Feeding the invisible refugees


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.

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.

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.

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.

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].

At the time of writing, 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.

Feeding the invisible refugees

News for Wombats


One particularly memorable episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus features a series of sketches, starting with “News for Parrots” (“… and now the news for parrots. No parrots were involved in an accident on the M1 today…”) and culminating in the utterly absurd “News for Wombats”. This is what I was reminded of when the Greek public broadcaster ERT launched its “news bulletin for refugees” last week, aimed at the 50,000-odd refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. Other observers took the news far more seriously.

ERT claims to have received several hundred complaints from viewers following the broadcast. Right-wing (and more extreme) commentators were quick to comment on social media using terms like “shame”, “debasement”, “national capitulation” and “muslim colonisation”, and questioning why public funds were spent on it. The outrage reached its peak when a screenshot featuring a female newsreader in a hijab made the rounds of the social media as well as some mainstream news sources. It was eventually exposed as a hoax, in which someone had photoshopped a screenshot of a Saudi news presenter from a BBC report onto the ERT backdrop, but the debunking did not gain nearly as much prominence as the initial outrage. The fake headscarf controversy dovetailed neatly with a real headscarf controversy when an Egyptian student marched with her school in the Greek independence day parade on the 25th March in a hijab. Then some viewers selectively picked out the word “Macedonia” in the spoken Arabic ERT and assumed (wrongly) that the newsreader had used the M-word without its mandated qualifiers – taken to be a sign of a further national debasement. And it all went downhill from there…

What was most noticeable in the public “debate” which ensued is how much ground needs to be covered in very short order, for Greeks to be able to cope culturally with the dawning reality that many of the new arrivals will be around for quite some time.

All of which fuss, however, is not real reason to criticise ERT for its “News for Refugees” initiative – unless you have an agenda. Here I will take at face value the public broadcaster’s initiative to reach beyond its native audience, and instead outline how I think it is failing the refugees and migrants in terms of language, message and medium – in fact, in just about every possible way – and what might be the subtext.

The language

At a very basic level, there is a limitation in terms of the language chosen, namely Arabic. Although the most of the migrants and refugees (according to UNHCR figures) come from majority Arabic speaking countries (Syria and Iraq), they also include a substantial minority of Dari and Farsi speakers from Afghanistan and Iran, as well as Kurdish speakers from across the region and to a lesser extent Urdu (among Pakistanis). Local radio stations, including Athens municipal radio have already been broadcasting in several languages (including Arabic) aimed at visitor and immigrant communities for some years. But leaving that limitation aside, there are more fundamental flaws in the way the ERT project has been conceived and implemented.

The message

I use quotation marks around “news” because the content of the bulletin isn’t exactly news. It sounds (or reads, in my case, as I rely on the Greek subtitles) more like a public service announcement in a dystopian communist regime that has just been struck by a disaster – something like Chernobyl perhaps. It starts by reminding migrants that the borders are closed, and directing them to disband in an orderly manner from makeshift camps like Idomeni and Piraeus and avail themselves of the free bus service to organised accommodation; it asks people to not believe information from non-official sources; it gives information on where to register for relocation and assistance programmes; it lists the regulated prices for bottled water and sandwiches; and it closes with a weather forecast.

The urge to convey this information is understandable – for months, the Greek government has been criticised for allowing disinformation and price gouging to run riot around the migrant camps. However, to the extent that the bulletin reaches its intended audience (more of which below), we might question whether the tone and format will engender trust in people who are in many cases fleeing authoritarian regimes, and who are presumably fed up to the back teeth of being directed by anything with the whiff of official propaganda.

And then there is that title – “News for Refugees” – that lingers on screen, as if to remind the viewer that this is intended for a different class of person, one as distant from normal everyday reality as a parrot or a wombat perhaps…

When ERT addresses the Greek viewing public on the subject of the refugee crisis, its coverage is just as cloying, condescending and sensationalist as any of the private channels. Recently, a man featured on an ERT news report about volunteering as a temporary host for refugee families complained that the report had systematically misrepresented his situation and that of his guests. He detailed how the crew arrived without a translator to interview his guests, and subsequently edited the interviews to remove any reference to the complexity of the refugee crisis and the situation in Syria, the exploitation his guests suffered by Greek taxi drivers, and any personal details that might have served to humanise them in the eyes of the viewer. He accused ERT of trying to fit everything into the “easily digestible schema of beleaguered refugee vs. charitable Greek”.

The medium

Under normal circumstances, one would expect a rudimentary element of audience research before launching a new service, especially one as challenging as this. Even in these circumstances, you don’t need to be a market research genie to quickly conclude that very few (if any) of your intended audience are dedicated TV viewers – for a variety of practical reasons, mainly to do with living on the run. Beyond that, some information can be gleaned for free from the surveys that the UNHCR has been conducting  on recent arrivals in Greece. For example, among Syrians arriving in February, 24% said that they had sourced information on their journey from social media, mobile apps or specialised websites. Only 8% of Afghans arriving over the same period cited these sources. The top source for Syrians were travel companions (43%), friends and family at destination (25%), calling someone ahead on the route (23%) and people smugglers (16%). Afghans had relied overwhelmingly on people smugglers (73%) for information. In neither group does television feature as an information source – presumably because they have not spent their journey in four- and five-star accommodation with satellite TV.

