Muddling along, or setting free the bears?

Another year is drawing to a close with its joys and sorrows, victories and defeats. Once again, luckless immigrants looking for a better life have found death in the winter waters around Greece. At the beginning of the year, the whole country watched as rescuers tried to tow a decrepit freighter to safety as it foundered off southern Crete with 250 people aboard. They were rescued. A year earlier, at the start of 2001, eight migrants were found dead and another 50 were missing when another ship heading for Greece was smashed by heavy seas on the shores of western Turkey. Yesterday, a sea and air rescue effort off Evia was called off because of the worsening weather, after four bodies had been found and more feared missing when two boats carrying illegal immigrants sank. Ninety-seven had been found on shore but some reports said that up to 30 might still be missing. Throughout the years this sad tide has just kept swelling. But there seems to be something about this season in particular that makes these tragedies happen. Perhaps it is a combination of naturally bad winter weather with the expectation of smugglers that the coast guard will let down its guard for the Christmas and New Year holiday. Tragic as each of these incidents is, the latest serves as a timely reminder of one of Greece’s highest priorities as president of the EU in the six months starting on January 1; a concerted effort to manage immigration and curb illegal migration. It is also fitting that Greece, through its work in recent months through the Athens Migration Policy Initiative, should take the lead in this. After too many years of allowing things to drift dangerously, Greece is now spearheading the effort to solve a problem of fundamental importance to the whole European Union. It was only in 1997 that Greece began to treat the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in its midst like real people, producing legislation that legalized the status of people who had flooded into the country since late 1990. Until the first legalization program, the people who had come to Greece in search of a better life had absolutely no way of obtaining legal status. They lived in the shadows and in fear, vulnerable to every kind of danger and extortion. The law gave them a way out, but it also failed to solve many of the problems that it created. Like so many things in Greece, the problem had to get worse before it got better. And it is still nowhere near where it should be. Greece has still not thought about what to do with its immigrants beyond renewing their residence and work permits, and it has not beefed up the bureaucracy so that it can cope with some 500,000 people suddenly needing papers or the renewal of their permits. Nor did anyone have the skill or the vision to create a system with minimal red tape so as to get around the weaknesses of the bureaucracy. The year has ended with nearly half of the 350,000 people who applied for an extension of their residence and work permits still not getting them. Technically, they will be illegal from January 1, right at the time of the start of the Greek presidency. Then, we can expect the police to enforce, to the letter, the injustices caused by a law which has not managed to solve the problems created by its own failings and the failings of the state apparatus. The law, as an institution, is vital to the functioning of any society. And it is doubly interesting to watch how it works in Greece, which has, at once, a timeless history of democracy and legislating, thanks to its roots in ancient Athens, but which is also a relatively new country and a relatively fresh democracy. Greece still has many problems and complexes to work out and has to recover from the over-reaction against state authority and personal discipline provoked by the authoritarianism of the 1967-74 military junta and earlier governments. Here, in the midst of all the passions of those who legislate and those who oppose them (in Parliament) we see much of the raw workings of democracy, with divisions almost always along party lines rather than in relation to how effective the new law will be. Then the judiciary and law enforcement agencies take over and begin to apply the law. This they most often do without the State doing enough to help them – this results in a congested justice system with too many cases getting to court because of overly strict provisions, or the courts themselves are not staffed well enough to cope with the demands they face. The law enforcement agencies, also, usually outdo themselves in effectively enforcing some laws that were badly stipulated in the first place. An example – which might sound esoteric but which led to much sorrow for those affected – was the original law on illegal immigrants’ registration that came into effect at the start of 1998. The first presidential decree stated that those eligible were those who were living and working in Greece illegally. It should have said who were living or working here illegally. Because it didn’t, people who had entered Greece on valid visas and then registered for residence permits were arrested and charged with «grabbing an official document under false pretenses.» From news reports at the time, many unfortunates were detained, imprisoned and deported before the law was modified. Then there is the story of the dancing bears. Since 1969 it has been illegal to own or exhibit a bear in Greece, on pain of the owner being jailed and fined and the animal being confiscated. So, whenever some conscientious policeman (or perhaps one who was just in the mood to harass a member of a minority) decided to do something about a dancing bear, he would take the owner and the animal to the police station, charge the man and then, not knowing what on earth he could do with several hundred pounds of mangy, tortured animal, he would release the Gypsy and the bear, together. This meant, in effect, that people continued to kill female brown bears – an endangered species – in order to steal their young and, after torturing them into learning some tricks, using them to earn a living. It was only when a private group, Arcturos, set up a bear sanctuary at Nymphaion in northern Greece in 1993 that the authorities had somewhere to send the bears. Dancing bears disappeared from Greece after centuries of existence as popular entertainment. There are now 13 bears at the sanctuary, which has the support of the Agriculture Ministry. If any bears are found dancing, they have most probably trickled down from the Balkans and will be rescued. This is the result of good, non-governmental work prodding the government into solving problems. It proves, once again, that running a country is too important to be left to governments. And this is perhaps why the immigration system needs a good injection of inspiration and dedication; not because the efforts to regulate migration are so misguided, but because the people who enforce these regulations do not feel they are accountable to anyone. And they are not helped by having the right institutional framework and detention facilities to make their job straightforward rather than something to be carried out at their own discretion. The heroic efforts by coast-guard officers to save foundering migrants are so easily wiped out by the inhuman conditions under which those same migrants might be kept once they are brought ashore. The immigrants – whom study after study credit with giving new life to our economy and our population – are kicked from pillar to post, without complaining, in their effort to carry out their obligations under the law. The way the State treats them will reflect the democracy for which every one of us is, in the end, responsible. If we, as citizens, go out of our way to defend immigrants, we will improve our country for ourselves as well.