'Incriminating the Greeks?' Um, no.
Updated: Feb 1, 2020
On 29 January, Ekathimerini, the online iteration of the respected Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, ran a missive by the Greek nationalist author and occasional columnist Takis Theodoropoulos.
His previous writings have tended to focus on the idea that Syriza is very very bad for Greece and that anyone who does not express open and proud belief that Greece has never once, throughout its history, ever done anything wrong is a ‘Greek phobic’ who is ‘ashamed’ of Greece and should instead be ashamed of themselves.
In other words, he is an extremist and a fanatic, and should usually be ignored.
However, in ‘Incriminating the Greeks’, only his second column for the news site in almost eight months, he has launched a remarkable attack on NGOs and humanitarian workers in Greece, which manages to combine a series of unevidenced claims and outright errors.
Even then, we might justifiably choose to ignore the piece, were it not for the fact that Kathimerini is widely read, trusted by large parts (primarily the politically centre-Right, which includes much of Greece’s wealthier middle- and upper-class) of Greek society, and the piece contains and repeats many of the false claims carried by the same newspaper (and others) when the Greek government demanded late in November that all organisations working in Greece register with it.
As a result, and with some reluctance, we have decided to issue a response to the piece, focussing on its incorrect claims and insinuations. We recommend that you share this not only with your staff, but also with Greek contacts and friends. We shall do the same.
‘A Skai journalist recently alleged that a foreign member of a nongovernment organization based on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos told him he could not take pictures inside the Moria reception center without the organization’s permission. When the journalist replied that he did not need permission from an NGO to do his job, the official invited him for a briefing and sternly delivered his clarifications.’
Theodoropoulos begins with the above statement.
The fact that the humanitarian worker in question was ‘foreign’ seems of questionable relevance. All aid organisations, Greek and otherwise, have rules regarding photography in their working areas, as do all organisations and companies literally everywhere on Earth.
It’s also an odd point to make in an article which builds up to a claim that Greek people ‘are accused’ of being ‘racist’.
We should note that it is fair for any person working for any organisation to raise concerns about rules on photography, especially where this involves children (Theodoropoulos does not mention who the journalist was photographing – perhaps he doesn’t know).
But we should also note that there is a sensible case – one which should be discussed in greater detail at another time - that the decision on whether a photo may be taken should lie not with a journalist, or with an aid organisation, but with the men and women in question – the refugees.
Whatever the outcome of those discussions, however, and whatever the rules currently in place, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what a journalist is doing, and then share – 'sternly' or otherwise – your position on that activity. Indeed, this may be the best possible approach, under the circumstances.
However, as this is dropped after the first paragraph, it appears Theodoropoulos does not in fact regard this issue as of particular importance. Instead, he moves on to a series of evidence-free allegations made by unnamed ‘members of the public’, and odd insults aimed at aid workers.
2. Lesvos: hospitals, shops and ‘the public’
‘I was recently told by a local resident that at the Vostanio General Hospital in the island capital Mytilene, NGO workers escorting migrants for medical services, ensure – with the self-righteousness of the humanitarian – that migrant patients get priority over locals. Another said that whenever a migrant is caught stealing goods from a grocery store, their volunteer patrons show up to protect them. Some business owners actually prefer to let these people run away with their pickings rather than get involved with the NGOs and the trouble they bring.’
It is poor journalistic practice to cite an unnamed ‘member of the public’ (rather than in this case, someone who actually works at the hospital), particularly in a piece like this, which contains absolutely no attributed quotes, or statements from anyone who may be considered to hold a position of expertise or experience, and when this is the platform on which the entire argument is to be built.
One reason is that it raises far more questions than it answers. For example, even the simple statement ‘NGO workers escorting migrants for medical services’ might reasonably raise the questions: Which NGO workers? How many? When? How often? These are standard and indeed the most basic of journalistic questions, but unaddressed here.
If what he claims happened took place once (we suspect it to be in fact zero times, for reasons outlined below), this is materially different than the implication that NGO workers are regularly and as a policy, forcing Lesvos natives to the back of the queue for hospital treatment.
At this point we might as well address the insult to humanitarian workers, most of whom in Greece are now Greek nationals. We would note that the reference to them as ‘self-righteous’, is not only unnecessary, but also inaccurate: working for the greatest benefit of other people may be many things, but it is not ‘self-righteous’.
In any case, Theodoropoulos claims that this ‘member of the public’ saw ‘self righteous’ NGO workers ‘ensure that migrant patients get priority over locals.’