Internet media, rather than conventional phone networks, are what many migrants and refugees use to communicate as they travel – so even as they get their information from a person (traffickers, friends and family) they get it via apps and social media. The smartphones (which have been the focus of resentment by sceptical European observers) act as telephone, mail, bulletin board, navigation aid and location beacon, as they pass through countries where their native language is not spoken.  The people traffickers have in fact been using social media to drum up business for some time. A risk report issued by the European border agency Frontex in 2014 cited examples of Facebook pages touting for business in Turkey and flagged social media as an area of concern for combatting human trafficking. Several media reports have also highlighted the social media strategy of the smugglers, also using platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and Viber. Local support groups also use Facebook more legitimately to gather and disseminate information in a variety of languages.

This is an on-the-go version of technological “leapfrogging”, where the bush telegraph and the mobile app shake hands, bypassing the old media of newspapers and television. Last week, three people died and several hundred were apprehended by the Macedonian authorities and returned to Greece after following directions circulated in a photocopied leaflet – a very low-tech medium indeed. On Sunday, a few hundred refugees and migrants were attracted back to Idomeni by rumours that the border was about to reopen, apparently spread on Facebook. So, to cut a long story short, a tiny bit of common sense would have told that people living in tents don’t watch TV (unless they are European families on a “camping” holiday with their satellite dish), and a little bit of research would have pointed to existing successful models for “penetrating that hard-to-reach audience”.

The subtext

But then, our public broadcaster seems to have only a passing relationship with, or interest in, their native audience. Very few Greeks get their news from ERT. The Syriza/ANEL government restored the public broadcaster to its original identity (and staffing levels) last year, reversing its forcible closure and restructuring under the Samaras government. However, despite the heavy political significance invested in it, most Greeks who also pay compulsory fee to fund it through their electricity bills, do not watch it. ERT’s evening news bulletin is stuck at the bottom of the ratings – the latest figures show it reaching an audience of 153,000 – or 3.6% share. The channel directors are so unhappy with this state of affairs that they have announced their intention to challenge the ratings, in a move reminiscent of the government’s initiative to regulate polling organisations. In this context it is hard to trust ERT’s own claim that the Arabic news bulletin has had a “great response among Arabic-speaking migrants staying in our country.” It is also hard to assess how many of the “approximately 30,000 viewers” who watched the first bulletin online were the intended audience rather than curious Greeks clicking to be outraged by the scarfed woman saying the M-word.

These are blindingly obvious weaknesses that suggest that the originators of the idea, however well-intentioned they may have been, operate in some kind of state-sponsored media bubble. In the best case they merely missed their target by a wide mile. More likely they had other targets in mind – like flattering a domestic audience with the illusion that the government is doing its humanitarian best to manage a chaotic situation, but that ultimately all we can do is be charitable and not bother ourselves with the messy complexities. Such a smug and self-serving approach, however, will ultimately backfire. The initial reactions suggest that we ignore the nuances at our peril.



News for Wombats

This is not a refugee camp

I can’t see what is going on in Idomeni, the sprawling tent city on the Greek-Macedonian border. Nor can you. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see in the newspaper and on the evening news, or how diligently you monitor your social media feed. We are inundated with visuals of the refugee crisis, to the point where one could receive a wire photographer’s reel, frame by frame, in real time if one chose to. Even we you try to opt out, newspapers will print them in full colour on the front page (“see p.5 for the report”) and people will retweet them or post them on Facebook with comments like “the picture says it all”. But it doesn’t. We still won’t see a refugee camp, because we will be seeing photos of a refugee camp.

Policy on the refugee crisis has been driven by images. 350,000 people had already crossed the Mediterranean by sea and 2,600 had died in 2015 but it took a photo of a drowned toddler to mobilise national leaders to start confronting the problem. Images are powerful, but there is a simple principle we fail routinely to apply:

This is not going to be a blog post about how photos are posed or faked or fabricated to serve political agendas. Errol Morris who wrote the tweet above is not given to throwaway statements. He is the director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line (uncovering a miscarriage of justice long before Netflix’s Making a Murderer), Standard Operating Procedure (about those Abu Ghraib photos) and The Unknown Known (in which he slowly and methodically dissected Donald Rumsfeld); as a student he antagonised his way out of Thomas Kuhn’s classes in history of science at Princeton University (him of “paradigm shift” fame). A few years ago he wrote a fascinating book called Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). In it, he researched famous and controversial photographic images to demonstrate how false the sense of objectivity is that they convey, and how easily they lend themselves to distortion – without the aid of photoshop, and often without real intent. All photos, even the most trustworthy ones, from war photography to holiday snaps, are always framed by the photographer and constrained by the circumstances in which they are taken; they never tell the whole story.

In one example, Morris considers a well-known photo showing a Mickey Mouse toy in the ruins of an apartment block in Tyre after an Israeli shelling, which was accused of being fake or staged. He interviews the photographer and together they dissect forensically the circumstances under which the photo was taken, the decisions the photographer took, and the reason why it was seen to be so appealing and so controversial. The photo has an emotional appeal – it suggests that a child may have been made homeless, injured or killed in the shelling – but no such event can be confirmed from the interview. The photographer insists that he only included the toy to convey the fact that the the photo was of a residential area. It was not staged or faked, but the subject matter was chosen and framed, despite the pressurised conditions in the midst of a war zone. Whatever its maker’s original intent, the photo escaped it once it hit the wires. The same image was used to support anti-Israeli arguments (for shelling residential areas without regard for children’s lives) and anti-Hizbollah arguments (for using civilians as human shields), and to argue for the mendacity of the media (by suggesting that and similar photos were staged to support particular agendas). I recommend reading the investigation in full because I can’t do its thoroughness justice here.

