Monday, 10 November 2014

Amina’s flight

This article was published by the UNHCR*.

“You can’t do anything with empty hands,” says Amina, an Afghan refugee. She’s frustrated with her inability to help her children start new lives in Europe empty-handed. “If you don’t have anything, you can’t do anything,” she says.

Amina and her husband lived in Tehran for two decades. Two of her four children were born there. The family had sought refuge from the Taliban’s war, which in 1996 swept away the last remnants of Soviet rule by overthrowing the Najibullah government and imposing sharia law across most of the country.

Two years ago, Amina and her family became refugees from a different kind of violence. “We left Iran because my husband was killed by his uncle and cousins. The reason was a dispute over division of property,” she says.

The property was a hectare of farmland and a house, which Amina's husband was trying to secure for his children. Two years ago, he went on a trip to Afghanistan. “My husband did not tell me why he was going to Afghanistan, but it was to discuss the property issue. Then a month later his cousins came and found him and knifed him.” Her children spent ten days watching their father die in hospital.

Amina's life changed drastically. She had no income. “I raised my children with great difficulty. We left Tehran and went to Mashhad, but found we couldn’t live there either.” 

Early last summer, Amina received warning from her husband’s family that her children weren’t safe. “The cousins are still chasing us – they want to kill my children to prevent them from inheriting the land,” she says. Her brother, a farmer, put up the money to smuggle them to Europe.

“From Iran to Turkey we paid two million toman per person ($600), and from Turkey to here $2,000 dollars per person.” 

She recalls their journey: “A car came to the border and took us up a mountain. We walked for 4-5 hours, and waited for several more hours and were met by another car, which took us into Turkey.”

Despite the vast sums she had paid, Amina's smugglers also robber her of a further 2,800 euros. “My brother had put money in an account. In Istanbul the smugglers took us to pick it up, and as we waited at a red light they slipped it out of my son’s pocket. The Turkish police told us that we could file a report, but since we were travelling without documents we would also be put in jail.”

The family spent only a week in Turkey. On the ninth night after they left Iran, they were put in a rubber boat holding about 45 people and pushed off the Turkish coast, pointed in the direction of the Greek island of Lesvos.

“We spent four hours on the sea, bailing out water and praying to Allah. The waves had taken us far. When we reached Lesvos, we walked for several hours. We saw a house, knocked, and asked the man who lived there to call the police. He gave us food and water and called the police, who took us to the holding cells.”


The family tried to trek to Germany. They were arrested in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and sent back. They went back to living in a municipal summer camp on Lesvos, and are fed by volunteers. They have now applied for asylum here. Her daughter, who is 12, has started an induction course to enter Greek school. Asked what she’d like to study in university, she says, “Mathematics.”

*This article is part of a series of profiles published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to help highlight the plight of those fleeing war- and famine-torn regions of central Asia, the Middle East and Africa towards Europe. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Political storm clouds again gather over Greece

Greece may be approaching a new political and economic crisis, reflected in nervous markets. Greek 10-year borrowing costs jumped more than two points this week to 8.96 percent on October 16. During the same period, the Athens Stock Market fell by a third, to 869 points from 1,260. 

Conservative party MP Adonis Georgiadis blamed the developments on statements by the left wing main opposition party, Syriza. "When the Syriza government comes to renegotiate our loans, which will happen soon, the question of at least a 50 percent writedown of the country's public debt and of repayment of the remaining part on the basis of growth will come up," Yiorgos Stathakis, Syriza's shadow development minister is quoted as having said on Monday. 

On the same day, the conservative-led government approached the Eurogroup with a proposal to extricate itself from the International Monetary Fund's adjustment programme at the end of the year, when he Eurozone's period of oversight ends, rather than mid-2016. 

Achieving this could remove the opposition's main stick - the country's memorandum of austerity and reform. 

