhere on Samos’s coastline. Instead, there is a reverential calm. The only sounds are the crunching of the large stones beneath our feet and the pitter-patter of the rain on the dozens of plastic life jackets strewn across the beach. And then, a striking sight: In a grassy clearing used to set out sun loungers for visiting tourists in the summer a large mound of fluorescent orange life jackets. An impromptu monument to the lives that the brief owners of these useless floating devices have left behind on their journey to Europe.

“There are some beaches on Samos that are completely orange – they are inaccessible by car but you can see them from the sea,” says Lieutenant Antonis Karakontis of the Hellenic Coast Guard at the port of Vathy later the same day on board the patrol boat he captains.

There are many heroes in Samos’s efforts to care for the people that head for its shores and Karakontis, clean-cut and with a gentle demeanor, is a certified one. In 2014, he and his crew received an award for rescuing a record number of people in the Aegean. They were credited with pulling 1,322 to safety during the year. Looking back at it after the unprecedented events of this year, 2014 seems a pretty routine year. “There was a steady flow of people over the last few years but it was manageable,” says Karakontis. “Suddenly, though, we had this explosion. We have responded to the situation but it caught us by surprise.”

The crossing

Karakontis says there were days during the peak of the influx in the summer and early autumn that he and his crew were rescuing around 200 people a day. The coast guard on Samos has just two patrol boats and a third, smaller special operations vessel as well as a staff of less than 70 people. Less than 20 of these serve on the boats, meaning that they have had to work around the clock in recent months.

“There have been times when we were in constant motion,” says the patrol boat skipper.

Karakontis’s work is not made tougher just by the sheer increase in numbers that he and his colleagues have to deal with but also the perilous conditions in which many of the refugees and migrants are forced to cross by the traffickers they pay to get them to what they hope will be safety.

At the closest point, Samos is less than two kilometers from Turkey – close enough for some migrants to try to swim across, according to the coast guard officer. But the Dilek Peninsula-Buyuk Menderes Delta National Park lies on the Turkish side of the strait separating the two, which means that it is not a popular route for the clandestine crossings organized by smugglers.

Instead, most migrants face a crossing of around 12 nautical miles in vessels that are ill-equipped for the journey. Kedros beach, like many others on Samos, is littered with the remnants of cheap rubber dinghies that are now manufactured specially for ferrying groups of desperate people across the Aegean. Powered by engines with a small capacity and steered by one of the migrants on board following cursory instructions by a trafficker, it takes these dinghies up to six hours to reach Samos, an agonizing experience for those on board.

“These vessels should carry no more than 10 people for safe travel,” says Karakontis. “In actual fact, though, around 60 people are put on board. We have seen up to 80 in some cases.”

To enhance their sense of security, migrants purchase cheap life jackets to wear during the crossing. Their only use, says Karakontis, is to make the people wearing them more visible as they enter Greek territorial waters or if they fall into the sea. “To put it simply, they are fake,” he says of the accessories, which are filled with sheets of water-absorbing foam. “Genuine life jackets can cost around 150 euros but these are sold for around 20 euros in Turkish shops. They are useless.”

The rescue

An unpredictable sea, overcrowded boats and terrified passengers can create a fatal mix. As his boat rocks gently in Vathy’s harbor, Karakontis takes out a mobile device and plays a recording of a rescue on August 19 east of Samos, one of several this year in which he and his crew encountered tragedy. They approached a dinghy carrying more than 50 people and started to help them onto the patrol vessel. In the confusion and panic, as people of all ages scrambled onto the coast guard boat, nobody paid much attention to a pale child nestled in the arms of an adult.

However, once on board, someone asks about the whereabouts of a child. “The baby, where is the baby?” says Karakontis as he spins around the deck of his boat, which is now full of bewildered migrants. A man brings forward the child in his arms. It is now clear why the little girl is pale and listless. “The baby died,” someone says.

Seeing her lifeless body, Karakontis shouts to his fellow coast guard at the wheel to set off for Samos immediately. “Get going quickly,” he shouts. “Leave now!” But it is already too late. The coast guard officers try to revive the child but they cannot help her. A few minutes later, when they reach land, they hand over her dead body.

The coast guard officer explains that often because the dinghies are so overcrowded and the situation on board is so confused, small children become separated from their parents and are shoved to the bottom of the dinghies, where they can drown, suffocate or be trampled to death. This is how the young girl in the video died, according to Karakontis. She lost her life in the middle of the Aegean without ever having been into the sea.

The lieutenant has been a picture of composure but viewing the rescue again, there is a sense this has slipped a little. His brow furrows for the first time and there are traces of perspiration even though night has fallen and there is a chill in the air.

He admits that his crew has seen some traumatic sights over the last few months and that psychologists come in from time to time to speak to the coast guard officers and help them deal with the fallout from their jobs.

“I try to leave it behind when I leave work,” says Karakontis. “If I carry it home with me, it will definitely wear me down.” He underlines, though, that he would be no use to the people he is tasked with saving if he could not shut out the emotionally gnawing effects of what he experiences in the Aegean.

“You have to be strong at that moment and not let emotions take over,” he says. “Those people, who are already in a confused state, are relying on me to keep it together. A life’s been lost but more will die if you are not focused.”

The drowning

To avoid detection, traffickers often send boats across from Turkey at night, creating the most difficult conditions for rescuers and the most horrifying for the migrants.

“They are frightened,” says Karakontis, describing what state he usually finds the migrants in. “Often it is night and they don’t know where they are going or how to steer the boats. As soon as they see us, the first thing that they do is lift their babies over their heads to show that they need help.”

It was on such a night crossing on October 29 that Kamiran Issa, a 38-year-old father of three from Al-Qamishli, a city of some 200,000 people located in northeastern Syria on the border with Turkey, tried to get his family to Greece.

After spending 10 years working in Damascus because of a lack of jobs in Al-Qamishli, the Syrian Kurd returned to his home city and gathered his family.

“I couldn’t find work so I needed to leave because I had three children to look after,” he says, speaking through an interpreter, as he sits on the edge of a bed in the Samos hospital where his wife, Sanna, is being treated.

“Also, the presence of Daesh (ISIS) and the daily explosions made it dangerous,” he adds. “We wanted to save ourselves, to get away from these problems.” The five-member family traveled to Turkey and then followed the well-worn route to one of its coastal cities from where traffickers arrange to send people across the Aegean. Issa, a gaunt man, aged beyond his years, says he did not know much about Greece, the country that he hoped would be his springboard to safety, or about where he was crossing to.

“I had a look at the map but couldn’t understand much,” he says. “The traffickers just told us we would reach a Greek island and then go to Athens, like everyone else.”

The construction worker was offered spots on a wooden tourist boat that had been appropriated for the clandestine transfer of refugees and migrants. This appeared a safer option to him than being crammed on a rubber dinghy.

