Posts Tagged 'migrants'

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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Ghost ex machina exposes Europe’s wretched migrants

By Harry van Versendaal

Morgan Knibbe did not set out to make an objective documentary about one of the biggest problems facing Europe today: the plight of migrants and refugees on the continent.

“My ambition was to try to understand how these people feel. I wanted to submerge myself in their world and to share this experience with other people. I felt that I was able to achieve this by creating a highly subjective audiovisual form,” the 26-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands says about his first feature film, “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning,” which will screen at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Filmmaking is the art of manipulation… Pulling people out of their comfort zone makes them look at existing values in a different way.”

The opening of the film, which made waves at Amsterdam’s prestigious IDFA film festival, where it debuted, is faithful to this credo. A boat carrying immigrant families is seen adrift on rough seas in the black of night. A father tries to calm his anxious daughter as the vessel is tossed about by the waves. A man falls into the water and starts to go down. And then, black.

This re-enactment of a Lampedusa-style boat tragedy, the only staged part of the film, is enough to raise eyebrows among purist documentary filmmakers. However, it is also instrumental in allowing Knibbe to introduce his ghost ex machina, as it were. Stuck in purgatory, a ghost steers viewers through the largely invisible lives of undocumented migrants.

“We wanted to create the perspective of a ghost flying through a dark place between heaven and hell. A metaphor,” he says of his cinematic device which is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’s fiction classic “Wings of Desire.”

It’s a highly immersive feel, achieved through the extensive use of a Steadicam system and drone cameras – combined with some creative editing. Adding to the whole experience is the gripping, if sometimes overly lyrical, voice-over.

Thousands of mainly African and Asian immigrants try to reach Europe’s borders every year. Knibbe has chosen to offer zero figures and statistics. When it comes to engaging people, he says, posting cold facts and numbers does little to help the cause.

“That is what most media do and I think it doesn’t touch people. We also left out specifics about location so that no one could point a finger to a specific country. This is a European problem, in fact a global problem,” he says.

As the ghost floats around the grim cityscape, we get to glimpse at snippets from the lives of migrant families crammed into run-down apartments, men praying in underground makeshift mosques, scrap metal collectors roaming the streets, a drug addict mother taking her heroin shot. The setting remains unidentified, but uncomfortably familiar: Greece, which despite a brutal five-year economic crisis remains the gateway of choice for the vast majority of migrants seeking to make their way into Western Europe.

Commitment

It was not Knibbe’s first time at Europe’s porous external border. As a student, the Dutchman spent time in the western port city of Patra, the site of a now-deserted makeshift migrant settlement, and during that time he actually co-directed the film, “We Go Europe Insha’Allah.” Stuff you won’t see in Holland.

The distance makes his commitment all the more admirable.

“I did this because I feel privileged to have been born in relative wealth. We often take our wealth for granted. I like to see the world and its living creatures, including the human race, as an organism. There is a big imbalance and people tend to think small instead of big. Individual instead of universal. I’d like to make people think about the bigger picture,” Knibbe says.

“People who are in trouble want to move to a place where there seems to be wealth, but the wealthy don’t know how to deal with this. The film is mostly meant to give depth to this subject that is in my eyes generally treated in a shallow, informative and seemingly objective way. I wanted to make people empathize again,” he says.

Access was sensitive and painstaking. Knibbe often had to go to great lengths to approach and win the trust of his vulnerable subjects at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.

“I followed people on the street collecting garbage up to the places where they lived, either in some sort of an apartment, a basement or on the streets. I met a homeless guy in a park. I bought a football to play games with refugees. I cooked meals for and with people. It took time, care and love to build mutual trust. This was the most important thing for the whole film,” he says.

Introspection

Creating the film also had an impact on Knibbe himself – particularly shooting on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the 2013 shipwreck which killed 366 African migrants.

“Lampedusa was heavy stuff,” he says. Footage inserted into the documentary from his award-winning 2014 short “Shipwreck” captures the despair of the victims’ relatives as well as the confusion and grief of Italian officials as the victims’ bodies are taken away from the site. The director’s own presence, amid the crowd of cynical media people, made him ponder his own part in all that. It took some adjustment, shifting down a gear.

