Tuesday, 21 July 2015

On ‘The Black Road’ Into Europe With Syria’s Refugees

This article was published by The Daily Beast.

EIDOMENI, Greece — At first glance, nothing seems amiss on Greece’s northern border. Corn and wheat are slowly ripening in fields on the frontier with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Along their edges, the uncultivated dirt bursts forth with poppies and chicory.

At dusk, the scene comes to life: Scores of people emerge from among the stands of poplars and plane trees that line the Vardar River. By nightfall, groups of hikers carrying backpacks and long walking sticks made from stripped branches gather at the borderline, preparing to cross north. They speak little, and only in whispers.

Afghan refugees crossing the railroad that runs north from Greece into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. (Photo: Leonidas Kolokythas)

Almost all of them are fleeing war or repression in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Most are trying to get to Germany, where they hope to apply for political or humanitarian asylum. They hope to follow the Vardar valley all the way to Serbia, often walking on a freight track that follows the river’s gentle contours. From there, they plan to walk through Hungary and Austria.

The leader of one such group explained why he was there with his two eldest sons, aged 15 and 16. “I decided to leave Yemen so that I will never see my children fight for al Qaeda or any other side. Sooner or later, one militia or another will approach them.” Hashim, as he identifies himself, has had to leave behind a wife and four younger children he may never see again.

On the particular night when I met him, Hashim decided not to cross. Just yards away, on the far side of a cluster of trees, we heard a loud and rushed conversation of people who clearly weren’t trying to conceal themselves.

Hashim has heard of the rival gangs that prey on those travelling north for their money, mobile phones, and passports. In effect, they enforce a smuggling fee of approximately $4,000 from Turkey to Germany. Few of these people can afford it, and those who are intercepted bring back stories of ambushes and beatings. Migrants have dubbed the freight track the Black Road, because of the number of travellers who’ve been found dead on it.

Evdoxia Poutpara, a doctor at the Polykastro health center some 15 miles away, has seen the wounds.

“I’ve seen fractured shins, thighs, arms, and forearms, fractured fingers, bruised faces, broken noses, skull fractures… These are not accidents, but the results of violence,” she says. “Sometimes sharp objects have been used on the head, face, and abdominal injuries, and also crowbars.”

The French group, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is the only organization to actively try to assist migrants, even though, as war refugees, most are entitled to state protection. MSF has set up posts along the entire route that migrants follow. It offers them medical checkups, water, high-energy food, and sleeping bags.

Stathis Kyrousis was part of an MSF observation team that followed the route 18 months ago. The doctor calls the railroad track that runs through Macedonia “a road strewn with a lot of death and a lot of pain.”

“We saw people in Serbia who fainted in front of us because they had been walking for three days straight without any food or water,” says Kyrousis. “We saw frostbite. We saw a man who had no legs and whose friends had carried him, over a two-year period, from Afghanistan. We saw blind people led by others.”

Refugees gather at the northern Greek border at dusk as they prepare to walk north into Former Yugoslav Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany. (Photo: Leonida Kolokythas)

Many travelers have suffered war injuries. Ahmed was shot in the lower spine by a sniper in Syria, and walks on crutches. His group was lucky enough to reach the Macedonian town of Veles. “From time to time four friends carried me 100 kilometers,” he says.

As they boarded a bus for the capital, Skopje, police moved in. The group found itself in Gazi Baba prison in the capital, Skopje.

“We were all in one room—men, women, and children, about 25 of us, including five or six women and six children. This prison is very dirty. There was trash everywhere. We spoke with the [Syrian] women who were already there. They said that if they asked for anything, the police would demand sex… There were two rooms. In one, the women who were unwilling were kept locked up; in another, those who were willing were allowed to come and go, and anything they needed was provided.”  

Migration into Europe has risen for the last two years. Flows into Greece are set to triple this year. The Hellenic Coast Guard and police intercepted 42,390 people crossing onto Greek islands from Turkey last year, which was quadruple the 2013 figure. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, more than 77,000 people have crossed so far this year

If the figures continue to go this way, we can expect an increase of three or four times,” says Ioannis Mispinas, harbourmaster on the island of Kos, which faces Turkey.

“They’ve stayed in Turkey or Lebanon for a year or two. But as they see that the [Syrian] war doesn’t end, they are encouraged to leave,” says MSF’s Kyrousis.

MSF calls this the “consequences of EU members’ policies that are ignoring their humanitarian duty,” and calls on European leaders to “radically revise” those policies.

In response to this tsunami of humanity, the European Union is doing three major things. 

Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has announced “an emergency relocation scheme.” Under current rules, refugees and asylum seekers may only apply in the EU country where they first alight.

This means that frontline states like Greece and Italy bear the brunt of asylum applications. Typically, about one in five is granted. Those who want to increase their chances must smuggle themselves deeper under Europe’s skin, as they are doing at the northern Greek border. Relocation is an effort to share the burden, but participation is voluntary. 

The EU is also tripling the resources allocated to Greece and Italy to police European external borders, making operations Poseidon and Triton the largest maritime policing actions it has ever undertaken.

The UN High Commission for Refugees has called on the EU to “rapidly adopt” and “fully implement” these measures.

Controversially, the EU also took the decision on May 18 to create a naval force to “identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers” off the coast of Libya.

The situation off the Greek islands of the eastern Aegean is different, however, and the purely humanitarian Triton operation is invaluable. At 3 miles from Turkey, Kos is one of the closest islands—so close that the most intrepid bypass smuggling rings and paddle over in life vests and on tiny inflatable dinghies.

Kos’s harbormaster, Ioannis Mispinas, describes the evolution of the traffic: “Last year we were facing a kind of invasion of very fast boats with a smuggler on board, and we needed to deploy our patrol boats to tackle this situation, and make some hot pursuits as well. Now we’re faced with different tactics—sending migrants without a smuggler on board in small inflatable rafts.”

A local boatyard that stores court evidence clearly displays the change. On one side are speedboats with powerful engines. All are riddled with bullet holes made by the coast guard.

Beside them lie stacks of black inflatable rafts that have been knifed open. This is something migrants are instructed to do when the coast guard spots them. Once in the water, they are technically shipwrecked, and international law demands that they be rescued.

Scores of migrants wait patiently on the quay outside the Kos police station for fingerprinting and identification. Technically, they are in police custody, but there aren’t enough cells for them. 

Kos recently persuaded a bank to open up a repossessed hotel to house waiting migrants. Even that, though, is overflowing. Men sleep on wall-to-wall mattresses strewn across the lobby floor. MSF tents are pitched in the garden. In a chivalrous arrangement reached among the migrants, only women and children enjoy the upstairs rooms.

Whatever the perils of a journey on foot from Syria to Germany, people like Murhaf, a 38-year-old taxi driver from Hama, are determined to make it. He has been forced to leave his wife behind, because a bomb that destroyed their house three years ago disabled her. But he has brought with him his two sons and two daughters, aged 7 to 11, as far as the northern Greek border.

“The Assad dynasty does whatever it likes,” says Murhaf when asked why he undertook the journey. “In one day, 300 people were killed after Friday prayers in Hama. We emerged from the mosque carrying flowers as a symbol of our desire for a change in government. Police just opened fire into the crowd with machine guns. They killed children. It was a peaceful march. We were unarmed.”  

Murhaf was thrown in jail for three months. “They beat me a lot, day and night, with iron rods that had been heated in a fire. They put the rods through my wrists and feet,” he says, showing the wounds. As he does so, his youngest daughter, Hanin, buries her face into his side and begins to sob.

The perils Murhaf and his children face on their forbidden journey are enormous; but it is the horror they have left behind that drives them on.

The New Athenian will be taking a break until late August and wishes readers a good summer!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Syriza grows up fast

A shorter version of this article was published by Al Jazeera International. 

"We’ve handed the keys to the country over to the Germans,” fulminated Yiorgos Trangas, a practitioner of opinionated radio journalism, as details of Greece’s new deal with creditors emerged earlier this week. 

Trangas roundly summarised Greeks’ feelings. Yet by early Thursday the deal with its accompanying new austerity measures had been passed in a stormy session of parliament by a majority of 229 deputies in the 300-seat legislature, stretching across five parties in both the ruling coalition and the opposition.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (L) with European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker (C) and French President Francois Hollande in Brussels over the weekend 

The bill’s passage unlocks the process of approval for an €86bn third financial aid package for Greece, but has crippled the ruling leftwing Syriza party with 39 defections – almost a third of its members of parliament – leaving the party deeply divided.

“We can’t have a government with two majorities,” said opposition socialist lawmaker Evangelos Venizelos. “an anti-austerity majority for the ‘good’ and ‘innocent’ bills and a majority which bears the national responsibility for the ‘difficult’ ones.”

Even Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who negotiated the deal in a Marathon, 17-hour session in Brussels, was uncharacteristically apologetic.

“I’m not going to tell the Greek people that I shall come bearing a success story,” he said in a nationally televised interview on Tuesday. “This policy is not helpful to us, but we shall do what we can. People need to understand the alternatives. We reached the end. One alternative was what I did… the second was disorderly default and the third was consensual exodus from the euro.”