The memorandum mandates fiscal austerity, banking reform, economic reform and political transparency, some of which has been carried out, but much of which remains to be done. It has become a symbol of lost sovereignty and social disintegration. 

At the same time, the government is trying to negotiate a rescheduling of debt with its Eurozone partners, which would allow it to lower its annual premium and achieve a full budget surplus, not just a primary surplus. Greece achieved a 2.9bn euro primary surplus in 2013, and expects a 6.1bn euro primary surplus this year. 

All this is rendered urgent by a looming general election. This is likely by next April, and possibly before. Parliament must elect a new president by the end of March with a three-fifths majority - which is currently beyond the ruling coalition. Failure to do so would trigger an election. Parties are already jostling for alliances and beginning the process of drafting ballots. 

The political mixture is as toxic as it was in the last general election in 2012. The government is reform-fatigued and voters are tax-fatigued, so while the country may still be on track to achieve 0.6 percent growth this year, this may no longer be enough to make businesses or taxpayers happy. In fact, the mild rate of improvement may work against the ruling coalition of socialists and conservatives. 

The economy is improving fast enough to allow people to feel they can risk a change of government (polls now put Syriza ahead by several points), but not fast enough to feel optimistic about staying the present course (recent polls show that half of Greeks believe the economy and unemployment will worsen, while only about one in ten expects improvement). 

The slowness of the recovery is also failing to lift the prospects of the less fortunate, creating a two-tier society. September labour ministry data revealed a marginal rise in unemployment, and that six in ten of the jobs that were created are not full-time. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, almost four million people are at risk of poverty or social exclusion - 36 percent of the population. A large proportion the the population cannot eat protein every other day, pay utility bills or own a colour TV.  

Friday, 3 October 2014

UNHCR warns of worsening refugee crisis in Mediterranean

The number of people attempting to enter Europe across the Mediterranean - and dying in the attempt - could triple this year compared to last, warns the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"165,000 people have made the crossing so far this year compared to 60,000 for all of 2013 – making 2014 a record year and reflecting the level of desperation among many of those involved," the world's largest humanitarian body says.  

Most alarming, perhaps, is that the rate of crossings and of deaths has accelerated sharply since the beginning of the summer. "In all, 90,000 people crossed to Europe between 1 July and 30 September and at least 2,200 lost their lives, compared to 75,000 people and 800 deaths for the period between 1 January and 30 June." 

The UNHCR attributes the rise partly to renewed civil war in Libya and an exodus of asylum-seekers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. 

It calls for "Europe to commit more resources for rescue at sea in the Mediterranean and step up efforts to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages." Among the legal alternatives suggested in the past are asylum application points that would be set up in safe countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Lebanon. 

"We are failing to heed the lessons from the terrible events of last October," said High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterrez on the one-year anniversary of a migrant boat sinking off Lampedusa, in which some 400 Somalis and Eritreans died. "More and more refugees are drowning trying to reach safety," he said. 

Approximately 500 people drowned off the coast of Malta on September 10, when the fishing trawler they were headed to Italy in was deliberately rammed by another vessel. Only 11 people survived

Monday, 22 September 2014

Mass murder on the high seas

This article was published by Al Jazeera International 

When Doa al Zamel and her fiancĂ© embarked on a voyage across the Mediterranean in an Egyptian fishing trawler, they felt their dream was coming true. “We were going to be married in Italy, and then we would live in Europe – we hadn’t decided where,” says Doa, a slim 19 year-old Syrian with gentle eyes.

She and her family had fled the city of Deraa and spent two and a half years in a refugee camp in Egypt. Her flight even from this safe haven is a reminder of the state of limbo in which similar camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon keep some three million Syrians refugees.

What Doa and 500 fellow travellers met with was nothing short of mass murder on the high seas. They set sail from the Egyptian coast on September 6, and the boat was covered with humanity from bows to stern on three decks.