The compulsion to produce a meaningful image that will have real impact is what drives their makers to grapple with the practical, moral and emotional challenges involved in crafting them in crisis situations. Here is a statement from one of the leading photographers covering the refugee crisis today: “I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action.” Could it be though that the image overload is stopping us from seeing?

Now consider a photo closer to home. The image of a man and a woman bathing a newborn baby by the entrance to a tent in muddy terrain was tweeted by photographer Iker Pastor on 6 March with the caption “… And life goes on in #Idomeni”.

When it was published in the press a few days later it was captioned along the lines of “a woman has just given birth to her child in a small and dirty tent”. According to the Daily Mail (12 March), it was The baby born in hell: Tragic migrant mother gives birth in the squalor of Idomeni’s tent city and washes the child in a PUDDLE . On 12 March, the Spanish newspaper El Español published the background story, having interviewed the Basque photographer and tracked down the Syrian family featured in the photo. Pastor himself had not had time to speak with the family, he had just taken the photo on the fly and moved on. It turns out the baby was 20 days old when the picture was taken; by the time they were interviewed they had thankfully been moved to better accommodation. A further article, this time in the German newspaper Bild revealed that the baby had been born on a beach in Turkey after his mother went into labour and had to abandon the boat they had boarded to go to Greece. Perhaps because this background information was published in Spanish and German, it did not make the rounds of the internet as quickly as the photo. Some news websites corrected their online copy (but hey, who goes back to re-read old news?), the TV news did not revisit the story. No one corrected the bit about the baby being washed “in a PUDDLE”, such is the power of suggestion that it caused people to ignore the water bottle clearly visible in the photo.

It made me wonder about the stories behind photos such as these, also depicting children in varying states of distress and discomfort.

The photo of the crying girl (top left) standing in the middle of a busy highway in the rain in a flimsy makeshift poncho was also shared widely on social media. Without context, many assumed the girl was lost and started a campaign to identify her and reunite her with her family. It turned out this was not the case; her isolation was an artefact of the way the photo was framed. The photo of the little boy carrying a bag, also seemingly walking alone along the the highway (top right) was used in many media sources to illustrate a Europol report revealing that 10,000 unaccompanied minors who entered Europe as migrants were missing, and vulnerable to exploitation by criminal networks. A different shot shows him walking as part of a group. The photo of the children in the Idomeni camp holding up signs is clearly staged, and it is unclear who provided the signs in matching handwriting and idiomatic English. Though the situation is new and specific, these images fit easily into the well-established genre of “images of refugees” which has trained our eye to “read” these situations in generic ways and seek generic solutions.

You might object, with some justification, that this pedantic quibbling over details does not alter the fact that a newborn has been living in a tent in a muddy overcrowded field; or that over one third of the approximately 13,000 people camping in the (undeniably real) mud in Idomeni are children, many of whom are ill or at risk of illness; or that children are at risk of trafficking on the migrant routes, and even the ones posing for the cameras are living in miserable conditions. But since the baby photo and its original (faulty) story has taken on a life of its own, it has become a symbol of the heartlessness of Europe and the inhumanity of the Balkan countries who have sealed their borders. The photo has come to stand for Idomeni, and Idomeni to stand for all the refugees stuck in Greece, and those beyond waiting to enter Europe. It might be worth asking what this and photos like it are actually showing, and what they are hiding. Here are some relevant facts that the photos won’t tell you.

Almost two thirds of the estimated total 45,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece at the time of writing are not in Idomeni (UNHCR provides daily updates here). Idomeni, along with Piraeus, where migrants arrive by ferry from the islands after crossing from Turkey, are informal camps that have sprung up at natural “choke points” on the route north. They lack facilities because the Greek government does not want to encourage staying there long, if at all (Deputy Immigration Minister Mouzalas stated recently in a TV interview that became notorious for other reasons, “we did not want an official state facility on the border to facilitate and establish that route”). The same was the case with Victoria Square in Athens, which hosted an informal encampment and muster point for people-traffickers, before it was evacuated overnight by police. This “arm’s length” approach is not due to lack of funds or resources or organisation, it is conscious policy choice. Resources are being withheld from Idomeni in the hope that its occupants will abandon it for less contentious locations.

The government is committed to evacuating Idomeni too, but has ruled out using force to do it. This is justified on humanitarian grounds (though police have been used on a small scale on previous occasions), but at the back of their minds must also be the reaction that the French authorities have provoked by forcibly clearing the “jungle” at Calais. The milestone that both the government and the migrants are holding out for is an anticipated EU agreement on managing migrant flows: the migrants are hoping it will result in open borders; the Greek government is banking on their disappointment from the more likely opposite decision, to abandon the camp. Until then, they try and dissuade people from travelling to the border by issuing official entreaties and providing transport to official reception centres, without much success. In Idomeni, the residents would rather believe disinformation encouraging them to break the law with potentially fatal consequences, than be guided by official advice, which in any case appears to be sparse and confusing; three Afghanis drowned trying to cross a swollen stream following a rogue leafletting campaign earlier this week.

