Friday, 15 November 2019
Never arrive at Athens after midnight, whatever the guide books may say, for a taxi is probably the most expensive part of any trip to Athens and at double the rate after midnight ( around £60) , that cheap flight from Stansted Airport does not appear to be the bargain it seemed. Taxi rates here are per person.
Athens gets a rough press. The appalling tragedy of the refugee and migrant crisis has hit Greece’s tourist sector with tourism down by 80% on the beautiful Islands. Athens itself, still suffering from austerity as part of its EU salvage deal, is hit by a double whammy. Yet, this city is nothing like I was expecting and so much better for it. The roads are clean and the doorways of its high streets , unlike London, are not populated with the homeless that shame London and many other cities in Europe . Greece offers exceptional value; a coffee is £1.50 , a meal less than £5 . Hotel family rooms can be secured from £20 with breakfast. Whilst many may come for its history, Athens street art is what takes your breath away ; the scale , the quality, the simplicity.They may not have our Banksy, but they have something very different and a real asset to those who come to see this wonderful city. Athens is neither run- down nor are there soup kitchens or tent cities on every street corner. It’s a proud place. Victoria Square is what is described as the ‘run -down’ part of town in which the refugees remain , sometimes for years, awaiting the paperwork that will set them off on their dream of a better life .
As I sit in the beautiful Victoria Park, smartly dressed men and women sit waiting , day after day . They wait for news , friends or family so they can themselves can move to the next stage, be it on foot , with or without papers, or in the back of a people traffickers’ lorry to Italy and onto the Uk , Germany etc. These people have skills we can use and yet we put walls up to cut off an economic resource our NHS, our farmers ,our public sector desperately needs. Until we as voters demand a different mind- set, the only people who benefit from this misery are the people traffickers . These people will find a way, however long it takes. Is it therefore not better to welcome people with skills? Does it not make our lives better and the world safer?
At the entrance to Victoria Park is a small van, clearly marked in English. Whatever country people travel from, the international language is English; something that should make us proud. The van is connected to the park’s water and power system and tours different parts of the city, offering a free launderette service.
In another part of the city, I sit and talk with those who run a needle- exchange van that has done wonders to transform the HIV rates and the discarded needle problems. It’s controversial, as it is in the UK, but the Mayor funds this project and slowly it has transformed troubled areas. Yes, in an ideal world drugs would not be something we tolerate, but we do not live in an ideal world. Greece may be the Cinderella of the EU, but it still has its heart and its values . Its politics may seem extreme to those looking in, but as one political commentator told me , echoing a view held widely on the street , Greek politics is like football: they all play the same game, they just wear a different colour shirt. Brexit is as divisive here as in the UK , but somehow Greece has ,against the odds, pulled through. The wages are low ; it’s not uncommon to find people earning just 1 euro an hour here. However, the city feels like it’s a place to come ; it’s vibrant ,it’s cool ,its city areas offer diversity that attracts people from across the world to return . Nevertheless, its refugee crisis has , as in many other places, led to wide-spread scams.
As part of my visit, I tracked down social media groups who had been showing films as a way to raise cash. I should not be surprised that all the organisations who were running Paypal accounts in their own name either vanished the day I arrived , spent days delaying my visit to them or cancelled by just not showing up. For the record, the state pays rent for ALL refugees. They don't need to live on the street , so don't give cash to people claiming to house rape victims, beaten women etc. Also, every child can go to School once on the Greek mainland, there is NO need to donate to schools in Athens; it’s just another scam .
Greece is a ‘must visit’ between the months of November to March. All the main Greek temples and museums are just 4 euros . Food prices are low, which reflects the low wages paid here, and your pound , whatever the exchange rate, probably goes further here today than in any other EU city. With the apps available these days, it’s a great idea to walk. The streets are alive with cafe culture, vibrant street art and flea markets outstripping any other EU city . Gazi student area offers nightlife that allows you to capture the essence of Greece . It may be poor but it’s proud . It’s beautiful on every level . Please don't allow the scary headlines to put you off coming . Everyone is welcome in Greece, it’s just the rest of the world that needs to give Greece a helping hand.
Friday, 1 November 2019
Moria refugee camp Greece. My exclusive undercover article on the true story our media fails to report
Moria Camp, on the beautiful Greek Island of Lesvos, may have been hailed by the BBC as the ' Worst refugee camp on earth’ to generate a good headline. However, the reality, as I discovered, having been the first journalist to be smuggled in , could not be further from the truth.
Set on a hot , isolated , rocky hillside far from the tourist locations and the island’s facilities, it’s a secretive place that discourages visits from the press and any outsiders. Humanitarian Aid agencies stopped showing any sign of humanity long ago to those who have risked so much to get here. The main-stream aid agencies we see on our TV screens , pleading for our hard-earned cash after every disaster, have also pulled out of Moria as, quite simply, with less than 20,000 refugees and migrants on site, it’s not financially viable for them to operate . This led to the BBC News headline... ‘The Worst camp on earth’... yet, if this were true, would this not be the very place they should operate?
Aid agencies that exist in the camps compete with each other, often at the risk of lives. For example, a father with a child just born in the camp and suffering from a fever was seeking help from a French film crew. They were also interviewing one of the camp’s aid workers who failed to disclose that, just 250 yards away, was a medical provision tent that could help him with his sick child. However, as this was a rival Aid organisation, potentially life-saving information was not passed on. Stories like this are far too common in Moria. You would think that, after the sex abuse and aid for sex scandals that brought many aid charities almost to their knees, and the cover up that followed, lessons would have been learned. Nevertheless, the best care and service provided is done so from the poorly- funded grassroots organisations whose inspirational work should be rewarded and followed . I would argue that the organisers of Glastonbury festival are better equipped at organising a tent city refugee camp, such as Moria here in Greece, with humanity and on much less money than those funded and operated by the mega -rich aid agencies who shame their profession and do such a terrible job at present .
