Civilisation – the human tragedy of Greece.
The dismal circumstances of asylum seekers and refugees in Greece, is hard to blame on the Greeks. Europe is collectively responsible. If the international community is to address the humanitarian crisis there, as well as in Italy, it must first deal with the imbalance of power between northern and southern Europe.
As we made our way up through the park to Areopagus Hill, next to the Acropolis, the young Sudanese man I was with said he thought Greece had become, primarily, a tourist attraction. The Greek government he said, showed off the natural beauty of the country, the islands, the mountains and the coast, to encourage people to visit while concealing the poverty and hardship there. The steady growth of tourism in Greece has come about since the height of the economic crisis. Private takeovers of Greek assets (largely by international investors), has been a primary strategy for the country’s glacial economic recovery, but the tourist industry has also played an essential role. Eight out of ten new jobs created last year were in the service sector. Over 30 million holidaymakers visited in 2017. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council nearly a quarter of all jobs in Greece are now linked to the tourist trade.
At the same time, thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine have become trapped in Greece. Since March 2016, when the EU brokered a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of irregular immigration across the Aegean, soon after the border closures along the overland Balkan route, thousands of people with uncertain immigration status became stuck in Greece. Responsibility for the humanitarian crisis, the product of western intervention in the Middle East, has fallen disproportionately on the Greeks, where one in five adults of working age are unemployed.
I first visited Greece last autumn, while cycling from Rome to Athens. We spent a week following the northern Peloponnese coast. Making our way along the old road, running alongside the recently completed E65, in the opposite direction to those attempting to reach Italy. The purpose of our visit was to research Europe after the Brexit vote. I wanted to understand better, how those on the southern fringes of the continent felt about the EU. I was particularly interested in observing the refugee crisis there, having spent a decade researching the settlement experiences of Somali asylum seekers in the UK. I also hoped, given many western Europeans consider Greece to be the foundation of civilisation and the birthplace of democracy, our visit would produce new insights. I discovered instead a country reliant on its ancient history to pull in tourists, while struggling to eclipse it. A country, which as a result of efforts to transform itself into a modern European state had inadvertently compromised its sovereignty, and at the same time become a huge internment camp for the rest of Europe.
When we arrived in Greece it was the end of the tourist season. Many of the Greeks we met as we cycled along, although friendly, were clearly weary of accommodating tourists. Along the coast expensive looking cafés and restaurants sat alongside run down supermarkets and antiquated local’s bars. Farmers sold their produce from the back of trucks. Away from the tourist sites, rubbish littered the edges of olive groves and orange orchards. When we reached Athens, exhausted after two and a half weeks on the road, the neighbourhoods closest to the Acropolis seemed to me, to be tourist ghettos, guarded by armed police.
Commenting on the modern tragedy, which has befallen Greece, an ex Navy Officer I met on the shore not far from Patras said, ‘Many people here are educated, but now we are the servants to tourists.’ A few days later as we were nearing Athens, I spoke to a frustrated young man who worked in the hotel we were staying in. When I asked him about Europe he told me. ‘It’s bad to be 25 years old and not see a future for yourself. I don’t want to work for you cleaning rooms, serving you, yes sir, no sir, what can I get you sir. I want to work for myself. If you work in tourism it’s hard for your soul. I am European. Many of the guests are European. They come here to relax, they eat out, while I can’t afford the petrol to visit my mother 25km away.’
Since the economic crisis and bailouts, EU imposed austerity has dramatically altered the country. Infrastructure has rapidly deteriorated. Funding for public services such as education and healthcare has been withdrawn. Joblessness amongst the under 25’s is still running at 45%. Last year wages were fixed at €4-500 a month increasing to €800 for professionals. People I spoke with believed they would be paying off the €300 billion debt for the next thirty to forty years and for those adversely affected, it had diminished their hopes for the future.
Unsurprisingly many were angry with Greek politicians and critical of the EU. One woman, who ran a holiday apartment building at the bottom of her garden, summarised the mood. ‘Our government is in Brussels, Belgium. The Prime Minister says yes to the EU, because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. We’ve had economic crisis for 8 years and we have many more in front of us. We have the sense we are not making the decisions. The left-wing government have introduced the most right wing austerity measures because they have been imposed by the EU.’
Others I spoke with variously described Greece as a third world country, a military buffer zone, backward and behind. Yet despite the hardship created by EU austerity, most of the people we met were mainly positive about the concept of Europe and remaining a part of the EU. Further, with the war in Syria, unrest in the Middle East and Erdoğan leading Turkey, many viewed Greece’s membership as a necessity, for their security.
