Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Pandemic pushes harder Greek refugee policy, but also solidarity

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

ATHENS, Greece - Greece dispatched 50 unaccompanied minors to Germany on Saturday, the first major wave of some 1,600 intended for relocation to other European Union members. The minors were between the ages of 5 and 16, and were taken from overcrowded camps on Lesvos, Chios and Samos. Another dozen had departed for Luxembourg on Wednesday. 

“In the era of coronavirus, this act of solidarity by the German government is very much appreciated,” said prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who saw the children off at Athens airport. “Dealing with the migration crisis should be a European responsibility. We should be burden-sharing,” he said. 

Greece has been asking for such European solidarity for months, but until last month it wasn’t being heard. Almost as soon as he came to power in July last year, Mitsotakis started pressing the EU for help with some 5,400 more Greece says it cannot cope with. Greece is providing shelter, education and psychological support for some 1,400 minors who seek asylum in Europe, and is trying to raise that number to 2,000 by summer.

No takers came forward until the coronavirus crisis, which coincided with a geopolitical crisis in the Aegean. On February 27, Turkey declared it was opening its borders to asylum-seekers headed for Europe, effectively suspending an agreement struck with the EU in March 2016. Although Turkey also has a border with EU member Bulgaria, in practice Turkish authorities assisted refugees only to the Greek border, creating enormous pressure on Greek authorities. 

Coronavirus accelerates Greece's overdue digital revolution

 This article was published by Al Jazeera International
Athens, Greece- While national lockdowns to stop the spread of coronavirus are ravaging economies around the globe, for Greece the pandemic is forcing a rapid and long overdue embrace of digital platforms that is placing Greek businesses and the government on stronger footing - no matter what comes after coronavirus. 
"Remote work is moving forward in leaps and bounds, and could leave us with an important legacy [after the crisis]," says Marco Veremis, a technology entrepreneur and angel investor.
Hundreds of employees at Upstream,  a mobile technology firm Vermis co-founded, have been working remotely for three weeks, communicating via Slack the business-to-business messaging service, and video conferencing services like Google Hangouts, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
But Veris is even more heartened by how quickly his less-tech savvy clients have adapted to doing business under lockdown.
"A very large chunk of the marketplace is now being educated by the crisis," he told Al Jazeera. 

How Greece flattened the Coronavirus curve

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

ATHENS, Greece - When Greece cancelled carnival celebrations in late February, many people thought the measure excessive. In the western city of Patra, which hosts Greece’s most flamboyant carnival parade, thousands defied the ban and took to the streets.

“The government has ordered an end to all municipal activities… but this is a private enterprise. No one can shut it down,” said a jubilant reporter for the local Ionian TV in front of a crew dressed up as 17th century French courtiers. “They’re gathering here on St. George’s square, where the [Greek] revolution began in 1821, and that’s symbolic,” he said.

Greeks quickly put their revolutionary spirit aside, however, and largely heeded government advice to remain indoors. The result has been a remarkably low number of deaths – 81 by Tuesday, compared to more than 17,000 in neighbouring Italy. Adjusted for population, that’s a fatality rate almost 40 times lower.

Compared to other European Union members, too, Greece has fared better. Its fatalities are far lower than Belgium’s (2,035) or the Netherlands’ (1,867), which have similar populations but much higher GDP.

“State sensitivity, co-ordination, resolve, swiftness, seem not to be matters of economic magnitude,” Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently told a pared down session of parliament.

“Our schools closed before we had the first fatality. Most countries followed a week or two later, after they had mourned the loss of dozens,” he said.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Greece puts up a wall as Turkey besieges Europe with refugees

This article was published by The Critic

Moria refugee camp is the largest in Greece. Its current population of about 20,000 stretches well beyond the organised camp into surrounding olive groves.

LESVOS, Greece – It is midnight on a solitary beach on the north shores of the island of Lesvos. A boatload of 42 asylum-seekers is bedding down on the grass in front of a seaside chapel to St. Demetrios. The rubber dinghy they arrived in from Turkey bobs in the shallows just yards away.

“Turkey told people ‘If you want to go, you can go to Europe’,” said Ayman Ahmadi, a Syrian who worked 16-hour days in a shoe factory for two years to pay for his crossing. “Before we saw that whoever wanted to go to Europe, the police would catch these people.”

Most of the group – who include 12 small children – are from Afghanistan, though there are also some from Syria, Uganda and Guinea. It was raining when they arrived just before dusk, and their clothes are soaked. The night air is damp and cold, but there is nowhere else to take them.

Islanders on Lesvos blockade camp and port as refugee arrivals spike

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
A group of Afghan children plays on the north shores of Lesvos, shortly after they and their parents arrived in a rubber dinghy on March 1.

LESVOS, Greece - Refugees arriving on the island of Lesvos on Sunday told stories suggesting that the Turkish government had co-opted smugglers in its policy of ushering asylum-seekers west.

A group of 28 Syrians and people of several African nationalities sat on the beach near the Mytilene airport under the watchful eye of police, waiting to be taken for registration.

