Monday, 1 December 2014

War refugees caught in a no man’s land

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Earlier this month, the Greek port of Igoumenitsa became the scene of a late-night arrest. A 23 year-old Syrian man attempted to board a ferry bound for Italy. An employee spotted his slight figure amid the lumbering trucks and walked him out of the leviathan to waiting officers of the coast guard.

“I will try again. What can I do?” the man, Annas Khalifa, told Al Jazeera amid the din of truck engines. “Even in Greece they do not want us. If we go to a different country this is good for them too, because it takes away a responsibility.”

An estimated 30,000 irregular migrants, most of them Syrian war refugees, are expected to cross into Greece on their way to central Europe this year – a twofold increase on last year’s figure. In the process they bump, moth-like, against invisible security curtains stretching across several borders. Those who can, spend thousands of dollars on increasingly professional smuggling rings, capable of transporting them from Turkey to Germany in under a month. Most, like Khalifa, cannot, and they are accumulating in Greece, posing a policy dilemma for Greek authorities.

Khalifa faced his own dilemma when he reached conscription age two years ago: “If you fight with Assad you will kill your family. If you don’t fight with Assad what you can do?” he asks. “You join the Free Army; and see what’s happened in the Free Army – a lot of groups fighting each other.”

He now wants to complete his degree in electronic engineering. “My mission is to invent stuff,” he says. “In Germany I’ve heard they can support you with free education, so that is my decision.”

Khalifa followed a path trodden by many of his compatriots. He spent most of the last two years in Turkey, working illegally for $350 a month and saving up for his $1,000 seat on a rubber dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Kos. He then made his way across Greece on boats and buses. Unwisely, he had spent most of his money - $4,000 - on a fake EU residence permit Igoumenitsa authorities confiscated.

The mountains that surround Igoumenitsa are full of migrants in Khalifa’s situation. By day, the forest floor is littered with plastic water bottles, carrier bags, snack wrappers and discarded clothing. By night, the forest comes to life with the voices of Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians, choosing their moment to jump onto trucks as they queue up for security inspections.

“The risk of stowaways is highest on busy nights, when the truck queue goes back for a kilometre into the darkness,” says a coast guard officer. An unmarked police van makes sudden sorties onto the highway, sometimes catching migrants in its high beams.

When they catch us, some police take us and go prison and some of them leave us,” says Faraideen, a 16 year-old Afghan who fled to avoid being pressed into service for the Taliban.

Like Khalifa, Faraideen has chosen education over war; and like Khalifa, he is penniless. As in every trade, however, there are better classes of service for those who can pay.

“The biggest challenge we face is finding the crypts that are built into trucks, not just to stop illegal migration, but also to prevent these people from injuring themselves,” says Antonis Mazis, the coast guard chief here.

Igoumenitsa is a mere six hours from Istanbul along a new highway. Some 100,000 articulated lorries annually traverse its sparkling white concrete from east to west. Checking them all is a mammoth task, but the coast guard sports a rotating collection of confiscated vehicles – a museum of smugglers’ ingenuity.

A flatbed truck carried a cargo of cottonseed over a false bottom, which could conceal dozens of migrants lying down. Another had a hatch in the roof of the driver’s cabin. In yet another, several Afghan children had been stuffed, Ali-Baba fashion, into plastic olive barrels. One teenager was found suffocated inside a false fuel tank.

Stone seems to be a favourite camouflage material, perhaps because X-ray scanners cannot penetrate it. On one occasion, 16 migrants were found inside two hollowed-out granite slabs. On another, migrants were ensconced amid stacks of flagstones. Perhaps the most ingenious disguise consisted of marble sheets leaning against A-frames and dug out like books. Fourteen Afghans were found inside them, and the coast guard estimates the value of this human cargo at over $50,000.

The cost and elaborateness of these preparations, say officials, suggest deals made in Turkey between organised crime rings and trucking companies, rather than casual contracts with individual drivers along the way.

Usually such deals work. Amjad, a 23 year-old Syrian from Damascus, crossed to the Greek island of Lesvos in mid-October. Within a month he was in Germany, walking and driving through Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Hungary and Austria; but the entire trip cost him close to $6,000 in fees to smugglers.


Outside Greece's parliament, dozens of Syrians have pitched camp to protest about the uncertainty of their status here. Some have gone on hunger strike and a few have been hospitalised.