Tsipras has said he was "blackmailed" into accepting the deal. This stance has raised serious questions about whether Syriza intends to implement it. "We need the prime minister to tell us if his government undertake the responsibility of this bill and the execution of all that it contains,” Venizelos said.


Four fifths of Greeks have been polled as wanting to stay in the single currency. Earlier this week, seven out of ten said they wanted the parliament to pass the measures.

What rankles with Greeks, however, is that Tsipras was elected to keep Greece in the Eurozone on terms that do not reduce it to poverty. Tsipras played hardball for months, then suddenly capitulated. On Sunday he went to Brussels having asked parliament to pass all the measures creditors had demanded on June 26, when talks broke off. Evidently emboldened by the five-sixths majority Tsipras got with government and opposition support, Germany then asked for much more.

The result is a split in the ruling leftwing Syriza party, or Radical Left Coalition, whose meteoric rise to power under Tsipras was based on presenting itself as an alternative to austerity policies espoused by Pasok socialists and New Democracy conservatives. Many people now see its about-turn as the unravelling of a party whose unity was based on a dream.

Syriza was formed by the coalescence of disparate leftist forces, known as its ‘components’.  Panayotis Lafazanis, who leads the most powerful of them, the Left Platform, predicts doom for the measures rather than the party.

“This agreement may pass through parliament with the help of the New Democracy votes, Pasok votes and The River,” he said, referring to a new, centre-right reformist party, “but it will not get past the people, who will annul it in practice through their unity and their struggles.”

Tsipras took over the party when it held five percent of the popular vote just seven years ago. He won 36 percent of the vote in January, after moving the party incrementally towards the political centre. But he has known that he may have to jettison his far left, and now signals that he is ready to do so.

“I fought this as no one else, and took difficult decisions,” he said in interview. “There is no ideological purity under such circumstances. If someone wants to preserve it, he will also have to shoulder his responsibility.”

A stillborn agreement?

Tsipras did, in fact, bring home something defensible.

Greece is being offered €86bn to finance the government for three years. For the first time, its creditors - the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund - recognise that the spending cuts they are asking for will trigger a recession, so they are offering €35bn for development to offset the ill effects. 

Tsipras is also bringing home a promise to start a discussion on the sustainability of the Greek debt in the autumn. Creditors had promised to do this in 2012, but never did.

“Greece’s debt can now only be made sustainable through debt relief measures that go far beyond what Europe has been willing to consider so far,” warned the IMF in a report on the Greek debt published on Tuesday.

It calls on Greece’s European creditors to offer Greece a 30-year “grace period” before asking it to start repaying the principal on its €321bn debt. Greece should then be given at least 40 years to repay it, the IMF has said.

Hardliners say the deal should be rejected because of austerity provisions Syriza had promised never to succumb to. For instance, Greece has been told to extract another €1.8bn a year from the economy through VAT (or consumer tax). Tsakalotos says he will achieve this by more efficient collection and by extending VAT to private education.

Lafazanis disagrees. “The changes to VAT mean the Greek people will pay an extra €2.4bn a year… while €850mn a year will be lost from main pensions as people are asked for larger copayments to national health,” he says.

Alternate Finance Minister Nadia Valavani, responsible for tax collection, resigned on grounds of principle. In a letter she wrote on Monday, while talks were ongoing, but made public on Wednesday, she calls the measures “stillborn”.

Like many Greeks, she believes that Germany’s goal was “the complete humiliation of the government and the country”.

Scheauble hadn't intended to humiliate Greece,” says psychologist Alexandros Ioannidis, “Greece humiliated herself by being totally unreliable and irresponsible.” He believes Tsipras’ five month-long negotiations were “a way of hiding his total unpreparedness and improvisation. Only, this cost some tens of billions euro to the Greek people.”

Like many Greeks, particularly educated urban, middle-class professionals, Ioannidis is furious with Syriza for toppling the previous conservative government, which had managed to produce two balanced budgets and primary surpluses, and was selling debt successfully on money markets for the first time in four years.  

The conservatives lost after it was revealed that their finance minister, Gikas Hardouvelis, had considered implementing pension cuts and improved VAT collection worth €980mn this year. The deal Syriza brought to parliament this week involves an estimated €12bn in austerity measures over three years.

Ioannidis believes Syriza’s problem is not political but psychological. “The well-known Greek tendency of always blaming others for one's grave faults is simply unforgivable, and in psychiatric terms is simply paranoid,” he says.

