Friday, September 25, 2015

Voters and Refugees in Greece and Beyond: Elections, Rejections, Reflections

What’s Next for Greece? Is There Any Hope for Beneficial Change?

Greek Parliament, Athens
You’ve probably heard by now that Alexis Tsipras and his Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA, won last Sunday’s national election in Greece. You may know that Tsipras broke with his party’s most radical leftists during the summer, after he gave up opposing the third loan agreement (or memorandum) between Greece and its creditors, with all the austerity measures and reforms that come with it. Pre-election polls were calling for a closer election, but everyone knew the pro-European parties who reluctantly voted for the memorandum would dominate the new Greek Parliament. Here’s what a number of Greeks think about the situation here.

Writing for The Press Project before the election, Vassiliki Siouti suggested that this election “is the first time that the result ‘doesn't count.’ The Greeks are not voting in order to decide what program will be imposed. Everybody knows that this is decided, and the elections cannot change it. What they are asked to do is decide who will manage the specific program and none of the candidates seems desirable enough” (Greek Elections: The Dice Are Loaded).

“Stop Them” (with Tsipras Crossed Out)
Most of the nine respondents to my own unscientific, informal, rather random survey of some Greek friends who still live here seemed to agree. Only two of my friends said they believed there were any political parties in Greece now that could improve the situation. Another suggested that one of the centrist parties could do some good, but not in its current form. The others had no confidence in any of the parties. One added, “After voting for the last prerequisites of the 3rd Memorandum, Greece turned officially into a protectorate, so policies are automatically adopted not from the Parliament but from non-accountable, non-elected institutions.” This seems to be a common view here now, in spite of Tsipras’s vows to impose austerity measures more fairly, fight corruption and vested interests, and seek debt relief for Greece.

Many feel little hope that the situation in Greece will improve, since extreme austerity is expected to cause great pain, whichever political party leads its implementation. Friendly, smiling Jehovah’s Witnesses try to offer hope for the future by handing out religious pamphlets in Greek that were printed in Germany, copyrighted by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Others smile less at strangers on the street.

A third of my respondents said they would not vote, one of them “for the first time in my life,” another because he is not registered to vote where he lives—a common problem for Greeks who maintain their registration where they grew up, hoping to return there for reunions at election time, but unable to do that three times in nine months, especially during an economic crisis. (Given the complete lack of absentee ballots, this results in indirect disenfranchisement of many who are not well off, if they have not been willing or able to change their registration in time for snap elections.) My non-voting friends joined 44% of the Greek electorate in the lowest turnout in the country since at least the 1990s.

Election Poster for ANEL Party
Surveyed friends who did vote were fairly evenly split between voting against a party they especially disliked, voting for a party in which they had a limited amount of confidence, both of those, or neither. A general lack of enthusiasm for the candidates was reported around Greece, too, with low turnouts at campaign rallies and a limited number of election posters visible in Chania last weekend. The most interesting poster was literally a joke: the right-wing ANEL leader in the coalition government with SYRIZA before SYRIZA’s left-wing faction rebelled and Prime Minister Tsipras resigned was pictured holding up the right hand of a little boy whose left arm was in a cast. The real 41 year old Tsipras responded good naturedly that his left arm was actually fine. I am referring to the leftist and the rightist who have formed a coalition once again; back in January, ANEL shared SYRIZA’s anti-bailout orientation, but they are now expected to more or less share a pro-euro agenda.

What did Greeks expect to come out of this election that struck so many as a waste of time, money, and effort? Before the election, one of my respondents said, “We will certainly have a government, but [it] remains unclear how stable this government is going to be.” That could be true, since the coalition’s majority is slim--155 of 300 parliamentarians—and the leftists and rightists in the coalition disagree on a number of issues. On the other hand, with several of the most radical leftists who opposed the bailout absent from Parliament, and from the coalition government, there could also be more stability. Since the conservative centrist New Democracy and several smaller parties are likely to support Tsipras in approving the reforms, privatization, and austerity measures required by the memorandum, there is some hope of keeping this government for four years rather than voting constantly as Greeks have during the crisis.

