Posts Tagged 'Greece'

Uprooting anti-Semitism in Greece, starting in the classroom

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By Harry van Versendaal

Experts are urging authorities to take active measures to combat anti-Semitism in Greece after a recent study confirmed the high levels of hatred toward Jews in the country – believed to be the highest in Europe.

Αnti-Semitism, which is shown to thrive at both ends of the ideological spectrum, is believed to be particularly strong in Greece as a result of a deep-rooted sense of collective victimhood nurtured by an overly ethnocentric education system.

“Unfortunately, the findings confirm older surveys showing that Greece has rates of anti-Semitism matching those recorded in countries that neighbor Israel rather than ones in the European Union,” Elias Dinas, political scientist at the University of Oxford, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Conducted by a team of researchers based in Greece and the UK, the 50-page report brings together the findings of two opinion polls conducted in 2014 and 2015. It was published earlier this month by the Thessaloniki branch of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.

Of the 1,000 Greeks polled, 65 percent said “Jews exploit the Holocaust to receive better treatment at global decision-making centers.” A similar percentage agreed with the statement that “Israel treats Palestinians exactly the same way that the Nazis treated the Jews” – a view seen as relativizing the Holocaust by placing it in the context of other acts of wholesale violence.

Just over 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews have a major influence in the business world.” About 21 percent said Jews should be prohibited from buying land.

More than 37 percent said they have zero level of trust in Jews. Overall, those polled said they trust Jews less than they trust the Orthodox Church, homosexuals, migrants or the European Union. Jewish people were said to be more reliable only when compared to the Greek Parliament, Turks and Americans.

The results echo the findings of an infamous 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which indicated that 68 percent of Greeks “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” – on a par with Saudi Arabia and more so than Iran.

Valid criticism

Experts found anti-Jewish sentiment to be as strong on the far left of the political scale as on the right. But whereas anti-Semitism among the hard-right is mostly associated with denial or minimization of the Holocaust, hostility from the left is less straightforward and often animated by solidarity with the Palestinians.

“It is true that harder facets of anti-Semitism are more evident on the right, but the left is no stranger to conspiracy theory-driven anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Dinas.

Critics, mostly on the left, complain that the term “anti-Semitism” is often misused to stigmatize legitimate criticism of Israeli settlement policies. However, the report suggests that condemnations of Israel often cross the boundary from valid criticism into territory of denigration that can be considered anti-Semitic. Instances of anti-Semitism can include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (for example claims that the Jews killed Christ or the classic anti-Semitic charge, known as the blood libel, that Jews use Christian blood for religious rituals) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis; or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

“It is sometimes helpful to keep in mind that Israel is the only democracy in the region and even if it’s fair to criticize it over for example its settlements policy, any comparisons to Nazi Germany or other autocratic regimes are clearly misplaced,” Dinas said.

Jewish monuments and graves are frequently desecrated across Greece. In the latest such incident, a memorial commemorating nearly 1,500 Jews from Kavala, northern Greece, who perished in Nazi death camps was vandalized late March. It was the second attack since it was erected last year.

Anti-Semitic comments are frequently aired by the country’s political class. MPs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – which is the third political force in Greece despite its leadership being on trial on charges of running a criminal organization – have openly denied the Holocaust, even in Parliament. Jew-bashing is also common in the mainstream. Panos Kammenos, defense minister and head of the junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, has claimed that “Jews don’t pay taxes.” Conservative MPs Adonis Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris – both of whom defected to New Democracy from the ultranationalist LAOS – have in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, even though they have recently tried to distance themselves from their past sins. Anti-Semitic remarks, mostly in connection to Greece’s economic crisis, have also come from figures on the left-wing populist fringe such as Panayiotis Lafazanis and Rachel Makri.

Politicians aside, the Orthodox Church and the media have also played a role in spreading the seeds of hatred toward Jews. Senior clergymen of the Orthodox Church, which has not officially absolved the Jews for the death of Christ, often make anti-Semitic remarks. Newspapers regularly feature anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, as well as cartoons with anti-Semitic themes or caricatures.

