Saturday, 27 February 2016

Greece isolated as stranded refugees seek passage

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

The Facebook messages are desperate: “We are in the street. Sitting on earth. There is no place to sleep. I wish you come. When will you come here?”

Phoebe Ramsay, the Canadian volunteer receiving these messages, was on her way to help Sham, Doha and Wisam, three Syrian sisters whom she had helped on the island of Leros days before.

Mainland Greece is filling up with refugees so fast, that Ramsay had taken a government-chartered ferry to Athens along with refugees. She was planning to drive to the northern Greek border, hoping to find her charges somewhere on the way. Not even they knew where they were.

The gradual but deepening restrictions on the movement of refugees and migrants through the Western Balkans is now bottling them up in Greece. Earlier this year, authorities in former Yugoslav Macedonia said they would only allow Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans through. Last week, they took Afghans off the list.

As dysfunction over how to deal with refugees mounts within the European Union, officials are beginning to admit that Greece will become a de facto repository.

Greece needs to get prepared for a higher number of people not being able to move further,” said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, speaking in Athens earlier in the week. He was critical of the restrictions, some of which, he said, “go even against European Union rules and regulations and certainly basic refugee protection norms.”

The latest restrictions came on February 17, when Austria announced that it would place a daily limit of 3,200 people entering its territory, and accept no more than 80 new asylum applications per day. Slovenia, to its south, followed suit.

Greece’s migration minister, Yannis Mouzalas, has been warning since the beginning of the year that the former Yugoslav Macedonian border will ultimately close. “The government is preparing for this eventuality,” he told Greece’s Mega TV on February 8. Two days later he attempted to soothe public opinion. “It’s adifficulty we can manage,” he said. “We’re not going to have this tragic phenomenon of millions being trapped here, that people are discussing. It’s going to be tens of thousands. I’d say 50,000 is a fair guess. If we’re ready and clear-eyed about what’s going on, it’s a number that the Greek people can handle.”

In an attempt to avoid crowds at the border, police have stalled convoys of coaches on the way, but this has created new problems. On Thursday a group of Syrians, frustrated with waiting, pushed through a police blockade at Tempi, in northern Greece.

Further south, in Katerini, a local grassroots group mobilised to bring food and water to some 300 distressed people parked for a day at a motorway services site. Similar delays all along the motorway from Athens to the border have kept people on buses for up to three days, according to volunteers speeding to help them.

Further south still, in the town of Volos, a bus driver apparently abandoned 60 passengers who had paid to go to the border. “The bus driver just dropped them off and left,” says Ramsay.

All three of Athens’ refugee camps have been packed to bursting point. The government has held passenger ferries it charters to bring in new arrivals on the islands of the east Aegean in port until Sunday, to give the camps a chance to empty.

Some are left stranded at the port of Peiraieus, where Greek volunteers have set up a shelter in a passenger terminal. Women put out washing on makeshift clotheslines. Boys play football on the sprawling tarmac in front of the building. A mish-mash of international volunteer groups takes turns cooking lunch for the refugees. On Friday it was the turn of a Korean outfit called The Supreme Master Ching Hai Disaster Relief Team. Their slogan was, “Be vegan; make peace.”

But peace was the last thing on refugees’ minds. Among the 300-odd people at the terminal was Samer Mersal, a surgeon’s assistant who managed an ophthalmological operating theatre in Damascus. He fled after his apartment building was demolished by a government Katyusha rocket.

Two of Mersal’s brothers have died in prison after being picked up by President Bashar al Assad’s police, and a third is missing. Asked why they were arrested, Mersal is passionate. “Where you live! The reason [is] where you live. Not what you do, what you think. Just where you live. You live in a place where there is Al Nusra, there is Da’esh, there is Free Syrian Army, you have problem. They take you to prison and only God knows where you are, only God and them.”

Yusuf, a slim 21 year-old with fine features and a thin beard circling his jawbone, just wanted to graduate from Mosul high school in Iraq, now under ISIL control. ‎"There was no school for two years because of the war," he explains. His sister, whom ISIL tried to recruit as a bride, accompanied him.

Unsurprisingly, many are impatient to move on while the border remains open. On Friday morning, two dozen men announced that they were going to take their families and march them to the Macedonian border. Volunteers persuaded them that they were better off waiting in Peiraieus for a couple more days.

Failure of European policy

The war in Syria may be the primary cause of the chaos that is engulfing Greece, but
European policy failures are responsible for the extent of Greece’s isolation.

