Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Greek official blows the whistle on refugee costs

This article was published by Al Jazeera International


A senior Greek official has described the way the government buys migration-related services as "chaos," after Greece's top court ordered an inquiry into the handling of European Union funds paid to Athens to assist with the refugee and migration crisis.

Andreas Iliopoulos, head of Greece’s Reception and Identification Service, which registers undocumented migrants when they enter the country, says Greek and European taxpayers may be subject to fraud because many contracts are awarded directly to Greek firms and non-governmental organisations without going through a competitive bidding process.

“[Fast-track procedures mean] I can go directly to interested parties. I can come to you and make a deal without revealing too much information to others,” said Lieutenant-General Andreas Iliopoulos in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera. “That makes sense when people are landing on the beach and we have to feed them and there are no obvious means of doing so… This happened in 2015, but we can’t claim that in 2018.

The government applies for European Union funding after it has already awarded contracts for services, and it could be months before it finds out if the EU will pay. Iliopoulos says fast-track claims are more likely to be disqualified.  

“When a funding request is rejected, it’s paid by Greek taxpayers,” Iliopoulos says. “Right now it’s my impression that a sum of about ten million euros’ worth of funding claims may be dismissed for services like catering, sewage treatment and others.”

The European Commission has allocated $1.8bn to Greece for migration-related costs for the 2014-2020 period, and earmarked even more. About half of this money has been awarded to the government, and the rest to aid groups for their work in Greece. The government can use its allocation to cover 70-80 percent of migration-related expenses. It’s unknown exactly how many Greek contracts the EU has rejected for co-funding.

Al Jazeera has seen a number of directly awarded government contracts. “We award this contract, through a process of negotiation, without the proclamation of a competitive bidding process,” is a typical phrase used to buy catering services and to rent housing.

These contracts can involve substantial sums. A ten-day contract to feed 8,300 people in Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, is worth 415,000 euros, or close to half a million dollars, minus a 4.2 percent tax. None of the catering contracts seen by Al Jazeera contain specifications as to what food is to be served, only that the contractor must serve three meals a day and 1.5 litres of bottled water; so the contractor is free to expand their profit margin at the expense of quality. Asylum-seekers frequently complain about the food mess on the islands, and use their own money to buy fresh produce to cook.

Iliopoulos says the contracts that brought his biggest disagreements with the government concerned sewage shipments from Moria camp to a treatment plant about four kilometres away. “We can’t go on saying catering needs to be contracted under fast-track procedures, or sewage needs to be taken away truck at a cost that looks quite impressive on paper. This has to change,” he says.  

Plans for a pipeline connecting Moria to the plant have been ready for at least two years, says Iliopoulos. The regional governor for the north Aegean, Christiana Kalogirou, confirms this, adding that trucks aren’t sufficient for the job.

“Not connecting Moria to [the plant] leads to the sewage being dumped in the surrounding dry river beds,” she told Al Jazeera. “We have been forced in the interests of public health and the environment, to impose fines of 50,000 and 80,000 euros on the migration ministry because the water table is being contaminated.” Kalogirou says pipeline construction has now been slated to start in December and is expected to take six months.

Iliopoulos says camp maintenance is sub-contracted to NGOs he cannot probe. “I’ve asked for the contracts we have with aid groups that receive EU funding,” he says. “What do they do, exactly?... I’ve asked the [migration] ministry for this information. No one has given me an answer.”

Migration minister Dimitris Vitsas says he tried to dismiss Iliopoulos. “I called him and told him that we cannot continue to work together… and because I respect him and his rank I asked him to choose whether to resign or follow the severance procedure which would entitle him to compensation,” he told Greek national television.

Iliopoulos’ lawsuit was the government’s second migration-related embarrassment in a fortnight. On September 22, defence minister Panos Kammenos sued daily newspaper Fileleftheros for alleging that his ministry had mishandled funds for migration-related services. Pictures on national television showed three journalists with their hands cuffed behind their backs being led into the Athens police headquarters. The journalists were released the same day.

“The prosecutor threw out the libel charge and ordered a preliminary investigation. He did not charge us,” says Fileleftheros’ editor, Panayotis Lampsias. “Mr. Kammenos tried to intimidate us, and through us to silence the rest of the media. We don’t accept these threats. We continue to do our work.”

The European Commission said on September 26 that it had not found proof of wrongdoing, but had referred the matter to OLAF, the EU Anti-Fraud Office.

Viitsas defended the government in a second interview on state television on October 9. “In the last three years, catering alone cost over 300 million [euros], home rentals cost another 200-300 million, and if you add the construction costs for 34 reception centres, which at one point were as many as 40… you’ll see that the total cost is not only justified, it is more than made up for.”

Iliopoulos insists that the system is broken. “What does this chaos enable? Certainly not oversight and spending money effectively. The money that’s been spent on NGOs and the state doesn’t justify what we’re seeing right now.”

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