Underdog culture

Typically, most of the problems seem to begin in the classroom.

“It is school that hits people in their impressionable years, particularly as the secularization process is gradually eclipsing the role of the Church,” Dinas said.

More than other institutions, experts say, Greek schools foster a feeling of victimhood, and serve for the socialization and reproduction of an underdog culture which is identified as the fundamental source of Greek anti-Semitism.

“There is this shared conviction that Greeks have been treated more unfairly and suffered more pain than any other people,” Dinas said.

“This creates a feeling of inferiority, envy and competition,” he said.

According to the poll, about 70 percent believe that Greek people have suffered a genocide that is worse or similar to that suffered by the Jews.

It is estimated that 6 million Jews died in Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Greece’s Jewish population, which stood at 73,000 before the war, is currently estimated at 5,000.

“As long as Greek society develops a competitive stance to the Jewish experience and seeks the role of the absolute victim of history and of the great powers that be, the harder it will be to deal with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism,” the report said.

Back to school

The Holocaust and human rights education are all but absent from the Greek school curriculum. In self-fulfilling fashion, 34 percent said they do not want the Holocaust to be taught in schools, the survey showed. Experts found a positive correlation between hatred of Jews and education.

“The results show that while general knowledge does not in the least influence anti-Semitic trends, specific [knowledge] about the Jews appears to drastically reduce levels of anti-Semitism,” the report said. Simply put, the more one knows about the subject, the less likely one is to harbor anti-Semitic prejudices.

So while experts propose a number of measures to fight anti-Semitism, including stricter policing of Jewish monuments, a more stringent code of ethics for politicians and the media, and tougher law enforcement, the findings suggest that the safest bet is to kill anti-Semitism at birth: Update textbooks, retrain teachers, organize school trips to former Nazi concentration camps.

“It is important for the government to recognize the existence of the problem and face it head on,” Leon Saltiel, a historian at the University of Macedonia and one of the authors of the report, told the newspaper.

“Measures to promote education, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are the only way to build the strong foundations of a democratic and prosperous nation,” he said.


The report “Anti-Semitism in Greece Today: Manifestations, Causes and Tackling of the Phenomenon” was written by researchers Giorgos Antoniou, Spyros Kosmidis, Elias Dinas and Leon Saltiel.

Lawsuit over Islam comments tests boundaries between controversial language and free speech

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By Harry van Versendaal

A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.

Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”

The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.

In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.

In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.

Bataclan

Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.

The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.

In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.

It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.

Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.

“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.

“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.

“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.

“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.

The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Free speech

Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.

“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.

Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.

“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.

The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.

“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.

In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.

“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”

The Richter case

Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.

The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”

If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.

“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.

As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.

Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.

“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.

For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.

“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”

Rewinding to the era of analog politics

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October 1988. An ecstatic crowd waving PASOK flags cheers Andreas Papandreou, then prime minister of Greece, on his return to Athens, at the now-defunct international airport in Elliniko. Papandreou had been admitted to Harefield Hospital in the UK for treatment for the heart complaint that plagued his later years. The moment went down in history for his gesture to Dimitra (Mimi) Liani, an Olympic Airways stewardess who was to become his wife, urging her to come down the stairs. Playmobil installation from the ‘GR80s’ exhibition at the Technopolis complex

By Harry van Versendaal

Although defying any single interpretation, the 1980s was certainly a transitional and transformative period for Greece, which had only just emerged from a traumatic seven-year dictatorship.

The ongoing “GR80s” exhibition at the Technopolis cultural complex in the downtown Gazi district is an unprecedented as well as ambitious attempt to deliver a political, economic, social and cultural anatomy of that decade.

Political scientist Lamprini Rori, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and co-curator of the political segment of the exhibition, talked to Kathimerini English Edition about the main sociopolitical characteristics of that era, its contradictions and a legacy often lamented as the roots of Greece’s current conundrum.