This is a sentence which makes several different claims, none of which are evidenced at all.
First, he claims this allegation was made by a ‘member of the public’. But we must ask: when? When and where did this member of the public see this happen?
Has the writer checked the claim made by the ‘member of the public’ with the hospital? What is the hospital’s view on it?
Most importantly, does Theodoropoulos know what the situation was in this (or these – who knows? He does not say) situation?
Because of course, even if an ‘NGO worker/s’ did attempt to ‘ensure’ refugees got priority at the hospital, they do not make Greek law, and in the hospital itself, the hospital, not ‘humanitarian workers’, decide who deserves ‘priority’ and who gets it.
However the ‘humanitarian worker’ behaved – possibly badly, who knows? It is more or less impossible that they ‘ensured’ refugees were granted ‘priority’ over Greek people at a Greek hospital, unless there was a genuine medical reason for it. Again, who knows? Maybe it did happen. It is a shame Theodoropoulos has decided not to provide any actual evidence, if so.
His citation of ‘another’ ‘member of the public’ is at least equally problematic. This ‘member of the public’, according to the author, claims that: ‘whenever a migrant is caught stealing goods from a grocery store, their volunteer patrons show up to protect them’.
Now, even if we are to accept that this ‘member of the public’ exists, and has accurate information about ‘what happens on Lesvos when shoplifting happens’ (again, it is remarkable that Theodoropoulos has chosen not to check with, for example, the police or some actual business owners on the island. If he has, it is almost as remarkable that he hasn’t reported what they said, rather than a ‘member of the public’ who, for all Kathimerini’s readers know, may have some reason to smear aid workers and refugees, or indeed not, in fact, exist), we must ask what is wrong with a person coming to attempt to mediate with a shop-owner in a case where something is alleged to have been stolen?
Because the word ‘protect’ could mean many things here. There is a difference between ‘protecting a criminal from being punished’, ‘protecting a person from a false claim’ and ‘helping a person new in a country to understand an allegation and respond to it’.
Perhaps Theodoropoulos does know that in fact NGOs are intervening to literally neutralise Greek law, but it seems extremely doubtful, and if he has evidence we must – as interested members of the public – request that he makes this known to the Greek authorities and the people immediately.
If not, however, we would suggest he works hard not to be carried away by his own evident ‘enthusiasm’ for the topic.
The paragraph moves on to claim – this time without even the ‘cover’ of a ‘member of the public’ – that ‘Some business owners,’ (How many? Which types of business?) ‘Actually prefer to let these people,’ (Which people? Refugees? Or shoplifters?) ‘Run away with their pickings rather than get involved with the NGOs and the trouble they bring.’
Now. Let’s say it’s true (and not just another piece of hearsay from an anonymous ‘member of the public’ who may or may not have an axe to grind, seems to have no direct expertise or experience and may, as we have already noted, not in fact exist) that ‘some business owners’ do not always chase recompense from shoplifters. Can the author offer any examples?
Because many shop owners, for example, do not call the police for a chocolate bar being stolen, but may do if someone were to steal steaks, or other expensive items.
In essence, the question is: has Theodoropoulos done any research? Does he have examples? Because it may be that if there are (we cannot, from this piece, be sure), shop owners who do not chase shoplifters (refugees or other people), it’s because what they will get back – at best a chocolate bar, or simply its wrapper – is not worth the hassle of making several police reports, and so has literally nothing to do with ‘the NGOs and the trouble they bring’.
It may also be worth noting here that in fact, what NGOs and indeed the men, women and children fleeing violence and terror, have brought to Lesvos, is cash: businesses now operate all year round, landlords are renting apartments which sat empty for at least six months in every 12.
The idea that ‘refugees’ and ‘NGOs’ have been ‘bad for business’ is demonstrably untrue.
In any case: is shoplifting bad? Undeniably. Are refugees the only shoplifters on Lesvos? Absolutely not. Do NGOs condone shoplifting and support those who do it? It is libellous to claim so, and if Theodoropoulos actually has any evidence to show it to be the case, the only responsible course of action for him would be to show it.
If not, he should offer an unreserved apology for, once again, allowing himself to make a baseless accusation in the throes of his ‘enthusiasm’.
The author then moves onto some falsehoods and evidence-free insinuations of wrongdoing by humanitarian organisations.
3. ‘Errors’ and erroneous implications, part one
‘Some 80 NGOs operate on Lesvos and another 70 on Chios. I am not interested in where they get their funding from. I hope that the Greek government will soon provide judicial authorities with details about their finances and operation.’
