Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Bridge to Nowhere: Syrian Refugees in Greece

This article was published by Al Jazeera

Daoud Abdo's  daughter Surin, aged 6 (Photo by Anna Psaroudaki) 

The passage to Greece was probably easier for Daoud Abdo and his family than it is for most Syrian refugees. It took the family of five just two weeks to travel by bus to Istanbul and cross the Evros river, which forms Europe’s southeastern-most land border; but it was still fraught with danger.

During the long march to the Evros on the Turkish side, Daoud says, “my wife and I both fell off duckboards into sumps.” It was raining and the marshes that surround the Evros were deep. Daoud is convinced they would have drowned that day, were it not for a group of Bangladeshi fellow travellers. The Turkish trafficker who led them had some 70 people to smuggle across, and barked, ‘Leave them! Leave them!’ but, Daoud says, “the Bangladeshis ignored him and helped us out.”

That was only the beginning of the family’s ordeal. Once in Athens, they spent a full year sleeping in city parks and on the street, only intermittently offered shelter by the traffickers to whose Syrian collaborators they had paid 18,000 euros to take them to Western Europe. Sometimes the shelter was offered on condition that they prostitute their eldest daughter, Suzin, a poised girl with intelligent eyes and a coy smile, who was then 14 – an offer they never accepted. It was only here that they discovered that the full bargain they had struck in Aleppo would not be honoured without more money, and that, penniless and jobless, they were stranded in Greece.

For the 48 year-old Abdo, once a well-to-do lawyer who used to undertake government work and owned a series of properties in Aleppo, it was a severe blow. At times, he sounds almost suicidal. “I wish I had died there. It would have been better and easier for me. The most difficult day for me in Greece was when we were homeless and all my children were crying because they were hungry and I couldn’t feed them.”

Abdo says his properties are mostly destroyed by the war in Syria and he would never risk going back. “There is no peaceful place left in Syria. Because we are Alevi people hate us,” he says referring to the minority tribe that, since Bashar al Assad’s father became president in 1971, has held sway over this nation of 22 million. “Before the hate was hidden. Now there is constant pressure from all the villages to leave.” His wife’s family has scattered to other countries. “I will not send my children to their death,” she says when asked if the family would ever return to Syria.

Six months ago they were picked up off the street by scouts for the Coptic Church in Greece and were put up in an apartment owned by the church, which also feeds them on a daily basis.

Yet life in Greece remains difficult. While the war rages, Greek authorities will not deport Syrian refugees, but nor will they support them in any way. Without residence permits, it is next to impossible for them to work legally. Many are reduced to begging. Others live off the charity of the Greek Orthodox church and community organisations. It is easy to be picked up during police stop-and-search operations targeting undocumented migrants. Syrians can end up jailed for months while their nationality is verified, and once inside a detention centre, police brutality is all too frequent, as Juan Akash, a 35 year-old journalist, discovered.

Police picked him up with a group of Syrians trying to cross over to Italy from Greece’s west coast at the beginning of the year. He was crammed into a cell with 56 others. “We didn’t sleep for three days,” he says. When police bussed the inmates to other precincts, “the senior officers took me out and started to slap me on the face. Then police took out sticks and started to beat me. On the way down the stairs they beat me behind the knees.”

Akash was taken to Korinth detention centre, one of six police have created to house deportation subjects. “It is not a human place,” Akash says of the former army camp where he spent close to 50 days before being released.

During that time he witnessed frequent beatings of Syrians and other nationals, including that of an Afghan man who refused prison food, and was beaten in full view of the others as an example. “He was on the floor, not moving, completely full of blood. I was watching from the window. I could not see his face, only the blood.”

“Police brutality is a fact,” says Vasilis Kerasiotis, a human rights lawyer who works with the Greek council for refugees. “There is no eye, no non-governmental organisation constantly inside the detention centres.”

