President Barack Obama arrived in Greece on Tuesday on his last foreign tour as president of the United States, and Athens said it held out hope that he would help persuade the country’s creditors to restructure some of its monumental debt.
Obama at least gestured in that direction, saying the United States would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with crisis-hit Greece through its challenges ahead, acknowledging progress on economic adjustment.
“Greece has gone through very challenging and dramatic times over the last several years,” Obama, the first US president to visit Greece since Bill Clinton in 1999, said during a meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
“We are glad to see that progress is being made, although we recognize that there are significant challenges ahead, and we intend to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Greek people throughout this process,” he said.
Obama, who will be succeeded in January by Donald Trump, was expected to discuss the debt issue as well as the migrant crisis with Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. He will deliver a major speech on democracy on Wednesday.
“We consider this visit will contribute to the effort to reduce Greece’s debt,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told Reuters. “The US president has repeatedly stated he wants to solve this huge issue before he leaves office.”
Greece signed up to a third economic bailout package of up to 86 billion euros ($93 billion) in mid-2015 but says that it needs a long-term debt restructuring to emerge from the worst economic downturn in generations.
“To the rest of Europe, I will continue to emphasize our view that austerity alone cannot deliver prosperity,” Obama said during a meeting with Tsipras.
The country of 11 million people has also been caught in a migrant crisis. Over 60,000 people are stranded in Greece after their onwards journey into Europe was sealed off this year as borders were shut in the Balkans.
“It is important that we don’t have any single country bear the entire burden of these challenges,” Obama said.
Humanitarian organizations called on Obama to push the need for a European response to the problem and to demand wealthier countries take in a bigger share of refugees.
“President Obama must use his visit to shine the spotlight not only on abysmal conditions for the tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece, but also on the failure of world leaders to adequately address the wider global refugee crisis,” Amnesty International’s Europe director, John Dalhuisen, said in a statement.
Obama, who is in Athens until Wednesday afternoon, is staying at a luxury seaside resort on a peninsula south of Athens, less than 15 km (9 miles) from an disused airport that is temporarily housing hundreds of migrants and refugees.
Children played outside the abandoned terminal through washing lines strung with laundry. Some sat on a battered old sofa as Obama’s motorcade sped past them.
“We want Obama to come and see us here, how we are living like prisoners,” said Hatzi Naser, 42, from Afghanistan. “He is the reason we are here, because of his army’s war. We want him to come and see the filth we are living in.”