In fact, 36 NGOs work on Lesvos, many of them Greek organisations, and almost all registered in Greece.
On Chios, the number is 27, but even then, many of the organisations are the same as those on Lesvos (they work on both islands).
It is surprising that not only has Theodoropoulos more than doubled the number of NGOs working on each island, this claim has gone unchallenged by the sub-editors at Kathimerini.
His stated lack of interest in where aid organisations ‘get their funding from’ is of course fine.
It would also be fine if he were interested.
But the next sentence: ‘I hope that the Greek government will soon provide judicial authorities with details about their finances and operation,’ appears to contradict this.
We may ask why, if he is ‘not interested in where they get their funding from’, he hopes judicial authorities are provided with details about their finances and operation?
More importantly, however, Theodoropoulos appears to be insinuating that humanitarian activity in Greece is in some way illegal.
There has never been any evidence that NGOs operating in Greece are financed ‘illegally’ or are using their finance for illegal activity. It’s a myth, and it is concerning that a man paid by Kathimerini would repeat it, and that the newspaper would assist in such myth-spreading.
But in case it is any reassurance to Theodoropoulos, the Greek public, or indeed the Greek government, the accounts of every single aid organisation operating everywhere in the EU (and almost all of the world) are, by law, available to the public. If you fear they might be ‘funded illegally’ then you can go online and check their accounts.
Of course, the majority of members of the public, working and looking after families as well as attempting to enjoy leisure time, may not have time to do this, but the government has people paid to do this, and journalists who choose to write about this should at least do the public the favour of performing this most basic piece of research.
4. ‘Errors’ and erroneous implications, part two
‘However, I am interested in the fact that a large part of their activity consists of incriminating members of the local community and, by extension, the country. As a result, rather than helping Greece deal with the problem, the rest of Europe accuses the country of negligence and mismanagement.’
The first line of this section of the article makes an allegation which is absolutely false.
NGOs working on the islands, alongside Greek government organisations, spend almost all of their time working to respond to the fact that successive Greek governments – at the behest of the EU – have forced innocent men, women and children into wildly overcrowded detention centres, where living conditions are far below those required by international law, and significantly worse than the standards sane individuals would provide for their pets.
Now, pointing this out is not ‘blaming’ or ‘incriminating’ the local community, or indeed ‘the country’. It is simply pointing out that not only do most organisations not spend ‘a large part’ of their time incriminating people in Lesvos, or in Greece, they do not have the time to do either.
The claim that: ‘As a result, rather than helping Greece deal with the problem, the rest of Europe accuses the country of negligence and mismanagement,’ is equally ludicrous.
NGOs are pointing out that the demands of the EU have led to the unacceptable conditions on the Greek islands: the relatively small amount of criticism they issue is aimed at everyone, including Greece and the EU, but certainly not focussed even on the Greek government, let alone ‘the Greek people’.
Equally, this claim seems to attribute to NGOs the capability of forming and enacting EU policy. Of course, they cannot do so.
The EU’s AMIF handed Greece €3.17bn up to 31 December 2019, to respond to the refugee situation here (not to mention billions more from ECHO): of course the EU performs its own visits to the island detention centres.
If Theodoropoulos seriously believes that if only NGOs hadn’t complained, the fact that the camps are at three- to eleven times their capacity, and hot water and electricity are available for only a few hours a day would have been regarded by the EU as acceptable, then we must hope that he is mistaken.
Even if he is not, he should really be asking questions of the EU, rather than the NGOs working to help refugees and the Greek government to respond.
In the next section, Theodoropoulos discusses ‘the Greek state’, and makes some points which may be true. Certainly, his criticisms of the ‘reception centre’ model proposed by the Greek state and EU are similar to our own (though, for different reasons).
He also comments on Syriza, and while he is largely incorrect, this is clearly his own opinion, based on his own political affiliation, and as such can go unchallenged here.
But he then expounds in an indefensible direction, both misrepresenting and misinterpreting ‘demonstrations’ on the islands.
5. Misrepresenting demonstration
‘The recent protest rallies on the Aegean islands were a major step in the right direction…
‘Two years ago, officials accused the people of Mytilene of being racist because they protested against the occupation of town’s central square. No one would dare say the same about the people who took part in the recent demonstrations.’
Theodoropoulos’ idea that: ‘The recent protest rallies on the Aegean islands were a major step in the right direction,’ is, to an extent, true.