There are official hosting facilities for migrants established by the Greek state. Most have been thrown up in the last couple of months, in decommissioned army camps and municipal facilities scattered across the country (a map with the locations and numbers of people hosted can be seen here). Officially, Greece will have 50,000 places in migrant hosting facilities this week (UNHCR reported Greece’s reception capacity at just 11,865 at the beginning of February) and want to encourage migrants to move from the open camps to these sheltered facilities. The authorities were slow to act on this front, and the reason was not just the dire state of public finances; there were policy choices here too (we have documented the Greek national politics of the refugee crisis in previous posts, here, here and here). For a variety of reasons, either because the government did not wish to encourage migrants to stay, or to avoid providing political ammunition to the opposition by appearing to encourage migrants to stay, the local policy impetus was against providing official infrastructure. In addition, the governing Syriza party had been vocal campaigners against immigration detention centres in opposition, and therefore the optics of a camp of any sort went against their political instincts.

We see no photos of the official hosting facilities because as of 29 February the government has barred all media from those sites, ostensibly in response to requests from staff and managers dealing with overcrowded conditions. Less understandable is their reluctance to give access to observers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. We simply don’t know how well-run these hosting facilities are (conditions in some of the new camps are reported to be very poor, but earlier volunteer visitors to some of the first centres in Athens reported that they were well organised and well provisioned). Migrants often walk out of them to return to Piraeus or Idomeni on foot, blaming their remoteness and lack of facilities, but mainly because they fear missing out on the opportunity to continue their journeys northwards. The result is unbalanced coverage: the unofficial camps where conditions are poor and doomed to worsen are crawling with media and NGO reporters, the official ones might as well not exist. The politics (and particularly the national policies directly relevant to the specific situation at Idomeni) remain hidden, we see only a “humanitarian” crisis for which a distant, faceless “Europe” is to blame.

There is another thing. At this point it does not look likely that the borders will re-open. The fate and well-being of those waiting at Idomeni does not actually depend on the outcome of this EU summit or the ones that will no doubt ensue, as their focus is on the treatment of the migrants that have not yet entered Europe, not the ones that are already in Greece. However, back in September European leaders agreed (reluctantly in some cases) on an internal relocation scheme for 160,000 refugees to be shared between European countries. This scheme is a drop in the bucket compared to the total numbers, but more importantly it has been painfully slow to implement, apparently due to bureaucratic hurdles and local politics (only 569 out of the allocated 66,400 refugees have been relocated from Greece, and only 0.4% of the EU-wide target overall, according to the latest European Commission figures). The relocation scheme could (in theory) provide a safe way out for a significant number of the people stranded in Greece that does not necessitate camping in squalor and risking their lives further, if governments could only be made to honour these existing political commitments. Every time they fail to do so, they chip away at what little trust the migrants have in “official” solutions and push them towards the razor wire and the people traffickers rather than towards a more hygienic stopping place and a safer route. So while it helps in the short term to make donations and send blankets and shoes, it would help more if MPs and local authorities across Europe were held to account by their own constituents (i.e. us) for their inaction.

The art historian John Berger, writing at the peak of the Vietnam war disputed the received wisdom that shocking images spur their viewers to act. In a short essay entitled “Photographs of Agony” he argued that their real effect was to cause a feeling of moral inadequacy and powerlessness. Confronted by a photograph of agony,

“Either he shrugs off this sense of inadequacy as being only too familiar, or else he thinks of performing a kind of penance – of which the purest example would be to make a contribution to OXFAM or UNICEF. In both cases, the issue of the [event] which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.”

It is becoming more and more clear that there is no silver bullet that will “solve” the refugee crisis, and that we will be living with its effects for some time to come (Greek officials are now speaking conservatively of two years but it will probably be much longer). A massive coordinated solution is still required to tackle the problem at source, but the local complexities also need to be appreciated and dealt with to manage what is already happening. The deluge of decontextualised images that pushes us to cry “oh the humanity” and makes us feel impotent before the inhumanity of governments, actually prevents us from “seeing” what is going on, does not encourage nuanced or critical thinking and may be blinding us to actions we can take that lie closer to our reach.

Images: Photo of girl in the rain: Yiannis Behrakis (Reuters); photos of boy on the highway (Eurokinissi); photo of children holding signs (Getty Images).

Since its original publication, this post was improved both factually and substantively by feedback via Twitter from @damomac@fly_dervish and @versendaal, for which I am very grateful.



This is not a refugee camp

Front Row


Four TV presenters, an actress, two recording artists, a male model, a dancer and a lifestyle magazine try to stay afloat by dressing up as refugees. The caption reads: “We are all refugees. Famous Greeks are photographed to remind us that millions of lives on the road need our help. Is it time we did something?”

Regular readers will know that this blog was at the forefront of the humanitarian dress-up trend, so we do not even find the idea original. A sample of the reactions on social media captures the mixture of bemusement and snark which ensued.

For context: DownTown is a lifestyle magazine, relaunched recently after almost three years of enforced hiatus. DownTown, along with sister publication Nitro, was emblematic of Greece’s pre-crisis bubble: airbrushed celebrity photos, and the accompanying lifestyle, big watches, fast cars, bling and nightlife. The lifestyle of πρώτο τραπέζι πίστα (próto trapézi písta) – front row at the bouzoukia – and conspicuous consumption. DownTown’s publishing company went bust; its owner was forced to sell some of his properties including his holiday home on Mykonos to pay the bills; he now fronts a lame weekly Letterman/Kimmel knock-off. The rights to the DownTown title were acquired by its last editor, who has relaunched it with an unrepentant mandate to “do what we’ve always done… the things that really occupy us… showbiz gossip, rumours, whispers, and having a laugh”. In tune with the times, then! It is entirely possible they thought “hotspot” was the latest celebrity hangout. Maybe they are already busy bidding for the rights to the “hot migrants” Instagram account.

