Feeding the invisible refugees

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Over a million refugees and migrants passed through Greece since 2015 using the sea route from western Turkey; around 62,000 remain stranded in the country at the time of writing. We are all familiar with the portrayal of the humanitarian crisis in the international media, but certain aspects of the story have been overshadowed by the deluge of arresting images.

Now that the dust is settling, some high-quality investigative reporting is beginning shine a light on some of the grubbier corners of the refugee crisis in Greece. A picture is gradually emerging of how institutional inadequacy and lack of accountability combined with a toxic mix of political opportunism and petty corruption to exacerbate the suffering of the refugees, while allowing those responsible (international agencies and NGOs, Greek politicians and government agencies, private contractors and the worst elements in the European and global leadership) to shun their responsibilities and in some cases even benefit from the situation. Clues to this story have been reported as they emerge – mainly by small, independent media sources, freelancers and bloggers on the ground in Greece, primarily in Greek, but occasionally also in English or German (in this respect I would single out the blogs of Apostolis Fotiadis and Fotini Rantsiou for providing well-informed and even-handed coverage). In the first major departure from the human interest-focussed reporting, a meticulously researched long read, The Refugee Archipelago, was recently published by News Deeply – a relatively young, independent media organisation. The article presented a long catalogue of well-substantiated failings underlying what the authors called “the most expensive humanitarian response in history”. It is well worth reading in full.

But the devil is often in the detail. More recently, an investigative report was published by the Greek online magazine insidestory.gr, focussing in forensic detail on just one of the areas plagued by mismanagement: the procurement of catering services for government-run refugee camps. Hidden in plain sight, in the virtual forest of public service contracts and ministry statistics, they uncover some suspicious discrepancies. I have translated the article here in full, with the permission of the publishers (the original is in Greek and requires a subscription).

“Feeding the Invisible Refugees”

by Stavros Malichoudis (first published 20 March 2017).

“I thank the Greeks, because every day the bring us something to eat. We eat from them, not from the company.”

Farez is a refugee from Syria. In the hosting facility of LM Village in Myrsini in the district of Ilia in the Peloponnese, where was when staying he said these words, he was known as “the Wise Man.” Food for the camp was provided, as it still is, by a company called Korinthian Palace. According to Farez, his large family cost the Greek state over €60 a day. “When we get the food, I am sure that it is not worth more than €15. They cook once a week for the whole week, it is unacceptable. The first four months they never gave us vegetables once. I imagine that Greek families do eat vegetables, as they are cheap,” he said, adding that the food ended up in the rubbish.

Many like Farez have complained periodically to the local authority, to volunteers and to NGOs about the quality of the food. Direct responsibility for catering lies with the Greek Armed Forces. This is where the problems begin, and they are not limited to the flavour of the food. Let’s take things from the beginning.

Prices and conditions

With refugee camps across the country under the responsibility of the Greek authorities, the responsibility for procuring catering services has been assigned to the Armed Forces, as set out in laws 4368/2016 and 4412/2016. The budget for daily catering per head comes to €4.78, which translates to €5.78 after the addition of 24% VAT. 19% of the budget is allocated to breakfast, 39% to lunch and dinner, and 3% to water. The criterion by with the contracts are awarded, after meeting the specified conditions, is the percentage discount on the budgeted price.

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Refugees queue for food at Idomeni in March 2016. Since refugees were moved to organised camps photos have been harder to come by because of restrictions on press access [Daniel Mihailesku/AFP]. 
Following the outcry which broke out when the specifications were seen to favour large catering companies, the minimum turnover threshold for bidding companies has been reduced, and only the following conditions apply: “The winning bidder can cater to up to 4 camps, totalling 4,300 people in total,” and “interested parties must provide certain quality certificates (ISO, HACCP) with their bid, which are assumed to fulfil the criteria of the tender.”

The case Myrsini camp

“All of Greek society is watching the humanitarian tragedy with the tens of thousands of refugees…,” begins the official document titled “Information dissemination – decision relating to LM Myrsini” issued by the Minicpality of Andravida-Kyllini on the 28th March 2016, which records the decision of the Council of the Municipality of Andravida-Kyllini to support the effort to manage the refugee crisis. As 99% owners with 50% rights of usage of the resort of Myrsini LM Village, the Municipality decided to make available 19 houses for hosting families from Syria. The resort, which is shared with the Municipality of Fyli, is located in a picturesque seafront spot, but had fallen into disuse in recent years and had been subjected to extensive looting. Very soon, the remaining 14 bungalows were also secured, and by the time the refugees arrived by bus a few days later the necessary repairs were already underway.

The unit given the responsibility for managing the facility was 117 Combat Wing of the Greek Air Force, which in turn assigned the catering to a company named Korinthian Palace. This is a particularly active company, not only in Corinth, but across the whole of Greece. Its services include catering for the police force, schools and universities, as well as organising events, receptions and carnival concerts featuring popular artists.