The family felt so comfortable about the prospect that the day before they were due to sail, Issa took photos of his children on board the boat with his mobile phone. He scrolls through the pictures as the sunlight streams in through the large hospital room window. There is a picture of his sons behind the wheel of the rusty brown-colored vessel, then of his youngest child – 5-year-old Shiban – sitting on a stool at a hotel bar. The photos have the relaxed look of holiday snaps. Then Issa’s finger slides across his phone screen and, holding it gingerly, he shows us the next picture. It is of Shiban’s grave on the Greek island of Kos.

His wife, dressed all in black and wracked by grief, begins to sob softly. His two surviving sons, 11-year-old Khoshyar and 9-year-old Hamber, lean in toward their father and look down at the blue linoleum floor.

Issa explains that more than 200 people were packed onto the tourist boat. “If there weren’t so many of us on board, this wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “The traffickers don’t care about human life. These people don’t think of anyone, not even little children.”

According to the 38-year-old, a Turkish Coast Guard vessel approached the migrant boat and circled it several times in an apparent attempt to force the trafficker captaining the vessel to turn back. However, this caused waves that threatened to capsize the tourist boat.

Issa says the Turkish Coast Guard only backed off when a Greek patrol boat appeared on the scene as the vessel carrying the migrants had apparently entered Greek waters. The migrant boat only managed to progress around 200 meters before it capsized, said the Syrian Kurd.

According to the Hellenic Coast Guard, the boat sank off Kalymnos, south of Samos, at around 11 p.m. on October 29. Apart from several Hellenic Coast Guard boats and a Super Puma helicopter, the EU border agency Frontex also contributed vessels and aircraft to the rescue operation. They recovered 19 bodies from the shipwreck.

In the sheer terror of events, Issa lost his family. He only found one of his sons the day after the rescue before later discovering that Shiban had died. His name was added to those of some 600 people that have died trying to reach Greece this year.

“We have suffered one injustice after the other,” says the tearful father of the tragedy that has blighted his attempt to haul his family away from an ever more dangerous situation in his homeland.

The mood is lifted when a nurse comes to check on Sanna. The young boys’ eyes light up as they see her. She says that they have struck up an affinity while their mother has been undergoing treatment. The nurse, who did not wish to be named, pulls out a marker from her pocket and draws a heart on the back of one of the boys’ hands, eliciting a broad smile from the youngster.

“Those eyes,” she says, looking at the two boys, whose good manners have impressed staff at the hotel where the UNHCR has put up Issa and his sons while his wife recovers. “Ah, those eyes.”

The asylum process

The laborer hopes that his journey will soon continue to Germany, where his sister already lives. He has had to abandon plans for the family to join his wife’s sister in Switzerland because it is not part of the European Union relocation scheme for refugees.

Once his wife is discharged from hospital, the family will be able to travel to Athens, where they will wait to be relocated. The family reunion scheme, allowing refugees to be granted asylum in countries where they already have family, is usually reserved only for the closest relatives. However, the criteria have been relaxed as a result of the war in Syria. Also, the loss of one of their children may give the Issa family a higher probability of being able to join their relatives in Germany.

The vast majority of people who have arrived in Greece by sea this year are Syrians (57 percent of around 825,000 arrivals). The Greek government has instructed authorities since 2013 that Syrians should not be sent back to their country. In fact, most have traveled on to Central and Northern Europe after being registered in Greece. In November, though, the EU agreed to transfer over the next two years 66,400 refugees from Greece under a new relocation scheme.

This means that in comparison to Afghans, who make up 24 percent of arrivals but are not all eligible for refugee status, and others who are deemed to be economic migrants rather than asylum seekers, the process for Syrians is slightly more straightforward.

“The asylum process can be much quicker for Syrians,” says Alkistis Mavraki, a senior protection assistant for the UNHCR, who points out that Afghans are not eligible for the EU’s relocation program.

Mavraki says Syrians can typically get the paperwork they need to leave the island within a couple of days, whereas others can wait up to two weeks.

Syrians are not only greater in number but usually more affluent than other migrants and some local businesses, mainly hotels and restaurants, have benefited from their presence. A number of tavernas along the promenade in Vathy now sport menus in Arabic, while one establishment known for making a tripe-based Greek soup known as patsas, has been transformed into the alcohol-free Syrian Resort, serving Arabic food.

However, there is a physical, as well as notional, separation between Syrians and the others who arrive on the island. Syrians are taken to the camp that has been created at the port of Malagari which is on the opposite side of the bay to Vathy, where a number of aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have set up facilities, while the non-Syrians are assigned to a camp that sits on the tree-lined hillside above Vathy, further away from amenities and island life.

Until recently, the camp for non-Syrians had operated as a detention center but when authorities found they were unable to guarantee daily meals for the migrants, the decision was taken to make it an open facility. As a result, it is common to see young Afghans and other groups of migrants wind their way down the hill to Vathy in search of a meal or a way to pass the time while they wait for the paperwork that will allow them to move on. They can be seen gathering in the small squares, whiling away time perched on wooden benches, or sitting on the wall of the recently revamped promenade gazing at the sea.

One place offering them assistance is the Allilegii (Solidarity) charity, which is run by volunteers. Their base is a small building, or “spitaki” (little house) as they call it, in front of the town hall in Vathy. There, they serve a hot meal to all-comers and collect food and other goods for distribution to the migrants on the island.

Afghans can also find a friendly face there in the form of Yones Rahimi, who is from Afghanistan but has been living on Samos for 11 years. Rahimi leaves his job as a construction worker each afternoon and goes by the communal house to help out before going home to rest.

He was 18 when fled his homeland to escape the Taliban and can recognize the trepidation felt by many of his young countrymen passing through Samos. “They are coming in search of a better life,” he says soon after helping serve homemade bean soup to a number of Afghans on a cold Friday night. “They want to escape death in Afghanistan.”

Rahimi says that Germany and Sweden are the most popular destinations for the Afghans he speaks to even though both countries have started to adopt stricter policies and, in Germany’s case, started to repatriate Afghans. Rahimi says Afghans tell him they fail to understand why Syrians appear to be dealt with more swiftly, allowing them to leave Samos sooner.

“They ask why the Syrians are getting such help when Afghans have been experiencing war for 40 years,” says Rahimi.

The camps

Bismillah, Aasif and Jalil, three young friends from the city of Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, have a very clear idea of where they want to go. Bismillah has relatives in Norway and he and his friends will attempt to reach them as soon as they can.

“We know the way,” says the cheerful 18-year-old, who explains the trio are spending their time wandering around Vathy and going online at Internet cafes until they get their registration papers.

They ask if banks are open on weekends because Bismillah’s relatives in Norway are wiring them money to help them pay for their journey. They estimate they will have to spend a couple of weeks on Samos before being able to continue making their way to Norway on their own.