“It was an absurd mix: the deep trauma of the survivors and the media circus around them – who, quite frankly, were a parasitic, egoistic phenomenon. All these journalists trying to get their quotes and shots and then leave. I was confronted with myself as a part of this circus and tried to do things drastically different: I took more time and took it slow building mutual trust with the refugees,” he says.

It may be a bit more decent, dignified manner of handling the issue, but can a work like this improve the situation? In fact, what can?

Knibbe remains sober about the prospects.

“I’m not sure what we can do to change this problem. I don’t have answers. What I am trying to do with this film is to plant seeds in the minds of people that could hopefully flourish into more liberal and empathetic ways of dealing with this problem. I think building borders is useless and inhumane. We are wealthy, and we take it for granted. When the poor want a share, we tell them to p*** off and that their culture doesn’t fit ours. That’s f***ed up.”

The rise and rise of Golden Dawn

By Harry van Versendaal

With its leadership awaiting trial for a series of alleged felonies, why would someone vote for Golden Dawn?

“Golden Dawn is changing. To me, as a voter, there are clear signs of political maturity. The party is moving away from what used to be its core ideology; it’s not about kicking and punching immigrants anymore,” says Thodoris, a mild-mannered 45-year-old civil servant a few days after the far-right party gained seats in the European Parliament for the first time in its history.

“A growing number of people are joining out of patriotism and concern about national issues like illegal immigration. If you attend a party rally, you won’t see skinheads but ordinary people like me.”

Thodoris, who lives in the seaside resort town of Porto Rafti, east of Athens, says he initially voted for the anti-immigrant, ultranationalist and Holocaust-denying group in 2012, mainly to protest the way Greece’s two mainstream parties were handling the debt crisis. But at last month’s European Parliament elections, the former PASOK supporter – who did not wish to give his last name – says he had extra reasons to do so.

“While other parties promoted celebrities and soccer players to run in the European elections, Golden Dawn picked serious men,” says Thodoris, a devout Christian. Former lieutenant generals Eleftherios Synadinos, who once commanded the Greek army’s special forces, and Georgios Epitideios, a former director at the European Union Military Staff, as well as Lambros Fountoulis, the father of murdered Golden Dawn member Giorgos Fountoulis, accepted the invitation to run on the party ticket.

On the rebound

The party, which rejects the neo-Nazi label, came third in the European elections, taking 9.4 percent of the vote and collecting 110,460 more ballots than in the June 2012 national elections. Ilias Kasidiaris, Golden Dawn’s swastika tattoo-bearing spokesman, hailed the result, saying his party was now “the third force in the country’s political life.”

Just eight months ago, such a result seemed almost unthinkable. In September 2013, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos was taken away screaming and cursing in handcuffs to the high-security Kordyallos Prison, along with dozens of high-ranking party members and several MPs. But despite its leadership still being behind bars awaiting trial on charges of running the party as a criminal gang, Golden Dawn still managed to make a strong showing in Greece’s local and European elections last month, augmenting its nationwide political presence and surpassing expectations.

In the regional elections, the party won 31,903 more votes compared to the national vote of 2012, electing 26 regional councilors in 12 out of the 13 regions it campaigned for. Meanwhile, on a municipal level, Golden Dawn had 14 councilors elected in the nine municipalities where it ran. Four of them were elected in Athens where the party tripled its percentage compared to the 2010 local vote.

“The desire for retribution, which manifested itself in the 2012 elections, once again ushered voters toward GD, while in areas such as the Athens municipality and the Attica region, where the party commands a more solid backing, its performance most probably reflects some form of real support for the party rather than just anger or disillusionment with politics,” says Lamprini Rori, a political analyst who has conducted extensive research into Greece’s foremost far-right party.

“Voters whose anger initially turned them toward Golden Dawn appear to be gradually starting to identify with the party,” says Rori, adding that although the party’s geographical representation remains uneven, it managed to attract votes from more age groups and professional categories.

Black sheep

Greece’s crippling financial crisis – the economy is in the seventh year of a recession that has driven unemployment to around 27 percent – has been a windfall for Golden Dawn, which used to poll well below 1 percent. However, analysts agree that Greeks’ declining living standards are by no means the only factor in GD’s meteoric rise.

“None of the other countries that suffered an economic crisis in recent years, such as Spain, Portugal or Ireland, witnessed a rise in extremism in recent elections,” Rori says.