Doctors of the World Clinic, Chania
Most of the friends who responded to my survey last week anticipated no real change after the election. As one friend put it, “people will continue struggling to pay bills or find access to healthcare through [free] clinics.” Once again, we have the expected coalition government which one of my respondents called an “interesting arranged marriage,” since SYRIZA did not win an adequate majority to govern alone. One of my friends feared an “increase of [the] neofascist power” of Golden Dawn—which unfortunately occurred, although not by too much--while another dreaded the “same old pointless rhetoric with few constructive moves.” We shall see about that.

A Bank in Chania
A Greek woman who detests SYRIZA is nevertheless delighted that they won, since it means they must take responsibility for the new austerity measures: “Let’s see them try to implement this memorandum they voted in!” Certainly, Tsipras will have his hands full with bank recapitalization and the lifting of capital controls, efforts to revive the economy and reduce unemployment (from about 25%), and the refugee crisis that overwhelmed several Greek islands in the eastern Aegean this summer.

But Why Did Greeks Vote Again? Didn’t They Just Do That?

Protestors and Tourists Outside Parliament
Yes, this was the fifth general election in Greece (for both members of parliament and prime minister, all at once) in six years, the second general election and third vote this year alone. It was a strange year in Greek politics. Alexis Tsipras’s Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) stormed to power in January on an anti-austerity platform, becoming the first left-wing government in Greece or the EU (by Greek standards, since the well-established socialist PASOK doesn’t count as left-wing here). SYRIZA supporters cheered its vain efforts to convince creditors to roll back the austerity that has been blamed for high unemployment, an extended recession, reduced benefits, and increases in taxes, business closures, and suicides. As talk of a $15 an hour minimum wage starts to spread around the U. S., Americans should realize that many people in Greece work for 3 euros an hour, and even more work for 5 or 6 euros an hour. Expenses are not low enough to justify that, benefits not high enough, and taxes are too high, getting higher by the minute. Yet Prime Minister Tsipras could squeeze few concessions out of Greece’s creditors.

Popular Unity Party Headquarters in Chania
As Tsipras urged, his supporters voted to reject a new austerity-laden loan agreement in the July 5 referendum he announced just before closing banks and instituting capital controls to avoid a complete failure of the nation’s banks. The week after the referendum, Tsipras made his famous U-turn to advocate the austerity measures, including new tax increases and pension reductions, as well as far-reaching reforms, which the European Central Bank, European Commission, European Stability Mechanism, and International Monetary Fund insisted Greece must approve if it wished to avoid the complete failure of its struggling banks and stay in the Eurozone. Most of the country reluctantly, disgustedly went along with this disregard of the referendum result, but the rebellious SYRIZA members of Parliament (MPs) who refused to vote for the new agreement left Tsipras without a governing majority. (For more details on all the politics, see my Olive Oil Times articles, e.g. Greece Accepts More Austerity to Avoid Chaotic Grexit and Third Loan Package Reluctantly Approved by Greek Parliament.) So Tsipras called for snap elections, hoping to receive a stronger mandate from the Greek people before the worst effects of the new measures could reduce his personal popularity. The rebellious MPs formed a party called Popular Unity which did not win enough votes to enter Parliament.   

Little School, But Plenty of Fruit (Outside the Cities)

First Day of School Blessing
I didn’t have the patience for pre-election news this time around. Never mind all the polls, leaders’ promises, accusations, and political posturing--I’m more concerned about the missing 17,000 to 25,000 teachers who will not be replaced in Greek grade schools any time soon. This is not due to this year’s refugee crisis, the prime minister’s resignation, the frequent elections, or capital controls; there is a teacher shortage in some or all of Greece, to some extent, every year. And I still can’t understand why this becomes a crisis each September, rather than being dealt with over the summer. I’m told teachers often decide at the last minute not to accept assignments on far-flung  islands, but that doesn’t explain why they should be allowed to think about it all summer, if that means leaving students without teachers in the fall. The first week of school was cut short by elections, which always mean school closings on the Friday and Monday surrounding Sunday polls. It was further curtailed by a lack of art, music, and drama teachers, as well as two of the three English teachers needed at our elementary school, and we do not know when we’ll get them or when the school day will be extended from 12:25 to 2:00. At least our school opened on schedule this year, unlike others.