More context: A few thousand ordinary people at a non-celebrity, non-sponsored event organised last Sunday in Syntagma square “did something”: without TV cameras present, they collected mountains of essentials and toys, transported, sorted them, and delivered them to the refugee camps.

At least two of the participants in the DownTown cover have since expressed their remorse.



Front Row

Salade Macédoine


Complete the following sentence: “Over 12,000 refugees and migrants, including many families with young children, are camping out in a muddy field in rain and freezing temperatures, with dangerously inadequate hygiene facilities and little hope of continuing their journey northward, on Greece’s border with __________.”

If you answered “Macedonia”, you are in the majority. Today I carried out the following highly unscientific survey: I googled “Idomeni” (the name of the village where the makeshift camp is located) and “refugees”. In the first page of results from English-language sources, 27 out of 30 stories in the international media used the same name for Greece’s norther neighbour. Of the remaining three sources, one was a Greek news site, another an official UN press release, and the third was Chinese. They all referred to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short, the naming convention agreed at Greece’s insistence by the United Nations, the European Union and most international institutions.

There was a time not too long ago when these would be fighting words. For some, they still are. No less an international power-broker than European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tripped over his nomenclature in a press conference and was promptly tweet-corrected by a Greek MEP. A Greek reporter was applauded as a hero by a section of the popular media for correcting a US State Department spokesman to the same effect (the Americans generally regarded as favouring the other side). Meanwhile in Athens, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party MP Ilias Kasidiaris threw a BBC crew out of his office for using the M-word (or in the words of the official party statement “displaying the anti-Greek sentiment of the BBC propaganda network”) – though he refrained from punching the female reporter, suggesting that the party is investing wisely in anger-management classes. The same sources pilloried the Greek Deputy Foreign Minister for being quoted using the offensive word in an in interview to a Slovakian newspaper. Thankfully the outrage has been largely contained.

The “Macedonia name dispute” is the latest incarnation of a contest over ethnicity, history and territory between Greece and its northern neighbours which dates back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, flaring up again in the context of the Balkan Wars, WWI and WWII. It took its present turn after the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, when what had been the Socialist Republic of Macedonia within Yugoslavia gained its independence in 1991.

The “Salade Macédoine” of our title provides an incidental indication of the complexity of the issues involved. A Macédoine is a vegetable or fruit medley, most commonly known in the English-speaking world as a “Russian salad”. The dish is a 19th century invention and its name, describing a mix of distinct and heterogeneous ingredients, was inspired directly by the contemporary ethnographic maps of the Macedonian region with their marbled patchwork of languages, religions and ethnicities. This was before the term “balkanisation” made the broader region a byword for hostile fragmentation.

The more recent incarnation of the dispute revolves not around territory as such, but around the right to use the name and the symbols of a more distant past, the era of the Macedonian kingdom of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The current naming convention was the result an interim accord reached in 1995 under the auspices of the UN, according to which the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (abbreviated FYROM) was to be used by international organisations – crucially international organisations which the new country was seeking to join, like the UN, the EU and NATO. In a bilateral context, other countries can use whichever name they choose, as of course can news organisations. Greeks colloquially refer to the country as “Skopje” after the capital city, or the Greek acronym ΠΓΔΜ (pronounced pou-gou-dou-moú for short). In addition, under the terms of the accord, the national flag was changed from the “star of Vergina” (the dynastic symbol of Philip II) to a more modernist design, and the constitution amended to remove clauses which the Greek side considered “irredentist” (i.e. making claims on Greek territory). It is a messy compromise and several fruitless attempts have been made to fully resolve the naming issue since then but it remains in limbo (a blow by blow account can be found here with a bit of caution required on the detail, while a brave soul wrote a more theoretical treatment of the subject, reviewed here).

The name dispute has been costly for both sides. In Greece, it brought down the government back in 1993 when the hardline nationalist faction under Antonis Samaras walked out of the governing Nea Demokratia party and started a political grudge match within the party which still rumbles on today. Political and diplomatic capital was squandered, and much energy was harnessed into organising nationalist rallies and protests, at a time when similar phenomena in the former Yugoslavia were taking a much bloodier turn. Fortunately in this case the worst weapons wielded by the Greek side were an 18-month trade embargo, veto power in international fora, and a lot of turgid rhetoric and pseudo-history on both sides. More recently, Samaras, returned to ND and serving as Prime Minister between 2012-2014, had the opportunity to revive his Macedonian dream by sponsoring a high profile archaeological investigation of the site of Amphipolis which was hoped to yield the tomb of Alexander the Great – an interpretation which continues to be disputed outside the political spotlight. North of the border, Skopje, until recently a showpiece of Cold War era brutalist architecture, blew €560 million of state funds (initial estimate €80 million) on a controversial “neo-classical” makeover including a 22 metre tall statue evoking (but not explicitly named after) Alexander on horseback, and a renaming scheme which saw many landmarks, including the international airport, referencing the ancient kingdom of Macedon.

This remains a very emotive issue, even as business ties between the two countries have strengthened, and Greeks from the border regions have been relocating or commuting across the border to take advantage of cheaper goods and services (including gambling) since the beginning of the financial crisis. Often the sensitivity has comical results; in a recent basketball match between the two national teams, the Greek broadcaster “camouflaged” the on-screen score board with background parquet to hide the national designation “MKD” used by the International Basketball Federation FIBA (one of the few international organisations not to adopt the compromise name) – to much ridicule. Personally I find this new-found ability to laugh at our national sensitivities refreshing.