Greece has suffered a severe backlash against migrants, legal and illegal, as a six-year recession has driven unemployment to 27 percent. Coupled with this, Greece has over the past two decades become Europe’s frontline immigration state. According to Francois Crepeau, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, 85-90 percent of “irregular migration” into Europe passes through Greece. The UN often decries conditions in these detention centres. Crepeau called them “shocking” and the detention of children and families “utterly unacceptable”.

The financial burden of policing external European borders and the legal task of separating political refugees and legitimate asylum seekers from economic migrants has come as a shock to Greek authorities, which estimate the total cost at some $650 million a year – an enormous sum in light of the fact that Greece can barely pay pensions or finance public hospitals. “The European contribution is 230 million euros. We are grateful, but… I am afraid that it is not enough,” Greece’s public order minister, Nikos Dendias, told European officials last month.

The war in Syria has exacerbated the problem enormously because it has produced close to two million refugees in just a year. Thousands have elected to go to Europe, but end up living a non-life in Greece, which hasn’t the money, and arguably the legal culture, to support them.

The Hiluh family are a case in point. They applied for political asylum, a notoriously difficult process in Greece, where applicants must pass muster through two committees. Until now, the process taken up to three years. “Average approval rates are 0.25 percent in the first committee and about nine percent in the second committee,” according to human rights lawyer Alexandros Konstantinou.

The Hiluh family (photo by Anna Psaroudaki) 

Last month, Greece finally overhauled its asylum process, taking out of the hands of the police and assigning it to a dedicated Asylum Service in the interior ministry. In its first month of operation, the service received 878 applications, 51 of them from Syrians, and made initial rulings on 46, suggesting that it may live up to its ambition to process applications in under five months. The service is also to open three border offices, making the application process easier for many. Maria Stavropoulou, the director of the new Asylum Service, says her office will also recognise the right of applicants to work legally. “Our law says that anyone with international protection has the right to work. The real problem is the level of unemployment in our country.”

This is progress, but the Asylum Service won’t be processing the backlog of at least 25,000 valid applications that are still languishing. Those will remain in the hands of the police.  

The dysfunction of that police system is readily apparent. To maintain asylum applicant status, Idriss and Roshan Hiluh had to show up for an interview once a month, despite the advanced pregnancy of Roshan. “Two weeks ago we missed the interview because my wife was inducted into hospital for anaemia,” says Idriss Hiluh, a cabinetmaker from Aleppo. “When we returned to immigration police we were given deportation papers and lost our asylum status. We said, ‘what shall we do?’ They said, ‘That’s your problem.’”

During their harrowing trip to Greece, the Hiluhs saw just how reluctant Greek authorities were to admit or help them. As they crossed the Aegean at 2am in an overfilled rubber dinghy, they were accosted by a Greek coastguard vessel. “The coastguard told us to go back,” Hiluh says, “but we had a group of Algerians among us who said, ‘this is our fifth crossing and we are not turning around.’”

To make the point, they began to knife the dinghy one compartment at a time, until the Hiluhs and their four children, including an infant, were in the water. “Only then did the coastguard pick us up,” says Hiluh. Like the Abdo family and thousands of others, they are stuck in Greece without the money to go deeper into Europe or the legal means to feed themselves.

Greek asylum procedures have become so notorious, that a European Court of Human Rights ruling obliges other EU member states to process those who manage to escape Greece and file applications on their soil – even though this directly contravenes existing treaties. 

Syrians seem to have cottoned on. Within days of our interview, Roshan Hiluh had alighted in Switzerland – not an EU member, but a state with no smirch on its treatment of refugees. She bore her sixth child upon arrival and plans to file for family reunification there. Idriss Hiluh articulated the alternative in Greece. “What shall we do? Await a slow death?” 