The UNHCR’s Grandi is critical of the lack of solidarity shown to Greece by other European Union members. “Europe, the European Union in particular, which took what I believe were good decisions last year on how to handle this flow... is not implementing those decisions, and in particular the very important decision taken many months ago that refugees arriving in countries at the border of Europe... would be assisted, would be supported by the EU in its entirety through a relocation of refugees across the different countries of Europe.”

In September, the EU pledged to take 66,000 asylum-seekers off Greece’s hands in 2015-16. So far, a thousand have been relocated.

On Thursday, Greece withdrew its ambassador to Vienna, after Austria called a regional meeting with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to discuss the refugee crisis. Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias called Austria’s move an “unfriendly gesture, since it creates the impression that certain people wish to take decisions in our absence, which directly involve us.” The so-called Vysegrad group of four countries has spearheaded resistance within the EU to refugee policies such as relocation and the preservation of open borders.

Mouzalas is openly concerned about what he calls “unilateralism” within the EU, and the failure to quash it in previous European council meetings. “Although [other EU members] lampooned unilateralism, they said, ‘we understand the circumstances which led these countries [Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic] to it.’ This in my view should worry us… because it should not be understandable that someone fights against European policy and undermines it.”

The signs are, however, that eastern EU states are preparing for a total isolation of Greece. On February 18, Austria’s chief of police met with counterparts from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and former Yugoslav Macedonia. They agreed to jointly profile refugees and asylum-seekers at the Greek-Macedonian border, effectively creating an alternative to the Eurodac fingerprint and identity database Greece shares with the rest of the European Union. Once that is in place, the Greek border can essentially be treated as an external EU border. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Aegean’s nameless dead

This article was published by Irinn News.

The north shore of Ikaria, where north winds dredge up partly decomposed bodies from the depths

Ikaria, Greece - “The girl was lying across the beach, her face down in the pebbles,” says municipal plumber Pantelis Markakis as we walk to the water’s edge. “What shocked me was when I saw that her hands were turned like this and white like stone,” he says, turning his palms upwards and gnarling his finders. “I asked a coast guard officer if she was wearing gloves.”

The unidentified ten or eleven year-old was one of two bodies that washed up on the island of Ikaria, in the eastern Aegean, on December 19. The other was that of a man in his 20s.

Subsequent storms have since reclaimed the dozen-odd life jackets that washed up on the beach at Iero that day; but it is still littered with packets of Amoxipen, Spandoverin and Diclopinda – antibiotics, painkillers and anti-nausea medicine - that were among the refugees’ possessions. Turkish fruit juice boxes litter the shore. A pair of hotel slippers from the Istanbul Holiday Inn sits encrusted with burrs.

Ikaria sits at a relatively isolated longitude across the north winds that sweep down from the Dardanelles to Crete. This means that it acts as a net for the bodies and wreckage of refugees and migrants that shoot past the islands of Samos and Chios to the north and east, which hug the Turkish coast. For migrants to find themselves on Ikaria means that they have lost their way, and they rarely arrive here alive.

More bodies have surfaced recently – some in an advanced state of decay. On January 5, a young woman was found bobbing in the shallows of the north shore, ten kilometres from Iero.

“She was completely naked,” remembers doctor Kalliopi Katte, who lifted her onto a stretcher. “It was an awful sight because although she had her arms and legs, her face was missing. There was no skin or flesh. It was just a skull.” The woman’s belly was bloated, not from pregnancy, but from the gases emanating from her decomposing bowels. Katte believes she had been at the bottom of the sea for about two weeks.

Like the other bodies, this, too, had to be cut loose from a life vest that failed to save the life of the occupant.

The patch of coast where the body was found was so remote, Katte and three firemen carried the body up a mountainside for an hour to reach the nearest road.

“The bodies are always found after strong northern winds because they’ve sunk to the bottom of the sea and the weather brings them up against the rock,” says Katte. “The bodies have been eaten by fish - they’re not just decomposing.”

Some 3,771 refugees were recorded as dead or missing in the Mediterranean last year. In Greek and Turkish waters alone, 223 people have drowned or gone missing just in the month of January. Yet these figures do not tell the whole story.

Even in death there are degrees of misfortune. Some dead are recovered, identified, and shipped home for burial. Some are listed as missing but never found. Some are found but remain unidentified; and there are those who are never sought and never found, because no witnesses survived their shipwreck, and no bodies washed up. The sea has claimed them without a trace, so they form an unknown statistic. 

“Often in the straits we find life vests and other objects from shipwrecks in the nets,” says fisherman Nikos Avayannis. “I once found a backpack. We took it on board and searched for a survivor but didn’t fine one. We delivered it to the authorities. It had clothes in it, some headphones from a cell phone and some documents.”