Prickly Pear Cactus, Crete
As I hurry through a morning walk in order to find time for some work before the short school “day” ends, the aroma of wild herbs baking in the sun alternates with the sweet smell of fallen figs and aging grapes. There seem to be too many figs and grapes here for the neighbors to consume, so I collect some for our family and for my refugee friends. I consider the difficulty of peeling the over-ripe prickly pear fruit and leave that alone. I pass an elderly man trimming prickly pear cacti so the spines don’t stick out into the road, carefully filling a wheelbarrow with cut-off pieces. I pick up an occasional fallen lemon, notice that the pomegranates are beginning to redden on their trees, and again feel grateful I live in a semi-rural area where produce is plentiful, rather than in a city where hungry people can’t scavenge for fruit. I hear the rustle of the wind in the tall eucalyptus trees, the cooing of pigeons, the roar of a plane engine, the bark of a dog, the cockadoo of a rooster, the hum of a vacuum.

Tourists in the Acropolis Museum 
As usual, life goes on here in spite of the crisis. However, even with a record-breaking number of tourists visiting Greece in 2015, many of the hotel, restaurant, and shop owners who pay all their taxes are struggling financially, especially if they reduced prices to attract tourists during a summer of political and economic uncertainty, while facing tax increases they don’t dare pass on to customers. At least there is no war here; we are not in Syria, being bombed or shot at. I am entranced rather than alarmed by the sight of the calm, shimmering sea and its reflections of luminous clusters of fluffy clouds, since I do not expect to cross that sea in an overloaded boat certain to be overturned if there is a storm.

Clouds Above the Sea, Crete
In response to the Bloomberg View article “Greece's tax-evading professionals,” Harvard and Princeton educated economist Stelios Markianos comments, “People do move when they are being crushed.” He was referring to over-taxed Greeks who move themselves and their businesses overseas, but we also see this happening with Syrian refugees, who are in danger of more literal crushing by bombs if they remain at home in Syria.

Update on the Syrian Refugees I Know

“Rima’s” Twins in Their Hotel Room in Chania
I said goodbye to “Rima” and her four daughters last week, before they left for Stuttgart to join Rima’s husband, the girls’ father, who has been granted asylum in Germany. (See last month’s blog post for more about them.) Their family had been living in small hotel rooms in different countries for approximately one year, so I was glad they would be reunited at last in a city and country where extended family members and adequate support awaited them. They sent me photos from Germany, where they are disappointed to be living together in one room for now (all six of them), but pleased that it’s a bigger, cleaner, brighter room than they had in Greece, near a kitchen they share with one other family. They need time to adapt and learn the language now.

“Rima’s” Twins Before They Left for Germany
For my own sake, I was sorry to see my new friend leave. I hadn’t really had time to get to know Rima well, but she had helped me understand “the Syrian refugee crisis” as far more than a mere matter of statistics and far-off tragedy, as only another sensitive, intelligent, loving, caring mother could, and I will miss her. Wearing the colorful headbands my daughter had given them, her dear little six year old twin girls repeatedly hugged and kissed me as we said goodbye. One of them was very anxious to rejoin her daddy, but Rima’s intelligent, strong-willed 15-year-old daughter would have preferred to stay in Greece rather than move to unfamiliar Germany. Rima would have been happy to stay here, too, if her family could have found the jobs and assistance Germany is better able to provide. Both excited and nervous about the great change coming after almost 1 ½ years here in Chania, she had been able to sleep only a few hours each night.

Blankets Airing at the Hotel in Crete
Rima feels very bad about leaving her dear friend (and uncle’s wife) “Maram,” after living with her in the hotel since they arrived in Chania. Maram and her 12-year-old daughter do not yet have permission to join the rest of their family in Stuttgart, and they don’t know how much longer they will be here. That is true of the other seven refugees from Syria who arrived in March 2014 and are still here, as well: another mother with two of her three sons, a teenage girl with her father and brother, and the artist Shamsalddin, who is still waiting to join his wife and daughters in Sweden, but has at least started painting again, since his wife did finally receive asylum there. They are all anxious to be reunited with their far-off family members, especially since the hotel owner here has imposed additional restrictions on what they may do in the hotel, which was never meant to be anyone’s long-term home.