There is a slightly more serious point though. Even moderate Greeks today will feel a twinge of embarrassment when a foreign leader or reporter defaults to the simple, evocative and familiar name “Macedonia” over the decidedly clunkier middle-earth-kingdom-sounding FYROM. This is not necessarily because we all harbour nationalist delusions of grandeur, but rather because it implies that we have de facto lost the diplomatic branding battle, if not to anti-Greek sentiment then to convenience.

Our neighbours, meanwhile, have more material grievances. President Gjorge Ivanov complains that his country has been forced to do Europe’s “dirty work” without receiving any support, because of the EU’s failure to manage migrant flows. Rather than being invited to sit at the negotiating table over the refugee crisis, “Macedonia” is “part of the menu”, he is quoted as saying in German newspaper Bild“For 25 years we’ve been lied to and manipulated… No one in the EU gets along with the Greeks and we are supposed to solve this conflict on our own with this country… Macedonia had achieved nothing out of the European Union, no EU membership, no Schengen zone and not NATO… Nobody wants us.” Peel away the rhetoric of victimhood (which may sound somewhat familiar) and you will see that they consider themselves the bigger losers.

This is the kind of statement that will no doubt be chewed over in the Greek media, but we must keep things in perspective. When you get to the end of this post, go back and read that first sentence again to remember why.

We have enough on our plate at the moment – we don’t need to add a side order of stodgy retro nationalist salad.

POSTSCRIPT: We spoke too soon. Trust right wing nationalist government coalition partner and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos to order extra helpings, purely for internal consumption. After his cabinet colleague Deputy Immigration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas let slip the M-word in a TV interview, Kammenos is now (15th March) demanding his resignation. Kammenos’s ANEL party controls nine seats in the Greek parliament which are crucial to the coalition government retaining its three-seat majority. He is joined in his call by his old party, Nea Demokratia, now in opposition and failing to live up to their “reformist” promise under Kyriakos Mitsotakis – ironically standing up for the cause which, championed by Samaras, unseated his father Konstantinos Mitsotakis back in 1993.

Image: Aerial view of Idomeni camp before the heavy rains by EPA via bbc.co.uk



Salade Macédoine

A song for Greece


A group of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have started a petition to enter a song in this year’s Eurovision song contest. They say they they want to pay tribute in song to the noble people of Greece, whose suffering touched them deeply as they passed through the country on their route from the war-torn Middle East to Northern Europe.

The initiative was the idea of a brother and sister, aged 22 and 25, who left their home in Homs, Syria, under heavy shelling eight months ago to travel to Europe. They were excited at the prospect of passing through Greece, say the pair who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising their asylum applications in Sweden, because it was Elena Paparizou’s glorious Eurovision win in 2005 with the dance anthem “My Number One” that first kindled the love of music in them. But what the found when they arrived shocked them. “Greece was not as we expected it,” they now say. “Instead of a prosperous, fun-loving, lip-synching, partying people we found a nation oppressed by austerity, enduring a true humanitarian crisis.”

As they travelled through the country, they were touched by the devastation that they encountered. Spending a night in a mothballed Olympic facility in Athens, they mused about the circumstances that might have led to its abandonment, and half-recalled with tears in their eyes the lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias that they had learned in high school:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

On their way north to Greece’s border with the land that some call Macedonia but the Greeks refer to by the mystical acronym FYROM, the refugee group were shocked to encounter caravans moving southward, their meagre belongings loaded onto farm machinery. “It was clear that the were fleeing something terrible. But these humble people did not hesitate to share with us their few provisions.” When the farmers explained that they may have to seal Greece’s borders to defend their pensions from raids by the country’s creditors, some of the refugee group initially protested. However, in the end they agreed that a couple more nights sleeping on the cold tarmac was a small sacrifice to make for such a noble cause. The group also expressed their gratitude to the citizens protesting against the establishment of registration “hotspots” for refugees in “unsuitable” locations, saying that that they were truly moved by the concern for their welfare, hygiene and religious sensitivities in such trying times. Meanwhile, they spoke in glowing terms of the selfless and constructive attitude adopted by Greek politicians of all parties, so different from that of their European colleagues.

“We hear that the suffering is bad in Denmark especially after the Eurovision 2014 disaster, and our cousins over there have donated their iPads and wedding rings to help, but it is hard to imagine something worse than this.” The refugee group recall walking across the scorched earth of a once powerful and united continent to reach their destination, pondering how it had come to this: “It’s as if the region is being torn apart by a sectarian proxy war, brother turning against brother, collapsing into a post-colonial mess. Is this how Europe ends? Oh, hang on…

Throughout their travails, the refugee group never stopped believing in the power of music to teach humanity and help life’s victims back onto their feet. They hope to be granted entry into the ever-expanding brotherhood of Eurovision nations (“Israel is in there,” they note pointedly, “and how do you explain Australia?”). “We don’t care about winning, we just want to draw the world’s attention to the atrocities that are being perpetuated here.” Asked to describe the style of their entry, they said, “We are aiming for We Are the World” meets Lebanese pop, with a catchy electronic dance beat. And belly dancers”

Meanwhile, in the real news, Greece announced that its entry in Eurovision 2016 would feature a song on the twin themes of the refugee crisis and the Greek financial crisis. The President of the recently-resurrected Greek state broadcaster ERT explained that “we are planning on choosing an optimistic, upbeat song that will have a Greek sound and verse, which will touch the subject of the harsh economic measures that have been imposed on Greek people and the struggle of the refugees, in order to teach people across the world a lesson on humanity.” Giving a further preview of the Greek offering, he stated that there will be no dancers and provocative appearances and effects during the finals, and that the performer would be chosen without a contest. Some commentators discern in this pronouncement the influence of the recent strengthening of ties between Greece and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There were rumours in Athens earlier this week that a group of Central European nations including Austria and Hungary were lobbying to get Greece excluded from the Eurovision contest, fearing that a flood of phone voters from the Middle East could create a new voting bloc in an already fragmented and divisive European institution. It was later clarified that the threat related to the Schengen open borders zone, not the august musical event.