What differentiates the 80s in Greece from the previous and following periods?

On a symbolic level, it was PASOK’s rise to power and the consolidation of its hegemony. The 1980s shaped the key characteristics of the Third Greek Republic. First of all, Greece gained membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), a fact which, notwithstanding the tactical anti-European rhetoric of the early PASOK, led to a significant flow of European funds into the country. However, it was also the decade that saw the consolidation of the country’s mainstream parties, the sweeping renewal of political personnel, the strengthening of political participation, the introduction of measures in the direction of social liberalization, the deregulation of the radio and television landscape. Economic prosperity encouraged the rise of individualism, the recognition of minority rights and identities, the consolidation of social cohesion. The populism and polarization brought by the ascendance of PASOK gradually ebbed over the next decade, the positions and the discourse of the two main parties gradually converged, while the economy underwent a gradual modernization, as several sectors passed over to the free market.

It is often claimed that the roots of Greece’s current woes lie with the 1980s. If that is true, how do you account for today’s nostalgia for the era?

Demonizing or idealizing the 1980s are both distorted interpretations of the impact of events during that period. The main millstones which surfaced in the 1980s and which we are still – to a bigger or smaller extent – dragging along today, are the hijacking of the state by vested interests, populism, the understanding of politics as a zero-sum game, and fiscal derailment. Statism and clientele ties were less so, not because they did not affect the present situation, but because they were around before the 1980s, only to basically balloon during that decade. To be sure, we should not forget that between that time and the present, the country had various opportunities to modernize itself and correct many of the distortions of the 1980s. These were not seen through.

At the same time, however, the decade was a milestone for social mobility, the redefinition of identities, and the foundation of the middle class in the economic, political, social and cultural fields. It was in a sense the decade of security, not so much in the geopolitical sense – despite the fact that its end also marked the end of the Cold War – but more in the psychosociological sense of the term. This is the root of today’s nostalgia, given the fact that this era came to a close with the onslaught of the financial crisis.

There is a certain contradiction about the 1980s, as the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of PASOK appears to have been accompanied by the rise of pop culture and consumption. How do you account for that?

Although [late Socialist prime minister] Andreas Papandreou promoted the idea of Greece as a country of the semi-periphery dependent on the capitalist centers of the West, PASOK’s anti-Americanism in the political arena was mainly founded on the relationship between Greece and the USA following the civil war and, above all, on the role of the USA in the 1967-74 military coup. PASOK’s anti-Westernism did not so much have a Marxist twist, but a historical and nationalist one, allowing it to forge a coherent narrative with anti-Turkish and pro-Arab dimensions.

At the same time, the rise of the middle class, the mass contact with Western models through the mass media and the process of individualization which unfolded on the level of values and lifestyle allowed strong influence from the centers of the by then postmodern West, at least in terms of cultural models. Historical anti-Americanism and cultural pro-Westernism effectively coexisted among individuals and across society, legitimating pop culture and consumerism among the local population. Greeks did not just accept these elements, but adopted them en masse. Gradually, the Westernization of cultural production overpowered the widespread rhetoric of anti-Westernism.

“GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis,” 100 Pireos, Gazi. The exhibition runs to March 12.

WWF Greece slams government for violations of environmental rulebook

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By Harry van Versendaal

An annual report released by the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shames Greece for systematic violations of the environmental rulebook, while lamenting the waste of a historic opportunity to make the financial crisis a starting point towards a “truly sustainable economy.”

“We are pretty much in the same mess as last year. Despite some progress in certain areas, the overall picture is quite grim,” WWF Greece chief executive Dimitris Karavelas told a press conference Tuesday at the organization’s headquarters in Athens.

“This is the picture of a country that is paying a hefty price for inaction, a lack of transparency, the ‘tidying up’ of violations and bad legislation,” Karavelas said.

