From the beginning of this project we had set as our goal to show the human side of the refugee crisis and not ignore, but leave in the background the politics involved.
For weeks, I had been asking City Plaza to give us a person from their legal support services to clarify for us the framework of the laws protecting the refugees. On our last day of principal photography the message arrived, with contact information for a very prominent lawyer. When I called, that lawyer was busy that day and she referred us to her partner. The partner turned out to be Vassilis Papadopoulos, former General Secretary of the Ministry of Immigration and after checking our blog he agreed to talk to us. It would be our last interview in this stage of the project.
A lot of what follows hinges on the EU-Turkey statement. Here’s some info about that statement, which was implemented on the 20 of March of 2016 and which crucially states in its first point “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.”
Up until our interview with Vassilis Papadopoulos we had talked to two people who were very critical about the EU-Turkey statement and who linked the statement to the terrible conditions in the camps, but they were activists. We felt we needed a less ideological analysis to either support or refute these critiques.
Then came Mr Papadopoulos, who was just such a source. As a former government official dealing closely with the fallout from the EU-Turkey statement, he was fully qualified to offer the analysis we needed. We were all somewhat surprised when he largely validated what the two previous persons had told us.
Beyond that, he explained to us in detail the rights of refugees under the Geneva Convention and the implications of the geographical limitation imposed by Turkey on its unwillingness to abide by this convention. It turns out there is a good reason Turkey is not considered a safe country by many refugees. Basically Turkey gives refugee status only to people coming from Europe, the rest have none of the legal protection envisioned by the Geneva Convention for all persons, regardless of origin.
Papadopoulos made a number of very important points in our interview with him. Here are a few highlights:
The EU-Turkey statement is in direct violation of the Geneva Convention
The EU is knowingly using this statement despite its important legal flaws in trying to stop the flow.
The Greek government has imposed the restriction of movement inside the first entry islands as a way to stop the flow. The bad conditions in the Greek islands, are not due simply to a lack of resources or poor planning, but it is a policy of the Greek state in order to stop the flow.
Towards the end of our interview Mr Papadopoulos talked about the ongoing fight that goes on in Europe and the rest of the world, over the just application of human rights, and how the current refugee crisis is triggering conflicts and discussions that will determine the future of Europe as a democratic region.
The idea that comes to my mind is that the rise of fascism is dictating the policy of the European Community. The extreme right is using the fear of refugees to appeal to their electorate and gain votes. Their success makes the rest of the parties uneasy and is slowly but surely forcing them to adopt the same rhetoric and finally the same policies.
There is fight going on in the whole world, a fight over the distribution of wealth. Migration is a part of this fight, as are those who are for it and those who are against it. People that support migration think of it as a re-distribution of wealth between the rich European countries, USA, Canada and Australia, and the poor countries of Asia and Africa, and they fight for it as part of a global vision of justice and equality.
What Manar told me was, ‘We stood there, and I felt we were ” بين موتين” – between two deaths. Behind us was death, and everything we had was gone. And in front of us was death. I knew that we might all die, or – much worse – that only some of us would get to the other side. But we had no choice. This was our only road.”
City Plaza is a squat that houses refugees. They don’t accept funding from governments or NGOs and they are entirely supported by donations and volunteers in solidarity, from Greece and around the world.
It’s a seven-story building in the middle of Athens that used to be a hotel. It houses 400 people from 7 different countries. By contrast, most official centers are located either on the outskirts of towns or in rural or industrial areas.
People have privacy in their rooms, they live with dignity and City Plaza operates more like a hotel. Because it is located in a thriving urban environment, the residents live as close as possible to a “normal” life, with access to shopping, services and even work opportunities. They have three meals a day that they cook themselves, and have access to basic needs, language courses, basic health care and legal help.
To deal with EU bureaucracy you definitely need help especially if you don’t speak Greek or English. Refugees and volunteers live and work together taking shifts in the kitchen and cleaning the premises. All decisions are made in group meetings.
