Saturday, 10 September 2016

Europe’s South demands less austerity, more security

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

The EU's Mediterranean leaders in Athens


ATHENS, Greece - European Union leaders will convene in Bratislava next week to talk about the future of the beleaguered bloc after Britain’s bombshell decision to leave it. But the leaders of southern Europe stole a march on that summit on Friday, outlining their priorities in Athens.  

“Europe is at a crossroads. It must re-inspire its people… this requires substantial measures to improve the lot of European citizens,” said Greek premier Alexis Tsipras, who convened the group of seven EU members stretching from Portugal to Cyprus.

The Athens Declaration, also signed by France, Italy, Spain, and Malta, calls on the EU to double the size of a $350bn economic stimulus package for the continent. It also calls for a substantial development package for North Africa, to help stem a tide of economic refugees that Greece, Italy and Malta have borne the brunt of. Although this year’s flows have so far amounted to 270,000 people, a quarter of last year’s, there are fears that the numbers could tick upwards again.

“Mediterranean countries have faced difficulties on behalf of Europe on the refugee issue,” said French President Francois Hollande. He spearheaded calls to strengthen internal security and Europe’s external border by making a new European Border and Coast Guard operational by year’s end.

It is the internal imbalance of Europe, however, that rankles most. Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, the high-deficit south has buckled under pressure from the north to curtail spending and improve its creditworthiness, so as not to undermine the credibility of the euro. The effects of austerity are now reflected in a political divide: the south has gone broadly left of centre, the north right.

“Europe cannot go on just being technicalities, finances, rules, administration and austerity,” said Italy’s premier, Matteo Renzi. “The Europe of tomorrow must above all be based on profoundly felt values because this is what has made us great: the social Europe, the Europe of ideas, the Europe of beauty.”

Tsipras was even more direct in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde on Thursday. “We must decide whether we want a European Union or a German Europe,” he said.

Eurozone countries have unemployment of 10.1 percent in the latest figures to be released, compared to 8.6 percent for the EU as a whole, further undermining confidence in the EU’s most ambitious integration project. 

Professor Loukas Tsoukalis of Athens University says the economic and political division of Europe is now very difficult to overcome. “What happened between 2010 and today is that the burden of adjustment has fallen exclusively on the deficit countries. Greece had to adjust, Spain, Portugal, no doubt about it. But Germany has to adjust as well, because what is happening today is that Germany is running a current account surplus in the order of 7-8 pc of GDP.”

The south cannot easily match German competitiveness, nor, believes Tsoukalis, will northern countries agree to large handouts to the south. But he does hold out hope that they can be convinced to spend some of their surplus at home.

“While Greece does more and should do more in terms of domestic reform … the Germans should also do something to encourage domestic demand in Germany, to encourage public investment in Germany, that may help regenerate growth in Europe. And that will be their contribution,” he says.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The morning after: Why Greece's financial crisis gives Europe the jitters


Game Over, by George Papakonstantinou, Papadopoulos Publishing, 2016
ISBN 978-960-569-600-9

A slightly edited down version of this book review was published by the Weekly Standard. 

George Papakonstantinou has been through hell. His reputation as the finance minister who co-wrote and signed Greece’s first bailout agreement with the Eurozone in the spring of 2010 cost him his cabinet post the following year and his parliament seat the year after that. He spent the next three years fighting charges that he tampered with state documents to help relatives evade taxes, which could have jailed him for life.

During all this time, Greece went through four changes of government, each bringing more pain and austerity than the last, while its recession spiraled into a full-blown depression. Both socialists and conservatives found it convenient to make a sacrificial lamb of Papakonstantinou as the bringer of austerity. Under indictment it became impossible for him to appear in public because he was openly vilified. Unable to do so much as take out the trash, he lived effectively under house arrest.

Last year, however, the Supreme Court acquitted him, and Game Over published this year is Papakonstantinou’s moral comeback – an attempt to pare away the paranoia and suspicion that have hounded him, and recast the record of his time in office - from October 2009 when the socialists swept to power, until June 2011 when he was ousted - on the basis of fact.