"On the fourth day after we set sail, between noon and two o’clock, we were met by another fishing vessel,” Doa says. “The people on it asked us to stop. They threw pieces of metal and wood at us and swore at our captain. Our boat refused to stop and they rammed us. They waited until we had sunk and they left."

Hamad Raad, a 24 year-old Palestinian barber from Gaza, was in the hold when the ship was rammed astern on the port side. “As soon as the craft was struck it listed to the left,” he says, throwing panicking women and children, who had been seated on the starboard side, across the floor. “We started to sink from the stern quickly…. the shouts and noise went on for maybe 20 seconds. We heard nothing after that,” he says. Hamad says he swam out through an open window and watched the ship’s bows disappear vertically beneath the waves.

The identity of the ramming vessel and its motives remain a mystery. The Hellenic Coast Guard believes that the attackers may have been the contracting smugglers themselves, trying to reclaim the boat for a different set of passengers. “We believe the attackers were trying to transfer everyone to a smaller boat because they needed the larger one,” says a senior official.

Among those who drowned was Doa’s fiancĂ©. She estimates that between 100 and 125 people initially survived. They clutched plastic canisters, life vests and inflatable toys to remain afloat, but over the next three days, as they drifted across open sea without food or water, most would perish.

Doa and Hamad spoke from the confines of a private house in Chania on the island of Crete, where they were evacuated on Hellenic Air Force helicopters after being spotted by patrol aircraft. Their faces were mottled with raw, pink skin where severe sunburn had flaked away. Hamad’s neck bore open wounds where the life vest had rubbed against it. Such marks were small testimony to the trauma they endured after the sinking.

"The men would urinate into bottles and give it to their children to drink. And I myself urinated into a bottle and drank it," says Hamad.

"Some people died of stress, others willed it to happen,” says Doa. “One man took off his own life vest and sank. Some died of fear, some of cold.”

“In the beginning people clung together in groups,” says Hamad, who had found a life vest in the first moments after the sinking and put it on. “But each day the groups thinned. On the third day people lost their senses. Two people came up to me and told me I had taken their life vest and that it belonged to them, and made to drown me. Many of us were afraid after that.”

“I also lost my senses,” he says. “I hallucinated that I had walked into a hotel and was asking for a room and food and drink, and I imagined that I was arguing with the hotelier. And I took off my life jacket and began to sink… but the sinking brought me back to my senses.”

As hope of being rescued diminished, people resorted to desperate measures. Doa became a focus of attention because she had an inflatable plastic ring. "A grandfather who had a one year-old baby girl on a canister asked me to look after it because I had an inflatable ring. And I put the baby on the ring and kept it,” she says fighting back tears.

“Then a mother came with an 18 month-old baby girl and a six year old girl and asked me to take care of the baby, and I kept it too. I watched the grandfather and the mother and her older daughter die. The one year old baby died just before we were rescued."

Doa says that the thought of saving the infants she had been entrusted with helped her stay alive. She managed to save the 18 month-old girl, who recovered from kidney failure after two days in intensive care on Crete.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein urged countries to bring the perpetrators to justice. "The callous act of deliberately ramming a boat full of hundreds of defenceless people is a crime that must not go unpunished. If the survivors' accounts are indeed true - and they appear all too credible - we are looking at what amounts to mass murder in the Mediterranean." 

The passengers on the ill-fated trawler were a mixture of Syrian, Palestinian, Sudanese and other war refugees. Spiraling conflicts in the region are displacing ever more people. The Hellenic Coast Guard says the numbers of irregular migrants it intercepts are climbing, too, from 3,345 in 2012 to more than 10,000 last year. They expect to pick up triple that number this year.

The difficulty of stopping smugglers and traffickers is apparent from how lucrative the operation is. Doa and Hamad had paid $2,500 and $2,100 for their passage, respectively, putting the value of just this trawler’s human cargo at well over a million dollars.