“I was in church with my wife, and the smugglers came to church and told us that if we wanted to go to Greece we could get on a boat for free. And we went with him to the beach and got on the boat,” a Congolese man told Al Jazeera without stating his name.

A man from Sierra Leone happened to be walking past the beach at the time. “I asked if I could go and they said ‘you can go’. I didn’t have to pay anything,” he said.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Greece on the defensive as Turkey opens border to refugees

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
An Afghan family cooks lunch in Moria camp, Lesvos.

Lesvos, Greece - Greece is bracing itself for what could turn into a flood of refugees and migrants after the Turkish government ordered its coastguard and border police not to prevent people from crossing into Europe.
"No illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted on Friday after Greek police fired tear gas at about 300 refugees trying to cross the land border at the Evros river.
On Saturday, a Greek government spokesperson claimed to have "averted more than 4,000 attempts of illegal entrance to our borders."
Later on Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 18,000 refugees and migrants had gathered on the Turkish borders with Europe since Friday, adding that the number could reach as many as 30,000 on Saturday.
Meanwhile, tensions are exploding at the Greek border, with riot police firing tear gas at groups of arriving refugees, some of whom are allegedly throwing stones and pieces of flaming wood in protest.
Greece's land border with Turkey is relatively strong. It is160km (99 miles) long and contains natural defences such as the Evros river and its marshy delta. Greece reinforced it with extra patrols and thermal cameras in recent months.
The maritime border is another story. Hundreds of kilometres long, it is patrolled by about 40 Greek coastal patrol vessels and boats, aided by a European Border and Coast Guard force.
Greece is in the process of building another 19 vessels but on Friday asked the European Union to provide more assistance.
It is physically difficult to intercept refugees at sea and Greece's archipelago presents them with thousands of islands to alight upon.
Since 2015, when a million refugees crossed the Aegean into Europe, Greece has found that the only real defence is diplomacy - persuading Turkey to put its coastguard vessels back into action to pick up refugees before they reach the Greek-Turkish territorial waterline.
Turkey opened the borders after dozens of its soldiers were killed in an air raid in Idlib, Syria, and has since complained that it lacks international support for its military campaign and that it hosts the world's largest number of refugees.
Mitsotakis on Friday said: "Greece does not bear any responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others," he wrote - a reference to Turkey's military support for groups opposed to the Syrian government.
Greece also has expectations of Europe. With 1 percent of Europe's GDP and 2 percent of its population, it finds itself processing almost 11 percent of EU asylum applications - a result of rules requiring asylum seekers to apply in the country they arrived in. So far, the EU has been unable to negotiate a permanent burden-sharing mechanism.
Some Greek officials also see the EU's deeper involvement in the Middle East as a prerequisite to resolving its refugee woes.
"Europe has to decide what to do, because no matter how many people you resettle or save at sea, more people will come," a senior security official in the Greek government told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
"Europe has to make serious decisions but right now its politicians seem to have a [particular] narrative that prevents them from doing so, while societies are suffering from information overload and an economic crisis."
Arrivals on the islands were not unusual on Friday - 151 asylum-seekers on five boats. But that could change very quickly.
Mercantile Marine Minister Ioannis Plakiotakis was on Lesbos in a largely symbolic visit to demonstrate solidarity with the east Aegean.
"We are here with the chief of the coastguard to emphasise our resolve to protect our maritime borders to the highest degree possible," he told Al Jazeera.

Right-wing government's refugee policy

The eight-month-old right-wing New Democracy government has been frustrated in implementing its harder refugee policy.
On January 1, it started implementing a stricter asylum law that aims to speed up processing and increase returns to Turkey but the results have not been spectacular. Returns so far are in the dozens per month.
The government has also failed to persuade the five islands with reception centres - Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos - to allow it to build detention centres that will replace current open camps, increasing total capacity on the islands.
Despite the fact that camps on the five islands are currently overflowing with 42,000 asylum-seekers, islanders say that increasing official capacity will lift numbers even further.
In recent days, riot police ferried in from Athens clashed with locals on Lesbos and Chios as construction companies attempted to bring in earth-moving machinery to start work on the new camps.
"The refugee issue is of national importance," said Plakiotakis. "Everyone must help above and beyond political interests and affiliations.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

EU’s last nickel smelter heads for the gallows, or an afterlife

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

A worker injects pure oxygen into furnace number one to coax out molten nickel-iron at a temperature of 1,300 degrees Celsius

LARYMNA, Greece - The final countdown has begun for Larco, the European Union’s only remaining nickel smelter, and its 1,260 workers and their families. The Greek state can no longer afford to finance it and has given it a final dowry of 35mn euros and a year to find an investor.

“If during this period three quarters of Larco’s assets haven’t been sold, the company must file for bankruptcy,” finance minister Christos Staikouras told parliament.

Larco sits at the centre of a $170mn economy. In addition to its miners, smelters and office workers, more than 22,000 suppliers and contractors are dependent on it, so shuttering it would entail a high political cost.

But the eight month-old New Democracy government has its sights fixed on a new age of smaller government, lower taxes, renewable energy and competitive, high-tech services, and appears impatient to close the book on an attempt at heavy industry that began in the 1950s and was largely bankrupt thirty years later.