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Korinthian Palace’s 20,000 square metre headquarters and catering venue in Corinth. The company has been active in catering since 2004 [korinthianpalace.gr].

Towards the end of August 2016, a scandal broke out in Serres in the north of Greece, when a Syriza MP revealed that the catering for the local camp had been awarded to a local Syriza party official. Korinthian stepped in to manage the Serres camp on a temporary basis. At the time of writing, it has also been active in two more camps in Attica, to which we will return below.

When the numbers don’t add up

Reading through the catering contracts for LM Village over its one year of operation, one feature stands out: the contracts almost always appear to cover the provision of food for roughly 60 people more than are actually housed in the facility.

Giorgos Angelopoulos, a volunteer coordinator at the Myrsini centre over a period of 12 months, told inside story that the maximum number of individuals hosted in the facility at any one time was 338 people. However, the contact for April 2016 is for 400 people. Even if we were to exclude April from our calculations on the basis that relates to initial period of the camp’s establishment, we should note that the award of the contract published on the 5th July 2016 also relates to 400 people. The price per head, €4.72 before VAT, and €5.85 with VAT, is only a few cents less than the maximum allowance, a fact that can be readily explained, in light of the fact that Korinthian Palace was the sole bidder in this particular tender. Even if we accept that on the 5th July the headcount was 338, the maximum number of people ever hosted at the camp, we have to conclude that the catering company received €292.64 more per day than was necessary, with the Greek armed forces paying €362.70 more a day once VAT is included.

According to our calculations for the month of July, the additional expense for the Greek armed forces runs to €10,881, while the catering company made an additional profit of €8,779. The same number of recipients (400) and the same price (€4.72, or €5.85 including VAT) appear again in the award of the contract on the 31st October 2016.

However, it is the most recent contract which is of special interest to this discussion.

The contract dated 24th February 2017

This time, there were two more bidders in the tender, and Korinthian Palace offers a discount of 28.27%, compared to the 17% discount offered by the runner-up. Korinthian was awarded the contract again, this time for 220 people. On the same day, however, in the press release issued by the National Defence General Staff, only 164 food recipients were recorded (these had been down to 154, and at the time of writing reached 161). In response to our question about how many portions the company must deliver on a daily basis, Korinthian Palace claimed that any information pertaining to their cooperation with the Ministry of Defence was classified, and referred us to the Ministry. However, Giorgos Angelopoulos told us that the number of portions delivered matched the actual number of camp residents, something that is confirmed by the Ministry’s figures.

One could speculate that the additional food portions are provided as a buffer, in case more refugees arrive at the camp. However, those responsible for the camp have assured us that coordination is pretty much seamless, and that although it is possible for more refugees to arrive, this will have been preceded by an equal number of departures. The very small fluctuations in the number of food recipients reported by the National Defence General Staff appear to confirm this.

Another interpretation we might consider is that the number of food portions in the contract is indicative, and that the actual number on any given day is smaller. Again, though, there is no clause in the contract, as there is in other instances (for example the catering contract for the Philippiada camp), to the effect that portions may fluctuate daily at the discretion of the contracting party.

In any event, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry about the discrepancy between the number of actual refugees and the number of food portions paid for was that “we are obliged to follow the terms of each contract to the letter,” while stressing that they were not responsible for the issue raised.

The two camps in Attica

Here, we will limit ourselves to the most recent contracts. On 7 March 2017, a contract was awarded to Korinthian Palace to provide “catering for 150 asylum seekers and vulnerable third country nationals” at the camp in Rafina. The National Defence General Staff press releases for the 3rd March and the 10th March respectively count 120 people. No big deal, someone might say; counting 30 people extra, at €4.80 each per day, represents a loss of only €144 a day.

However, in an official Air Force document dated the 3rd March 2017, we find the award of a catering contract for the camp of Aghios Andreas in Nea Makri. This contract is for feeding 200 refugees, and it was won by Korinthian Palace, who offered the greatest discount. On the same day, the National Defence General Staff press release records 109 food recipients, as it does again the following week on the 10th March.

We would be concerned with the loss of public funds from feeding 100-odd «invisible» people at a cost of €3.73 per head daily. However, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry is even more intriguing. It states that “for some months now, our company is not responsible for the catering at the Aghios Andreas camp in Nea Makri, Attica.” As a reminder, the last contract was awarded on 3 March, just a few days earlier.

So now that we have “warmed up”, let us consider a case where the sums are much larger.

A(nother) Corinthian catering firm goes north

The situation with refugee catering in Ioannina has several parallels with the examples we have already covered, not least because the refugees there have complained vocally about (among other things) the quality of the catering.

Five refugee hosting facilities have functioned up to the present time in the Ioannina district, located at Doliana, Katsika, Filippiada, Tsepelovo and Konitsa. One of the companies that has been active in this area is Pietris Estiasi AE. Like Korinthian Palace, this company is also based in Corinth and, like its neighbour, it boasts an impressive client list including public institutions and large corporations. There is also a local catering company covering the Ioannina region, called Anostro.