Asked why he was willing to undertake such expenses and risks, Hamad says he has watched too many of his friends and relatives die in Gaza. “Since I was born, I don't remember a good day. There is tyranny. There is no life or laughter. You don't know what day someone is going to come and kill you.”

He says he and two friends, who drowned, “were bound for a country where human life is respected.”

Of the initial 100-odd survivors off the coast of Malta, only six arrived on Crete and another two in Sicily. Doa and Hamad have been given immunity from deportation as refugees. Asked whether she plans to file for asylum in Europe, Doa says, “I don’t know. Our dream was to make a life together in Europe. That’s all gone now.”

Friday, 5 September 2014

Greek surplus could ease austerity

Greece this week announced that it has generated a primary surplus of 3.2bn euros over the first seven months of the year, trumping a 2.9bn euro surplus last year.

"This is a clear indication that public finances are settling into a pattern of primary surpluses, and this creates the basis for growth with social justice," said a statement from deputy finance minister Christos Staikouras on Wednesday.

Expectations are high among portions of the Greek media that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras will make significant policy concessions at his inaugural speech to the Thessaloniki International Fair on Saturday morning. The annual speech is traditionally a keynote for Greek prime ministers to foreshadow their economic policy for the year ahead, before the budget is presented to parliament by early October.

Two small concessions have already been made. Public transport tickets fell to 1.2 euros on Monday, down from 1.4 euros. And the government has in principle cleared the way for a reduction in property tax, introduced in August 2011 as an emergency revenue measure.

Further revenue measures introduced during the four-year Greek crisis include a VAT hike from 19 to 23 percent (2010), a 30 percent increase in heating oil (2012) and a solidarity tax amounting to a surcharge on income of between two and five percent (2011).

Samaras has been keen to ease the burden on taxpayers and especially businesses. Last year his government reduced VAT to 13 percent for restaurants and made an abortive attempt to reduce the price of heating oil. In April he announced that small businesses and the self employed will have VAT reimbursed at the end of this year for the first time.

Businesses and the self-employed are obliged to pre-pay 23 percent Value Added Tax on their turnover each month, or face hefty fines of at least 500 euros. In theory, the state reimburses much of that VAT at the end of the year, once businesses and traders have presented expenses in their tax statements. In practice, however, the state has failed to disburse the cash, holding it as credit against future tax obligations and sucking up liquidity.

Last September, during the annual Thessaloniki speech, Samaras said that one of the first goals of his tax policy would be to lower corporate tax rates from 25 percent to 15 percent.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Cyprus divided, 40 years on


This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

There had been ample warning of a Turkish invasion: a buildup of 38,000 troops at the Adana military base in southern Turkey; a flotilla of ships that carried 160 tanks and armoured personnel carriers; and preparations to launch some 80 aircraft. Greek intelligence seems to have interpreted all this, and radar sightings of the fleet under steam on the morning of the invasion itself, as a mere exercise.

At dawn on July 20, Turkish fighter jets began to strafe Greek infantry billets, light artillery batteries and air force early warning stations on Cyprus’ northern shore. Moving swiftly inland, they laid waste to the Greeks’ main military camp in the capital, Nicosia. The 185th artillery battalion was scorched with napalm bombs as it moved out of barracks.

Cyprus effectively fell within days, but Turkish forces advanced well into August, long after the UN had ordered aceasefire, and stopped when they reached a line of division between ethnic Greek and Turkish communities suggested by the British in 1964.

It is along this Green Line, as it is now known, that Cyprus remains divided today, cutting across Nicosia to create the world’s last divided capital.

The invasion marks the only occasion when one NATO ally fought another.  Washington’s apparent acquiescence is attributed to the Nixon administration’s distraction with impeachment proceedings, but remains controversial. The ongoing occupation of northern Cyprus is the only occupation of EU soil and still marks the biggest obstacle in Turkey’s path to EU membership.  