“For five years, I believed reality was so compelling that it would shape attitudes,” he says. “Instead, common sense and pragmatism gave way to conspiracy theories and hatred… I was amazed by the power of populism in shaping people’s minds.”

That populism filled the body politic throughout the crisis like seawater pouring through portholes, sinking government after government. First conservatives, then leftists, promised to abolish austerity and bring growth. They did neither, though the conservatives did complete the balancing of the budget.

Papakonstantinou describes accurately how this lack of bipartisanship not only raised the political mortality rate, but also scuttled Greece’s negotiating position at critical moments. “The power of experience is immense,” he says, explaining why Greek voters constantly fell for false promises. “What you do not experience has no comparable weight.”

Papakonstantinou correctly blames the factional, egomaniacal and populist character of Greek politics for Greece’s failure to face a national crisis with a national front; but he omits to mention that his own party behaved in exactly this way when in opposition, killing crucial education reforms in 2005-6. He also fails to mention that it was the socialists who instituted deficit spending on a massive scale in the 1980s, setting a standard for the profligacy of future governments that led to today’s €328 ($360) billion debt.

As a member of the Eurogroup – the informal council of Eurozone finance ministers - Papakonstantinou also provides an insider’s account of the painstaking process through which the Eurozone gradually realised it had to provide a distress fund for Greece, later enlarged to cover other governments priced out of the money markets.

The idea wealthier Eurozone members never came around to, however, was that some sort of debt reprofiling would be necessary to give underwater Eurozone economies time to rebuild growth. The International Monetary Fund now asserts that Greek debt is not sustainable and suggests extending Greek repayment schedules to the end of this century. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other fiscal hardliners like Finland and the Netherlands accepted the distress fund only on condition that their taxpayers would recoup their money. Rescheduling the debt of Greece would amount to a transfer. The Eurozone instead forced heavy losses on private holders of Greek bonds in 2012, which made markets even more skittish.

Game Over does more than portray a Eurozone led by markets, its policies slithering on the belly of necessity. It tracks how the sovereign debt crisis elevated Germany to the status of indispensable monetary power with the ability to veto ideas, like debt rescheduling, it doesn’t like. Game Over describes how even France, an economy nearly as large as Germany’s, fails to act as a counterweight.

It also seems to forecast Greece’s exit from the Eurozone. By the time Greece signed its third bailout agreement last July, it had already defaulted on the IMF with no visible repercussions from markets to other Eurozone economies. The systemic risk of letting Greece default is now provably zero. German finance minister Wolfgang Scheauble had first suggested in September 2011 that Greece take a leave of absence from the euro. By denying Greece a debt rescheduling, he now appears to have set the trap for Greece to abscond. Sacrificing the Greeks helps keep other Eurozone economies in line. Since Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus have returned to markets, the Greeks can be blamed for their own fate.

Austerity and taxes

By cataloguing a series of errors, Game Over makes the vast implication that had both Greeks and the Eurozone done all the right things at the right time, Greece would have preserved its sovereignty, its recession would have been contained, its debt sustainability would be assured and the crisis would never have spread to other Eurozone members.

Could all this have happened? Game Over is too much a defence of what Papakonstantinou did do - cut the deficit by more than a third and improve accountability – to address the broader issue. But it is clear that the good case scenario would have required more radical steps than anyone was willing to take: Greece would have had to attempt nothing short of an assassination of its nefarious state, and the Eurozone would have had to issue Eurobonds – bonds centrally assured by the entire membership of the single currency. The consensual instincts of Prime Minister George Papandreou ran against the first, and Europe’s wealthier states stood against the second.

Modernising Greece incrementally was the result. That has been painful in the extreme, because politicians proved more adept at cutting spending and raising taxes than redesigning the state and planning to boost strategic areas of the economy.

Greece’s low taxes used to make up for its red tape, but this competitive advantage is gone. In 2008, at the height of its borrow-and-spend profligacy, Greece took €57 ($63) billion in tax revenue from an economy worth €242 ($266) billion. Seven years after Wall Street’s financial meltdown, the economy had shrunk by 27 percent to €176 ($193) billion, but tax revenues were only marginally lower at €51 ($56) billion. The Greeks are paying more or less the same taxes on much lower income.