Accelerated political decrepitude

Tsipras is now in danger of being abandoned by key constituencies. His rise to power has been partly backed by the public sector, the country’s largest, best-paid and best-organised workforce, which still enjoys lifelong tenure. At a billion euros a month, it is also the government’s second-biggest expense after pension subsidies, absorbing a fifth of the budget.

Even though he made good on a promise to hire back nine thousand state employees sacked by the previous government, Tsipras has now suffered two, one-day strikes by ADEDY, the state workers’ federal union. This is partly because

The union has managed to make preservation of its privileges synonymous with standing up to Germany, which Tsipras’ left-wingers support.

“There is a prevailing theoretical difference between those who believe that all disagreements can be solved through the European legal framework, and those who believe that the legal framework is a new colonialism under the leadership of Germany,” says Yannis Schizas, leader of the Radical Ecologists, one of Syriza’s leftist components Tsipras has lost the support of.

“These colonial forces want to reduce the southern states, and especially Greece, into the status of a second class country,” he says. By and large, Syriza’s left wing sees a return to the drachma as a return to sovereignty.

Like Lafazanis, Schizas predicts an unimplementable law. “There will be resistance on each individual measure,” he says. “Second, there will be an invisible economy... More tax evasion and more black economy - that will be the result.”

Nonsense, says Ioannidis. “Of course the new deal can only be implemented with enormous difficulty,” he says, “but Scheauble is only partly to blame. The main responsibility is due to the incapacity of the Greek political elite of the last five or six years, but also to the extreme immaturity of the Greek people, who did not understand that the fake prosperity they enjoyed would come to an end eventually, which it did; and now they want it back, at whatever cost.” 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Greece is thrown a life jacket containing significant amounts of lead shot

The outline of Greece's new deal with creditors began to emerge after heads of Eurozone governments ended 17 hours of talks on Monday morning. 

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Brussels over the weekend

On the positive side for Greece: 

  1. The European Stability Mechanism, a government distress fund set up after the 2008 crisis, will consider a third, €82-86bn euro bailout loan to Greece.
  2. The European Commission will disburse a €35bn development fund to Greece.
  3. The European Central Bank will shortly consider renewing flows of liquidity to help Greek banks re-open their doors after two weeks of closure and capital controls.
  4. The single currency area’s finance ministers’ forum, the Eurogroup, will consider a rescheduling of Greek debt after successful completion of the first review of the new programme, i.e. in the autumn.
On the negative side:

1. Greece has to pass additional “up-front” measures by Wednesday to qualify for the deal. We’re waiting to hear what the cost of those measures will be. Syriza is likely to pass them with the help of the socialist and conservative votes, which have already been pledged.

Similar opposition support gave it a vast majority of 251 votes in the 300-seat legislature when it passed a package of austerity measures on Saturday; but now it could suffer larger defections, prompting an election. Party whip Yannis Balafas said the party was "in a state of division". Labour Minister Panos Skourletis in fact declared on Monday that a 2015 election was likely. 

This makes sense. Syriza needs to do its house-cleaning at some point. Cabinet members and MPs who oppose any deal with the Eurozone will have to carve themselves away from the party, leaving Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to move it closer to the political centre. Syriza won 16pc of the vote in May 2012, 26pc in June 2012, and 36pc in January this year. It needs to hold another election and win single-party rule before its numbers stop climbing. Recent opinion polls have placed it in the high 40s.

2. Immediately after the deal is sealed, Greece must “scale up” its privatisation programme from the current €11bn to €50bn euros. This is a massive undertaking, and both politically and practically difficult, and its success is highly doubtful.

Greece’s first bailout loan, in 2010, contained such a provision. The government was careful to keep it under wraps, rightly fearing outrage. When creditors made it public in a press conference in early 2011, then-finance minister Yiorgos Papakonstantinou was so outraged that he forbade them from ever holding another press conference on Greek soil.

The objections came from both voters and politicians. Either the state would be denuded of regulatory bodies and infrastructure taxpayers had funded over decades, they opined, or such massive amounts of public land would have to be bundled, securitised and sold in the plan’s two-year period, that the sales would depress real estate prices and destroy the value of the collateral held by banks against mortgages and other non-performing loans. The banks had just suffered a collapse of the value of Greek government bonds they held at the time, and had required recapitalisation. The land selloff would repeat that trauma.

3. Half of these privatisation proceeds must go to the ESM in repayment of debt, and the other half to recapitalise the banks. But Greek taxpayers have already spent €50bn recapitalising banks. Contrary to arrangements in Spain and Portugal, banks are not held accountable for the repayment of this money but the state, i.e. the Greek taxpayer. This has added to the national debt and helped make it unsustainably large. With the new arrangement, the banks would cost taxpayers €75bn.