Update on Refugees Trying to Enter Fortress Europe

Syrian Refugee Children in Chania
The photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy who drowned on his way from Turkey to Greece at the beginning of September, shocked many people into compassion for refugees. That photo reminded me of a little boy who survived his journey to Greece and has now moved on to the Netherlands with his family. After Aylan Kurdi’s death, the stream of news stories about refugees became an overwhelming torrent. It followed thousands of people from Turkey to the nearby Greek islands of the eastern Aegean, onto the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry that used to carry my family from Crete to Piraeus but now shuttles refugees there, north through Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary or Slovenia, to Austria, Sweden, and especially Germany.

Aylan Kurdi’s photo seemed to turn the tide of public opinion, putting more pressure on national and international leaders to show compassion for refugees. After the publication of that small drowned boy’s picture, prominent politicians made passionate statements about the need to help refugees, some increased the numbers their countries would take in, and donations poured in to relevant charitable organizations. These were important moves in the right direction, but they didn’t go nearly far enough. 

On the Eleftherios Venizelos Ferry Boat
The compassion was limited and short-lived in some nations, even after the body of a drowned four year old Syrian girl washed up on another shore, adding to the nearly 3,000 human beings who drowned this year while attempting to reach Europe. To avoid the danger of drowning, a new group organized on Facebook and known as Crossing No More tried to use a sit-in on the border between Turkey and Greece to open a land route from northern Turkey to Europe that would not rely on smugglers or unsafe boats. As the New York Times reports, they were stopped, with thousands rounded up and sent back to other parts of Turkey. But they don’t understand why hundreds of thousands of desperate children, parents, brothers, and sisters are allowed to attempt the dangerous sea crossing to Greece, but forbidden to try the safer land route to Europe. (One answer, but not an acceptable excuse for failing to stop thousands of drownings: it’s easier to stop them with fences at the land border.) Although it has offered unofficial refuge to nearly 2 million Syrians, Turkey does not grant them official asylum or the rights to work, rent a home, and receive benefits which should come with asylum; that is one reason refugees are trying to leave for Europe.

Literal and figurative walls have been erected at many borders to stop them. One of the latest is a 25-mile fence on Hungary’s border with Croatia. The news about border control has been changing fast, leaving refugees and migrants in limbo. Last Tuesday, tear gas and water cannons at Hungary’s newly fenced border with Serbia pushed so many into Croatia—where live land mines from the Balkan wars of the 1990s remain—that Croatia temporarily closed most of its border crossings with Serbia. Neighboring Slovenia recently fired tear gas at refugees and migrants trying to enter from Croatia, although later some were allowed to continue on to Austria. With 40,000 people arriving in less than a week and a half, Croatia has been busing refugees and migrants back over the border into Hungary, leading to accusations and threats between the two countries’ leaders, although Hungary has also been busing thousands north to the Austrian border. Croatians and Serbians are restricting each other’s border crossings and trading angry words now as tempers flare. Most of the migrants and refugees head to Austria, whose chancellor told the Hungarian prime minister to take down his fences. Most continue on to Germany, Sweden, or other countries.

But now even Germany, the hero in this European story if there is one, has declared itself overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers it has taken in just this year and, like Austria, it has imposed temporary border controls. Facing most of the refugees on the edges of Europe, Greece, Italy, and Hungary have been pleading for more help from the rest of the EU for some time. The eastern European countries between Greece and Germany have recently struggled to deal with thousands of people who seek a better life. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker repeatedly appealed to EU countries to divide the duty of providing aid and homes more equitably. At the divisive meeting of EU interior ministers on Tuesday, a majority finally voted to redistribute 120,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean refugees around the EU, overruling the reluctant Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia in a rare deviation from EU consensus. However, 120,000 refugees is 30,000 less than Greece received in July and August alone, and all 120,000 will not be coming from Greece. Never mind the rest of the year, previous or future years, those who entered through Italy or other countries, or the millions in refugee camps. 4,000 more arrive in Greece daily.