Since the EU/Turkey deal came into effect, according to the International Organization for Migration, around 200,000 asylum seekers and refugees have made the journey to Greece. This is despite the treaty being intended to serve as a deterrent. Those arriving since March 2016 are subject to a fast-track border procedure. Last year 93.63% of asylum applications were rejected. In the same year, in 98.2% of appeal hearings, the decision was upheld on the basis that Turkey provides a safe alternative for repatriation. Since the deal, two thousand people have been sent back to Turkey. The rest have been trapped in Greece living in limbo.
To protect people’s livelihoods, last year tens of thousands of refugees stuck on the beaches of the Aegean islands closest to Turkey were relocated to Athens and other mainland cities. Thousands of others were moved in land to under-resourced, overcrowded camps. Since then thousands more have arrived and according to UNHCR the number of people crossing the Aegean has recently soared again. Between the 23rd of April and 6th of May this year, 1,877 reportedly landed on the beaches.
I didn’t visit the islands, but saw plenty of evidence of the humanitarian crisis elsewhere. In Patras, as we cycled off the ferry we saw around forty boys and young men being chased away by a police car. That day they’d managed to break down a section of the fence. The following morning we cycled past the disused factories opposite the port where they were living in squalid conditions without running water or electricity. The young men have nothing to lose. Many are from Afghanistan and have little chance of regulating their immigration status. As we cycled along Akti Dimeon we passed a group of men sitting at a café watching the ferry port. Further on, next to a bus stop stood twenty more, assessing their chances, looking for a break. At the time, the police response seemed meagre, akin to a game of cat and mouse. But later, I was reliably informed that furtively the police are brutal. Away from the gaze of visiting tourists, the young men are routinely rounded up and beaten before being released.
In Athens, the refugees have made their homes in disused buildings, factories and hotels. In Metaxourgeio above the rampage of graffiti you can see the squats and community organisation banners. When I returned this spring, I sat at a café opposite Exarchia Square. The infamous site of resistance against police brutality, austerity and the persecution of migrants is rapidly gentrifying and the square has become an ‘alternative’ destination for young tourists and travellers. I asked the waitress about the men, mainly immigrants and refugees drinking and hanging out behind the frayed anarchist banners there. ‘People don’t have jobs, what else can they do?’ She asked. ‘They lose their minds. So many years – nothing. For years it has been like this.’
When I returned home a Greek friend who volunteered for one of the city’s hostels for unaccompanied minors, told me that if I really wanted to understand the despair of the refugee crisis I should have visited Victoria Square. There, she said was one of the hubs of criminal activity. Many of the refugees, seemingly socialising and killing time under the trees, were in reality waiting to be picked up and employed in illegal activities by local and international mafias, including the running of child prostitution rings. She told me, during the crossing children were deliberately being separated from their families, by the smugglers, who then asked their families for a ransom or forced the children into prostitution in some of the squatted, abandoned buildings in the centre of Athens. The police, she said, were turning a blind eye, either because they were bribed to do so or because of a general policy of non-intervention adopted by the Syriza government.
For those who arrived before the EU/Turkey deal with official refugee status, their chances are better. A young Syrian man I spoke with, who was working in an Apple call centre, told me he liked living in Greece. ‘If you are registered for asylum you can start work. When you register you get a tax number… I see Greece as the best country in Europe, compared to my friends’ experiences in different countries. I didn’t come to Greece to live on hand-outs. For this I love Greece. We are here to support ourselves. In Germany they give people money but they are not allowed to work. They are educated but they have to wait three, four years before they can find a job. I don’t want to lose my life waiting like this.’ After leaving Syria and spending a year in Turkey, the young man was optimistic about living in Greece. But I couldn’t help thinking that if little changed, the long-term prospects for most are dismal.
Those I spoke with who had been in the country longer were more pessimistic. The Sudanese man I met, now 37 years old told me he’d come to Greece when he was eight. His father had been a diplomat. When he lost his diplomatic status owing to the war in Sudan, the family became refugees. He spoke fluent Greek and had been to school in Greece. He knew the country’s history and culture. But despite having lived most of his life in Athens, he was not a Greek national, and he told me, and anyone who asked, he was Sudanese. When I asked why. He told me, ‘I don’t feel Greek. I love this country. I grew up here. My first salary was here.’ But, despite working as a DJ on Rhodes during the summer, he added, ‘Right now I’m thinking about where I want to be because there is no future for me here.’