Unions Stage General Strike

Posted on Al Jazeera:

Workers in Greece are staging a 24-hour nationwide strike as unions called for protests against the latest round of austerity measures.
Trains ground to a halt and hospitals worked with emergency staff as strikers took action against plans to fire thousands of public sector employees.
Representing about 2.5 million workers, private sector union GSEE and public sector union ADEDY have brought workers to the streets repeatedly since Greece slid into a debt crisis in late 2009.
The latest strike comes a day before a parliamentary vote on Wednesday on reforms Athens agreed with its European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders as a condition for $8.9bn in aid.
Among the measures included in the bill are job cuts for teachers, municipal police and local government posts.
Flights to and from Athens were disrupted as civil aviation unions staged a four-hour work stoppage in solidarity.
City transport was also affected, with bus and trolley bus drivers holding work stoppages in the morning and in the evening.
Trains stopped running and tax offices and municipal services remain shut.
'Annihilate workers'
Al Jazeera's John Psaropoulos, reporting from Athens, said that there are abo
ut 10,000 poeple on the streets protesting against austerity measures, adding that public transport unions did not attend the rally and public transport is working normally in Athens.
Psaropoulos said that unions connected to tourism were particularly on strike, which led buses to stop operations and flights to be cancelled or delayed.
"It's an attempt to hurt government where it hurts. In other words, in the tourism industry which is actually going relatively well this year," he said.
"But the real pain to be felt here is among municipal and local government workers, about 8,000 of whom expect to lose their jobs over the next six months.
"What the unions are trying to say now is these thousands of jobs that will go, may turn into ten thousands of jobs very quickly.
"They do not trust the government, they think they are eroding workers rights, that is why this is something that should concern public sector as well as the private sector," our correspondent said.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Greece Eyes Investment Jackpot

This article was published on Al Jazeera.

For half a decade, Greece has become notorious for its dwindling fortunes. Its stubborn recession has broken postwar European records. Its unemployment levels, the highest in the European Union, threaten political stability. It seems as though no story is too bad to be true.

Yet days ago Greece surprised the world with two developments suggesting that it may finally be turning a corner in this crisis.

The first is that Greece will form the heart of the so-called Southern Gas Corridor, an energy security strategy emanating from Brussels aimed at weaning Europe off the dominance of Russian gas.

The second is that Greece’s biggest port of Peiraieus, near Athens, is well on its way to becoming Europe’s main gateway for trade with China. The projects are worth $2.3 billion in direct investment and 2,300 construction jobs over three years, a fact Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was quick to emphasise.

“This is a very important vote of confidence in Greece,” he said after the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, two thirds of which will be built across northern Greece, was chosen as the conduit for Azeri gas to Europe. The gas, which is to be extracted by the European-dominated Shah Deniz Consortium, is to flow in 2017. “Who would invest so much money in an economically, socially and politically dangerous country?” Samaras rhetorically asked.

The Institute of Economic and Industrial Research has estimated TAP‘s total beneficial effect over its half-century lifespan at some 33 billion euros, translating into at least 4,300 jobs on an annual basis.

No less important is the decision by the China Ocean Shipping Company, or Cosco, to invest $290 million in expanding its container port terminal from a capacity of about 2.5 million 20-foot containers (or TEU) a year to 6.2 or even seven million.

"We want to turn Piraeus into the top port in the Mediterranean and Europe," said Wei Jiafu, Cosco’s outgoing chairman at the inauguration ceremony.Greece can– and I say will – become the commercial gateway for China and Europe,” replied Samaras.

The political timing of these announcements could hardly be better. A week earlier, Samaras’ government was hobbled by the departure of a key coalition member, reducing his parliamentary majority to a mere three seats.

“The immediate priority is to bring the turnaround as quickly as possible, to defeat unemployment, to bring investments, to avoid new austerity measures… and to raise our geopolitical profile,” he told his reshuffled cabinet.

Tangible economic benefits are a matter of existential importance to Samaras, who pledged himself to an agenda of growth over austerity during last year’s election; but the true value of the two investments arguably lies in the fact that they place Greece at the heart of strategic European relationships with the rest of the world.

“The political effect of being part of such a huge undertaking firmly puts Greece on the energy security map of Europe,” TAP’s managing director, Kjetil Tungland, told Al Jazeera from Baku.  “European gas production is going down. Russia is almost the sole supplier. The southern route is almost a dream about to come true. How Greece benefits from this is up to Greece. It should have plenty of opportunities.”

The big question is whether Greece can make the most of these opportunities. Reaping benefits requires investment, and the country is caught in a debt trap. Last year it spent its entire primary surplus of $16 billion servicing loans. This year’s tax revenues are almost a billion dollars behind schedule as the recession ploughs into its sixth year. Nor is any investment revenue forthcoming from its privatisation plan; anything raised from asset sales must go directly to creditors. Even EU-funded public investments don’t amount to more than $9 billion this year, and Greece may not manage to launch enough projects to claim the full amount.

The cash crunch means that the government is a beggar rather than a chooser. For example,
TAP has announced that it will contract the operator of the Greek natural gas distribution system, Desfa, to carry out maintenance on its pipeline. But Desfa is about to be sold to the Shah Deniz Consortium, according to the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, which oversees privatisation, so the Greek state will not reap the benefits of expansion.

Divestment, rather than investment, is the order of the day, says Stelios Stavridis, who heads the Fund. “Public companies are falling apart. In two years’ time nothing will be left standing because there’s no money. And the companies due to bad management will collapse,”

Stavridis insists that privatisation is now the key to development, because once they are in private hands, assets’ true value will shine through. “Every boatload of containers saves $1.5 million by coming to Peiraieus compared to going through Rotterdam or Hamburg or elsewhere in northern Europe,” he says.

The Fund now wants Cosco to take over the entire Peiraieus Port Authority, or OLP, a state enterprise of dubious profitability. OLP, which currently competes with Cosco, managed to increase its container traffic by 14 percent over three years. During the same period, Cosco increased container traffic through its Peiraieus terminal a dozen times over.

Cosco says it is willing to bid for OLP, and intimates that it plans to invest massively in other network industries that complement its European bridgehead. The reason is that once its container capacity has expanded to seven million TEU a year, Greece’s single-track rail line to the north will no longer suffice for overland shipping to the Balkans and beyond.

The state will have to consider at that point whether it is willing and able to make the necessary investment,” says Tasos Vamvakidis, commercial director at Cosco’s subsidiary, Piraeus Container Terminal. “Cosco, which is making these investments here, would not want to be at the mercy of whoever takes on the management of rail in future. We’re interested in studying whichever proposal the government puts forward,” he told Al Jazeera.

But privatisations do not always go as planned, partly because Greece’s dependence on its creditors also bends it to their political will. Last month they stymied efforts by Russia’s Gazprom to buy Greece’s gas monopoly, DEPA, depriving it of $1.2 billion. DEPA will be re-floated later this year to what is expected to be a narrowed field of bidders.

I think we would be kidding ourselves if we denied that Greece’s negotiating position is reduced,” says Thanos Dokos, director at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, or ELIAMEP, a leading think tank. “And the investors know this.”

Focusing on how to sell a dozen assets won’t bring Greece to a new period of prosperity,” Dokos says. “If we allow a few companies in without creating a plan, we are doing half the job. The point is to place all this into a broader strategy.”

That broader strategy has so far evaded Samaras, who is often accused of spasmodic moves. Yet he has also demonstrated an ability to stick to his guns in a crisis. If he can train those guns on restoring lost Greek sovereignty as well as prosperity, he might prove that what goes down must come up.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Government Launches 'Public Television'

The conservative government on Thursday launched a new public broadcaster to replace ERT, whose transmitters it shut down on June 12.

It says Public Television is forced to operate out of the facilities of Mega channel, a private network, because ERT employees won't allow it access to the broadcast centre in Athens' northern suburbs. ERT employees strongly dispute this, saying that government operatives are free to visit and use ERT facilities; but they don't recognise Public Television as a legal entity, calling it an act of piracy.

See the Al Jazeera report here