Open letter to the Austrian government
Austrians living and working in Greece, who feel deeply connected with this country, appeal to the Austrian government to take a more responsible position in dealing with the refugee crisis. Instead of putting on blinkers, pretending that by closing the borders the problem will go away, the situation has to be tackled head-on at a European level. The Austrian government needs to understand that individual, national approaches fail to produce results, also because solitary advances contradict the basic tenets of the European programme, which is meant to serve as the foundation for a new generation.
Despite the temporary ceasefire, the war in Syria continues unabated, forcing the frightened civilian population, trapped between the fighting fronts, to keep seeking refuge by fleeing their country. While the neighbours of Syria bear the brunt of the pressure, the callous reaction of the Austrian government, one of the richest countries in the world (ranked 11), puts us to shame. Austrian politicians have claimed that our country has accepted more refugees than most others. But a glance at the facts from Europe's south proves this statement to be fatally wrong, misrepresenting the data.
Pushing solutions to the refugee crisis that rely on increasing the pressure on Greece is counterproductive, unrealistic and irresponsible. The Austrian Minister of the Interior maintains that "that will put an end to perilous journeys across the Mediterranean." No, Mrs Minister, it won't!
Dozens of boats continue to arrive on Greece's shores on a daily basis, often carrying over three thousand desperate people a day. The unspeakable horror of the war, hopelessness in the adjacent countries and the desire to reunite with family members are a strong motivation for those who have nothing to lose to risk the journey towards European destinations. What could stop them? Coast guards? Warships? Walls? Barbed wire fences? None of these measures will have any effect, unless the acts of war are put to an end. Otherwise, traumatised, terrorised people will continue to do anything to escape their misery.
The Europeans, who cannot see eye to eye among each other and do not even seem to share the most basic values, are busying themselves reinforcing their ominous fortress. As much as they try, it is not going to prevent war refugees from attempting to save their lives. Many more will come, hoping to make it somehow, at all cost, as hope dies last. Europe has no choice but to face the catastrophic situation in the war-torn countries of the near and Middle East responsibly and make every effort to help these people rebuild their lives. This will require foresight, wisdom and the will to convince the doubters (and the constituencies). Otherwise, we will be faced with a generation growing up in war-torn nations in who cannot but feel deepest frustration and animosity towards Europe and its "values".
It seems that Greece, often disrespectfully called the "soft belly" of Europe, was assigned the role of henchman, carrying out European barbed-wire politics. Is this the underlying objective of Austria's advances? Greece, since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2010, has been publicly denied the capability to deal with her own administration. Now the Greek state is supposed to master a situation that would far surpass what Austrian authorities are able to shoulder. Greek volunteers, in cooperation with Greek NGOs and international organisations, are doing their best to save refugees' lives, to offer medical care, feed and console the desperate. How, we may ask, can a country that is itself on its knees, economically as well as socially, handle this situation? During the year 2015, 856,000 people arrived on Greece's coast. At the time of writing, this number has already reached over 200,000, with 410 people having drowned or been reported missing. What are the Greeks, impoverished and miserable, supposed to do?
Half of the capacity of Greek passenger ships between the islands of Lesbos, Kos, Chios and Leros has been assigned to transport refugees to the mainland, thus drastically reducing the capacity for tourists. Islands that almost exclusively subsist on the tourism industry expect a reduction of income during 2016 of 80%.
Also, we wonder just how the recent Refugee Conference in Vienna could have been held without inviting representatives of the country that is most affected. Was this punishment for Greece's apparent incapability of securing her maritime borders, for her policy of waving refugees through, for her lack of cooperation? Whatever intent the conference had, Greece should have been at the table, at least in order to make her voice heard and present the facts on the ground. The Austrian minister of the interior, Mrs Mikl-Leitner, expressed the government's opinion that it was perfectly legitimate to apply pressure at national and regional levels, disregarding repercussions at the European level. Who, we may ask, is allowed to apply such pressure? Countries that heavy-handedly and irresponsibly introduce neo-nationalist methods, in blatant disregard of lawfully binding responsibilities enshrined in the European charter?
If Austria wishes to pursue unilaterally a "complete barrage against refugees", our little country will be remembered as the trigger of a humanitarian catastrophe. The government of Austria justifies its reaction by admitting to being incapable of organising and administering a larger influx of refugees. Compared to Greece's vast maritime border, Austria's borders are very simple to manage indeed. How is Greece supposed to keep refugees at bay, when Austria's sole reaction has been to erect walls and barbed wire fences? While it is easy for a landlocked nation like Austria to barrage herself behind walls, such a politics of avoidance is impossible for a country comprising over 2,000 islands and with a coastline of almost 14,000km (ranked 13 worldwide). In view of her well-documented chronic structural weakness, Greece and her economy require massive help to get on their feet, amid the worst refugee crisis since world war two. We are deeply embarrassed by the confused, shortsighted "vision" that the Austrian government hysterically chose to impose on the western Balkans (her former "crown colonies"?). Is the misery of an ever increasing segment of the Greek population not worth being taken into account as well?
We appeal to the Austrian government to act reasonably, use common sense judgment and apply the principles of human rights. Shortsighted neo-nationalism should have no place in Europe of the 21st century. This is the least we owe to our historic past.
Mag Regina Wiesinger (Teacher, German School of Athens), Marion Hoffmann (former UNHCR official) and Winfried Lechner, PhD (Formal linguist, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens)
Martin Scharnhorst (Director)
Dr jur Ulrike Merlin
Dr Marianne Danner (Teacher, German School of Athens)
Dr Christos Vasdaris (Alumni University of Vienna, Archaeologist, Teacher, German School of Athens)
Mag Christine Pediaditis (Teacher, German School of Athens)
Dr jur Elfriede Damalas, Athens
Mag Helena Zabakas (Research Center "Dimokritos", Athens)
Mag Phil Claudia Stamou (Archaeologist)
Margareta Manola (Teacher, retired)
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