The Guardian reports that Wednesday’s emergency summit of EU leaders in Brussels “decided little but to throw money at aid agencies and transit countries hosting millions of Syrian refugees and to step up the identification and finger-printing of refugees in Italy and Greece by November.” As a New York Times headline emphasizes, “U.N. Funding Shortfalls and Cuts in Refugee Aid Fuel [the] Exodus to Europe.” The EU’s plan to stop the exodus includes more money to make refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan more comfortable places for Syrians to stay. More funding, more food, and more improvements are essential. But even with that, what kind of home is a refugee camp? EU leaders recognized the need to improve the situation in Syria as well as in the surrounding countries, but they find Turkey, an essential partner in such a venture, difficult to work with, given its problematic demands.

Banner Advocating “Open Borders, Minds, and Hearts”
We most often hear well-justified calls for humanitarian compassion for refugees, but Oliver August, the Europe editor of The Economist, added that refugees are generally “highly motivated and grateful to be here” in Europe. Many of them “are educated and have skills that are useful,” and they are “coming to a continent that is rapidly depopulating,” leading to a need for more people in certain professions. He is confident that many of the refugees could be integrated if they were allowed to work but notes that the rules of guilds and unions, as well as apprenticeship and accreditation requirements, often prevent this (Why Influx Of Migrants Could Be A Good Thing For Europe).

Similarly, Eduardo Porter argues that “Europe’s best shot at prosperity is to build upon the diversity that immigration will bring,” because immigration has been found to increase the wages of native workers, wealthy countries with aging populations need younger workers in the labor pool, migrants inspire more investment by providing more labor, and (according to an OECD official) “immigrants often contribute more in taxes than they draw in public benefits” (A Migration Juggernaut Is Headed for Europe). And this is not only true for Europe. Wealthy countries with low unemployment rates in North America, the Middle East, and elsewhere should also acknowledge that there are many reasons to welcome the refugees who need new homes, and they should help those people reach new homes before smugglers pack them into small, unsafe boats for 1,000 euros per person.

Clouds Over the Sea, Crete
After recent rainstorms, autumn’s new green leaves and tiny purple flowers are beginning to replace the greys and browns of wild herbs dried out in the summer heat of Crete, and the new growth of thyme and throumbi (savory) adds its aroma to the air on a sunny morning. Autumn is here with its dramatic skyscapes and quick alterations between sun and rain. We can’t decide whether early storms herald brighter or darker days in Greece, but I am fairly certain the outlook is brighter here than in Syria.

Donate Medicine, Necessities, or Money to Help Refugees

In Chania, Terra Verde and Steki continue to collect money and items listed in the comments on my previous blog post, except that more clothes are not needed. Steki, or Κοινωνικό Στέκι-Στέκι Μεταναστών Χανίων, is located near the end of Daliani Street, next to the Terra Verde fair trade shop, not far from the Agora.

The Chania clinic of ΓΙΑΤΡΟΙ ΤΟΥ ΚΟΣΜΟΥ, Medecins du Monde, or Doctors of the World, is located at 11 Boniali Street (postal code 73133); the telephone number is +28210 23110 (these numbers alone work if dialing within Greece). They accept donations of medicine, even partially used containers of it, as long as it has not expired. This is the web site for the Greek branch. It’s in English, and it is possible to make a monetary donation there.

You can also donate money to the UN’s World Food Program here.

Recommended Reading

Read “U.N. Funding Shortfalls and Cuts in Refugee Aid Fuel Exodus to Europe if you want to understand why refugees are risking their lives to try to get to Europe. Part of the reason: the UN’s World Food Program is just 47% funded, the UN refugee agency fund for Syria has only 43% of what it needs, and the World Health Organization has a mere 27% of the funding it requires. All of these agencies are decreasing or cutting off funding to refugees in the countries around Syria. No wonder they want to reach Europe. (EU leaders have pledged 1 billion euros to the UN, but how far will that go to help 4.7 million asylum seekers in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and 8 million displaced within Syria?)

Read “As Others Flee to West, Most Syrian Refugees Remain in Region if you want to know what life is like for the 79,000 refugees in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Read “Let Refugees Fly to Europe” to see why that’s a better idea than letting them pay smugglers 1,000 euros per person for an unsafe boat ride.