The teenager and his friends say they are fleeing fighting in the Ghazni province, whose capital of some 150,000 inhabitants came under attack from Taliban insurgents in mid-October, soon after they had occupied the city of Kunduz, scoring their biggest military victory in more than a decade.

Bismillah hopes to be able to study at university when he reaches Norway. The idea brings a smile to his face. He jokes with his friends, and they show none of the fatigue or concern that is visible on the faces of so many other refugees and migrants. The three do not seem concerned about the possibility that, as Afghans, they might not be granted asylum or allowed to stay in the country of their choice.

For the time being, they can just look down from the – now open – facility on the hillside and watch the passenger ferries from Piraeus arrive and leave, usually with dozens of Syrians on board. Bismillah says the situation in the camp, a former army firing range, is “not bad” but that there are fights between migrants sometimes.

On this rainy Saturday morning, though, there are no signs of tension. People’s only goal is to get some breakfast, which is being handed out by volunteers from Allilegii. Policemen look on from their office as the volunteers, a mixture of locals and Germans and Dutch who live on the island, unpack their cars and set out the items for breakfast: Milk, cereal, prepackaged croissants, mandarins and bananas.

The tables are placed under an awning with an aluminum roof to stop them from getting wet. For the migrants, though, there is no cover. They start to queue in the rain, some wearing white anoraks handed out by aid organizations but others with no protection at all, some even wearing flip-flops. Dozens join the line, which starts to snake around the prefabricated buildings that make up the camp and a basketball court, in which some migrants have pitched tents.

Despite the conditions and the long wait, the mood is calm. Children are allowed to collect their breakfast first. A few adults try to push their way to the front but are sent back by fellow migrants or one of the volunteers, local man Nikitas Kyparissis, who keeps one eye on those lining up and another on his fellow helpers, whom he encourages to be methodical and quick in their work.

They are men and women who came to Samos to retire or for a more relaxed way of life. Instead, they find themselves at the forefront of the greatest refugee crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War, filling plastic cups with pasteurized milk and cereal and handing out fruit.

Kyparissis says he has seen a change in the attitude of many people on Samos with regard to helping refugees and migrants. “I’ve noticed that the more difficult, the more terrible the situation, the more people grit their teeth and rush to help.”

Most migrants walk away satisfied, throwing out a “thank you” or a “merci” and brandishing a smile as they embrace the items they have been given and look for shelter from the rain so they can have their breakfast. But maintaining a good pace and fairness, as some of the migrants ask for a second helping, proves a challenge. It is difficult for volunteers to deny the wishes of people who have abandoned all their possessions and now stand before them wet, cold and hungry. But showing extra kindness to one person means another may be denied breakfast or have to wait longer in inclement conditions.

The team of volunteers manages to just about hold things together to feed several hundred of the camp’s temporary residents. But as they carry the leftovers back to their cars, they are crowded by some of the migrants. One man asks for cartons of milk for his baby, others want to take croissants from the black bin liner in which they are being carried. For a moment, the situation threatens to get out of control but the food is quickly bundled into the car and the pleading migrants walk back toward the camp.

It is a situation that the volunteers have not been trained to handle and is an example of why filling that gap that has been left by authorities unable to fulfill this role takes a psychological toll on those who rush to help.

“Sometimes you have to be the bad guy,” says Kyparissis, who runs a small folklore museum on the island. “I don’t like it and that’s why I stopped volunteering for a while. Each person has to take his turn in playing this role.”

The camp is designed for around 250 people but on this November weekend it houses some 650, according to the local police. Numbers have dropped significantly since the peak period for arrivals between the summer and October, when as many as 1,200 people were housed at the facility. Tents of many different colors are dotted around the olive grove outside the camp, a sign of when the facility did not have enough space to house the people arriving on Samos. Even now that the camp is less crowded and the weather has worsened, some migrants prefer the privacy of the tents to the impersonal nature of the camp.

There are no such tents at the camp for Syrians at Malagari port, where the UNHCR has assembled dozens of flat-pack shelters to house refugees as they wait to get their paperwork and board ferries to Piraeus. First trialed in Somalia and Syria in 2013, the so-called Better Shelter provides 17.5 square meters of living space, which can comfortably fit up to six people.

Swedish furniture giant IKEA started producing 10,000 of these shelters for the UNHCR earlier in 2015. They are designed to be assembled within four hours without specialized tools.

On a sunny Sunday morning at Malagari, workmen are putting the finishing touches to some of the shelters. The storm the night before has made it even more imperative that the structures are ready as soon as possible.

For now, though, the mood at the camp is peaceful. Youngsters play in a large Red Cross tent, where Arabic children’s music plays in the background. Kids’ toys are littered around the camp, washed socks are hung out to dry on the perimeter fence and, underlining the relaxed atmosphere, a group of men sit on the ground in a circle, talking in the winter sunshine.

Workers from a plethora of NGOs and charities that have set up tents at the port mingle among the refugees and migrants, ready to provide assistance. A young couple and their child stroll in front of the camp’s medical center, where people can have a checkup and receive donated medicines. The police officers at the camp have no new refugees to register and spend their time sitting in plastic chairs outside their hut and chatting.

The police say there are less than 150 people at the camp at the moment, as dozens left on a ferry a couple of days earlier and there has been a low number of new arrivals in recent days.

The authorities

The fall in the number of arrivals has coincided with authorities increasing their levels of organization. Speaking in a bare office at the precinct in Vathy, police chief Vassilis Reppas says that after being caught unprepared by the magnitude of the influx earlier this year, authorities are now getting to grips with the challenge of managing the situation.

“The influx was massive and sudden, which made it difficult to manage,” he says.

On December 10, the European Commission said it had begun legal action against Greece, as well as Croatia and Italy, for failing to fingerprint asylum seekers and register their details in the EU-wide database within 24 hours. According to Brussels, almost half a million people arrived in Greece between July 20 and November 30 but Greek authorities only fingerprinted about 121,000 of them.

Greek authorities insist that the situation has improved significantly in recent weeks. The Foreign Ministry said on December 11 that in November Greece registered 51,300 refugees out of a total of 54,000 registrations carried out at so-called hot spots throughout Europe.

Reppas says that a shortage of staff made it difficult for authorities to get on top of the situation. He says there are around 180 officers on the island, including some 20 who have been transferred there as reinforcements, but that this is still about 80 short of the numbers the force is meant to have under normal conditions.

“Developments mean we need to have a strong presence,” says Reppas.

“Our focus is on registering people, ensuring we have their biometric data and fingerprints,” says policeman Costas Tsagarakis. “We’re trying our best to ensure that there aren’t delays because, as you can understand, when the migratory flow is so intense you can lose control of the situation if there are delays.”