That transition is on the European statistical record. In 2008 tax revenues represented 32 percent of the economy compared to an EU average of 39 percent. Last year they were 39 percent, compared to the EU average of 40 percent. A pension reform passed last May will raise the tax burden much further.

Looked at from an individual standpoint, too, Greeks are now as highly taxed as anyone in Europe. The average single worker pays 39.3 percent of income to taxes and social security in the latest OECD figures to be released, compared to an average of 35.9pc.

This was done by constantly shifting the tax focus. As unemployment rose and revenue from personal income tax slipped (from €11.6 ($12.7) billion in 2008 to €7.8 ($8.6) billion last year), governments raised sales tax and consumption taxes to make up the difference. But consumption and sales, too, fell after 2011, so new taxes were introduced – principally on labour and property.

Greeks survived all this partly by tightening their belts, partly by spending their savings (bank deposits have fallen by 60 percent during the crisis) and partly by working and trading in an extensive black economy.

It is this last, difficult-to-quantify aspect of Greek survival, that has encouraged hardliners among Greece’s creditors to keep pushing for higher taxes, evidently believing that taxes that look unreasonable on paper work in practice because they draw on unregulated income. Thus under the government’s latest pension reform, workers are called upon to pay 24.5 percent of their income towards social security, seven percent towards the national health system, as well as 22-45 percent income tax.

The effect of these taxes is to push Greeks further from regulation and destroy any culture of payment. By assuming dishonesty, the government is cultivating it. Those who don’t go underground, go abroad. A recent survey by Endeavour Greece, a nonprofit promoting high-value startups, found that four in ten businesses are thinking of relocating abroad for tax reasons, up from a quarter last November. Capital drain was preceded by brain drain. Greece’s statistical agency has found that Greek society has suffered a net loss of 270,000 people since 2008. In short, the declared economy is disintegrating, and as a result, so, is society. Live births have been falling since 2006. Three years ago they slipped below the death rate and are still falling.

Greece does need more austerity, but that now needs to be focused solely on shrinking the bloated state, and using the proceeds to provide a survivable environment to businesses that want to stay honest. Before the crisis, one in four employed people worked for the public payroll. Today, that is still the unacceptably high ratio. The ruling Syriza will not rectify this because it is a defender of big government.

The bold proposals Greece needs to resurrect itself cannot be discussed with creditors who fundamentally distrust the Greeks and each other. So no one is currently in a position to empower willing and able Greeks to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. This is clearly not at all what either Papakonstantinou or the Eurozone had in mind when they instituted the first bailout, but the politics of necessity, which Papakonstantinou amply describes in Game Over, have become the politics of overlordship.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Refugees begin to see Greece as home, not hotel

This article was published by Al Jazeera International as "The refugees making Greece feel like home". 

Fatima, from Afghanistan, converses with classmates at Melissa in Greek

ATHENS, Greece - Slowly, the Afghan girl articulates the words in Greek: “Me lene Zahra,” (they call me Zahra). Then comes the hard part: “I am not married. I am free,” she says, using the Greek expression for single, faltering on the vowels, laughing at herself and resurrecting the sentence.

Two weeks ago, Zahra and her friend Fatima boarded the tram outside their refugee camp at the old Athens airport and travelled downtown to Melissa, an organisation for migrant women. There they enrolled in Aleph, a Greek language immersion programme sponsored by Mercy Corps.

The very name Aleph, Arabic for Alpha, reveals the Semitic origins of the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician some 3,000 years ago, and is meant to strengthen a sense of mutual respect.

Since last March, when Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslav republics shut their borders to a river of migrants and refugees travelling from Greece to Germany, some 57,000 have unintentionally remained in Greece. Many are applying for relocation to other European countries. Others are applying for asylum in Greece.

Both processes will take months, and applicants are graduating from the state of pure emergency that brought them here. With the help of volunteers, they are attempting to achieve the normality attendant on fixed populations, and even the beginnings of integration.

“Maybe one day we will stay here and there is no way to go to another country,” says Zahra. Yet this is not the only reason they are learning Greek.

