By Dimitri Gonis
In September 1922, following the ignominious routing of the Greek army by Kemal Ataturk’s forces, 250,000 terrified Greeks, mainly women, children and the elderly, lined the quay of what is today Izmir in a desperate attempt to escape the carnage. For two whole weeks they were left stranded in the summer heat, while twenty or so vessels of the international community and allies, anchored just a few hundred metres away and looking on, turned up the music to block out their agonising screams.
In the end, Izmir was burnt to the ground, much of its population butchered by the Turks, and the allies, save for a few good Samaritans, sailed back home safely. The blame was later apportioned to the Greeks and their leaders but not the allies who had sent them there in the first place. The result of this disaster was the arrival of over 1.5 million refugees on the Greek mainland. Almost one hundred years later, Greece finds itself faced with yet another tidal wave of humanity, ironically, many of them setting off from Izmir.
Over the past six years since the first Greek bailout, there has been a constant barrage of headlines on Greece’s economic woes. We’ve been repeatedly told about the incompetence of the Greek state and how the lazy, siesta-loving Greeks have brought it all upon themselves as a result of their mindless profligacy. How they are selflessly being carried by the rest of Europe, and by Germany in particular, when they are in fact one of the main reasons why the EU cannot emerge from its recession. There is no doubt that in several cases the Greeks have deservedly been criticised. There is one thing, however, they cannot be blamed for; the influx of hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa. Greece has nothing to do with this legacy of the Gulf Wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, the various humanitarian interventions and peace-keeping missions of so-called ‘international coalitions’.
According to figures published recently (BBC, December 2015), Greece has seen almost one million people landing on its shores in 2015; that is ten per cent of its population. To put it into perspective, that is equal to eight million refugees arriving in Germany or about six million arriving in the UK. Germany in particular may be able to accommodate the 800,000 refugees it has offered to take in; it has both the economy and infrastructure to do so. The UK could no doubt do a lot better than the 25,000 it has committed to over the next five years; so can countries like Australia and Canada which have agreed to take in 12,000 and 25,000 (The Guardian November 2015) refugees respectively. This is a start, but in the greater scheme of things these numbers are negligible for advanced economies with lower end, single digit unemployment. Greece on the other hand is experiencing a depression with a national unemployment rate of 30 per cent and 50 per cent amongst its youth (The Telegraph July 2015). These are similar economic conditions to those that led hundreds of thousands of Greeks to migrate abroad in the fifties and sixties.
Figures aside, there has been very little focus on the psychological impact this situation has had on the Greek people. There has been no genuine effort to highlight the trauma of these demographic changes on an already very stressed population. On the other hand, there are ample insults. Only recently, it had to be specifically emphasised that one of the Paris suicide bombers had allegedly entered Europe through Greece. The ad nauseum and frequently malicious media coverage is no doubt intended to appeal to people’s credulity; so is the repetitive ‘European challenge’ mantra. Suddenly, Greece means ‘Europe’, when all along it has been treated like a pariah; a diseased limb to be amputated or at best a recalcitrant member state on the fringes of the European experiment, but not really European at all.
The truth is that both Greece and Italy have borne the brunt of this unprecedented influx of destitute humanity, with 150,000 refugees arriving in Greece in September alone. Greece’s shortcomings aside, one must ask the legitimate question: how can a country which is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII, be expected to deal with hundreds of thousands of displaced and dispossessed people when at the same time it cannot even meet the basic needs of its own citizens? There is an undeniable decency in what the Greeks are doing; they are, as Vanessa Redgrave recently pointed out, showing the world ‘how to be human’, how to be generous. There is something very noble in giving of one’s dearth rather than one’s superfluity.
At a time when Greece is literally on its knees and grovelling for funds to keep afloat, it cannot possibly be expected to deal with an externally imposed humanitarian crisis on top of a domestic one. It is utterly absurd as well as cruel to demand this from a people that has already lost every ounce of its pride and dignity. The international community has a duty not only towards these refugees, migrants or asylum seekers, but also towards Greece for the disproportionate humanitarian burden it is shouldering. It’s time for the international community to show what it has really learnt from history. The days of looking on from the deck with the music blaring have passed; it is time the ships moved towards the quay.
Dimitri Gonis is a lecturer in Modern Greek Studies, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia