Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Farmers’ Roadblocks and Refugees’ Walls

Refugees Unwelcome

As of yesterday, the cessation of hostilities in Syria seemed to be mostly successful, insofar as violations were quickly contained by a “crisis group” rather than leading to an escalation of attacks, according to U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. This raises hopes that peace negotiations could resume, although it remains unclear whether the real peace that shattered country needs is possible in the face of such factors as Russian and American disagreements over the definition of “terrorist,” various powers’ differing goals, beliefs, and allegiances, and arguments about who has committed war crimes in Syria.

Two of my new Syrian refugee friends recently joined their family in Germany. Now there is just one father in Crete, far from his wife and two young daughters, as well as one mother with two sons here, while her husband and eldest son wait in Sweden. My friends emphasize that Islam is about peace and love. They say Daesh (ISIS) is “crazy” and “the opposite of Islam.” Shams emphasizes, “Mohammed told us you cannot kill anybody—not even an insect.” He appreciates President Obama’s visit to a mosque and wishes all the world’s leaders would visit mosques to show that Islam is not equivalent to Daesh. Now he feels like most of Syria is stuck in the middle, between equally crazy Daesh and Assad, and he fears “all the people like us in the middle will die.” I am relieved that these families, at least, now live in relative safety—although that is not true of their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews, who are still in Damascus and Aleppo, lacking electricity, struggling to buy food, and fearing bombs. What shocks me most is that children still live in Syrian cities and walk between the shells of bombed buildings. Have you seen the videos?

Meanwhile, Europe squabbles over which refugees should go where and whether borders should be closed to prevent the entry of migrants. Even the appearance of unity is gone as increasing numbers of countries follow Austria in introducing more border controls and limitations, and the whole concept of open European borders comes into question. Turkey finally seems to be taking some action to stop the people smugglers who have pushed thousands of refugees to their deaths by drowning. However, refugees continue to make their way across the sea to the easternmost islands of overwhelmed, underemployed, crisis-stricken Greece.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) allows refugees to leave Greece only by the dozen, so 20,000 to 25,000 are now stuck in Greece—a number expected to double or triple in the coming weeks, since another thousand arrives daily. Who could really believe that it’s a good idea for Greece to become a giant refugee camp or “parking lot” for migrants, with 25% unemployment after years of economic crisis? Who could believe it’s a good idea for refugees and migrants to wait in cold mud without adequate food or shelter, as 7,000 are now at Greece’s northern border?

In “The Syrian exodus,” Nikos Konstandaras writes, “The EU has faced the refugee crisis with its usual lack of purpose. After pretending that there was no problem, it took half-hearted measures which forced each country to deal with the flood of refugees and migrants as it could (or as it wished). In Greece we see the usual marriage of state inadequacy and self-sacrificing volunteers.” Outside Greece, according to Ivan Krastev, “everybody is trying to stop the refugees before they reach their borders.” Too many have grown tired of the “Refugees Welcome” ideal. But where are the refugees supposed to go? A few countries can’t provide their only welcome. It is time for wealthy countries that have not yet provided many homes to offer far more of them, in the USA, Canada, Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere.  


The Same Old News in Greece

Lately, I’ve been reading the all-too-repetitive news about Greece with a sinking feeling. Yet another government is failing to satisfy yet another overseers’ review of yet another loan program that seems to bring still higher taxes, still more fruitless austerity, still less hope for improvement after years of economic crisis. Although changes are likely after more than a month of protesting farmers’ tractor blockades of roads and meetings with the prime minister, the taxes and pension and insurance contributions proposed earlier for the self-employed and farmers could take away 69% to 84% of those workers’ income—leaving what to live on? No wonder the leftist-rightest coalition government faced more widespread protests than ever, with farmers, fishermen, freelancers, and professionals adding to the pressure felt and provided by refugees, pensioners, the unemployed, and Greeks unable to repay their loans.

In “Want smokes for 1.50 euros? Greeks lose millions of tax on bad habits,” Bloomberg’s Nikos Chrysoloras implies that the Greek government would rather increase taxes on the self-employed and farmers and even cut pensions than combat smuggling and tax evasion in cigarettes, fuel, alcoholic drinks, and online gambling—which could bring in more than enough money to avoid pension cuts. We are still waiting for the crackdown on large-scale tax evasion by the wealthy that Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA promised, but no Greek government has managed to deliver. A recent proposal seems to imply that the government believes any type of crackdown on tax evasion is so difficult that a 60% tax rate on incomes over 30,000 euros is preferable. Just tax, tax, tax those who already pay. Never mind how much it increases the brain drain and leaves Greece a land of the very poor and the very rich, minus much of its best talent.