Avayannis believes that the owner of the backpack may have ended up in that ghostly statistic of unclaimed, undiscovered dead. “If a body hasn’t been hit by a propeller and chopped to pieces, it floats and gets thrown out onto shore. … if the current takes a body onto jagged rocks with caves, it’s possible that it will never be found.”

The rumour that fish are now eating dead refugees has turned many of Avayannis’ customers away. “A few days ago, as I was selling fish, two or three of my customers said, ‘as long as people are drowning we are going to abstain from fish.’”  

Greek law demands an autopsy after every non-natural death. After that, the fate of a body depends on whether relatives survive it. “When relatives decide to bury them in Greece it is usually done in the Muslim cemeteries on Rhodes and Kos. If they are Christians they can be buried in one of the local cemeteries,” says Erasmia Roumana of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. “The other choice is repatriation of the body, usually taken by Iraqi nationals.” Syrians and Afghans obviously cannot repatriate bodies to war-torn countries.

On Ikaria, as elsewhere, bodies are taken to the hospital. There, doctors pronounce death and take hair and tissue samples, which are preserved in brine. The entire package of paperwork and DNA evidence is then forwarded to the nearest district attorney – in this case on the island of Samos.

Surgeon John Tripoulas is still haunted by the experience of examining the body of an eight-to-ten year-old girl, who had been in the sea for weeks, and was so close to disintegrating, rescue workers had to lift her up by her clothes. Her flesh was “saponified” he said – a term meaning it has literally developed a soap-like consistency.

“I’ll never forget what she was wearing,” says Tripoulas: “Pink sweatpants with a Mickey Mouse patch; she was wearing white boots and a pink overcoat. Her facial features were not visible – had been lost to the sea.”

Surgeon John Tripoulas talks to a nurse at Ikaria's hospital

This information, included on the death certificate, is perhaps all that is known about the girl; but even this information may prove vital in one day informing her family of her ultimate fate.

“We use anything we can for recognition, such as clothing or jewellery or a manicure,” says Katte. The only identifying marks on the faceless woman’s corpse were five carved gold bracelets, now buried with her in a mass grave at the Ikaria cemetery.

Ikaria, and the sea around it, are named after the mythical hero, Ikaros, who plummeted to a watery grave after flying too close to the sun. He and his father, Daidalos, had constructed wings out of birds’ feathers held together by wax – a flimsiness born of desperation, not unlike that of today’s refugees, who often cross in unseaworthy vessels and unsuitable life vests. And like the refugees, they were fleeing for their lives, having been bricked into a tower on Crete by King Minos. Ikaros, however, is an eponymous refugee. The women and children in Ikaria’s cemetery may never be named.

A fishing boat crosses the strait between Ikaria and Fournoi, to the east

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Greek farmers rise up from the land

This article was published by Al Jazeera International

Farmers are worried that their profession will shrink as a result of overtaxation.

Yiorgos Saraptsis prunes his hectare of kiwi vines diligently, making sure that each plant has just a few long tributaries to channel its strength into when spring comes. He explains how most of the buds will have to be plucked out before they fruit, so that the remaining kiwis reach market size.

It is labour-intensive work, but since Saraptsis owns less than a hectare in the shadow of Mount Olympus in northern Greece, he is happy to do it himself, bringing in his unemployed son at harvest time. Even so, he says, new taxes and social security contributions the government plans to enforce will make even this low-overhead concern non-viable.

“Those who have up to two hectares are finished,” he says. “You have to be a big landholder to survive. I made $11,000 from my hectare last year. My income tax and costs claimed half of that. If I didn’t work the land myself I'd pay even more for labour. So what's left?”

For Saraptsis, the issue is not one of survival. His second son is a manager in a large supermarket chain, and he himself earns a pension he can live off.

But for many farmers across Greece, the issue is existential. For ten days they have blockaded highways with tractors, and threaten to march on Athens.

Athenians are mostly dismissive. They point to the fact that farmers were once a pampered constituency. Two decades ago they paid no social security, and until two years ago their tax was just six percent. But if austerity came late, it came swiftly. 

Farmers' income tax doubled two years ago to 13 percent. They elected Syriza last year, which promised to relieve them of a crisis-era property tax. Instead, it doubled their income tax again, and eliminated their diesel subsidy. It also raised sales tax on seeds, livestock feeds and pesticides from 13 to 23 percent. All this massively increased the capital farmers need to set aside to stay in business.