Roots of division

Cyprus’ division marks a spectacular failure to graduate a European country from British rule to independence. The Turkish invasion was, at least nominally, a response to Greek-Cypriot nationalism. After the Second World War, a Greek-Cypriot lieutenant colonel, Yiorgos Grivas, set up EOKA, a guerrilla organisation, which attacked British troops and installations as part of its goal to merge Cyprus with Greece. Its battle cry was Enosis, or union.

In 1955, British governor John Harding offered the Greek-Cypriot community leader, Archbishop Makarios, self-determination after seven years. Makarios turned it down and condoned the EOKA campaign. It was then that Britain began to stoke Turkish interest in its ethnic community on Cyprus. From this point on, British policy saw any new arrangement as bi-communal.

The following year Britain presented the Radcliffe Plan, which allowed some self-government to the two communities separately. Prime minister Harold MacMillan went further down this path in 1958, foreshadowing the gradual division of Cyprus into two communities and possible partition. The plan could be enforced with either the Greek-Cypriot or the Turkish-Cypriot community separately. Like the previous plans, it was rejected by Makarios.

Cyprus was eventually given independence in 1960 on the basis of a power-sharing agreement negotiated by Greece and Turkey, not by the Cypriots themselves, which installed Makarios as president and a Turkish-Cypriot vice-president. However, Britain, Greece and Turkey retained power to intervene unilaterally if they felt their interests threatened.

By December 1963, this system of self-rule broke down. Turkish-Cypriots withdrew from the administration and Turkey declared the constitution of 1960 void.

The breakdown sparked the worst inter-communal clashes to date early the next year, leading Turkey to deploy troops along the highway between Nicosia and the northern port of Kyrenia, and depriving Makarios of control over parts of the island for the first time. The Turkish position, that Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots could not live together, seemed to have been amply demonstrated.  
Makarios was to turn down one last chance at Enosis that year: an American proposal would have unified Cyprus with Greece, allowing Turkey to lease a small military base for 50 years.

Still, it was a Greek blunder that would trigger the invasion. In 1967, a cabal of nationalist Greek colonels who had served in Cyprus in the 1950s and had become radicalised there, seized the reins of government in Athens to prevent a centre-left government from being elected. On July 15, 1974, they attempted to bring about Enosis by deposing Makarios in favour of their own man, Nikos Sampson, a former EOKA guerrilla. Makarios fled, denouncing the coup as an invasion, and inviting intervention.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared independence in 1983, but remains recognised only by Turkey.

Is the status quo permanent?

“I am not sure we can live with the Turkish-Cypriots,” says Christos, a banker raising a family with his wife, Anita, in a plush neighbourhood of Nicosia. Both grew up in an ethnically pure state since the invasion.

He is suspicious of Turkish motives in backing the talks, the first since Cyprus discovered large reserves of natural gas in its territorial waters. These could transform its economy over the next few years.

“It’s obvious that they want a share in the gas wealth. Frankly, I think that we should just let them have all the gas, in return for pulling out their troops. We don’t need the gas to prosper. We’re perfectly capable of building an economy out of our own labour. We just want to have our island back and to be left alone.”

Anita agrees, despite the fact that a reunification settlement could indemnify her at today’s property rates for luxury hotels her family lost in the invasion. “I just don’t think we should legalise the invasion,” she says. The word she uses means both to legalise and to render legitimate, and reflects Greek-Cypriots’ awareness of the fact that they are being called upon to surrender a moral high ground.

Christos’ and Anita’s skepticism echo throughout Greek-Cypriot society, and lies at the heart of a disastrous attempt to reunify Cyprus ahead of its last major invasion anniversary a decade ago.

In April 2004, four out of five of Greek-Cypriots rejected the so-called Annan Plan, named after then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It would have created a federal state that gave the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities powerful local governments.

Although two thirds of Turkish-Cypriots voted in favour of that plan, not all are so minded. Many Cypriots on both sides are now beginning to wonder whether they should accept the status quo as the lesser of many evils.