All hyperlinked sources are actual.  Most of the stuff in between is fabricated, with the exception of the bits about Greece’s 2016 Eurovision entry and the putative suspension of the Schengen agreement. 

View the Greek Eurovision song, “Utopian Land” by Argo.

Some useful numbers: Reliable up-to-date economic data on Syria are hard to obtain for obvious reasons, but it is estimated that its GDP has plummeted 62% below 2010 levels, while agricultural production has halved from a combination of drought and conflict. Its unemployment rate is close to 60%. More than half its pre-war population are refugees or internally displaced. Prior to the war it had a literacy rate of 90%.

Image via gossip-tv.gr

A song for Greece

My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz


If you have been following the unfolding the refugee crisis in Europe, you should be able to tell your newly-minted post-Communist authoritarian from your jewellery-snatching Nordic, and your foaming-at-the-mouth Brexiter from your number-fudging Mitteleuropean. This quiz will test your knowledge of the political response at the European frontline of the migration flows.

Q: Who is responsible for the following policy pronouncement: “We will not allow illegal immigrants to come in and provide them with healthcare and benefits too, the Greek people will not permit it”?

A: Then Greek PM Antonis Samaras (5 January 2015). In a last ditch attempt to cling to power, Samaras made his final campaign stop to look “presidential” in front of the Evros border fence. The fence, erected between Greece and Turkey in 2012 was his “baby”. In many ways it was ahead of its time; considered too extreme at the time by the EU to support it, the $3.3 million tab was picked up entirely by Greece in the midst of an austerity onslaught, while refugee flows were less than one thirtieth of what they are today. It has since been outdone several times over by Hungary ($81 million), as the rest of the continent has now succumbed to Samaras’s “fence fetish”. Had he survived politically to oversee the subsequent developments, there can be little doubt that there would be less squeamishness over practices like “push-backs” designed to “seal” the borders. Translation: more drownings.

Last week, the Greek Deputy Immigration Minister accused his Belgian counterpart of telling him to “drive them back into the sea; go against the law; I’m sorry, but I do not care if they drown”; the comment has since been vigorously denied but there has been no alternative suggestion on any side of the negotiating table as to how to keep the refugees and migrants from making landfall in Greece. The Evros fence still stands as the main obstacle to travel by land to Europe, and there are no plans to dismantle it.

Q: Who warned that “‘refugees’, in quotation marks, [headed for the island of Farmakonisi]… are, ultimately, unarmed invaders, weapons in the hands of the Turks”?

A: Nea Demokratia MP Sophia Voultepsi (31 January 2014). The fact that refugees and migrants are crossing the oft disputed waters between Turkey and Greece tosses another political football onto the field and on a practical level complicates rescue efforts (more of which below). Right-wing media hogs find the temptation to conspiratorialise hard to resist. Several female and underage “unarmed invaders” had in fact drowned in their alleged attempt to claim Greek territory for Turkey only days earlier. Voultepsi was recently entrusted with the Social Solidarity brief in Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s new shadow cabinet.

Q: Who said that recently arrived refugees and migrants sleeping rough in Athens were merely “sunning themselves”, and that “that’s how the refugees live in Germany”

A: Then Greek Deputy Immigration Minister Tasia Christodoulopoulou, (April 2015 and August 2015). At the time, arrivals had reached 124,000 for the year, and the only central government intervention consisted of bussing them into central Athens where they resorted to camping out in parks and squares (see our write-ups at the time, here and here). Those who had hoped for a more progressive immigration policy under Syriza (or, as Samaras would have it, transform[ing] Greece into a magnet attracting illegal immigrants to the country”were disappointed, as political compromises and the sheer scale of the evolving refugee crisis won the day. Widespread public outrage at the government’s inaction meant that Christodoulopoulou did not survive to see another term in the Cabinet. Even out of office, Christodoulopoulou has become a soft target. It has become a mantra of the opposition to blame her personally, and Syriza’s so-called “open borders policy”, for attracting increasing numbers of refugees and migrants from 2015 onwards – they clearly rely on their audience not following the international news to be able to ignore that there are much bigger forces at work.

Q: Who threatened that “If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with migrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic migrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too”?

A: Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, 9 March 2015. No doubt after Paris he feels that history has vindicated him.

Q: Who made this reassuring statement on the eve of the Greek referendum: “The country’s Armed Forces ensure the stability at home”?

A: Kammenos again, 3 July 2015. What has been described as a global crisis sadly did not rise to the level of a civil emergency in Greece, sufficient for the armed forces to throw up a few tents, install sanitation and cook some hot meals to ease the pressure on the refugees and the local communities that have had to host them. Recently, Kammenos’s Cabinet colleague, Deputy Immigration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, accused the Ministry of Defence of stalling and horse-trading over the completion of registration “hotspots”. We wish we could take credit for the Greek government’s decision, announced a few hours after this post was published, to press the army into action to manage the logistics of refugee reception.

