OPINION

Six questions and one fact about Athens

The situation in the center of Athens is the result of many complex factors. These include a long period of indecisiveness and an absence of prompt initiatives on a central government level, but mainly on the level of the municipal authority — and I don?t mean the present municipal authority.

It is also influenced by events taking place outside of Greece that have either created strong migration waves or have altered the characteristics of existing ones. For example, events in North Africa, in combination with Turkey?s decision to relax visa requirements for Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian nationals, have resulted in a massive influx of illegal immigrants from these countries (in 2009, 329 illegal Algerian immigrants were arrested in Greece, compared to 7,320 in 2010).

Today, the government, local authorities and the City of Athens are being called upon to deal with the situation, and it is past the 12th hour. The cultivation of high expectations for immediate, magical solutions has not contributed to a rational approach to the problem; in contrast, it has undermined the chances of solving it.

It takes time not only to implement but mainly to see results from any measures.

It is easy to launch dramatic operations — especially involving the police — but if they are not combined with the necessary infrastructure they simply transfer the problem to different parts of the city or to other neighboring municipalities, and this is a tactic that the present government does not want to see applied under any circumstances.

Many citizens have expressed justifiable queries that others suggest would provide simple solutions, which in turn have transformed into urban myths regarding the reasons why a series of issues that are not just related to Athens but to the country as a whole, have not been dealt with. So, let us look at these questions, these myths.

Why don?t we deport illegal immigrants immediately?

To send them ?back,? we need to know where ?back? is. Turkey, the main country through which they end up here, will not take them in. From 2002, when the Greek-Turkish repatriation protocol was put into effect, and through 2010, the Turkish authorities took in just 2,491 immigrants of the 73,935 that arrived illegally via Turkey. Greece has made diplomatic efforts to turn this situation around, always within the context of the European Union.

The second part of the question relates to why we don?t send them back to where they came from. There are two groups of people here. One constitutes illegal immigrants from countries where there is no state to speak of (i.e. Afghanistan, Somalia etc) and a great percentage of them are entitled to political asylum.

Extreme right-wing rhetoric, however, has created the impression that granting asylum to these people is unacceptable, when in fact it would make it easier for them to move onto other countries in Europe, where many have relatives. The other group consists of people from countries to which they can be sent back. But the illegal immigrants themselves don?t always tell the truth. Many lie and say that they are Palestinian.

Therefore it takes time to establish their real identities. Then you need to cooperate with their respective embassies to arrange that they have the necessary travel documents. Naturally, they do whatever they can to delay the process. Months can go by like this.

Meanwhile, Greece is not equipped with suitable areas to host and to have some control over such a large number of illegal immigrants over the course of months.

Let?s not forget the backlash from certain local communities when the establishment of reception centers was announced. If, however, such centers are not established all over Greece and especially in Attica, the problem will not be solved for the simple reason that the illegal immigrants know that even if they are arrested, they will remain in detention for a very short period of time. Forcing the establishment of such centers upon local communities, meanwhile, is not an option. We need social consent.

The government is prepared to discuss reciprocal benefits for the establishment of such centers.

Why don?t we get rid of the prostitutes?

Moral hypocrisy is high on this issue. The way the law on brothels is drafted means that there are only three legal establishments of this kind in the Athens. Wherever laws are faulty, illegal activity blossoms.

This has resulted in the following: a) thousands of people are victims of unbelievable violence and abuse; b) the situation creates significant hazards to public health; c) hundreds of thousands of millions of euros are circulating illegally, nurturing corruption; d) brothels have mushroomed all across the city, while the magnitude of the problem is attested by the fact that there is even a specialized website advertising the ?product,? listing prices and giving the ?artistic names? of the prostitutes; e) at a time when the state is reducing wages and pensions, hundred of millions of euros are not being taxed, while at the same time the social and medical costs of this situation are a burden on the system.

Changing the law in order to curb the phenomenon cannot be done without social consensus.

Of course, the phenomenon of prostitution exists to such an extent because certain citizens pay for these services. Shouldn?t we, instead of just evoking the victims and the state that has not made them ?disappear,? also frown upon and delegitimize, morally and socially, those who sustain this despicable network of prostitution? Is Greek society prepared to see the penalization of the clients?

Why don?t we chase the ?junkies? out of the city center?

The police are ready to chase them away at any given moment. But where will they go? It is the situation in the center that brought them there; they did not create it. They are sick people who need multifaceted medical care and psychological support.

At the same time, local communities go up in arms whenever it is said that special clinics will be opened at local hospitals to care for these young people, our children. Would they react if, instead of a rehabilitation clinic, the hospital hosted an oncology ward? Drug addicts suffer from illnesses that are related to their lifestyle and to the methods they use to take drugs. They need to have regular hospital care. This would also disperse the population of drug users and end the phenomenon of them gathering in one central location, and everything else this entails. The creation of such clinics in the country?s hospitals is financially viable, but when MPs, mayors and other local leaders protest outside the hospitals and spread fear, what chances does it have?

Why don?t we get rid of the illegal street traders?

At the two main areas the phenomenon has become more or less restricted to, the police are not allowed to intervene because these areas are protected by the university asylum law.

In one case, outside the Athens University of Business and Economics [on Patission Street], so-called anarchists not only offer illegal street traders protection within the university grounds, but even protect them by attacking police officers every time they try to control the situation. Reform of the university asylum law requires social consent.

Here too we must note that the bootleg merchants are there because they have customers and these are mostly Greeks, not illegal immigrants. Don?t the buyers have any responsibility? Is Greek society prepared to pass on part of the legal responsibility to the consumer, with everything that this means?

Why aren?t the landlords of illegal migrants arrested?

Housing illegal immigrants is a taxation crime. Collaboration between the financial crimes squad (SDOE), the police, and municipal and regional authorities has already led to a number of fines being issued.

Why aren?t more police officers dispatched to patrol the city center?

The means available to the police are finite.

Thanks to a series of measures implemented by the government, over 5,000 officers have already been transferred from desk jobs to active duty.

Movements such as the protests [against a landfill] in Keratea and the Indignants [on Syntagma Square] have an enormous financial cost (the Keratea ?uprising? cost 2.4 million euros) and exhaust the police?s capabilities in terms of manpower and equipment. Every local ?uprising? reduces the forces that the Greek police can assign to the protection of citizens. Greece is not, and should not become, a police state. Now especially, there are no funds to hire thousands of new officers or to purchase new equipment. Every patrol car that is set on fire, every act of vandalism is paid for by taxpayers and, especially in this period, cannot be easily replaced.

And the one fact:

The current situation in central Athens cannot change overnight.

* Theodoros Pangalos is the deputy prime minister of Greece.