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Greek Society Falling, Falling…

Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, Sep 24 2010 (IPS) - People walking casually past a sleeping or unconscious person has become a recurrent scene in downtown Athens these days. At Omonia square in the heart of the Greek capital one sees signs of social degeneration and segregation that were unknown only a decade ago.

Large numbers of illegal migrants survive below subsistence level. Young women from Africa and Eastern Europe – as well as Greece – offer themselves, or are forced into sexual service by organised networks. Drug abusers indiscreetly buy their fix from dealers.

The combination of a severe economic downturn and substantial numbers of undocumented migrants over the last three years has sent the numbers of the socially deprived spiralling.

It is harder though to notice the quiet withdrawal of social and public welfare institutions that could have provided a security net. These have also fallen victim to the economic crisis, making the deteriorating living conditions in the city centre a major issue in the upcoming local elections.

“There is not a single support mechanism for needy migrants in the city centre. Just a few low-priced guesthouses which rarely accept foreigners. People are left to struggle on their own,” says Daniel Ezras, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Athens.

“The crisis not only dehumanises the excluded, but also hits hard at integrated migrants. Foreigners who could get an underpaid or uninsured job will now find it hard to get any employment at all.”

IOM, in just a few months, has received over 1,000 applications for voluntary repatriations, and the figure is likely to keep growing, says Ezras. “People trapped by legal complications and the economic downturn, finding their trip to the west not what they imagined it to be, opt to return.”

Greece has implemented a harsh structural adjustment plan that was dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in May. In exchange the IMF-EU provided a 110-billion euro bailout to save the country from defaulting.

Since then the Greek economy is shrinking rapidly. It has retracted 3.8 percent this year and this downtrend will probably continue next year.

The Institute of Labour of the General Confederation of Greek Workers, the biggest union in the country, has warned of a rise in unemployment beyond 20 percent next year. Unemployment between the ages of 15 and 29 is already 30.8 percent, compared with a European average of 19.8.

Concerns about recession have shrunk consumption, making it difficult for the Greek administration, which depends on tax collection more than the rest of its measures to reach the numbers agreed in the IMF-EU plan. Consequently the state bureaucracy is presenting its nastier face in an effort to root out irregularities and improve the fiscal balance.

“On top of a 10 percent horizontal cut in every ministry’s budget, which has affected social benefits directly, in the last few months an increasingly aggressive bureaucracy is dealing harsh blows to sensitive people,” says Olga Antoniou, social worker with Organisation Against Drugs, a government organisation that helps substance abusers.

“Some days ago a confiscation note came to one of the people enrolled in my programme. It was because of two unpaid fines for boarding the metro without a ticket. Perhaps that sounds insignificant but it is not if you understand how vulnerable these people are,” Antoniou tells IPS.

“Drug abusers suffering from hepatitis C are entitled to social benefits of 550 euros every two months. Since May it has taken much longer to process these benefits and they have been asked to provide many more documents. This means that many of them have to manage without financial means for indefinite periods.”

For people who have faced dependencies or harsh social exclusion this might mean returning to severe deprivation, for it is difficult for them to find a job. “And with the present unemployment rates, many find it impossible to secure even a basic income,” Antoniou says.

The absence of state and social welfare organisations is leaving a vacuum for exploiters to move in. There has been increased policing in the city centre lately, but this only emphasises the scale of the problem.

From January to August this year over 5,000 people were arrested, most of them irregular migrants. Over 220,000 smuggled goods brought in from Asia were confiscated. The police said the smuggling was in the hands of an organised mafia which maintained warehouses and had connections at the major ports.

Undocumented migrants from Africa then sell these on the streets. Sixty cut- price boarding houses were also evacuated and sealed.

“Middle class people do not want to acknowledge what is becoming obvious in downtown Athens. To an extent this ‘city dump’ mirrors the rest of Greece, but even more it is a picture of what we can expect during the approaching tough winter,” columnist Nikos Xidakis wrote in the Kathimerini newspaper.

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