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The Pietris group headquarters in Corinth [pietris.gr].
In June 2016, Pietris lodged an appeal against the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, which is handling the procurement of catering services for a total of 1,700 at Doliana, Katsika and Tsepelovo camps. It succeeded in extending the bidding deadline by two days, allowing the company to participate in the tender. Petris eventually secured the contract for feeding the refugees at a price of €4.68 per person, including VAT.

Exactly one month later, on the 6th July, another appeal by Pietris was rejected as lacking merit. The catering for the refugees at Doliana and Katsikas, now counting 1,450, was awarded to Anostro. Their price per head is €4.51. At the beginning of September, Pietris was again awarded a contract for feeding 1,700 refugees for 30 days at a price of €4.86 including VAT.

However, when the weather turned cold, the two companies came closer.

When competitors collude

In the contract award dated 4th November 2016, Pietris and Anostro appear to have submitted a joint bid as a consortium. They were awarded a contract to cater for 1,300 people in Doliana, Katsikas and Tsepelovo at €4.72 before VAT (i.e. just 6 cents below the maximum).

On the 9th December, and again on the 28th December, the same consortium was once again awarded the contract to feed 600 refugees at Doliana and Katsikas for €4.73 per head before VAT – a discount of 5 cents.

The most interesting aspect of the December contracts is that during this time, one of the two camps, the one at Katsikas, had been closed. As confirmed to inside story by Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, the last 166 refugees left Katsikas at the end of December. Ms Nanou added that the refugees had been relocated to hotels in Konitsa, Patra and Grevena, and, as is common practice in such instances, the responsibility for catering was assigned to the hotels. The hotels have the option of providing their own catering, where the facilities exist, or sub-contracting it.

From the 5th January until the time of writing, according to the press releases from the National Defence General Staff, the number of food recipients at Katsikas was zero, while the portions at Doliana numbered 138 at the start of the period and 118 today. However, catering contracts continued to be awarded for 600 or 550 portions, as we shall see below.

The refugees move on, the contracts continue

Specifically, on the 27th January, a contract was awarded for feeding 600 refugees at the camps of Doliana and Katsika to the Pietris-Anostro consortium at a minimal discount (€4.73 before VAT, compared to €4.78) for 29 days. The same day, the press release from the National Defence General Staff reported 138 food recipients at Doliana and none at Katsikas.

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Volunteers and NGO members prepare food at Katsikas camp in May 2016 [Violeta Palazon/CITIZENSIDE].

On the 24th February, with Katsikas remaining closed, and Doliana feeding just 118 refugees according to the National Defence General Staff, the two companies were awarded a contract to cater for 550 refugees at the same price and for 30 days in March. We contacted the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade officer responsible for catering at the two camps for comment, but were no further explanation, other than a statement that “there may be more arrivals.” The number of portions in the last few weeks has remained steadily at 118. We contacted several departments National Defence General Staff for comment, each of which referred us to another department.

If 432 “invisible” refugees were fed daily, then the additional revenue for the Pietris-Anostro consortium would amount to €2,043 on a daily basis, which translates into €61,201 for March alone, for which the army paid €76,013 extra in total, including VAT. We did not receive a response to our enquiries regarding the number of food portions from Anostro. On re-contacting the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, we were informed that our questions had been referred to Pietris, however we never received a response from the company.

Meanwhile, back in Myrsini…

A senior aid official recently stated in an interview that “$70 out of every $100 that have been spent [on the humanitarian effort in Greece] have been wasted.” LM Village, which has been described as an exemplar of hospitality, operates without any financial assistance to the local authority and without the benefit of any of the thousands hired through the civil service.

It is able to function thanks to “filotimo”: the human decency of the unpaid coordinator, Giorgos Angelopoulos, the mayor and his wife who assist as doctors, the local Medical Association, the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, the local community, local and foreign volunteers, grass roots organisations such as Pyrna, who donated equipment so that Farez and his fellow refugees can cook their own food.

At the end of October, an 18-month-old toddler lost its life in the village, having escaped war only to drown in a swimming pool full of rainwater. Then, as now, there is no security, which may have been able to prevent this, as there is no interpreter or permanent medical unit.

We can only draw one conclusion: when it comes to the invisible refugees, the money exists; but there is none to cover the real and persistent needs of the rest. It goes without saying that the camps which we focused on are not the only ones where money is wasted with nothing to show for it in return. It also goes without saying that it would not exactly require a Sisyphean effort to improve the management of funds, so many months down the line. Sometimes, administrative “errors” have a cost, which can even be measured in human lives.

 

MAIN IMAGE: A volunteer prepares food for 157 refugees in April 2016 [Louise Gouliamaki/AFP].


This blog has no connection to inside story other than a friendly rapport.

If you found this story interesting and would like more English-language investigative reporting on Greece from insidestory.gr, let them know directly at @insidestory_gr on Twitter, via their Facebook page or email hello@insidestory.gr.

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Feeding the invisible refugees

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