Greek authorities offer Syrians and other war refugees a deportation waiver of up to six months; but they are not allowed to work here. Their children may not enrol in schools, and they are given no documents with which to travel elsewhere legally. 

“We escaped war in Syria. We escaped from killing, bombings and aircraft every day, and our houses are destroyed,” says Jamal al Abdullah, one of the protesters. “We escaped to another country to get our human rights. But we didn't find it here in Greece. So we want to get out of Greece to get it.” 

Without the thousands of dollars they need to have themselves smuggled deeper into Europe, these people are charity cases trapped in limbo.

Gian Othman, a 21 year-old lawyer from Aleppo, is another of those trapped in Greece. With a group of friends he tried overland routes, twice through Albania and three times through former Yugoslav Macedonia. He says Albanian police took his and his companions’ cell phones and money, then told them to walk back through the mountains. “They raised their machine guns and told us, ‘go to Greece,’ he says. 

“We have two choices; one, give us our rights, university, work, food, or let us go out of Greece,” he says.

A 2011 Greek law does allow authorities to issue permanent residence permits on humanitarian grounds, but it is a seldom-used option.

“Greece should go to its European partners and say, ‘let’s share the burden across the EU, each in proportion to population,’” says Andreas Takis, associate professor of law at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. “But to do this you’ve got to have a precise record of everyone who’s arrived and have given them some sort of status to be able to say, ‘I have so many resident refugees.’”

He believes that the unspoken policy of allowing people to try to smuggle themselves out of the country is morally wrong. “Turkey is doing it without being in the European Union and having harmonized laws. For us to be doing it, it’s much worse.”

Amjad returns to life

This article was published by UNHCR as part of a series of refugee profiles. 

Amjad was killed two years ago at the age of 21, while studying international relations in Damascus. Government soldiers used him as a human shield as they went from door to door in his apartment building, looking for opposition fighters. Amjad says they found no-one. Nis neighbours had all fled.

When they were finished, they motioned him into a dimly lit bathroom and shot him five times with a Kalashnikov. He fell to the floor covered in blood, but because his side had been turned to the platoon officer who had fired, most of the salvo had gone into his right arm and only one bullet had entered his torso. Two soldiers were left to give him the coup de grace.

The only reason Amjad is able to tell this tale is that he was extraordinarily lucky. “I pretended to be dead and listened to the two soldiers talking inside the flat. They were saying, ‘let’s check to see if he is still alive and finish him off,’” Amjad says. “They opened the door and saw me lying to one side. They kicked me to turn me face-up. I held my breath for 30 seconds, but I couldn’t do it for longer. They said, ‘he’s still alive, finish him.’ And they shot twice.”

The shots missed his head, which was slumped to his left, and went through the shoulder instead. “The distance [between the bullet and his head] was less than a centimetre,” he says. As he stood on the ferry dock in Mytilini harbour, he lifted his black T-shirt to display the entry and exit wounds on his left shoulder and in his right side.

Amjad had raised suspicion because he was also the sole occupant of an apartment building in the opposition-friendly Mohadamiyeh neighbourhood. After receiving medical treatment in Jordan, Amjad returned to continue working as a male nurse in a makeshift underground clinic sponsored by the Red Crescent.

He did not fight, he says, and did not treat any opposition fighters, only civilians. On his smartphone, he scrolls past photographs of his patients – mostly women and children struck by government ordnance. His own need for more sophisticated medical attention, and his desire to complete his degree, made him decide to leave. He cannot properly move his right arm and needs to remove internal prosthetics implanted during surgery in Jordan.

Perhaps it helps to survive this predicament that Amjad is twice a refugee. He was born to a Palestinian family, which had fled Israel for Lebanon, and fled again to Syria after the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres in September 1982.

Palestinians were welcomed in Syria under Hafez al Assad, father of today’s president, but they are now seen as upstarts. Amjad shows me an old photograph of Hafez al Assad honouring an uncle of his for helping to smuggle Palestinians out of Lebanon and into Syria. That uncle is now under arrest.

“Since I was 14 or 15 we all followed politics,” Amjad says when I ask him why he signed up for international relations, “so I chose it to help my people in the future.” When we spoke for the last time he was on his way to Germany, but was keeping his options open. “I could live in any country as long as I have dignity,” he said.

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.