Earlier that day I’d spoken with the waitress at the café near Exarchia Square. She was Albanian, but had grown up in Greece, in the northern city Thessaloniki and come to Athens five years ago. She also said she did not feel Greek. ‘I love Greece,’ she told me. ‘But I don’t want to be Greek.’ She said, Albania was in her heart, but she couldn’t live there. ‘There you get paid just five Euro’s for eight hours work.’ She didn’t have Greek papers. She said the Greeks were racist. (Tensions between the Greeks and Albanians are enduring owing to a dispute over territory in the north of Greece, and many Albanians are discriminated against by those with right-wing or conservative views). She explained that when she first came to Athens no one would give her a job. Later she met a Greek woman who, like her, was married to an Afghani man, and she’d got a job that way. But she explained that she couldn’t afford to have a family. ‘If I had a child I wouldn’t be able to work, my husband is a translator but doesn’t have a job. We wouldn’t have any money.’
Given the amount of time the waitress and Sudanese man had lived in Greece I was surprised they were not Greek nationals. When I looked into it later, I discovered that before the current wave of irregular migration, Greece had maintained a large undocumented population as a source of cheap labour. According to research carried out by Dr Leonidas, at the LSE, in 2011, 390,000 undocumented migrants were living in Greece, many working in menial, poorly paid jobs. Recently however, there has been some progress. In 2015, the Syriza-led coalition changed the law, meaning those born in Greece are now automatically Greek nationals. Before then, the children of immigrants did not receive a birth certificate but instead a ‘maternity clinic certificate’ and were granted only limited rights.
Ancient Athenian democracy is often heralded in the west as an exemplar of progressive inclusive decision-making. All citizens were eligible to attend the assembly where they would vote and make decisions to run the country. Unlike modern forms of democracy whereby elected representatives assumedly vote on behalf of the public, for many, Athenian democracy represents a truer form of public participation. Except, in ancient Athens only a fifth of the population were eligible to participate. Slaves, free slaves, children, women and Metics (foreign residents of Athens) were exempt. Regardless of how many generations had lived in the city, Metics only became citizens if the city chose to bestow it to them as a gift. In contemporary Greece, given the novelty of reforms, the sluggish processing of asylum claims, and extreme financial pressures, it is too early to judge what progress has been made.
The humanitarian crisis and austerity in Greece are not temporary but enduring concerns. Since September 2017, there has been another surge in people from Syria and Iraq travelling to Greece by boat and overland. Despite the slow response of the Greek government, the dismal circumstances they face on arrival, is hard to blame on the Greeks. Europe, including the UK regardless of the final Brexit deal, needs to accept greater responsibility. To date their response has been cowardly. Despite the commitment of 26 EU states in 2015 (the UK opted out) to take in more people fleeing tyranny, violence and poverty, since the agreement was made only 22,000 people have been relocated. Keen to keep their electorates on side, politicians have avoided accepting more, on the pretence the refugees present a security threat. The men, women and children stranded in Greece need a far more compassionate response from the international community if further tragedy is to be avoided.
For the refugees trapped in Greece their situation is perilous and made worse by the economic crisis there. And, there is another consideration. When poverty and hardship are widespread, racism and xenophobia proliferate. Tensions can arise. In Athens and on the Islands the compassion and solidarity shown by the Greek people and others, has been admirable. At the same time however support for the neo-fascist party, Golden Dawn has magnified. (At the height of the economic crisis and previous peak of irregular migration in 2012, support for Golden Dawn increased from 19,636 votes in 2009, to 440,966). More long-term intervention is also required to avoid division and resentment becoming entrenched and discrimination and persecution intensifying.
As I wondered around the centre of Athens this Easter, despite the obvious hardship there, a precarious calm seemed to have fallen over the city, a reluctant acceptance of the country’s fate. The Greek people I met seemed worn-out and ground down. The defiant graffiti, which spread across the city at the height of the crisis felt out dated. In the city centre, it had been appropriated and turned into another tourist attraction. Huge artistic pieces adorned walls next to dilapidated buildings. Greece’s misfortune it seemed has become a voyeuristic spectacle, for those who can afford a weekend break.
Although normal borrowing from the markets may have resumed, Greece’s economy is not growing and many are dependent on tourism. To save their own economies, the richer, northern European states enforced the toughest austerity measures and threatened sanctions if the Greek’s didn’t comply. Many visitors are from the same countries, which imposed Greece’s financial straightjacket. 60% of salaries earned through Greek servitude, are sent back to the public purse to repay the deficit.
Travelling through Greece it is impossible to ignore the poverty there. The inequality between Europe’s nations plays out on a daily basis. If we are to address the humanitarian crisis in Greece, we must first deal with the imbalance of power between northern Europe and the south. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are trapped in Greece as well as Italy, countries beholden to the EU owing to budget deficits and whose economies are struggling. For the people of Greece and the refugees themselves, it seems a high price to pay for others mistakes.