Athens, Greece, May 2016 – In the last six years, Greece has been hit by unprecedented economic decline, caused in part by the intensity and duration of the recent global economic depression. Salaries have decreased considerably, unemployment is rising fast and family incomes have shrunk.
Based on a survey of the incomes and living conditions of households in Greece carried out by the Greek Parliament’s Budget Office, 6.3 million Greeks live at the poverty threshold. More specifically, 2.5 million people actually live below the monetary limit for relative poverty, based on average household income (60%), and 3.8 million people risk impoverishment due to unemployment and deprivation of material goods (source: www.reporter.gr).
Greece ranks highest amongst the EU-28 nations with respect to the risk of poverty (source: Eurostat). It is one of the nations with the greatest poverty (23.1%) and ranks fourth in the poverty gap index, after Spain, Romania and Bulgaria.
The increasing impoverishment caused by the crisis lies at the heart of the emergence of a series of grave social problems. These problems are particularly related to social inclusion and cohesion and especially affect vulnerable population groups, on whom the effects of the economic crisis were more intense and burdensome.
Next in line are the unemployed, the uninsured, individuals in informal employment situations, repatriated immigrants and other special groups. The modern face of poverty is as equally expressed by serious deprivation – in terms of living, housing, heating, the ability to access health and education services, spaces for culture and recreation (extreme poverty) – as by the phenomenon of social exclusion, stemming from economic inequality. All these factors hinder the personal safety of citizens, thus amplifying their sense of marginalisation.
The refugee-immigration issue has already become a national problem for Greece and is fast turning into a question of democracy.
It is a national issue because it is presently, and will remain in the future, a central issue for Europe and because Greece is now the main point of entry for refugees and migrants. Simultaneously, toughening of the rules around movement of people and the increased reluctance of other nations to allow passage to refugees and migrants have created “overcrowding” at the borders and exponentially increased the chances of border incidents. The fence erected by Hungary was only the beginning; closed national borders could lead to a de facto abolishment of the Schengen Agreement.
European mobilisation in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris, which involves border movement checks, necessarily limits the movement of populations in Europe, even within the Schengen zone.
We must, therefore, ask: what do cities and their municipal authorities need today in order to help contain the effects of the financial and refugee crises, on the one hand, and to foster development and put an end to social isolation and exclusion, on the other?
This is what I believe is needed:
Α. The establishment of active partnerships between Greek cities and others in Europe principally those in Central Europe. The key objective would be to mitigate inequalities and strengthen a mutual understanding of the problems, but also the fears, that torment local societies of late.
Β. The development and discussion of a flexible and expediently applicable “action plan” within Efus’ governing bodies (Executive Committee /General Assembly) designed to mobilise more Greek cities and encourage their inclusion in the Efus network. In parallel, Efus should also exchange with institutional bodies representing Greek local authorities – notably the Central Union of Municipalities and Communities (KEDE) of Greece –, but also its regional bodies and authorities (Regional Unions of Municipalities).
- The immediate planning and organisation, during 2016, of study visits to border cities and the islands, with the participation of as many members of the network from other European nations as possible. Cities from across Europe must visit Europe’s borders and show their strength and commitment to resolve the crisis. This would be more effective if it was supported by media coverage in the local areas of visiting municipalities, with the participation of members of the European Parliament and/or the Committee of the Regions (CoR).
All of these, I believe, would emphasise the importance of collaboration between cities/municipalities located along the “Refugee Pathway”, placing cooperative efforts in the limelight in a positive way (finally!). With regards to the “Refugee Pathway”, I refer here to the coastline of Asia Minor, the Aegean islands, Northern Greece, the valley of Axios, until its end in Central Europe.
From a “Pathway of Fear and Hostility”, this route could once again become a “Road of Humanity and Mutual Understanding”, as it has been for thousands of years – indeed, it was along this pathway that modern agricultural practices, as well as culture and the ideals of modern civilisation, spread to Europe.
Prioritising and promoting efforts to create greater solidarity between European cities, combined with the effective coordination of the local actions and activities outlined above, would also help to relieve people, principally those located in the island region, who feel “under attack” from the crises and who have seen their lives drastically change in recent times.
European understanding can be attained via the exchange of good practices, by putting useful ideas to practice, by having an open mind and with sound planning.
Our only foes are terrorists, fascists and misfortune; nobody else, inside or outside our borders, threatens us.