The arrival of eight officers from the EU border agency Frontex has helped matters and the local police have been working with them since September to electronically fingerprint new arrivals using machines that enter the details into the EU’s Eurodac database.

“They are a great help,” says the police chief.

Tsagarakis underlines the need for authorities to improve their organization further, especially if a lull in arrivals provides an opportunity for some clear thinking before they pick up again.

“It’s an issue of coordinating a lot of actors, not just the police but also local authorities and ferry companies: A lot of people are involved in this,” says the policeman.

However, he also stresses that extra manpower and facilities are needed to deal with the crisis effectively.

“You have to complete the administrative work quickly, which means you need people to do this work, which involves taking fingerprints, registering people and keeping order in the areas where this process is carried out,” says the mild-mannered officer.

“You need somewhere for people to stay while they wait for this process to be completed, you have to ensure that you have enough places on ferries.”

The need for more assistance is also something that Samos Mayor Michalis Angelopoulos wants to stress. He says that his island is fighting an uneven battle against a multi-million-euro trafficking industry on the other side of the Aegean.

“The Municipality of Samos, along with international organizations and volunteers provide around 4,000 free meals a day but right opposite us, across the sea, the revenues from trafficking exceed 3.3 million dollars a day,” he says.

Refugees and migrants can pay up to around 1,000 euros for a place on a dinghy to cross the Aegean. If traffickers pack them with more than 50 people at a time, it is clear that huge profits can be made each day.

Angelopoulos, a lawyer by profession, says that the number of refugees reaching Samos this year has increased by more than 600 percent compared to 2014, putting a severe strain on resources. He gives the example of municipal sanitation teams having to collect seven times as much trash as they did last year.

At the same time, Turkey is not keeping to its commitments under its readmission agreement with the EU, the mayor argues. He quotes Foreign Ministry figures that state Greece made 470 requests to return 9,351 people to Turkey in 2014 but Ankara only ended up accepting six people.

The mayor suggests that although the EU has been slow to respond to the problem, the Greek government also needs to provide more assistance and better coordination.

“The problem is European in the sense that it touches on the Union and its treaties, but it also has a uniquely Greek dimension in terms of the impact,” says Angelopoulos as he sits on the edge of his chair in the 19th-century neoclassical building that houses the town hall in Vathy. “The Portuguese man in Coimbra does not feel the same impact from this issue as the Greek who lives on Samos, Lesvos or Agathonisi.

“I hear the constant argument that Europe must solve this problem. And what happens if Europe doesn’t solve the problem?”

Angelopoulos, who is also leading a campaign for Samos to be named European Capital of Culture for 2021, points out that Athens has failed to set up the managing authorities needed to manage the EU funds available for tackling the refugee crisis. He says that despite the fiscal constraints the government finds itself under due to Greece’s bailout program, money must be found for more staff, such as psychologists, on the island. He also proposes the creation of a body designed to coordinate actions on the islands affected by the migratory flows, which should meet once a month.

However, until European and Greek authorities take decisive action, local officials like Angelopoulos, Reppas, Tsagarakis and even coast guard officer Karakontis will rely on the help of volunteers to make their tasks a little easier. Dozens of volunteer organizations, some based on the work of local people and others who have brought manpower in from abroad, are active on Samos.

The Swedish Sea Rescue Society is one of the recent additions to the range of organizations helping out on the island. The NGO dispatched two 12-meter boats to Samos in October to help with search and rescue operations. They are manned by rotating teams of volunteers from Sweden who each spend two weeks on the Aegean island.

Karakontis says the high-speed boats, which operate under the direction of the local coast guard, have been a significant addition as they are designed to go out in worse conditions than the Greek vessels.

There are so many groups active on the island that the mayor would like to create a registration and permit process to ensure that authorities are aware of who is doing what. However, he says their overall impact has been distinctively positive.

“In small communities, volunteer groups can fill gaps and encourage altruism,” says Angelopoulos. “In my view, however, the help offered by local people is also an existential response in these difficult times: I contribute, therefore I am.”

“Some NGOs and volunteers play a really positive role, especially in feeding people,” says policeman Tsagarakis, who acts as a liaison officer with such groups. “Any actions that can help make people’s stay better is welcome.”

One of the most dynamic volunteer groups on the islands are the Friendly Humans. Two Danish women, Bettina Espersen and Janne Westergaard, who live on Samos, set up the group in July, when the situation on the island was “dire.” Their initial aim was to provide breakfast to refugee children and they started going around Vathy with rucksacks handing out sandwiches they had prepared in their own kitchens.

However, the group grew into something much bigger very quickly. They created a network of some 300 people via Facebook and suddenly members started holding bake sales in Denmark to help raise money. Others came to Samos from various parts of the world to offer their assistance. Some offered money so Friendly Humans could buy the equipment they needed, such as a refrigerator to store donated medicines before they were handed over to the doctor at the refugee camp.

The group also received some of the aid flown over by tour operator Sunvil on its last flight of the season to Samos in early October. The agency gathered 5 tons of donations, including clothing, tents and sleeping bags, and had to split the load over two flights. Friendly Humans helped distribute much of this.

Within weeks of being founded, the group became a vital link between the local community, the NGOs and the volunteers operating on Samos. They started receiving donations of clothes, as well as food, and the local office of the Northern Aegean Regional Authority allowed the group to use a large basement in its building to coordinate its activities.

This area is now a hive of activity and relentless positive energy. On a Friday evening on the island, Espersen and Westergaard coordinate volunteers from a number of different countries. Dolores, a retiree from Switzerland, sweeps up amid the dozens of bags of donated clothes that have piled up in the basement as others from Italy and the USA draw up a schedule of tasks on a whiteboard and sort out the clothes according to type and size so they are ready for distribution. The two Danes stand next to crates of sandwiches that have been prepared for handing out at the refugee camp on Saturday morning.

“We’ve had great help from local people, even if they don’t have much,” says Espersen. “They’ll bring some milk, some ingredients for sandwiches.”

Espersen says that local schools have begun to bring children to see how the group works and to help out. The island’s youngsters have become accustomed over the last few months to the idea of assisting the migrants and refugees that arrive on Samos. “All the kids had something positive to say about their experience of helping people,” says Espersen. “This really made an impression on me.”

The two women have seen a significant increase in the contributions they are receiving from the island and around Greece since they launched their project. “The positive thing is that we’re now receiving things from all over Greece, very often from schools,” says Argyro Kyriazi, a local who volunteers regularly with the group.

The spirited pair admit that they have neglected their own families in order to dedicate themselves to Friendly Humans but say that there is an addictive quality to being able to help people that often arrive on the island in a desperate state. The reward is the gratitude they receive from those they help.

“They tell us that we’ve become brothers and sisters,” says Westergaard. “We must have many brothers now.”

