Refugee Crisis on the Tiny Island of Leros

This post was contributed by Dr Julie Peakman, honorary fellow at Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Peakman is currently in Leros, Greece, on a research trip for her next book, but is also volunteering at the port police, offering help for refugees.

Leros is currently experiencing a huge influx of refugees – mainly Syrian and Afghan – arriving on its shores. Here, Dr Peakman writes for Birkbeck Blogs about her volunteering activity and the situation on Leros.

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Yesterday morning when we arrived at the port police, there were three-hundred refugees waiting in the hot sun in Lakki police station without food or water.

They had been given no food last night and the only thing they had eaten was the croissants and biscuits volunteers had given them the morning before. It is a tinderbox waiting to be lit.

The police say they have no money to pay the restaurants so the restaurants will no longer supply food as they have not been paid (only five euros per refugee, but it was something). There are only a handful of port police struggling to cope with the situation. The government has no money to send the police.  Even the simple basic of water is not being supplied by the authorities.

The water tank for the refugees has not been filled for days and we wonder why this has not yet happened. The police had to take the water which volunteers had bought down to Lakki port over to more refugees in Xerocampus, at the other side of the island. These poor people are lying in the streets with nowhere to sleep while a building stands empty waiting for plumbing to be connected. This would take a couple of hours.

There is one young woman from the United Nations who says she only gives verbal advice to the refugees to tell them their rights. When I asked her why the United Nations Refugee Council are not doing anything to send food, water, shelter or clothes, she said the United Nations has not declared the situation a humanitarian crisis and she said that is the policy made in Geneva.

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Meanwhile, my wonderful friends, Chris Angiel, Stella H Perlman and Patrick Muldowney made 200 sandwiches to give out to those who had no money and could not leave the station as they had not been ‘processed’.

Donations of juice, milk, nappies, soap, clothes and new flip flops were given out to as many people as we could. A wonderful Dutch couple have collected clothes from all their fellow yachties to give out to refugees. After four hours working with Patrick and a stalwart of the action Anne Tee in cramped and hot conditions, most of the refugees had at least been fed and watered. Anne goes down every morning and evening.

I am afraid I welled up when one of the people who spoke English came over and said on behalf of everyone there they would like to thank me and the other volunteers for our help. I felt very humble. The miracle worker behind all this organisation is Martina Katsiveli who is struggling to get a building opened for the refugees so they can have showers and toilet facilities. At the moment, they have one toilet.

View the Guardian’s report of the migrant crisis in Leros

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Pictures courtesy of Anne Tee

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Insomnia and Interpreters – Linguistic Aspects of the Greek negotiations

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

An interpreter at work during the EU - South Korea free trade agreementLast month, you may remember, while Mr Cameron was giving his views in the news on the crucial matter of fox hunting, Greece was on the brink of financial meltdown.

I was in Greece and with the banks closed and the prospect of worse to come, the sentence I kept hearing from friends and relatives was ‘I can’t sleep’. The local baker, who was lucky enough to be selling his bread to hotels, did not have the liquidity to pay his flour supplier, a small farmer. As a tourist, when you paid your bills with cash, people were abnormally grateful, though much too proud to say why. It seemed that a whole country was holding its breath while a roomful of people in Brussels decided their fate.

Such momentous decisions depend, like so much else in our lives, on language – on a group of people talking, in an airless conference room. How do their minds – and their meanings – meet? Sometimes with difficulty.

You need only read the pronouncements of the – now disgraced – Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, to realize how culturally inappropriate rhetoric can exacerbate a crisis. It was not so much Greek bravado in his case – though that was present too. His upfront Australian – trained braggadocio went down like the proverbial bag of sick with the Brussels bureaucrats.

He should perhaps have taken lessons in how to imply things without spelling them out in enormous capital letters from Christine Lagarde, who went on record for saying that the negotiations could only get anywhere if there were adults in the room. Hmmmm…

Relay interpreting

Greece-and-Austria-webSpare a thought also for the fact that these meetings would have been conducted with what is known as a ‘full regime’. This means that each country had interpretation from and into their own language – there are 23 languages.

So while some people would have been speaking and listening to, say, English, the majority would have been speaking another language and having their words translated into 22 languages. They would also, of course, have been listening to the words of the main protagonists through interpreters.

Furthermore, when there is no interpreter who is able to translate from Greek directly into, say, Italian, the Italian interpreter listens to, for example, the English interpreter, and then translates the English into Italian. This system is known as ‘relay interpreting’.

Occasionally, double relay has to be used: for example if the Dutch interpreter does not speak French, she or he has to listen to someone in another booth, say German, who is themselves getting the Greek translated by someone in the French booth. It does not take much imagination to appreciate the inevitable loss of accuracy, of nuance, and of metaphorical ‘tone of voice’ – three things which really matter in such delicate negotiations.

Cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosAs a former interpreter, I wonder how the interpreters coped with the German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble telling the head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, that he was ‘not an idiot’. They would have been caught between the ostensible need to be accurate and the need to avoid being the cause of a diplomatic incident – the latter concern being part of their DNA, if not a specific part of their professional training.

And what of the order by the Head of the European Council, after 14 hours of unsuccessful talking, ‘Sorry, but there is no way you are leaving the room’. How did that come out in Finnish, in Slovakian, in Spanish, in Danish…and in Greek?

The cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk in that room would truly be worthy of analysis – what a PhD that could make! For the time being though, I am just glad that the messages got across well enough, and tactfully enough, so that my baker can pay for his flour again.

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Read the BBC’s recent round-up of some of the greatest mistranslations throughout history

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Greece and Austria: A similar story?

This post was contributed by Barbara Warnock, third year PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, who is currently researching the work of the League of Nations in Austria in the 1920s. The title of  thesis is ‘The Significance of Austrian Financial Reconstruction 1922-1926’.

Greece-and-Austria-webAs negotiations between the ‘troika’ and the Greek government continue, the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Feymann, has adopted a more sympathetic line than many European leaders in relation to Greece’s current predicament stating in early June: ‘I stand on the side of the Greek people’. His sentiments call to mind events more the ninety years ago when it was the plight of the Austrian people that was a cause of international concern.

The world’s attention this week is on Greece, but in the early 1920s, it was the newly founded republic of Austria that received the attention of the international community, in what was the first ever comprehensive international bailout and structural adjustment programme, orchestrated by the League of Nations in 1922.

Greece’s present problems around debt, collection of taxation and an excessively strong currency mirror aspects of Austria’s crisis after the First World War. Back then, Austria too had difficulties around debt and taxation. The issue with their currency, the Krone, however, was rather different, in that its value was collapsing.

Austria had been one of the states most badly affected by the First World War. The defeated country was shorn of empire, monarchy and to a large extent, identity. Austria was beset by a multitude of difficulties including desperate shortages of food, trading problems and the uncertainly caused by the imposition of reparations (although these were never actually collected). Confidence in the very viability of the country was scare, and the Krone became ever weaker in value. Inflation turned into hyperinflation and the government struggled to finance its expenditure. Obtaining foreign loans to help the country meet its obligations became impossible.

In this context, in 1922, the Financial Committee of the League of Nations – a precursor to the IMF – designed a rescue package for Austria. This entailed League assistance in obtaining foreign loans, which were underwritten by the governments of Britain, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia in return for a commitment that the country would not seek to unify with Germany, and measures to fix the value of the Austrian currency. The programme also included the ‘reconstruction’ of Austrian state finances, which entailed large reductions in the numbers of civil servants, cuts to government expenditure and restrictions on the salaries of state employees, all to ensure a permanently balanced government budget.

Much of this may sound very familiar to those living in Greece (or even Britain) today, and the similarities go further. Austria also had to submit to the control of a version of the modern ‘troika’, (the IMF, European Central Bank and the EU), operated via the League of Nations. A League Committee of Control (representing interested League members); the League’s Financial Committee (composed of bankers, financiers, and treasury representatives); and a League-appointed ‘Commissioner-General’, Alfred Zimmermann, all provided monitoring and oversight.

Zimmermann was dispatched to live in Vienna to enforce the terms of the deal and control the expenditure of the foreign loans. This kind of control was, like that of the troika, a source of humiliation and enormous resentment in Austria. Zimmermann, like the troika, frequently condemned the lack of progress on ‘reform’ made by the Austria government.

Another striking similarity between the work of the League and that of the current troika in Greece is the lack of real consideration on the part of those bodies overseeing such programmes for the effects that their schemes have on living standards and on the political climate. Rigid adherence to economic dogmas, as practiced by the troika, as Greece has found, can have disastrous consequences.

In Austria, the League’s programme did deliver foreign loans for the country, and produced a stabilised currency. However, it also resulted in high levels of unemployment and the reduction of government social support. Furthermore, the programme undermined the already shaky stability of Austrian banks and increased political tensions within the country.

The League essentially withdrew their control from Austria in mid-1926, only to become involved again during Austria’s economic difficulties in the 1930s. By 1933, parliament had ceased to operate in the Austrian Republic. In 1934, the Social Democratic movement was smashed, and in 1938, the country was incorporated into the German Reich.

The problems of interwar Austria were manifold, but the contribution that this inaugural attempt at an international bailout made towards creating a viable future for the country is debateable. As others, including Paul Krugman, have remarked, the apparent lack of awareness of the troika of the problems that interwar deflationary policies caused is one alarming aspect of the Greek crisis.

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