“They want human contact, in every way, just like all of us,” says their teacher, Vicky Kantzou. “You can come closer with the Greek people, you can be friends with them,” explains Zahra, who tries to talk in Greek to volunteers at her camp.

People’s likelihood of relocating out of Greece has little to do with their extrovert tendencies, says Nadina Christopoulou, who founded Melissa. “The desire to learn and to belong has very much to do with your background, your worldview, your vision of the future.”

Most girls of 15 and 16, Zahra’s and Fatima’s respective ages, are expected to start a family in Afghanistan; but tradition is not the force shaping these girls’ lives. Zahra wants to study civil engineering and chemistry. “My parents say ‘study first, then get married,’” says Fatima, who wants to be a doctor in Germany. “There is no way to be successful in Afghanistan - for women,” she says.

The girls’ brains, ambition and family support have shaped a sense of opportunity, and their gender has turned from a liability to a strength. Out of their traditional social context, refugee men are merely displaced, but refugee women are liberated, and Melissa has become their second home. “The one thing that has really impressed me is their determination to make a life in a new society,” says Christopoulou. “They are fully aware of the things we also perceive as oppressive…. domestic violence, for example, or the lack of access to education.”

Christopoulou and a dedicated platoon of migrant women from Africa and the Middle East conceived Melissa three years ago as a haven for new arrivals.

Melissa’s very arrangement is meant as therapy. “These people have not been in a home environment for months or years,” says Christopoulou. “A kitchen, a casserole, a pot of flowers, a pot of basil, a bowl of cherries - helps them make the transition so much better.”

The power of language – and makeup

Some normalisation initiatives come from the refugees and are strengthened by volunteers. Kastro Dakduk, a Syrian artist who made his way to Greece in the 1970s, has carved a shelter for some 300 refugees out of a disused school in the neighbourhood of Exarheia. Volunteers have provided food and clothing, but once those basic needs were met, the challenge was altered.

“I noticed the children all day would play football, play football, play football. I thought, what is next?” says Abeer Mawad, an English teacher from Syria. “Will they only play football?... The women sit down in the playground and talk. What’s the next step?”

One day in late March, Abeer, as everyone calls her, took a chair and a small Ikea blackboard, stood in the playground and waited. “Suddenly they follow me, the children and women, and come,” says Abeer. “We brought chairs and they sat and I began with my teaching.”

Abeer often had to knock on classroom doors where families slept into the late morning to convene her class. “Throw the sleep, throw everything and come,” she told them. Through the teaching of basic English to children, many of whom have never attended school because of the unrest in Syria and Afghanistan, Abeer began their transformation from fugitives to residents.

Exarheia is most famous as the capital of the Greek Anarchist movement, but the refugee children of the 5th High School craved the trappings of order – a schedule, the demands of discipline and the authority of adults.

“Before everything was difficult. There was no speaking, only pointing. For example, going to the supermarket without speaking,” says Abeer, making the noises of a mute and pointing the way her students used to. “No! Now my students can go and speak English: ‘Yes sir, I need some water, Yes Sir, I need bread,’ and make conversation with grammar in a good way. When I see this, sometimes I cry, because I changed something inside them and outside them.”

Abeer flew to Germany on June 18 to be reunited with her husband and four children. Her final enterprise was a cosmetics workshop for young women. “It’s incredible how hungry they are for lipstick, eye shadow, particularly the Afghan women who’ve lived under the strictest regime,” says one volunteer at the school on condition of anonymity. “They wear their headscarves only halfway over their head and they see makeup as part of their freedom.”

Confessional theatre

A small number of Greek volunteers has achieved a rare social fusion for a brief period. Wilma Andrioti spent most of last year feeding refugees at the port of Piraeus. A few weeks ago, she organised some two-dozen Kurds and Afghans to retell their plight as a theatrical performance.

During weeks of rehearsals at her house, Andrioti and her two children, 11 and 13, became fast friends with the Afghan, Iranian and Kurdish refugees.

“We’d cook together, and what moved me was that because they felt obliged to me they brought whatever they were given at the camp – oranges, croissants, feta cheese in small packages,” says Andrioti.