“In fact, far-right and Euroskeptic parties made gains in countries that were not that seriously affected by the crisis, such as the United Kingdom and France,” she adds.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front topped the national vote in France for the first time, while Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates immediate withdrawal from the EU, won a stunning victory across the Channel.

But analysts believe the sociocultural factors which catapulted Golden Dawn into the political mainstream were apparent before the debt crisis hit Greece.

The steady degradation of the center of Athens after the 2004 Olympic Games, soaring crime rates and the rapid influx of immigrants in certain downtown areas created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn, enabling it to ensconce itself in the capital’s fourth and sixth municipal districts. It was in working-class neighborhoods such as Kolonos, Sepolia, Akadimia Platonos, Kypseli and Patissia that the party’s foot soldiers gained the trust of native Greek locals who felt abandoned by the state. Golden Dawn developed a grassroots following that organized protest rallies, food drives, offered protection services and launched vigilante-style patrols, including violent attacks on immigrants.

Golden Dawn claimed to be taking on the duties of a corrupt, dysfunctional and unloving state as trust in official institutions and traditional political parties was obliterated by the crisis.

Meanwhile, the participation in November 2011 of Giorgos Karatzaferis’s populist right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the interim administration led by former central banker Lucas Papademos gave Golden Dawn a monopoly on the far-right anti-systemic vote.

Moreover, Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi rhetoric jelled with the 69 percent of an electorate that harbors anti-Semitic beliefs, according to a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League.

Just three years after receiving a paltry 0.29 percent, Golden Dawn won 6.9 percent of the vote and 18 parliamentary seats in the June 2012 national elections.

Backfire

New Democracy attempted to counter Golden Dawn’s rise by bringing in two popular lawmakers from LAOS and adopting a hardline attitude on issues such as street crime and illegal immigration, hoping this would bring voters back.

During the 2012 election campaign, ND leader Antonis Samaras labeled migrants as “tyrants” and spoke of the need to “reclaim” city centers from their grip. After becoming premier, Samaras scrapped a law granting citizenship to second-generation immigrants before blocking an anti-racism bill a year later.

ND’s candidate for Athens mayor, Aris Spiliotopoulos, adopted an openly xenophobic agenda in his 2014 campaign, attacking plans to construct a mosque in Athens on the grounds that the capital did not need “another magnet for illegal immigration” or “third-world tents under the sacred rock of the Acropolis.” Despite his own coalition government’s much-vaunted plans for going ahead with the construction of a mosque in Athens, Spiliotopoulos proposed a referendum on it, an idea that had been put forward months earlier by Golden Dawn’s own mayoral candidate.

These attempts by ND to break into far-right terrain worked to Golden Dawn’s advantage, bringing its pet issues into the mainstream of what is politically acceptable.

“When a political player haphazardly tries to hijack the issues and the framing of a rival political force, voters do not just remember the issues but also who is more suitable, in their judgement, to deal with these issues. GD obviously benefited from this,” Rori says.

In the capital’s mayoral race, far-right candidate Kasidiaris, also under criminal investigation, drew almost level with New Democracy, gaining 16.1 percent to Spiliotopoulos’s 16.9 percent. Both candidates failed to make the runoff.

Martyr status

Initially, the massive crackdown on the party after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, by a Golden Dawn member in the Athens neighborhood of Keratsini last September was anticipated to reverse the group’s momentum. But these expectations were quickly flattened. The launch of a judicial investigation saw a decline in grassroots actions and violent attacks but fell short of dampening the party’s appeal. Polls show that GD actually increased its share in Keratsini and neighboring Perama.

“The party did everything to portray the ongoing criminal inquiry as politically motivated, a strategy that allowed it to galvanize its party base,” Rori says.

Meanwhile, hard proof, such as a much speculated-upon weapons cache, has not been found, nor has a trial date yet been set, fueling belief among some voters that the investigation into the party is political motivated.

Thodoris, for one, believes the arrests are of dubious legality. “There is no evidence for these trumped-up charges. It’s all reactionary and dirty propaganda by the media. It may fool older people like my parents, but not conscious folk like myself,” he says.