“For me there is no division,” says Osman Sakale, a Turkish-Cypriot shopkeeper who lives in northern Nicosia. “Turks are on this side living happily, Greeks are on the other side living happily. Any reunification by force won’t work.” He adds, “We Turks play artistic music, the Greeks play Western music and we don’t coincide.”

Sakale is not a native-born Tuyrkish-Cypriot, but a settler brought in over the last 40 years by Turkey as part of an effort to alter the demographics on the island. Greek-Cypriots currently number some 600,000, Turkish-Cypriots only 200,000 – and only an estimated 80,000 of those are indigenous.

One of those indigenous ethnic Turks is film-maker Mustafa Ersenal, who supports reunification. “We really do feel very claustrophobic in Cyprus; especially in northern Cyprus,” he says. “First of all, we all have to go to the army. It steals a year of our lives, it steals a year of productivity, it steals a year of our creativity, it steals a year of our future.”

Elena Tanou, a businesswoman who has organised a Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot business forum, agrees. The situation now with the economy brings us to a dead end. People in both communities feel that a solution – a political solution - will bring jobs, and the chance to restore the country again altogether.”

Mightier than the sword

Despite its effectiveness, the invasion increasingly seems to have become a millstone around Turkey’s neck. Keeping 40,000 troops on the island costs an estimated $480 million a year. Subsidising the TRNC’s budget costs hundreds of millions more.

Expelling some 200,000 Greek-Cypriots from their homes in the north is also becoming increasingly expensive. A landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling in 1996 awarded Titina Loizidou, a Greek-Cypriot teacher, $915,000 in compensation for the violation of her right to the “peaceful enjoyment of her property”, by preventing her from visiting and occupying her home in the north. Hundreds more cases have been filed, and the damages accrue for each year of the occupation.

In May, the ECHR  ordered Turkey to pay Cyprus more than $120 million (90 million euros) to the relatives of some two thousand people missing since the invasion, and to enclaved Greek-Cypriots in the north.

These mounting legal costs stand in contrast to the peace dividend Turkey stands to gain through re-unification. In 2010, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), a think-tank, estimated the potential annual benefits to Turkey at over $16bn (12.3bn euros) – chiefly in travel, tourism, financial services and exports, in addition to some $7bn in savings. 

The potential benefits to Cyprus are even greater, the PRIO believes. “With a solution to the Cyprus problem, all-island GDP (at constant 2012 prices) would rise from just over 20bn euros [$27bn] in 2012 to just under 45bn euros [$61bn] by 2035… compared with around 25bn euros [$34bn] without a solution. In other words, the peace dividend over 20 years would be approximately 20bn euros [$27bn].” This would translate into per capita earnings of $38,000 a year for Cypriots, compared to $23,000 today.
Energy is the great new factor here. Gas fields found offshore Cyprus in 2010 are estimated to amount to at least 4.1tn cubic feet, with much exploration remaining to be done. 
Finally there are the diplomatic costs: Occupation has now become a major obstacle to Turkish hopes for EU membership.

This has helped Cyprus win diplomatic ground. In 2002, Greece persuaded the European Union to admit Cyprus divided, over Turkish objections. This underlined the legitimacy of the Republic of Cyprus and further undermined the TRNC. Nicosia alone may issue EU passports to members of both communities and disburse the bulk of EU funds. Turkey’s refusal to extend customs union with Cyprus, as with all other EU members, has led to the freezing of membership negotiations on several chapters. 

Placing all talks under UN auspices meant that UN resolutions calling for a complete withdrawal of Turkish armed forces have had to be part of any plan. Basic EU freedoms of movement and establishment are also considered inalienable, so Greek-Cypriots displaced during the invasion should be able to return to the north.

Potential diplomatic, legal and financial gains all advocate in favour of re-unification, but political trust still eludes the two communities. The occupation can be withdrawn, but can Cypriots overcome the separate Greek and Turkish nationalism that have nurtured them for so long?