“We played games and the Afghans taught my children the games they played back home … speaking words over hand motions – clapping, finger clicking, elbow bumping and hip movements.”

Andrioti now says, “We are a family with these people… They would clean and wash up everything afterwards. These people are civilised. They have noblesse, they have dignity and they are homemakers.”

Brave new continent

Integration is not everywhere offered, or sought, as keenly as it is in Athens, where refugees live in close proximity to Greeks. Most are kept in converted former army camps in the north of Greece, far from urban centres, and volunteer efforts are still focused on bringing them their daily bread. Some 8,000 are in enforced isolation on eastern Aegean islands, because a March 20 agreement between the EU and Turkey turned open reception centres there into incarceration facilities. Tensions in those reception centres are simmering.

But Greek volunteers and migrants who’ve spent decades in Greece have together acted as an outreach programme for the latest arrivals, in many cases supplanting the lack of state infrastructure.

“Greece never enacted any system of social integration, firstly because it was always a passage for migration, and secondly because it never really wanted to,” says Fanis Kollias, who recently started publishing Solomon magazine, exclusively written by –and for – migrants.

Kollias believes the first aid offered by NGOs and volunteers can be debilitating:  “[It] keeps refugees on a lower rung. It tells them, ‘I am here helping you because you need me and you will always be an inferior person.’… It doesn’t stimulate the refugees to begin to claim any sort of ownership. The point is to give people what they need to carry on alone.”

What Greece is witnessing now, through its accidental ownership of 57,000 refugees, is that humanitarianism is mingling with empowerment.

“We think about migrants in terms of their vulnerabilities and dangers they’re exposed to,” says Melissa’s Christopoulou, “but not on the basis of their skills, dreams, desires, their positive traits - their contributions.”

Girls like Zahra and Fatima are determined not to be victims, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. They have jumped at integration programmes like Melissa’s. In the process, they may be forming the vanguard of a new society on the edges of the troubled European continent.

Refugees begin to see Greece as home, not hotel

This article was published by Al Jazeera International as "The refugees making Greece feel like home". 

Fatima, from Afghanistan, converses with classmates at Melissa in Greek

ATHENS, Greece - Slowly, the Afghan girl articulates the words in Greek: “Me lene Zahra,” (they call me Zahra). Then comes the hard part: “I am not married. I am free,” she says, using the Greek expression for single, faltering on the vowels, laughing at herself and resurrecting the sentence.

Two weeks ago, Zahra and her friend Fatima boarded the tram outside their refugee camp at the old Athens airport and travelled downtown to Melissa, an organisation for migrant women. There they enrolled in Aleph, a municipally sponsored Greek language immersion programme.

The very name Aleph, Arabic for Alpha, reveals the Semitic origins of the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician some 3,000 years ago, and is meant to strengthen a sense of mutual respect.

Since last March, when Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslav republics shut their borders to a river of migrants and refugees travelling from Greece to Germany, some 57,000 have unintentionally remained in Greece. Many are applying for relocation to other European countries. Others are applying for asylum in Greece.

Both processes will take months, and applicants are graduating from the state of pure emergency that brought them here. With the help of volunteers, they are attempting to achieve the normality attendant on fixed populations, and even the beginnings of integration.

“Maybe one day we will stay here and there is no way to go to another country,” says Zahra. Yet this is not the only reason they are learning Greek.

“They want human contact, in every way, just like all of us,” says their teacher, Vicky Tanzou. “You can come closer with the Greek people, you can be friends with them,” explains Zahra, who tries to talk in Greek to volunteers at her camp.

People’s likelihood of relocating out of Greece has little to do with their extrovert tendencies, says Nadina Christopoulou, who founded Melissa. “The desire to learn and to belong has very much to do with your background, your worldview, your vision of the future.”

Most girls of 15 and 16, Zahra’s and Fatima’s respective ages, are expected to start a family in Afghanistan; but tradition is not the force shaping these girls’ lives. Zahra wants to study civil engineering and chemistry. “My parents say ‘study first, then get married,’” says Fatima, who wants to be a doctor in Germany. “There is no way to be successful in Afghanistan - for women,” she says.