“These people were sent to jail although nothing has been proved,” says Thodoris, who believes that the killing of Fyssas – as well as other widely recorded attacks against immigrants across the country – was an isolated incident that should not be attributed to commands from the top echelons of the party.

Golden Dawn’s martyr status was reinforced by the murder of two party members – 22-year-old Manolis Kapelonis and 26-year-old Giorgos Fountoulis – who were shot in cold blood in the Neo Iraklio suburb of Athens in November. The shooting was claimed by a previously unknown – and silent since – urban guerrilla organization.

“Golden Dawn showed it was able to hold back its members from reacting,” says Thodoris, a sign to him that the party had moved on from its violent past.

Another boon toward Golden Dawn’s increasing legitimacy has come in the form of costly blunders made by mainstream politicians. Cabinet secretary Panayiotis Baltakos, Samaras’s chief of staff, was forced to resign in April after he was secretly filmed in a private meeting with Kasidiaris during which he accused the Greek premier of instigating and influencing the judicial inquiry against GD for political gain.

“The Baltakos incident and the approval by the Supreme Court of Golden Dawn’s participation in the European elections both served as an alibi for the party’s voters who were looking for a way to justify their choice,” Rori says.

Speaking in an interview with To Vima newspaper on Sunday, Baltakos was adamant that there is a kinship between ND and Golden Dawn voters. He said his party should continue to court GD supporters.

“The leaderships of the [right-wing] parties cannot merge. That is evident. But the voters can. That too is evident,” said Baltakos.

Banality of evil

With Golden Dawn polling just under the 10 percent threshold, pundits are still debating how much of their support comes from protest votes and whether there are still misguided voters out there who have little stomach for neo-Nazi ideology.

“With 66 party members facing charges and 29 – including six deputies – sitting in jail pending trial, it would be rather naive to speak of misguided voters,” says Rori. But classifying all of these voters as neo-Nazis is a different matter altogether, she adds.

“Some of them do not think that the criminal charges against Golden Dawn hold any water; others do, but don’t really mind. Some condone violence or may even be attracted to it, because they are charmed by the display of power, the imposition of order or revenge.”

More disturbingly, there are those she classifies as free riders: “people who like violence without personal cost since they do not exercise violence, nor suffer from it.”

Vasilis Lyritsis, managing director at the refugee reception center run by the Hellenic Red Cross in Lavrio, on the eastern coast of Attica, also disputes the concept of the ignorant voter.

“I do not believe any Golden Dawn voters were ‘misled,’ as it were, or that they did not know what they were voting for,” he says.

Lyritsis, who ran as a regional candidate on a center-left ticket backed by the small Democratic Left (DIMAR) party, believes the mainstream parties must stand against Golden Dawn using clear political discourse on everything from human rights to the protection of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

“Politicians should not make any ideological concessions in the hope of stealing voters away from the neo-Nazis. The European elections demonstrated clearly that this does not work,” Lyritsis says.

A stumbling block in that direction is that political polarization regarding Greece’s bailout agreements with foreign lenders has prevented mainstream parties from forging a unified response. At the same time, experts say, the political class must work to rebuild the institutions of the state, because Golden Dawn has shown its adeptness at squeezing through the cracks and infiltrating basic functions of government.

“Golden Dawn exploited the absence of institutions like the police, welfare and justice against the more vulnerable groups of the population in order to weave its web,” says Lyritsis, who deems the party should have been outlawed because it is a threat to democracy.

However, analysts agree that the safest way to curb the influence of extremist ideas in the long run is to educate the voters of tomorrow. Lyritsis maintains the country needs to move beyond a nation-centric education.

“Portraying the ‘other’ as an enemy who is nearly by default blamed for all the nation’s woes has caused a great deal of navel gazing and an overblown national ego created around the idea of a chosen people,” says Lyritsis, who is also a trained historian.

“Greek schools must not operate like ivory towers. They must open up to multiculturalism and difference. They ought to promote the country’s contemporary history instead of finding comfort with the cozy identification of pupils with Greece’s ancient and Byzantine legacy, which may look safe but is dangerous in the long term,” Lyritsis says. “What we now get is a form of intellectual fascism.”

And while extremist ideas continue to gain traction and voters, Greece’s two traditional political parties, wedded in an uneasy coalition government, are shedding voters apace. The question is, who will replace them if they perish?

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.

The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”


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