The reason for this debacle was that after locking horns with its creditors in the Eurozone for six months, Syriza capitulated to punitive terms for a third, $93bn bailout loan. Among other things, it agreed to cut social security spending by almost $2bn a year - one percent of GDP.

This was the spark that set the tinder alight. Farmers currently pay a flat annual fee of between $780 and $1,300 a year to the Agricultural Insurance Organisation (OGA). The government now says they should pay 27 percent of their income, which amounts to thousands of dollars even for the poorest.

“The government is asking us to pay 26 percent income tax, plus all of next year’s taxes up-front. It’s tripling our social security contributions and keeping the property tax it was going to abolish… this is a struggle for survival,” says Rizos Maroudas, head of the Larissa farmers’ union in central Greece. “We’ll end up on the dole, or as serfs on our own land.”

Desperation creates strange bedfellows, and the proposed social security reform has now brought farmers closer to urban professionals, who are threatened with the same contributions regime. Both plan to demonstrate at a general strike the civil service has called for Thursday.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

More than a hundred farm vehicles blockaded the Korinth toll post on February 2, as part of a nationwide highway blockade farmers launched ten days ago.
Greek agriculture is worth about $7.2bn, or 3.8 percent of the economy. That alone makes it socially and politically important, because it employs an estimated 700,000 people full-time; but it is a strategically important piece of the economy, because most of its value - $5.2bn – came in the form of export revenue last year, accounting for a fifth of all foreign income according tothe Panhellenic Exporters’ Association. That capital is key to paying down Greece’s onerous debt, because the only way to export capital is to import it.

Moreover, agriculture has proven surprisingly resilient. In the face of last year’s global slowdown, Greek exports fell by 21 percent. Agriclutural exports fell by just six percent. However, farmers now fear that the government’s measures will undermine their competitiveness.

At the very least, they want more of their expenses deducted from taxable income. “If the government wants to see me as a business, then I should have the benefits as well as the disadvantages of that,” says Dimitris Dimitriadis, head of the eastern Mani farmers’ union in the Peloponnese. “For instance, if I invest in a tractor, the government allows me to offset 10 percent of that cost per year for five years... So it recognises only half the expense.”

He points out that the government subsidises new jobs in other industries for six months. “If all this applies to businesses why doesn’t it apply to me?”

The government counters that it will spend more than $11bn in EU subsidies on farmers over a seven-year period; but farmers like Dimitriadis believe that that policy adheres to an outdated model of spoon-feeding.

“Last year I got 1,100 euros in subsidies,” says Konstantinos Panayotopoulos, who grows raisins and olives on ten hectares in Korinth. “I need to invest 70,000 in next year’s crop. Who cares if we’re in Europe? I don’t care for subsidies. Do they want us to produce? Then leave us alone.”

End of an era

Panayotopoulos is in his 70s, and typical of the fact that Greek farmers rarely retire. This explains why they are unimpressed by the government’s argument that their pension will rise from about $400 to about $500 under the new regime.

Agriculture minister Vangelis Apostolou has dismissed any notion of withdrawing the social security reform. “That’s like asking us to blow our agreement with creditors sky high, and put our country back in danger of leaving the Eurozone – even the European Union,” he said on January 24. At issue, he says, is the fact that the government will spend as much as $3.7bn topping up OGA this year.

“Eighty percent of the money [contributed by the state to OGA] goes to people who are not farmers,” counters Dimitriadis. “The Roma are paid out of OGA, so are people with family benefits and so are paraplegics and returnees from the diaspora. If OGA has a million enrolments, only 400,000 are truly farmers.”

Many farmers are afraid that the new policies, unless drastically revised, will lead them off the land.

Much of the economy depends on agriculture and it will suffer. You can already see the effects in the shops and businesses of Larissa,” says Yiorgos Roustas, a journalist who covers agriculture in the plain of Thessaly, Greece’s breadbasket.

“But the main effect is that small landholders won't survive. Most of the farmers at roadblocks are in this group. They're the ones who supplement their farming income with income from another profession. They will have to quit and sell their farms for a song,” he says.

The Greek state’s economy has been ruled by small and medium-sized enterprises for all of its two-century long history. It is they who still generate 90 percent of employment. Austerity struck the urban economy first, and shuttered a quarter of a million businesses – one third of the total. Millions more are thought to be moribund. It may now have the same effect on the rural economy.

Asked whether he is worried that his two sons will sell the kiwi farm, Yiorgos Saraptsis, shrugs. “For as long as I am alive, I will work it,” he says. “After that, they can do what they like.”