The girls’ brains, ambition and family support have shaped a sense of opportunity, and their gender has turned from a liability to a strength. Out of their traditional social context, refugee men are merely displaced, but refugee women are liberated, and Melissa has become their second home. “The one thing that has really impressed me is their determination to make a life in a new society,” says Christopoulou. “They are fully aware of the things we also perceive as oppressive…. domestic violence, for example, or the lack of access to education.”

Christopoulou and a dedicated platoon of migrant women from Africa and the Middle East conceived Melissa three years ago as a haven for new arrivals.

Melissa’s very arrangement is meant as therapy. “These people have not been in a home environment for months or years,” says Christopoulou. “A kitchen, a casserole, a pot of flowers, a pot of basil, a bowl of cherries - helps them make the transition so much better.”

The power of language – and makeup

Some normalisation initiatives come from the refugees and are strengthened by volunteers. Kastro Dakduk, a Syrian artist who made his way to Greece in the 1970s, has carved a shelter for some 300 refugees out of a disused school in the neighbourhood of Exarheia. Volunteers have provided food and clothing, but once those basic needs were met, the challenge was altered.

“I noticed the children all day would play football, play football, play football. I thought, what is next?” says Abeer Mawad, an English teacher from Syria. “Will they only play football?... The women sit down in the playground and talk. What’s the next step?”

One day in late March, Abeer, as everyone calls her, took a chair and a small Ikea blackboard, stood in the playground and waited. “Suddenly they follow me, the children and women, and come,” says Abeer. “We brought chairs and they sat and I began with my teaching.”

Abeer often had to knock on classroom doors where families slept into the late morning to convene her class. “Throw the sleep, throw everything and come,” she told them. Through the teaching of basic English to children, many of whom have never attended school because of the unrest in Syria and Afghanistan, Abeer began their transformation from fugitives to residents.

Exarheia is most famous as the capital of the Greek Anarchist movement, but the refugee children of the 5th High School craved the trappings of order – a schedule, the demands of discipline and the authority of adults.

“Before everything was difficult. There was no speaking, only pointing. For example, going to the supermarket without speaking,” says Abeer, making the noises of a mute and pointing the way her students used to. “No! Now my students can go and speak English: ‘Yes sir, I need some water, Yes Sir, I need bread,’ and make conversation with grammar in a good way. When I see this, sometimes I cry, because I changed something inside them and outside them.”

Abeer flew to Germany on June 18 to be reunited with her husband and four children. Her final enterprise was a cosmetics workshop for young women. “It’s incredible how hungry they are for lipstick, eye shadow, particularly the Afghan women who’ve lived under the strictest regime,” says one volunteer at the school on condition of anonymity. “They wear their headscarves only halfway over their head and they see makeup as part of their freedom.”

Confessional theatre

A small number of Greek volunteers has achieved a rare social fusion for a brief period. Wilma Andrioti spent most of last year feeding refugees at the port of Piraeus. A few weeks ago, she organised some two-dozen Kurds and Afghans to retell their plight as a theatrical performance.

During weeks of rehearsals at her house, Andrioti and her two children, 11 and 13, became fast friends with the Afghan, Iranian and Kurdish refugees.

“We’d cook together, and what moved me was that because they felt obliged to me they brought whatever they were given at the camp – oranges, croissants, feta cheese in small packages,” says Andrioti.

“We played games and the Afghans taught my children the games they played back home … speaking words over hand motions – clapping, finger clicking, elbow bumping and hip movements.”

Andrioti now says, “We are a family with these people… They would clean and wash up everything afterwards. These people are civilised. They have noblesse, they have dignity and they are homemakers.”

Brave new continent

Integration is not everywhere offered, or sought, as keenly as it is in Athens, where refugees live in close proximity to Greeks. Most are kept in converted former army camps in the north of Greece, far from urban centres, and volunteer efforts are still focused on bringing them their daily bread. Some 8,000 are in enforced isolation on eastern Aegean islands, because a March 20 agreement between the EU and Turkey turned open reception centres there into incarceration facilities. Tensions in those reception centres are simmering.

