UN ‘needs Greek help’

The government and media should do more to boost the profile of the United Nations’ agencies in Greece and to facilitate their operations, representatives of four UN bodies, government officials and academics agreed during an Athens debate on Thursday. Out of the four UN bodies with offices in Greece – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Environment Program, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the United Nations Thessaloniki Center for Public Service Professionalism (UNTC) – the UNHCR is the only one with a relatively high profile, experts attending the forum at the Foreign Ministry’s offices in central Athens agreed. «The UNHCR has the greatest visibility, probably because it is the only one of the four agencies whose activities are focused on Greece itself,» Athens University Professor Giorgos Papadimitriou said. «The activities of the other agencies are concentrated outside of Greece.» But this does not mean that the UNHCR has an easy ride. «The two main challenges we face are intolerance and the confusion of problems such as crime, unemployment and other social ills with immigration flows,» the UNHCR’s representative in Greece Bart Leerschool told the forum. The UNHCR works closely with NGOs such as the Greek Council for Refugees and has the support of the Foreign and Public Order Ministries, Leerschool conceded but stressed that much more needs to be done for the agency to achieve its aims. «Greece is bottom in the ranks of the European Union in terms of refugee recognition rates,» Leerschool said. And this is despite the UNHCR’s cooperation with authorities to train border guards in «distinguishinf between economic migrants and those in need of international protection.» Leerschool also expressed concerns about conditions at refugee reception centers. It is the obligation of the Foreign Ministry to help solve operational problems faced by the UNHCR and other UN agencies in Greece, Papadimitriou maintained. The ministry’s attendant representative, Alexandros Rallis, agreed that more had to be done, stressing that the chief challenge was to change the mentality prevalent in Greek society. «We have to stop thinking in terms of what the UN can offer us and start thinking about how we can help it achieve its mission here,» he said. Experts agreed that Greece is also a «low performer» in terms of providing the UN with updated statistics, for all sectors – an approach that handicaps all agencies in Greece. Increasing visibility One of the most positive notes struck during the debate was by Paul Mifsud, director of the UN Environment Program’s Mediterranean Action Plan, which is based in Athens. «UNEP MAP has succeeded in uniting highly diverse states – such as Israel, Syria and Algeria – under the common aim of tackling coastal pollution,» he said. But UNEP MAP was established 30 years ago and has only recently gained a level of visibility approaching that of the UNHCR in Greece despite ongoing projects in 21 Mediterranean countries. The consensus is that strong government backing is sorely needed. But it would also be useful for NGOs to be briefed about the activities of UN agencies in Greece so they can boost their efforts, Papadimitriou said. The two lesser-known UN agencies, in particular, need as much support as possible, the forum agreed. The UN’s Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) aims to boost the competitiveness of Greek companies wanting to invest in developing countries. «We advise firms on the potential cost of proposed ventures, how to protect themselves from the local mafia and other such vital information,» UNIDO’s director, John Karmokolias, said. But greater government support would help lift the profile of the agency and, in turn, the firms it seeks to aid. The Thessaloniki Center for Public Service Professionalism (UNTC) – which aims to boost regional cooperation for public service reform – appears to have had an easier ride despite its low profile. UNTC Director Panos Liverakos expressed his satisfaction with the Foreign Ministry’s support. «They literally embraced us,» he said. The UNTC’s activities have comprised little more than the signing of memorandums of cooperation with Balkan states and the drafting of frameworks aimed at boosting foreign direct investment. So it has yet to yield any success stories; however, the mere fact that such a partnership has been struck up is a promising precedent. It seems that the major problem for all UN agencies in Greece is low visibility and a lack of public insight into the substance behind the acronyms. «More media coverage and debates – especially on state television – would be a good way of informing the public about what all these agencies do,» Papadimitriou said. «We host agencies whose activities – and sometimes even existence – we are not even aware of,» he said. «And most of them have far more problems than they admit to.»

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