Up next

Tsipras is to table two things on Wednesday - the new agreement reached today, for an €82-86bn loan from the ESM, and a set of specific upfront actions. Both must be voted on by midnight on Wednesday. 

The upfront actions we understand to be a) establishment of a Fiscal Council and a law that introduces automatic spending cuts when deficits are incurred, b) establishment of the legal independence of the Hellenic Statistical Authority, c) streamlining of VAT (presumably meaning moving more products and services to the highest bracket of 23pc), d) measures to improve the sustainability of the pensions system. 

By July 22 he has to pass a) a Code of Civil Procedure, b) a bill harmonising into Greek law the BRRD (Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive - the common set of rules whereby Eurozone banks are either wound up or refinanced). 

These are the six upfront measures. There's a lot more that has to be done 'immediately', which probably means the first quarter of the new agreement.

There will be a Eurogroup conference call on Wednesday after the two documents have been tabled in parliament, and that will be the "trigger" for other national parliaments to start their procedures. Also on Wednesday, the European Central Bank is to hold its regular Executive Board meeting, which is expected to decide to release further liquidity to Greek banks, enabling them to re-open. A Monday meeting kept it at the standing level, pending Wednesday's vote. 

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Germany should stop blocking a debt rescheduling for Greece

The Greek parliament on Saturday overwhelmingly approved a package of reforms and austerity measures the Greek people overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum a week ago.  Five sixths of parliament - 251 deputies - voted in favour, compared to the 61.5 percent of the Greek people who voted against the measures the previous Sunday.

Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Alexis Tsipras at Sunday's Eurozone summit

The vote was controversial for the ruling leftwing Syriza party, which suffered two No votes and eight abstentions, including those of two cabinet members. 

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in expected to travel to Brussels on Saturday to meet with his country’s creditors again, and try to hammer out a deal.

Tsipras described the measures he’s passed as difficult, and the talks that lie ahead as a minefield. But he has one powerful argument as he walks into them. He’s now taken the ultimate political risk of going against his people and his election promises, and adopted €12bn of spending cuts and new taxes that could plunge the Greek economy back into recession.

Just how politically expensive the government's choice to pass the measures through parliament is, is amply demonstrated by an opinion poll taken by Bridging Europe, a think-tank on European affairs. More than three quarters of Greeks are against the measures Syriza passed, and half of them expect the government to fall. 

With this, Tsipras hopes to coax from creditors an investment package worth three times as much as the austerity he taken on; and even more than this, to get them to extend the repayment period for the Greek debt, from 16 years to at least 40, which the International Monetary Fund has supported to render it sustainable.

All this must be agreed by Sunday. The most difficult issue is the debt extension. Even the anti-austerity ruling Syriza party says it wants to honour the debt in full, but that Greece cannot spend four percent of its economy doing so. Former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis recommended a figure of approximately 1.2 - 1.5 percent.

Whatever the final figure creditors agree to, this means an extension of the repayment period from the current 16 to the IMF-recommended 40 or so.

In November 2012, creditors even agreed to do as much, but on condition that a) Greece balance its budget and b) implement reforms. It has done the first for the past two years, and the legislation of an entire package of reforms prior to this weekend’s discussion, it can be argued, amounts to enough of a commitment to do the second.

Tsipras may fail to get the entire package. It is likely that he will get a third, €52bn bailout loan which finances his government to the middle of 2018, and even the €35bn from Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Investment Fund because Juncker has already promised that; but he may get little more than a promise to discuss the debt, if Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Scheauble, insists on what some believe to be a deliberate strategy of forcing Greece out of the Eurozone. 

(Scheauble defends his emphasis on restructuring and competitiveness over easing money flows in a NYT article, but doesn't address the issue of debt sustainability. Paul Krugman offers a rebuttal on his blog). 

Should Tsipras bring home what he can, or play hardball and refuse anything except the entire package?

Greece tried hardball tactics and failed. Varoufakis spent six months stonewalling the single currency area’s finance ministers – the Eurogroup – and resisting reforms and austerity. It’s only in the last three weeks that Syriza has really discussed reform. The last hardball ploy was the referendum, which did not induce Germany to relent, because ultimately Germans are convinced of the benefits of a Greek exodus from the euro, and Greeks aren’t.

After five months of fruitless talks and two weeks of bank closure, the Greek economy is now in desperate shape. Tsipras would do better to accept the financing he gets. The Greek economy will then be able to return to normality. Tsipras should then use European and global public opinion with which to corner the hard-hearted Scheauble.