“This is the picture of a country that is killing its own hopes for a truly sustainable economy,” he added.

Among other faults, the annual study, now in its 12th year, criticized the leftist-led government for not doing enough to curb illegal construction, for its plans to build new coal plants and for lax waste management resulting in more European fines.

‘In tatters’

The Environment Ministry is drafting a bill that will make it easier for homeowners to protect illegal buildings from demolition. Under the proposed legislation, the charges for homes at the lower end of the scale in terms of value would be reduced in a bid to encourage owners to come forward and register their property and pay the appropriate penalty.

The draft bill has triggered alarm bells among environmentalists, as it contains provisions widely seen as a precursor to the legalization of illegal residential developments in forests and woodlands.

“Legislation to protect forest areas is in tatters,” said Theodota Nantsou, head of policy for WWF Greece.

The near 150-page report also criticized plans by Public Power Corporation (PPC) to construct two new lignite-powered plants in Ptolemaida and Meliti, in northern Greece.

Greece has signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, a binding global compact to slash greenhouse gases and keep global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, a 2013 study commissioned by WWF questioned the economic viability of the PPC projects.

Filthy habits

The WWF report also lambasted delays and omissions in implementing waste management regulations that have repeatedly triggered warnings and fines from European authorities.

The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that Greece has violated key EU laws on hazardous waste management and slapped Greece with heavy financial sanctions: a lump sum of 10 million euros, plus a penalty payment of 30,000 for every day of delay in complying with the decision. This came on the back of a 10-million-euro fine last year for flouting European regulations regarding the management of urban wastewater.

Quoting recent data by the European Commission, WWF said Greece is second among the 28-member EU bloc in the number of open legal cases it faces with regard to infringements of EU environmental rules.

The WWF report acknowledged some positive steps, including an initiative to expand the areas in the EU’s Natura 2000 network (up to 1.93 million hectares of marine areas, among them the Gulf of Corinth, the sea around Crete, the coasts of Paxoi, Pylos and Andros, and the sea between Kavala and Thasos) and the introduction of designated marine wildlife parks.

Strong card

WWF officials dismissed skepticism that the environmental rollback is the unavoidable byproduct of a painful financial crisis that has seen the country’s gross domestic product drop by about 25 percent since 2008.

“Things do not necessarily have to be this way. All this does not derive from some bailout commitment, it is not mandated by the financial crisis. What we see is the outcome of intended policy decisions,” Karavelas said.

“We still believe that Greece should use its strongest card, its natural environment, and that this could contribute to a truly sustainable way out of the crisis,” he said.

Thessaloniki doc fest tunes in to refugee crisis

JON BANG CAR

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s all in perfect tune with the darkish zeitgeist. Greece’s biggest documentary festival kicks off next month in the northern port city of Thessaloniki with a tribute to the plight of refugees streaming into Europe.

Syria’s five-year civil war has displaced millions of people, many of whom have sought to reach the safe and more prosperous nations of the European Union. The influx has opened cracks in Europe’s migration policy and triggered political wrangling between national governments. More importantly, the death toll is rising. More than 400 people have died so far this year trying to cross the sea to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And nearly 10 times as many migrants crossed in the first six weeks of 2016 than the same period last year.

Between March 11 and 20, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21st Century (TDF) will showcase several films documenting the personal stories often lost behind the devastating statistics.

Filmed by Emmy-award-winning director Mani Yassir Benchelah, “This Is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees” tells the story of Syrian children forced to flee to next-door Lebanon. It’s a beautifully crafted film, based on the exiled youngsters’ testimonies about loss, hardship and hope.

In “At Home in the World,” filmmaker Andreas Koefoed follows five refugee children attending a Red Cross school in his native Denmark as they try to overcome traumas and build a new life. The movie received the 2015 Award for Best Mid-Length Documentary at Europe’s most prestigious documentary festival, the IDFA in Amsterdam.