As night falls in Vathy, the women return to making preparations for the next morning’s breakfast handout. The other volunteers working the night shift beneath the bright fluorescent strip lights open bags and boxes of donations to begin sorting items. One battered cardboard box contains a handwritten note from someone called Vassilis.

“Thank you for your humanity and for making us believe in hope again,” he writes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

Share

Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

Far right tests Europe’s democracies

By Harry van Versendaal

Four-and-a-half years since the onset of a brutal economic crisis that radically changed Greece’s political landscape, most experts agree that the financial meltdown does not tell the whole story of Golden Dawn’s meteoric rise, but few would deny it was a catalyst.

“The problem [of far-right extremism] in Greece was intensified by economic and social conditions. People think they can improve their condition by turning to extremist parties,” said Ralf Melzer from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Berlin during a discussion at Impact Hub Athens on Monday.

“At times when people face existential threats, statistics indicate an increase in racially motivated attacks,” said Melzer during the FES-organized event marking the launch of the Greek translation (Polis publishers) of “Right-Wing Extremism in Europe,” a collection of essays on the topic edited by Melzer and Sebastian Serafin. He admitted that there is no absolute connection between social environment and political choice.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who wrote the volume’s chapter on far-right extremism in Greece, said that fast-paced developments triggered by the EU/IMF bailout agreements Athens signed in 2010 were fodder for Golden Dawn, which in the span of three years went from a fringe party, polling at just 0.3 percent, to electing 18 MPs.

“When things change at a very rapid pace, some people simply cannot catch up. They are scared. This situation created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn,” said Georgiadou, who has carried out extensive academic research into the party.

Greece’s recent history suggests that financial hardship is not a prerequisite for political extremism. In the 1990s, when Greece’s economy was in much better shape, it was the EU-inspired reformist mantra of the Simitis administrations that appeared to spawn the birth of LAOS, an ultranationalist, anti-globalization party with a strong emphasis on communitarian values and a Christian Orthodox identity.

Particularly in Golden Dawn’s case, Georgiadou said, several of the factors that caused its power to grow existed before the turning point in 2010. Waning trust in institutions, as recorded in a number of surveys in previous decades, the quality of the country’s political system, and deep polarization all benefited the rise of smaller, and sometimes extremist, parties.

“Intensifying political competition between smaller parties that were born out of the breakdown of Greece’s mainstream parties and ensuing polarization played into the hands of the far-right narrative of ‘the big, corrupt parties that only look after their own interests,’” she said.

The resurgence of far-right extremism is not unique to Greece, of course. Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, the political narrative in the “European Home” has not been one of unity. The turnaround was made brutally evident during European Union Parliament elections in May that were marked by stunning victories for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro Front National and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the EU. Far-right parties across the continent more than doubled their representation. Undaunted by the prosecution against its leader and most senior members, Golden Dawn went on to win 9.4 percent of the vote and emerge as Greece’s third-biggest party.

To ban or not to ban?

Experts at the FES debate inevitably set to work on the question of whether apparently anti-democratic parties should be tolerated within Europe’s liberal democracies. Haunted by its Nazi past, Germany has laws banning Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia. The country has encouraged European governments to introduce similar legislation.

Last year saw a renewed bid to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) after Germany’s 16 regional governments filed a motion with the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that the NPD espouses Nazi values and wants to overthrow the democratic order through violence. A previous bid in 2003 failed after top judges ruled that the government’s case rested on testimonies by NPD officials who were found to be agents of the German intelligence service. Support for NPD went up after the botched bid.

“Sometimes a ban is necessary, but you also need to make a serious effort to deal with the problem on a social level,” said Melzer, who also referred to contacts between NPD and GD officials.

Studies by German experts quoted in the publication show that about 30 percent of people who support far-right parties and organizations abandon these groups when authorities investigate them in connection with a possible ban on their operations.

“Prohibitions are not a panacea,” Georgiadou said, warning that rather than curb the power of an ultranationalist party, a ban can actually result in the party gaining popularity. The victimization factor seems to have played a role during the early stages of the judicial clampdown on Golden Dawn, which failed to diminish its popularity.

“It was a mistake to believe that the launch of the judicial investigation into Golden Dawn would automatically drain support for the party. Big shocks take time to register with voters,” Georgiadou said, adding that more recent surveys, particularly following a barrage of investigative reporting into GD’s criminal activity and Nazi affiliations, have documented a slow albeit steady decline in support for the party, which is now polling around 6 percent.

Golden Dawn did not face an NPD-style ban threat. Its members were instead prosecuted for alleged violations of the country’s criminal code. Last month, the prosecutor handling the investigation into GD proposed that all the party’s 16 MPs, as well as two deputies who have quit and dozens more GD members stand trial on a string of charges ranging from running a criminal organization to murder and weapons offenses. In a 700-page report, the prosecutor said that none of GD’s MPs can claim convincingly that they were unaware of the criminal acts that were consistently carried out over a long period of time in the name of the party.

Georgiadou said that although a great effort was being made to tackle GD on a judicial level, very little was being done on a political level. “What have our education ministers been up to all this time?” she said.

Prompted by a wave of xenophobic attacks, the Greek Parliament in September passed a bill toughening anti-racism laws and criminalizing Holocaust denial. The new laws will not apply to GD members during their upcoming trial.

Environmental group urges MPs to block ‘criminal’ coastal development bill

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By Harry van Versendaal

Reactions against a controversial bill that lifts restrictions on construction along Greece’s coastline continued Monday, as environmental protection group WWF Greece urged lawmakers to shoot down the “ecologically criminal proposal.”

“It is a brutal and outrageously shortsighted, revenue-oriented wipeout of environmental law,” the NGO said in an open letter to Greek MPs urging them to stop the draft law before it is submitted to Parliament.

The bill, which was submitted by the Finance Ministry, lifts all current restrictions on the maximum area designated for beach concessions such as bars, umbrellas and sun loungers while abolishing the right to unhindered public access to the seashore.

The proposed measures also facilitate permanent constructions on beaches for commercial purposes, while making it possible for businesses to pay fines to legalize unlicensed constructions.

Public consultation on the bill, launched during the Easter break, has been extended to May 13. Local elections are scheduled to be held in Greece on May 18 and 25.

“We are calling upon MPs to launch a cross-party initiative so that the unconscionable crime against our natural wealth that is the Finance Ministry bill is never submitted to Parliament,” said Theodota Nantsou, environmental policy coordinator at WWF.

“We can see no justification for the sudden culling of legislation for the protection of the environment and natural resources in the name of ‘development’ that is chaotic, nonviable in the long term and financially questionable,” Nantsou said.

The conservative-led government reportedly claims that the legislation is necessary because it will help Greece sell millions of euros’ worth of public property as part of its privatization process. Critics, however, have suggested that the legislation that is already in place is adequate for this purpose.