With winter arriving, I could find nothing to show that the camp is being prepared for the upcoming cold and rain. Residents who have been here for more than a year have wood pallets to keep their tents off the wet ground but most are oblivious to the savage and cold winters these hill-top rocky camps face.
Kath Duncan Equality and Civil Rights Network have been trying to establish a safe LGBTQ and women's zone within the Camp and a School project. They also seek to address the violence caused by bored young men by instituting a sports scheme . Whilst it is clear that space to kick a football or run a school within the camp is restricted due to overcrowding, the reason the camp will not allow these projects to be established, is that it would change the perception of the camp from being a holding camp to having containment, residential camp status. This something that it already is in all but name, but which those in power refuse to acknowledge, regardless of the fact that huge numbers of people in this camp have been here for years.
Kath Duncan Equality and Civil Rights Network argue whether these projects should just be acknowledged as ‘Pop Up’ to address this? Undeterred, Kath Duncan volunteers, like the old Bible smugglers of old have had to smuggle books into Moria to establish a network of tent schools within the camp in secret because the camp refuse to give permission. In addition, they have established a logistics office to network and inform all residents about the facilities and services which exist within the camps and islands. Kath Duncan Equality and Civil Rights Network also helps with distributing donations and assuring family and friends around the world about who is in the camps. In addition, they carry out an audit of labour skills, in the hope the world, if it won’t take refugees or migrants, will take the teachers, surgeons, doctors and midwives that its own economies need now.
It's extraordinary that no such networking or project exists as the camp costs us all millions to fund, not just the Greek Government costs, but also the Aid agencies. These agencies get excessive funding for a basic level of service, which mainly consists of containment, basic food and nothing else. They must be exposed for what they are NOT delivering and the poor value for money they offer, together with the terrible lack of humanity shown to the inmates and the camps’ total failure to open up their facilities to the world’s press . Much needs to be done to help these people move forward and be able to claim status in countries where they already have family support networks and to ensure the skills of everyone in these camps can be used and harnessed for the gaps in our own jobs market.
New arrivals are not guaranteed entry. The camp is over-flowing ,and whilst the official line is that this is just a holding post for a few days until the residents can be moved to the main camp in Athens , the truth is that many in this camp have been here for years already and quietly accept the reality that it may take them years to get into Europe and secure the legal papers they all crave for a better way of life...OUR way of life.
There is a further un-official camp for those unable to get in to Moira, in the olive groves surrounding it and another camp 20 minutes drive away . The giant gates with a huge red STOP sign are opened and closed erratically by far from welcoming, armed Greek Soldiers . The solid walls on each side have signs that are constantly white washed by the camp command .They are not keen that the newly arrived residents have marked up: “Welcome to Moria Prison”... which had been white washed during my arrival, only to be replaced with another legend, reading: “They killed our dreams, betrayed our traditions". Adjoining the walls are high fences, prison- like with barbed wire, lighting posts and cabins. As you enter, you encounter communal washing areas and pathways with market stalls selling cigarettes, fresh fruit and veg and all manner of goods you need to get by in a refugee camp like Moria. Entrepreneurialism is evident in a camp that is full of people with real skills, doctors, teachers, engineers, electricians ,surgeons and scientists . Everyone has paid vast sums of money to get this far via plastic boats in the pitch black of night without as much as a torch. They have braved rough seas, mist, fog and wild sea currents that are dangerous by day and deadly by night with no navigation system; a trip that is so dangerous that Moria camp alone holds 500 orphaned.
Men women and children from every corner of the world are fleeing war, persecution and poverty for our way of life . This is a lifestyle of freedom and opportunity our governments have urged the world’s people to follow and be inspired by for generations . Yet, when those fleeing for refuge seek to share in that vision of hope and opportunity, the gateway to Europe is firmly closed. Only by engaging in illegal activity and the people trafficking trade can they hope to secure status and a better life within Europe.
The 10,000 plus people that call Moria Camp (built for 2,400) home, have all risked life and death and paid large sums of money to people traffickers to come here, and may ,further on their journey, end up like those tragic 38 souls found in a trailer in a UK port.
It is heart-breaking that migrants and refugees in the new global political climate only become an issue when they are washed up on our shores or found dead in the back of a UK lorry. Yet, as I write this, the UK economy has 100,000 job vacancies in the NHS, The police service is desperate to attract people of colour and ethnicity for their 20,000 job vacancies, whilst the Farmers Union was interviewed on TV, telling all that would listen that they needed 30,000 people to pick fruit from the apple trees this season. Unbelievably, due to this staffing crisis, the number of apples being left to rot is enough to give every school child in the UK an apple a day for an entire year. Still, our policy in the UK is to forbid refugees from working, regardless of their skill set, whilst a government minister responds to the tragic loss of life in the back of a lorry. Accepting we are an island, it would make more economic sense to allow people into the UK to do the work we struggle with. This skills shortage is also undermining the housing crisis, as whatever number of homes our Government pledge to build, Council or otherwise, any builder will tell you, the UK does not have the skilled tradespeople to build the homes we need. It is no longer about money but labour. In Europe, every camp could be emptied within 24 hours, and yet these people would still not fill the staggering number of job vacancies we have. However, these people would be helping us all address OUR needs; boosting our economy; earning wages to spend in our economy and paying taxes to run our NHS and public sector services.