“We live together – solidarity will win” is the motto of City Plaza. The hotel demonstrates every day that even in a situation of crisis and poverty it is possible to welcome people with open arms and to create dignified living conditions for all.
The atmosphere of the place grabs you when you first walk in. It’s quite a contrast to the depression you see in the camps. Residents say that “City Plaza is the best hotel in Europe”.
We spent time with Behfar, 24, who left Iran with his parents and younger brother. After their long journey to Greece, they found City Plaza and rested for 4 months. Their goal was to make it to northern Europe, but they got stuck in Serbia and then Hungary. After seven months on the road they returned to Athens and City Plaza. It felt like home and they decided to stay in Greece. Behfar had one more reason to come back. He has fallen in love with an Italian volunteer, “the most beautiful girl in the world”. He is starting a job as a translator this week and goes to school every day. He runs the open air cinema that operates on the roof of the building.
In this clip Behfar talks about his decision to stay in Greece.
On June 7th a rumor ran through the refugee community that the order was given to evacuate squats that operate in the city. Later in the day City Plaza published a defiant letter to everyone vowing to resist any attempt to evacuate the building.
Everyone is waiting to see what happens next.
What does austerity look like? (Part Two)
There’s another, disarmingly simple way into the austerity story. Yesterday, walking up one of the neighborhood’s main commercial streets, I noticed I’d just passed several empty storefronts in succession. Empty storefronts aren’t unusual, but three or four in a row caught my attention. I realized that I’d been walking by these places for the last three weeks without understanding their significance. I decided to walk the immediate neighborhood and try to get a sense of how many places were out of business.
What I discovered astounded me. It’s easy, in the bustle of a street full of pedestrians, with Athens’ crazy traffic and 6″ wide sidewalks, to never notice what you’re passing. When you look more carefully, what you find is stunning.
Zafiri’s neighborhood, Xalandri, is among the wealthiest areas of Athens. Proportionally, it has suffered far less than most from the effects of austerity. Yet, even in Xalandri, the effects are enormous. Here are some photographs that encompass an area equivalent to about 3 or 4 U.S. city blocks:
Austerity in Greece is hundreds of thousands or millions of people with no hope for today and no expectation of a better tomorrow. It is towns and cities with shuttered, empty businesses on every block. Greece has always been a nation of small shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Other than the big shipping empires, it has almost no big industry, no multinational headquarters, no vast industrial zones. Austerity has preferentially killed these small economic engines, reduced their owners to penury, and, in doing so, hollowed out the Greek economy from inside. The shell still glitters, but the hopes of millions of families for a better future – the hopes that underpinned the whole thing – have been dashed.
I’m not an economist, but to me this defies common sense. It seems intuitively obvious to me that reducing a country to poverty is not a policy likely to ensure the repayment of debts. Destituting a large part of a country’s population, the vast majority of whom have had no connection with the economic problems that led to the crisis, looks to me like a form of economic warfare with untold numbers of innocent casualties.
When I arrived in Greece three weeks ago I couldn’t really find the signs of austerity. Three weeks later, they’re inescapable.
When we started thinking about who to interview for this project, Philippe Leclerc, United Nations High Commission for Refugees was near the top of our list. A lawyer by training, Mr. Leclerc has worked with UNHCR for over 25 years and assumed his position as representative in Greece in late 2015, so he has been involved in the refugee crisis here since the beginning and was able to give us important background info, as well as telling us about the current situation and practices. http://www.delphiforum.gr/speakers/philippe-leclerc
Mr. Leclerc was affable and had an impressive command of the entire landscape. His answer were thoughtful and complete. He gave us a lengthy and wide-ranging interview wherein we discussed refugees movements of the past century, the agreement reached by the E.U. the special issues involving unaccompanied minors, the responses of the Greek government and the Greek people and what our responsibilities are to refugees. Here is a small taste:
Much of the work we have seen has been supported and/or administered by UNHCR. All of it has come about during his tenure and he oversees all the programs.