In the same letter sent to MPs Monday, WWF attacked the idea that the changes to the legislation are crucial for the development of tourism, Greece’s largest industry.

“At a time of global crisis, the country’s millions of visitors are not here to see crammed beaches, cement-covered stretches of coastline or ugly constructions on closed-off beaches,” it said.

According to a 2010 Flash Eurobarometer survey, cited by WWF, most European Union citizens named a location’s environment as their key consideration when deciding on a holiday destination.

Bankrupt growth model

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, Nantsou warned of an environmental rollback in Greece as green policy, perennially on the back burner, has suffered a hefty blow as a result of the nation’s financial meltdown.

“WWF Greece has been closely monitoring the environmental dimensions of the economic downturn and we have been witnessing a serious rollback in important laws and policies,” Nantsou told the newspaper.

“Planning for more constructions and resource overuse is what crisis-hit countries should not be doing. The old and bankrupt growth model of high hidden costs and of an ecological debt that is transferred to the future generations should be a non-starter,” she said.

The coastal development bill has been attacked by the small Ecologist Greens and the pro-business Drasi parties, but has yet to draw official criticism from any of their mainstream counterparts.

On Friday, a New Democracy lawmaker promised to vote against the bill should it come to the House.

“The bill is monstrous… I will certainly not vote for it in its current form,” Fotini Pipili said.

No one-size-fits-all policy for the crisis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Latvia was hit by a financial crisis in 2008, the government had few qualms about embracing cost-cutting measures and structural reforms, while keeping its national currency pegged to the euro.

Now in the waiting room for eurozone membership, due in January 2014, this Baltic nation’s decision makers appear undeterred by a rather skeptical public and the woes dogging other eurozone countries, most prominently Greece.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition during his visit to Athens this week, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said he sees his country’s euro entry as a further step into the West by the former Soviet republic after it joined the European Union in 2004.

Notwithstanding Latvia’s portrayal by several Western policymakers as a poster child for austerity that could serve as a roadmap for other troubled economies, Rinkevics is reluctant to draw parallels with Greece, stressing instead the economic and cultural particularities of each country.

The eurozone is in crisis but Latvia still plans to join in January 2014. Haven’t you been deterred by the difficulties faced by countries using the single currency?

I really do not believe that the problems are caused by the single currency. We have seen – and also our own experience between 2008 and 2011 has shown – that the currency has had no direct effect on the crisis. It’s about the economic and financial policies of the country in question. Keeping this in mind, we see eurozone membership as an opportunity to boost trade relations with other countries in the euro area. Membership however is also a geopolitical choice. By signing the accession treaties here in Greece 10 years ago, we joined a political and economic union. But we still have to integrate more in terms of the financial system, transportation and energy. In a way, it completes the move away from the former Soviet Union to a more European union.

Is the close presence of Russia also a geopolitical incentive?

It’s more about the economic and financial security of the country. It’s more about deeper integration in the EU. Given that, I would not say that joining the eurozone is specifically against somebody. It’s about boosting our own standing when it comes to politics and the economy.

Polls show that only one in three Latvians wants to join the euro. Why is the figure so low and is this enough support to give the government’s decision legitimacy?

First, our public reads what is happening in the eurozone. Two or three years ago, newspapers, Internet media, TV and radio were full of doomsday scenarios that the euro is going to crash and that the eurozone is finishing, which is not what we see now. We actually see that the eurozone is well and alive. Secondly, it’s also an emotional issue. Our currency, the lat, was reintroduced after Latvia gained independence back in 1993, and for 20 years the currency has been very stable. We had a very strong monetary policy by the Bank of Latvia; we did not devalue even when probably it could have been a possible course of action back in 2008 and 2009. So there is a very strong emotional attachment to the currency and even if people understand that there can be gains, they still find it hard to say good bye.

How to tackle this [public skepticism]? I think the only way is for the people to see that nothing bad happens. Money is money, what you call it does not really say much. It is going to take about six months to a year for people to see the effects and to understand that actually nothing bad happens.

How will the Latvian people react if the country has to contribute to eurozone crisis funding after it joins?

That’s something that certainly people really don’t want to do. But this is about solidarity and we also remind ourselves that it was the IMF and the EU that actually saved our country back in 2009 by providing loans. Solidarity works both ways.

Are you worried about growing Euroskepticism in Europe?

Yes, although as far as Latvia is concerned, the recent Eurobarometer poll showed an interesting picture. Ten years after joining the EU, 57 percent of the general population believe that membership has benefited more than caused problems, against an average EU rate of 54 percent.

Decision making

Within a European Union where the power to make decisions appears to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of member states, what role is there for smaller countries like Greece and Latvia to play?

I think that with things being delegated to Brussels – particularly economic and financial issues such as banking union and more regulation of financial institutions – we still have an opportunity to use instruments like the Council, where we can work with like-minded countries to change or influence decisions that are not really in our interest. We had a very good experience when discussing the so-called Friends of Cohesion group, where Athens and Riga worked together to make sure that countries that receive European funds – including Greece and Latvia – prevent drastic cuts to the European budget.

There are some areas, like EU foreign policy, where I would like to see a more unified approach. We have a lot of success stories, like the EU standing on Syria, the EU standing on Iran. But then you have the Middle East peace process, where you have three different groups. Similarly, the EU policy on Russia has not always been unified.

Do you see any areas where it would be possible for Greece and Latvia to help each other?

Certainly. As we join the eurozone we are interested in working more closely with Greece on reform and development of eurozone policies, banking and financial regulations. Secondly, I think we have common interests and will work together because our presidency is in the first half of 2015, and then there is the Eastern Partnership initiative. I also expect that your presidency is going to address EU institutional issues – there can be a discussion about some changes in the institutional framework and this is something that small countries are particularly sensitive about.

As far as NATO is concerned, we are both members of this alliance and we have already worked quite closely also on issues that are related to, for instance, Article 5 operations and exercises [Article 5 requires NATO member states to come to the aid of any member state that comes under armed attack]. Greece is currently participating in a NATO exercise in the Baltic area. Also, we understand your concerns about immigration policy, so there are plenty of issues of common interest. And, of course, economic cooperation, which is probably not reaching the highest level and there is room to expand, and tourism.

Crisis response

What would you say were the main reasons for Latvia overcoming its crisis? What kind of austerity measures were involved?

It seems to me that each country has to tackle the crisis in its own way, taking into account its own history, traditions, structure of society, economy and so on. But we basically did three things. One was to introduce very severe cuts to public spending. These had been implemented by the end of 2008, and by the end of the crisis we had cut our public sector on average by 25-30 percent. All ministries suffered very severe cuts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lost about 30 percent of its employees. The remaining staff had their salaries slashed by about an average 30 percent. Operational budgets were also cut. Second, we did our best to keep programs that were co-financed by the EU. That was almost the only stimulus package for our economic growth. And third, while we were cutting our public expenditure, some taxes were raised, such as personal income tax and VAT.