Ironically, according to Stefanos Saronikos, all the new and increased taxes imposed on Greeks annually since 2010 have resulted in less revenue being collected each year, rather than more—8.1 billion euros less in 2015 than in 2010. In a recession, with high unemployment, reduced pensions, and excessive austerity, how are Greeks supposed to come up with the money to pay more tax? Only a small minority of Greeks is secretly rich these days; most are struggling. People earn less, consume less, evade taxes more, and move out of Greece if they can. As Saronikos argues, “the evidence suggests that tax revenues are not dependent on the level of rates, but on the state of the economy, the effectiveness of tax assessment mechanisms, even the psychology of the markets.” So the lower tax rates of 2006 brought the Greek state more tax income than the higher rates and new taxes of 2015. Taxing people to death (sometimes literally, in the case of suicides) is not the answer to Greece’s financial problems.
Greeks, migrants, and refugees are being pushed to the very edge. The question is, the edge of what? Desperation? Disaster? Europe? Greece’s border with Bulgaria saw long backups of vehicles due to farmers’ blockades and counter-blockades on the other side, putting more pressure on an economy already struggling under continuing capital controls as the flow of agricultural and commercial goods was disrupted. The border with FYROM has become a refugee camp where fences and restrictions lead Greece to wonder if it is being pushed out of Europe. Yesterday, desperate refugees broke through border fences, only to be repelled by FYROM police firing tear gas into a crowd that included children. Why not traumatize those children with more war-like responses while they’re at it?   


Hope Springs in Winter


In Greece, where everyday conversation begins with a fervent wish that we at least have our health—and the patience and courage necessary to keep going here--hope comes in small cupfuls. But at least it comes. Tassoula Eptakili explained how a new “’Suspended Coffees’ campaign revives [the] tradition of buying a brew for those less fortunate.” In many Greek cafés, fast food restaurants, patisseries, butcher shops, and even some hair salons and pharmacies, it is now possible to pay for one’s own order, and also for someone else who may come in later, unable to pay, whether because she is homeless, impoverished, unemployed, retired, or a struggling student.

Students at the Delos School of Dramatic Arts made a short film about such transactions last November, and it went viral on the Internet, “spreading the word around Greece” about a grassroots initiative that follows up on what a homeless people’s group started earlier. That, in turn, continues a tradition that may have started a century ago in Naples, disappeared after World War II, and then resumed in various parts of the world, “with hundreds of businesses in 112 cities and towns in 17 countries registered for the scheme” now. What an excellent idea! 

Alexandra Kassimi writes that another Greek initiative offers online help to bullying victims aged 10 to 18. “Live Without Bullying” uses trained counselors and peers in a confidential, anonymous online discussion of children’s concerns with the goal of finding solutions to bullying problems online or at school, as well as educating teachers and children more generally. There is an endless supply of serious problems here in Greece, but there are also people with good ideas who make a positive difference here--and not only the hard-working volunteers in the eastern islands who have helped so many thousands of refugees, or those who have donated items to refugees and impoverished people all over Greece. Even in the face of crisis, Greeks tend to be generous, and their kindness can give people a reason to get up in the morning.

So can Greek natural beauty, for those fortunate enough to be in a position to enjoy it. Yesterday morning, I paused to listen to a medley of tweets, chirps, coos and other birdsong interspersed with bee buzzes. Other days, the roar of military planes or the neighborhood dog bark chorus overwhelms the migratory birds. (Or the paliatzis—the junk man--comes around, his old pickup truck’s loudspeaker droning a recording about collecting old things.) But yesterday, before the powerful winds full of African dust sprang up to whip dirt into my eyes in the afternoon, the birdsong prevailed. I seldom see the little creatures who must hide in the trees and bushes, but occasionally a quick flying form or two flits across my field of vision. These days, I hear them around me when I open the windows or wander among the wildflowers and low, thorny wild bushes and herbs on hillsides above the sea.

There are flowers, but no promising new movement, in Greece’s early spring. This time of year, the siren colors of the wildflowers seduce me, and I cannot manage to walk briskly for long. I set out for my aerobic exercise, but the wild orchids, herbs, cistus, and daisies draw me to them, and I cannot resist their fuchsia, lavender, white, or yellow enticement. I stop to photograph the most striking blossoms, pick a few of the common blooms, share them with neighbors, and receive a bag full of a neighbor’s fresh, sweet lemons in return.

Afterwards I wonder how I lost an hour. But it wasn’t lost. My favorite grade school English teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, used to tell me to stop and smell the flowers. Here in Crete, at the height of our wildflower season in February, there are plenty to smell. (I counted 45 species in one outing.) Even when our winter doesn’t feel as warm as spring, as most of it did this year, May Day should come to Crete much earlier with its bright wreaths of flowers. Tourists should also come to Crete earlier. It’s already lovely and still peaceful here, in spite of the country’s problems.

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