But Greek volunteers and migrants who’ve spent decades in Greece have together acted as an outreach programme for the latest arrivals, in many cases supplanting the lack of state infrastructure.

“Greece never enacted any system of social integration, firstly because it was always a passage for migration, and secondly because it never really wanted to,” says Fanis Kollias, who recently started publishing Solomon magazine, exclusively written by –and for – migrants.

Kollias believes the first aid offered by NGOs and volunteers can be debilitating:  “[It] keeps refugees on a lower rung. It tells them, ‘I am here helping you because you need me and you will always be an inferior person.’… It doesn’t stimulate the refugees to begin to claim any sort of ownership. The point is to give people what they need to carry on alone.”

What Greece is witnessing now, through its accidental ownership of 57,000 refugees, is that humanitarianism is mingling with empowerment.

“We think about migrants in terms of their vulnerabilities and dangers they’re exposed to,” says Melissa’s Christopoulou, “but not on the basis of their skills, dreams, desires, their positive traits - their contributions.”

Girls like Zahra and Fatima are determined not to be victims, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. They have jumped at integration programmes like Melissa’s. In the process, they may be forming the vanguard of a new society on the edges of the troubled European continent.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Refugees in Greece take first steps towards self-reliance

This article was published by IRIN News

A man sits in front of his family tent at Ritsona

RITSONA, Greece - Masoud proudly lifts his bedding to reveal the construction of his makeshift bed: he has hammered together four wooden pallets normally used to stack cargo, and fitted legs under them. It’s poorly padded by a yoga mat covered by two woolen blankets, which seem to radiate heat in the June afternoon; but the 34 year-old Syrian chef has a solution for the heat too.

Outside the three-tent compound he has stitched together for his family, he has constructed a sort of summerhouse in the shade of some pine trees – a platform raised on several metal drums and rendered private by a bedsheet that flutters around it. There his wife, Mezgin, spends her afternoons cooling off, while Mohamed, 4, digs holes in the earth with the family claw-hammer and Linda, 9, works on a potted flower garden. Masoud has even built an earthen cooking stove, connected to a chimney on one side and an oven on the other, so that two meals can be prepared at once. He fuels it with dead wood foraged from the surrounding pine forest.

This Arabic version of the Swiss Family Robinson is part of a growing narrative in self-reliance at Ritsona, a former Hellenic Air Force radar station about 100km north of Athens. The facility has been abandoned for decades. The few brick-and-mortar buildings dotting it have gaping holes where machinery was ripped out of them. Even by rural Greek standards, it is the middle of nowhere.

Three months ago, as borders were reinstated across the Balkans and more than 50,000 refugees who had intended to make their way to northern Europe became stranded in Greece, the government began parcelling them out to abandoned military camps. Some 800 landed in Ritsona. Many have applied for asylum here or relocation elsewhere in Europe, but the process is likely to take months.

For volunteers and NGOs as well as the refugees they are helping, the emphasis is now shifting from providing everything they need to helping them fend for themselves. Handing out tools and pallets was a first step.

“For the first month it wasn’t happening at all,” says Ryan DeHane Templeton, an American volunteer with Echo 100 Plus, a Vienna-based charity. “And in the last three weeks it’s grown immensely.”

Across a dirt road from Masoud, another Syrian, Shem, has built a two-storey tree house to keep his pregnant young wife cool, draping pine needle-covered branches around it to provide privacy and shade. He is trying to coax rose vines out of four plastic water bottles.

The camp has no running water, and only the store room has electricity, yet another tent has managed to install a satellite dish, and children now sit around an ancient donated television.

Echo 100 Plus is encouraging such initiative-taking by the refugees. “We have a couple of sewing machines and a couple of tailors living in the camp who are going to start making the clothes,” says Templeton. “More conservative clothing is hard for us to find here in Greece. So, for example, they’ll start to produce long skirts for themselves.”

Some of the refugees find a sense of purpose by volunteering as translators and in other capacities for NGOs like Echo 100 Plus. One of the most sought-after translators is 23 year-old Soham Yazidi from Iraqi Kurdistan. She speaks Arabic, Kurdish and English, and finds the work therapeutic – especially as much of it is done in a pair of tents that serve as a Red Cross clinic.