Now, in the third year of economic growth, we are actually going back to reducing some taxes. People need to feel the crisis is over. Yes, on a macroeconomic level everyone considers we are out of the woods, but on a personal level, it is only now that people are probably starting to feel a modest increase in their salaries.

You say every country has to deal with the crisis in its own way. Does Latvia then not vindicate the tough approach taken in bailing out countries like Greece and Portugal?

Latvia, as well as Estonia and Lithuania are sometimes mentioned as good examples of how you do things. At the same time, we live in the north and that makes a difference. The root causes of our economic and financial crisis were different from those here in the south. We had an enormous real estate problem. After joining the EU, salaries skyrocketed in many areas. And, of course, they then went down like a stone. Public perception of what happened and who was responsible was also different. The new government that came in in 2009 was able to convince people that things had gone wrong because of bad polices introduced by a couple of governments before, and people actually acknowledged this. Our prime minister is in his fifth year in power, which is kind of a record for our country, where we tend to change governments and prime ministers quite often – even in good times. There was a general understanding among the public regarding the austerity policy. It was bad, but it was the right thing to do.

Did the Protestant culture in your country play a part in helping your country adjust? Did the fact that your country had been occupied for so many years also have an impact on how people accepted the measures?

It certainly worked, I think you are right. It was part of the solution. But, let’s face it, another part – which is now also an issue in Greece as far as I know – was that a lot of people left for jobs and opportunities in the UK, Ireland and other countries.

Government critics have said that high emigration was used to mask Latvia’s unemployment problem.

It helped mitigate the social effects. However, if you look at figures from the good years following EU accession in 2004, emigration was already in full swing as people were now free to move abroad for studies or work. Interestingly, we are starting to see that some of these people are starting to return as they are being offered competitive jobs [in Latvia].

What are the other major problems caused by the cuts you pursued?

Certainly one issue is the quality of public services after a lot of people left the government. Some cuts have been too severe and we need to rebalance. Another is how to get our demographic problems solved as birthrates dropped during the crisis years, in fact, for the second time – the first was in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and we had to change our whole economic and social system. Demography is a problem for most EU countries and is closely connected to the issue of social security reform. We had to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and to severely cut social security programs including unemployment benefits.

For Greek mainstream parties, it’s still business as usual

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By Harry van Versendaal

It almost defies reason. Six years into a wrenching recession and amid heavy speculation of a snap election next year, Greece’s mainstream parties are still locked in a self-destructive business-as-usual mode.

The survival of the power-sharing government seems to depend upon support from a critical mass of disaffected – albeit moderate – middle-class voters who are wary of the implications of an anti-bailout SYRIZA administration. And yet New Democracy and PASOK coalition politicians continue to dangerously indulge in the bad old partisan habits that are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s current woes.

“This is all path dependence. It is not really rational, but this is what they know well, what they have been doing all these years,” says Elias Dinas, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, ahead of a Greek Public Policy Forum conference later this month on Crete which is set to discuss the impact of the euro debt crisis on national party politics and the European project.

The Greek Cabinet primarily consists of MPs who are picked on the basis of preference votes. “This creates personal obstacles for the implementation of reforms. You need a large stock of support to enter into seemingly painful negotiations with specific professional sectors,” Dinas says.

The abrupt closure of Greece’s public broadcaster ERT earlier this summer, traditionally seen as a political fiefdom of the ruling party, raised some hopes among pro-reform centrists that – notwithstanding the questionable legality of the move – Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was finally prepared to build on a clean sheet and break with a long tradition of corruption and political patronage. Those expectations were soon defeated by a number of less-than-transparent appointments at ERT’s successor, DT, and a very messy launch that has been a cause of constant embarrassment for the government.

“The logic that has prevailed in this administration is a minimum-cost logic. This is clearly a very risk-averse government, primarily aiming at maintain marginal support and sacrificing reforms that might potentially harm this fragile equilibrium,” says Dinas, an expert on the development of partisan preferences.

The government has largely shied away from much-hyped structural reforms aimed at unlocking growth and creating jobs. The most common response to pressure from Greece’s foreign lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – has been haphazard, horizontal measures designed to meet nominal staff reduction targets in the country’s sizable public sector.

Samaras, who has been premier since June 2012, has heralded Greece as a “success story,” but the numbers tell a very different one. Unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 27 percent. A stunning 58.8 percent of under-25s are out of work. Over 20 percent live beneath the poverty line. The number of live births has declined by 10 percent since 2009, while suicides have soared.

Many analysts say that it is realistic to expect the debt-wracked nation to need further support from the eurozone before it can return to the markets. It is estimated that Greece will need around 10-11 bullion euros for the second half of 2014 to stay afloat next year and in 2015 – a prospect dreaded by euro-area governments faced with an increasingly skeptical public opinion.

The big shake-up

The crisis has radically transformed the two-party political system which was established after the collapse of a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. A long-lasting tradition of nepotism gives the impression that Greece’s fate is in the hands of the same people who created the mess.

“But we must not forget that after the May 2012 election, PASOK has seen its vote decrease to unprecedented levels while New Democracy is still a key player only because of a record increase in party system fragmentation,” Dinas says. Last year’s vote still has the record of all inter-election volatility indices among established democracies, comparable only to the very first and formative elections of new democratic regimes.

Used to sweeping more than 40 percent of the vote, PASOK is now polling around 7 percent. A Public Issue survey published last week suggested that the conservatives have slipped behind SYRIZA, although a majority of respondents still consider Samaras a more suitable premier than opposition leader Alexis Tsipras.

“I cannot see a clear solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future, which means that a SYRIZA government might at some point become inevitable,” Dinas says.

However, the big shake-up of the Greek political system came with a self-destruct button. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now polling at 13 percent, almost double the figure for PASOK.

The party with the swastika-like emblem already controls 18 seats in the 300-member House after winning nearly 7 percent in the May elections. Its members have been repeatedly connected to violent attacks on immigrants, gays and political opponents. In the latest assault, nine members of the Communist party (KKE) were hospitalized last week after suspected Golden Dawn supporters wielding metal clubs and poles set upon them while they were putting up posters in Perama, near Piraeus.

The response from New Democracy – which only provided a belated and rather vague condemnation of the Perama assault – has been uncomfortably cynical. Party spinmeisters and conservative pundits have tried to play the polarization card by investing heavily in what is known as the theory of the two extremes. The idea is to discredit SYRIZA by playing up abusive language and rowdy behavior on the left and equating it with far-right violence.