The same Nordic country, which recently enacted controversial legislation allowing police to seize refugees’ assets, is the setting of Michael Graversen’s “Dreaming of Denmark” as he follows Wasiullah, an Afghan minor stuck in the EU country’s asylum process.

TDF organizers have also planned a panel discussion titled “Documenting the Refugee Crisis: Methods, Objectives, Challenges and Ethics.” The dates, speakers and venues for the event will be announced in the coming days.

Double tribute

Among this year’s highlights are tributes to contemporary Danish cinematographer Jon Bang Carlsen and Northern Irish filmmaker, writer and curator Mark Cousins.

Known for his radical, cross-genre style, which he lays out in his “How to Invent Reality,” Carlsen, 65, has since the 1970s made more than two dozen films that draw heavily on personal experience. As he puts it: “My films are not the truth, they just express the way I feel the world. That’s all.”

Born in 1965, Scotland-based Cousins is best known for his epic 15-hour 2011 documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” an adaptation of his 2004 book “The Story of Film.”

Both directors will be at the festival to discuss their work.

Oscar-nominated works

Also screening this year are two Oscar-nominated films.

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” is a short documentary film that recounts the making of the landmark 613-minute Holocaust documentary “Shoah.” The film was written, directed and produced by British filmmaker and journalist Adam Benzine.

Courtney Marsh’s “Chau, Beyond the Lines” is a movie about a teenager disabled by the effects of Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant sprayed by the US military onto Vietnam’s jungle during the conflict to expose northern communist troops.

Bow out

Now in its 18th year, this will be the last documentary festival directed by Dimitris Eipidis since his appointment in 1992.

“When we started out I didn’t expect that this project would last for so long. However, I persisted because I love documentary films,” Eipidis said in a previous interview.

“I believe that having alternative sources of information is a cornerstone of modern civilization.”

Mitsotakis gives rise to liberal hopes but analysts advise caution

mitsotakis

By Harry van Versendaal

The recent election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis as leader of New Democracy has inspired hope among liberal voters anticipating a paradigm shift in Greek politics. It has also sparked concern among smaller centrist parties which are wary of losing their monopoly over liberal ideas.

None of this is likely to happen, analysts say.

The 47-year-old Mitsotakis, a former administrative reform minister, defeated Evangelos Meimarakis, a party veteran from the populist right faction of ND, in a runoff vote that was open to all party members on January 10. He is the scion of a political dynasty but this has often worked to his disadvantage. A US-educated ex-banker, Mitsotakis is commonly described as a free market reformist and diehard enemy of statism. His political enemies prefer to dub him “neoliberal.”

Pragmatism

Despite these credentials, analysts are skeptical of Mitsotakis’s willingness, let alone his ability, to steer the conservative opposition into a more liberal direction.

One reason is that renewing New Democracy and making it electable are not necessarily compatible tasks. Mitsotakis’s effort to balance between these two strategic objectives, analysts say, will to a large degree determine his party’s nascent identity.

“Although rejuvenating the party in terms of political personnel and policies may allow plenty of room for liberal ideas, bringing it back to power requires unity and compromise,” said Lamprini Rori, a political scientist at Bournemouth University and leading member of Brosta, a progressive political think tank.

Mitsotakis will be expected to cooperate with officials who belong to the party’s conservative faction and who supported him during the campaign – like Adonis Georgiadis, a hardline nationalist who endorsed Mitsotakis after being knocked out in the first round in December. At the same time, many of the MPs who displayed their liberal credentials by, for example, recently voting in favor of the cohabitation pact for same sex couples – former ministers Olga Kefaloyianni, Nikos Dendias, even his sister Dora Bakoyiannis – kept their distance from the new leader during his campaign.

Climbing back to power following two electoral defeats at the hands of SYRIZA (four if you count the European Parliament elections in 2014 and the bailout referendum last year) will also require an overture to voters both to the left and right of New Democracy.