“I try to spend my time translating, helping volunteers with food distribution, helping with clothes distribution, helping in the hospital,” she says. “I’m trying to spend my time away from the tents because life is really horrible here. But I’m trying to have hope; talking to people and taking some hope from them.”

In another effort to try to achieve a semblance of normality in the camp, a Canadian charity, Light House Relief, has fenced in an area for educational activities. “The kids are wanting to go to school and parents are trying to make sure their kids are on time,” says Patti Fink, a volunteer. “That’s part of the intent - to get kids to understand what it’s like to go to school and get into that routine.”

The Greek migration ministry has announced that it will open schools with Arabic- and Dari-speaking teachers in all the camps by September. In the meantime, the children of Ritsona, many of whom have never attended school, are taught punctuality, cleanliness and the ABC song under the shade of two enormous Aleppo pines.

Other improvements are on the way. Children watched excitedly as an air force excavator prepared a trench to lay down a sewage pipe. In a matter of weeks, Ritsona will have flushing lavatories rather than a bank of portable toilets.

On the outskirts of the camp, four plots of land demarcated with stones are the beginnings of a vegetable garden, currently on hold until irrigation water becomes available.

Ritsona’s refugees are not the least fortunate of the 57,000 currently in Greece. More than 8,000 are incarcerated on the islands of the east Aegean, on orders from the European Union, and have no scope for initiative.

Some 11,000 were last month evacuated from the border area in Eidomeni and relocated to hurriedly erected facilities in brownfield sites. Phoebe Ramsay, an independent volunteer from Canada, describes one of these in an industrial zone in the suburbs of Thessaloniki as “129 tents set up inside an old tannery... It's absolutely filthy-they didn't even sweep the floor before they set up tents. There's scrap metal and debris all around. There's only one tap of (theoretically) drinkable water for 800 people. And this is a good one.”

But neither are Ritsona’s inhabitants as fortunate as those spread through Athens in subsidised rentals and small communities that have been set up in disused buildings. Inside the urban fabric, these are closer to donors, volunteers and charities. They have enjoyed a greater degree of comfort and even face the prospect of limited integration.

Even with this self-empowerment, refugees at the camp are still largely cut off from Greek society. The International Organisation for Migration is seeking to address that, too. “We’re working on a plan to give each family a pre-paid Diners Club card with €250 on it. The idea is to put them on buses and send them to Thebes to do their own shopping,” says one volunteer. IOM hopes to fund this programme at least to the end of 2016.

Some people have gone further. The mayor of the island of Lesvos, which received more than half a million refugees last year, wants the European Commission to subsidise job creation schemes to improve refugees’ integration.

“What I said was that this small island… would also receive some of them – hundreds or even thousands - on a permanent basis. The only condition I asked was that a certain number of jobs should be created, half of which would be filled by refugees and half by locals.”

Galinos sees such subsidised jobs as a form of compensation for the millions of euros his municipality has paid in water and electricity bills for refugee camps, but the Commission has yet to respond.

Others are picking up the baton. Melissa, an organisation for migrant women in Athens, is launching a programme to help the newly arrived refugees integrate.

“It’s a crash course in Greek that a group of linguists has developed at the University of the Aegean – it’s utilitarian Greek,” says Nadina Christopoulou, who founded Melissa. “We have done focus groups at Melissa to discover what situational vocabulary is most useful, such as going to a hospital, dealing with children, paying bills… We’d like the seasoned migrants to be the connecting tissue between the refugees and society.”  

Melissa also plans trips to markets and museums, so refugees get to use their Greek.

“I think it’s very important for these people to emerge from the camps and start mixing with local society… The key is to forge a path to income-generating activity, where they will be agents of their own learning, not just passive recipients.”

Most people in Ritsona have escaped war, but they don’t seem to mind the screech and rumble of Greek Mirage fighter jets and F-16s taking off from the nearby Tanagra air force base. “We know we will stay for a long time here, but we are safe so we are happy,” says Soham. If life is what happens while people are waiting for it to begin, it is surreptitiously taking root in Ritsona.