At the same time, Samaras’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration combined with a political credo animated by emphasis on devotion to the nation, Orthodoxy and traditional values aspires to hijack Golden Dawn’s strongest catchment area. Studies show that four in 10 Golden Dawn voters in the May ballot came from the New Democracy camp.

Bridge building

All this polarized multipartism is unsustainable in the long run, Dinas says. One way to ease the pressure on the political system would be to reduce the number of parties in Parliament, now seven – an unlikely prospect given that all of the newly formed parties have more or less held their own since the last election. To avoid implosion, Dinas thinks, Greece’s political system must rather aim to build bridges between the pro- and anti-bailout camps, mainly by priming issue dimensions where there is room for consent, or, equivalently, potential for within-group divisions.

“This is the strategy that Abraham Lincoln used to win the 1860 US presidential election, introducing slavery as a new cleavage cross-cutting the existing cleavage structure and dividing the Democrats internally,” he says.

For Greece’s post-1974 system, the predicament is an existential one: Golden Dawn’s threat to democracy must become the glue for political action.

A lot will have to change. Until the May election, the political class was simply too busy with its own survival to grapple with the rise of Golden Dawn, as the grouping made its crucial early steps by operating as the typical local mafia branch, Dinas says, describing a protection industry that used conventional – and often illegal – means to provide services in the state’s stead.

Since then, Dinas says, the picture is similar to the contrast between guerilla and incumbent warfare in civil wars. Golden Dawn employs grassroots practices that are specifically targeted at local communities, such as – Greek-only – food handouts, blood drives and neighborhood patrols. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, try to challenge the party through their discourse in the media. The problem, as several surveys demonstrate, is that the mainstream media – like most of the country’s other institutions – are heavily discredited in the eyes of angry voters. The elite message easily plays into the hands of the anti-systemic party.

“For Golden Dawn supporters, any criticism coming from the main parties against their own party is not going to change their sentiments; if it does, it will probably be in the opposite direction,” Dinas says.

The political system, he says, needs to adopt a different strategy – one that is built around the idea that representative democracy cannot tolerate its enemies.

“What needs to be done is to challenge Golden Dawn using its own means. You need a strong state that is prepared to take legal action against any deviation from the law in order to confront the problem,” says Dinas while also stressing the need to invest resources in creating strong social disincentives for the party’s supporters, in schools, the working environment and universities.

“One of the reasons Golden Dawn has been successful is that it provides a clear and unambiguous identity; everyone needs to belong somewhere. There is a whole socialization process,” Dinas says. For a state that managed to mobilize support for the criminal regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, a similar anti-fascist mobilization should be a doable task, he says.

“Otherwise, Golden Dawn can only fall if it tries to embrace the political system,” says Dinas, pointing a finger at other radical right parties in Europe – such as the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – that lost most of their appeal once they entered government coalitions.

“To be sure, this is not a prospect that we should be looking forward to.”

Unwelcome guests: HRW deems crackdown on Greece’s immigrants ‘abusive’

By Harry van Versendaal

Greek authorities must review the procedures of an extensive crackdown on suspected irregular immigrants, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday, criticizing police sweeps as abusive and ineffective.

The allegations were made during a presentation of the international organization’s latest report, “Unwelcome Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens,” in the Greek capital on Wednesday. The report highlights invasive police checks and arbitrary detentions within the contours of an ongoing operation dubbed Xenios Zeus, bizarrely code-named after the Greek god of hospitality.

The 52-page report documents frequent police checks of individuals with a foreign-looking appearance, unjustified searches of personal belongings, derogatory verbal language and occasional physical abuse. According to the HRW study, which is based on more than 40 interviews with Athens-based immigrants, tens of thousands are held at police stations pending verification of their legal status.

“There is definite lack of training which gives rise to discrimination from police,” said Eva Cosse, a Greece expert at HRW and author of the report, who said that racist attitudes inside the force are a “chronic” problem.

“Such methods, however, are also a way to send the message and put it across that these people are not welcome,” Cosse said, slamming Greece’s conservative party, now head of the government coalition, for its heavy-handed approach to immigration.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has in the past pledged to “take back our cities from migrants,” while his New Democracy party recently turned down a more inclusive anti-racism bill supported by junior coalition partners PASOK and Democratic Left, proposing its won legislation to tackle discrimination instead.

Many of the abuse victims interviewed by HRW said they felt that they were repeatedly targeted by police because of their skin color or other physical characteristics.

A 19-year-old asylum-seeker from Guinea, identified only as Tupac, said that in early February police officers forced him and other black and Asian passengers off a bus in central Athens shouting “All blacks out, all blacks out.”

Abuse often seems to go beyond ethnic profiling and insulting language. “Body pat-downs and bag searches during immigration stops appear to be routine, even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that the individual is carrying unlawful or dangerous objects,” the HRW report says.

Gateway

Greece is the main gateway into the European Union for migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The majority hopes to reach one of the more prosperous states in Western Europe, but many become caught up in this debt-wracked country. On top of being exposed to a burgeoning wave of racially motivated attacks, at least partly attributed to the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, immigrants also face arrest, lengthy detention and deportation, as documented by several human rights groups. Asylum-seekers fleeing persecution at home are not spared from the crackdown either, activists say.

The conservative-led government, though, says that its tougher approach to illegal immigration, including more stringent checks on the Evros border with Turkey, where an extra 1,800 guards have been deployed, has led to the number of undocumented migrants trying to reach Greece dropping substantially. Greece reported more than half of all detections of irregular border crossings in the EU from July-September 2012 but only 30 percent between October and December.

“Greece has a right to control irregular migration,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director for HRW, adding that Dublin II regulations are weighing the country down with an uneven share of the burden. “But the country still has to ensure it does not violate human rights,” she said.

Almost 85,000 foreigners were forcibly taken to police stations for verification of their immigration status in the seven-month period between last August, when Xenios Zeus was launched, and this February, according to police figures cited in the report.

“However, 94 percent of those detained had a legal right to be in Greece,” said Goldston, suggesting that police are casting their net too far and too wide.

Evidence, not stereotypes

The very small percentage of those who were found to be in the country without permission should also raise doubts about the effectiveness of the crackdown, HRW warned. Investing so many resources just to catch the wrong people and release them afterward is a huge waste of time and money, the group said.

“Operations must be based on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes,” Cosse said.

HRW called on authorities to review the police’s general stop-and-search powers and to take steps to ensure that the identification of clandestine migrants is conducted in line with Greek and international laws on discrimination, ethnic profiling and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

Worryingly, Goldston said, the HRW findings and recommendations appear to have so far been mostly snubbed by officials at the Public Order Ministry.

“We have met with denial,” she said, adding that government officials have cast doubt on the HRW research and data.

“It is in the DNA of Greeks not to be racist,” Goldston quoted one unnamed Greek official as responding.


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