“If ND wants to become a serious contender, it will have to appeal to the center while repatriating voters from Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn,” Rori noted in reference to the ND splinter group founded by Panos Kammenos which is the junior partner in the coalition government, and the neo-fascist party.

“In other words, seeking ideological purity on the basis of a solid liberal credo would be politically damaging for New Democracy,” she said.

Tension between free market ideology and traditional conservatism has always been present inside New Democracy’s political religion since its establishment by the late Constantine Karamanlis in 1974.

“Their coexistence has always been considered a given. One cannot easily show the others the door or leave the party for that reason,” said Iannis Konstantinidis, a political expert at the University of Macedonia and head researcher at the ProRata polling company, suggesting that a ND breakup is not in the cards.

The parliamentary vote on the cohabitation pact exposed the limits of social tolerance inside the conservative party. Only 19 MPs – including Mitsotakis – supported the law, 29 voted against and 27 abstained.

Ideological tension naturally cuts across ND’s grassroots supporters. According to so far unpublished data collected by ProRata ahead of the January 10 ballot, 29 percent of voters described New Democracy as a “liberal party,” while 17 percent said it was a “conservative party.”

“In the eyes of the public, New Democracy is neither a clear-cut liberal nor a clear-cut conservative party,” said Konstantinidis.

“The new leader will as a result find it hard to choose one direction over the other,” he said.

Impact

All that should trigger caution against overestimating the impact of Mitsotakis’s election on the liberal parties of the political center.

Potami – which, despite its underwhelming performance in the September 2015 elections, remains the largest and most successful liberal party in recent Greek history – is on standby.

“New Democracy is weighed down by conservative elements; we will only be able to work with them if [Mitsotakis] does away with them,” Potami leader Stavros Theodorakis said this week.

“We would work with the devil in order to change the country, let alone with anyone who shares reformist ideas. For the time being, we have unanimously decided not to join forces with any of the worn-down parties,” he said.

Potami has planned a national congress in February to decide its next steps. During a radio interview earlier this week, Spyros Lykoudis, a left-wing reformist MP, suggested that the magnitude of Mitsotakis’s impact will depend on whether Potami will choose to identify itself as a centrist liberal party or a left-of-center alternative.

Meanwhile, the leader of the pro-business Drasi party, which joined the Potami ticket in the January polls, sounds keener about the prospect of working with New Democracy.

“We are willing to help build something liberal in this country. The election of Mitsotakis is a catalyst in this direction,” said Theodoros Skylakakis, who has previously collaborated with Bakoyannis.

“Mitsotakis’s social and, to a lesser extent, economic liberalism will surely squeeze centrist parties, including the politically damaged Potami party,” Konstantinidis said.

“However, given that the leader of a typical catch-all party will seek to bring together all the different tendencies within it, policy similarities between Mitsotakis and Potami will decrease,” he said.

Ironically, the ascension of Mitsotakis to the helm of ND appears to pose less of a threat to Potami’s singularity than had he not been elected. A beaten Mitsotakis, perhaps joined by other officials from ND’s liberal faction, would have been more tempted to form a center-right, liberal party.

“Mitsotakis’s victory in the leadership race essentially traps liberalism within the walls of New Democracy and, in such conditions, it may lose its impact as it is unlikely to be more dominant than conservatism,” Konstantinidis said.

Relevance

For their part, the country’s smaller liberal parties will have to decide whether they will go it alone or merge with one of their bigger albeit adulterated relatives. Cooperating with one of the mainstream parties could prove self-destructive in the long term as future voters would be tempted to side with the stronger partner in a coalition.

Before making up their mind, they would be advised to first answer a more existential question: How relevant is a full-fledged liberal party in a political environment dominated by populism and under an electoral law that punishes small parties?

“Sure, there are issues where liberals could gain issue ownership like the separation between Church and state, the scrapping of permanent jobs in the public sector, or the protection of individual rights,” Rori said.

“But we may have to accept that these issues are not salient enough in the mind of the average voter.”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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