Even so, he appears to ignore the fact that a large proportion of the demonstrators were protesting not against ‘mainland reception centres’ or refugees being on the island, but against the illegal and unacceptable Greek government proposals to build prisons in which innocent men, women and children will be detained for three years or more if they enter Greece.
It is hard to be sure whether it is more concerning that he does not understand this, or that he does, and has chosen to ignore it.
In any case, the next sentence is worse. He claims: ‘Two years ago, officials accused the people of Mytilene of being racist because they protested against the occupation of town’s central square.’
In fact, they didn’t. ‘Officials’ (including the democratically-elected Greek government, and the democratically-elected municipality of Lesvos) in fact stated that racists took part in the demonstrations, which is not the same thing.
And they did. Among the ‘demonstrators’ were paid-up members of the fascist organisation Golden Dawn, who went far beyond ‘demonstrating’ and instead attacked men, women and children who themselves were exercising their democratic right to protest.
It is both dangerous and irresponsible to rewrite history to pretend that fascism does not exist in Greece and that ‘officials’ were in some way wrong to criticise acts of violence against innocent people.
It is equally irresponsible and unjustifiable to pretend that in doing so, ‘officials’ were pretending that ‘the people of Mytilene’ were ‘racist’ because they protested (in fact, some of the protestors carried notices stating that they supported the refugees in their protest. This, again, has been written out of Theodoropoulos’ account).
It is possible of course that Theodoropoulos has simply forgotten the events of two years ago.
Perhaps he never knew them in the first place.
If so, he deserves our commiserations. But if that is the case, we must ask why the editorial team of Kathimerini chose to run this article.
The line ‘No one would dare say the same about the people who took part in the recent demonstrations.’ (i.e. that they are racists) is equally concerning.
First, no-one said that about the majority of those who took part in the 2018 demonstrations, and the statement once again ignores the fact that a large number of the demonstrators are in fact protesting against a proposed breath-taking denial of human rights to men, women and children, who will be jailed on Lesvos for several years.
But we might also ask, what is the significance of ‘no-one would dare’? Is this a statement of admiration for the violent threats of racists in Greece? (once more, there are racists in every country and they all act in the same way: this is not a criticism of Greece, just of those Greeks who are racists).
The measure of a healthy society is that people do ‘dare’ to criticise views with which they disagree, and indeed that people feel free to criticise racism and racists when they see them. Does Theodoropoulos disagree with this?
Tiring of his (erroneous) criticism of ‘officials’ (the democratically-elected representatives of the Greek people), the author returns, for his last line, to a piece of NGO-bashing.
6. ‘Tourism’, work, and the Greek economy
‘It [the state] will first have to rid us of the people who indulge in humanitarian tourism at our expense.’
It’s a shame this line ends the article, as it contains several errors we must now address.
So, to begin, the majority of aid workers in Greece are Greek people. They are not ‘tourists’, by any definition.
Even when the majority were not Greek people, these workers were people working often 12-15 hour days, at least six days a week, to assist the Greek government with the refugee response.
To insult them as ‘tourists’ is a) to simply be entirely incorrect; b) to ignore the fact that having people from around the world coming to assist Greece is in fact a positive thing; and c) in any case, tourism is a massive part of the Greek economy, accounting for 11.7 percent of the economy in 2018. That is, €11.70 of every €100 in Greece comes from tourism. Even if aid workers were tourists (and they demonstrably are not), why would one seek to wipe more than ten percent off one’s national economy?
The latter point is admittedly slightly (though only slightly) tongue in cheek. But it does nod towards a serious point: as already noted, aid workers and refugees have poured money into the Greek economy.
Business owners all over Greece have benefitted from this cash. Even were it not literally the fundamental human right of every man, woman and child on Earth to have a safe place to live (and it is) and even if humanitarians were not exceptionally hard-working people assisting Greece with the refugee response (and they are) this situation has literally benefitted millions of Greek people.
Far from this response being ‘at the expense’ of Greek people, it has in fact provided thousands of Greek people with jobs, with Greek organisations and organisations registered in Greece.
It has also poured cash into the country, including the €3.17bn from AMIF and billions more from ECHO already mentioned, and the money spent by aid organisations, aid workers and refugees – almost 95% of which has entered the country from outside.
There is literally no justification for claiming that anything in this response has been carried out ‘at [Greece’s] expense’.
So the – concerning – question we need to ask is, why has Theodoropoulos chosen to attack humanitarians, and why is Kathimerini carrying the attack?