Q: Who proposed the following “win-win” solution for Greece: “Our goal is to agree with our [European] partners that if the situation deteriorates, the funds that Greece will spend will be excluded from the calculation of the deficit”?

A: Greek PM Alexis Tsipras was the first to link the Greek debt negotiations to the refugee crisis (29 September 2015). Not for the first time, he overestimated his bargaining position, or underestimated the ruthlessness of his interlocutors; a few months later a much less favourable “debt-for-refugees” is being mooted, which names the “ringfencing” of refugees in Greece as the price for a debt writedown. Usually sober Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachmann breezily described his own version of it thus: “The broad outlines of the deal would be simple. Greece agrees to seal its northern border with EU help, stopping the flow of migrants into northern Europe. In return, Germany agrees to a massive writedown of Greek debt, as well as immediate financial aid to cope with the current crisis” (25 January 2015). Not officially an option, you understand – which almost certainly means that it is. Now Greece faces yet another ultimatum from Brussels: three months to improve its border checks or risk having tougher border controls imposed on it by other European countries, just in time for the start of the tourist season.  Not an official suspension of the Schengen Treaty, you understand, but “if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck”… you get the picture.

Q: How many funds has Greece received from the EU to help manage the flow of refugees?

A: €0, according to PM Alexis Tsipras (30 October 2015) and more recently Greek Parliament Speaker Nikos Voutsis (January 2016). It is really hard to view this as a virtue, especially when combined with rhetoric that is pointedly critical of the European handling of the crisis. There are EU resources available, namely €500 million in funding, plus the EU Civil Protection Mechanism which offers support in kind and has been activated by other EU countries in the Balkans, but which the Greek government has not gone through the process to claim for reasons best known to themselves. One local critic of this stance described Greece’s failure to avail itself of existing EU support mechanisms as a “crime of omission”. Consciously missing opportunities to improve the management of the refugee flows is really hard to rationalise on its own terms, especially while claiming in the same breath to be over-stretched. It only starts to make sense if viewed in the context of a negotiating gambit, in which unaided (or minimally aided) refugees are used as bargaining chips to achieve a national political goal. I hope I am wrong in making this connection, but I fear that in either case the outcome for Greece will be a poor one. Watch this space.

Q: Who tweeted “We have the most modern aerial weapons systems–and yet, on the ground, we can’t catch traffickers who drown innocent people #EUTurkey”?

A: PM Alexis Tsipras, 30 November 2015. Only a couple of weeks earlier Greece had rebuffed a European proposal that it carry out joint border patrols with Turkey. Instead, the EU agreed €3 billion in aid to Turkey plus a reopening of talks on its EU accession to deter refugees from travelling to Europe, having agreed a series of similar grants to illiberal regimes in Africa to hang on to potential refugees and economic migrants. Ankara was too busy playing hardball with Brussels to pay heed to his sophomoric plea. So that’s all good then.

Q: Who proclaimed that “We will not allow Greece to be turned into a warehouse of souls (αποθήκη ψυχών, apothíki psychón)”?

A: Greek government spokespeople including the PM and the Immigration Minister, most opposition spokespeople, media, commentators etc. (a casual Google search returned approximately 180,000 results). Sounds sensitive and humanitarian but is in fact most commonly deployed as doublespeak for NIMBY (“not in my back yard”). Typical of this usage is a letter of complaint to the Deputy Immigration Minister from a group of mayors whose areas were selected for temporary shelters: “We will not allow the former Hellenikon airport to be turned into a warehouse of souls,” before going on to reel out a laundry list of security concerns.

Q: Who issued the following dire warning: “If the powers that want Ellis Islands [in Europe] win, then we may have a problem”?

A: Greek Deputy Immigration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas, 28 January 2016, in the course of a fractious meeting where he was barracked by pro-immigration protesters demanding the opening of the Evros land border. It is unclear whether he was confusing Ellis Island with Guantanamo Bay or Auschwitz, or whether he was badly misquoted. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, as the alternative would betray a very skewed view of history with worrying implications for policy-making.


Q: What is wrong with this picture?


A: In the background, enlarged photo of the grandmothers of Lesvos, three elderly women captured engaging in a spontaneous moment of humanity. To the left, a national symbol, to the right a supra-national one. In the foreground, a career politician and a veteran of the NGO circuit now in political office, whose combined visits to the islands at the time of writing can probably be counted on the fingers on one hand, basking in the reflected (but undeserved) glory. While individuals and grassroots volunteer groups filled the void left by central government, European and international institutions, there has been a rush to appropriate the kindness of citizen volunteers for nationalistic pride and political gain. There is a proposal to nominate the Greek islanders on the frontline of the refugee crisis for a Nobel Peace Prize. There are some people out there who fully deserve an accolade – but watch out for bandwagon-jumping – like this.


Q: What can this picture tell us about the ongoing refugee crisis?

St. Louis In Antwerp

A: This is the SS St Louis, arriving in the Belgian port of Antwerp in June 1939. If you haven’t heard of it, take a moment to read about it. It will make you think about how history might judge us.

Images: Nikolaj Nielsen via euobserver.comnews247.grcruiselinehistory.com

This post was considerably enhanced by contributions from readers to whom I am grateful for crowdsourcing political gems that had slipped through the net.


My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz