By Aggelos Skordas
Earlier this year humanitarian organisation SolidarityNow submitted a petition to the European Parliament (Committee on Petitions – PETI) requesting it investigates the connection between European Union funding in Greece and the reception conditions for individuals seeking international protection.
The petition draws the urgent attention of the Parliament to the reported mismanagement of EU funds by Greece, which is said to have left people living in degrading and deplorable circumstances, resulting in the avoidable deaths of several individuals. Since March, when the petition was submitted not much has been done in Brussels or in Athens in order to shed light on the allegations, which leave the Greek government exposed in the eyes of the international community.
The organisation’s Legal Research Coordinator, Natasha Arnpriester, who filed the petition to the European Parliament, explains why the investigation of EU funding for Greece is imperative.
To start with, please give us the outline of SolidarityNow. When it was created and what are its purposes?
SolidarityNow was established in 2013 with the support of Open Society Foundations (OSF/OSIFE), a grant-making organisation.
SolidarityNow consists of a network of people whose goal is to assist and support those most affected by the economic and humanitarian crises in Greece. Through the provision of services to both the local Greek and migrant populations, we seek to restore the vision of a strong Europe based on solidarity and open values.
The organization’s priorities are summarized as follows:
- Human Rights and Social Justice
- Protection of Vulnerable Groups
- Connecting Young People with Educational Programs and the Working Environment
- Advocacy at the National and International Level
The SolidarityNow mission becomes practice through three main pillars of action:
SolidarityNow designs and implements programs that aid and support those most affected by the economic downturn and the humanitarian crisis.
- Solidarity Centers
SolidarityNow has created three Solidarity Centers that operate in Thessaloniki and Athens.
Through the organization’s funding grants, we design programs with other non-governmental organizations that respond to the essential social needs of the community.
Coming to Greece’s case, tell us in a few words about the petition. The process of collecting all the evidence you submitted to the European Parliament and how you managed to collate the above?
Evidence was collected through on-site visits, meetings with sister organisations, researchers and volunteers in the field, institutional experience and expertise, and desk research.
Is there an estimation as to how much of the 1 billion euros was spent in inefficient ways?
Due to the lack of transparency with funding implementation, it is nearly impossible to say what percentage of EU funds have been spent inefficiently, as it is difficult to even ascertain what proportion of the funds have been deployed. Based solely on what we can see, the percentage is seemingly quite high. However, the problem is not solely inefficient spending, but also inaction, such as lack of absorption, administrative bureaucracy, and a disproportionate use of funds on activities such as border security and returns/deportations, at the expense of humane reception conditions.
In the petition, you refer to the case of a German NGO and the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy’s response to its proposed accommodation facility near Thessaloniki. Please give us other corresponding examples indicating the Greek Government’s “inefficient and negligent” stance.
Aside from general transparency issues, other examples include: Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (NGO) submitted a $1.6 million proposal to the Greek government to turn Softex into a site with containers, heating and plumbing to house 1500 individuals. The government returned with their own proposal at $8 million, and ASB’s proposal was rejected. Several Greek MPs demanded to know why the ASB proposal had been rejected. This is just another example of aid agencies’ proposals being answered with far more costly counterproposals. Nikos Xydakis, alternate foreign minister, has stated that the refugee situation has been handled with “managerial negligence.” In another example, it was reported by Refugees Deeply that a proposal to use $1.8 million in EU money, to recruit 118 contract workers to begin staffing Odysseas Voudouris’ secretariat, was put forth, but blocked, despite that fact that funds would be lost if unused.
What was the European Parliament’s response to your petition?
A response from the European Parliament to a submitted petition takes months.
Therefore, SolidarityNow urges the Parliament to take due notice of this petition to ensure that urgently needed measures are implemented as human life is at imminent risk. We strongly advocate for an expedited review by the Parliament of the situation in Greece with an aim of ensuring that proper reception standards are attained as soon as possible.
Do you believe it will proceed to any drastic measures? Are there certain MEPs that have shown particular interest on the issue?
For SolidarityNow, the importance of this petition is to raise awareness and oversight regarding how EU tax funds are being managed, not only as an anti-corruption action, but also in recognition that mismanagement and corruption has severe humanitarian consequences.
Furthermore, we hope that this petition raises awareness that such a mechanism exists and is available for all citizens and NGOs who wish to hold their governments accountable and transparent.
Corruption is not a phenomenon that victimises only those who seek refuge in Greece. Greeks themselves have been long time victims of the governments corruption that has midwifed the financial crises. It is our hope that through the submission of this petition, we can begin a tradition of civic inquiry and government accountability.
Is there an official reaction from the Greek government? Did you attempt to communicate with the ministers? If yes? What was their reaction to the evidence you include in the petition?
There has been no official reaction from the Greek government.
Do you believe that if the case is investigated in depth it could even lead to the prosecution of certain members of the Greek government?
If an investigation can prove corruption, purposeful disregard, preventable mismanagement or neglect, the possibility that prosecutions could occur is not foreclosed. Based on the fact that this mismanagement and the negative impacts on refugees play out daily in the media and the public eye, yet no meaningful investigation, let alone charges, have been undertaken, raises serious concern about governance and the political will hold those responsible to account. Due to this, and a myriad of other reasons, not least of which includes a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability, it was important that the problem be brought to the attention of the European Union. The Greek government has failed to truly investigate this situation, despite incessant criticism from countless domestic and international voices, leading to a steady worsening of the problem. Therefore, it was imperative that the EU become more involved and determine when its funding is not achieving the effect the Union intended, or is required by the human rights values at its core.
Are there similar examples of mismanagement of EU funds aiming to the support of migrants from other countries, member-states?
Italy is a recent example that was highlighted by the European Commission regarding EU funding and irregularities in the management of the Mineo reception centre for asylum-seekers. There the Commission had supported accommodation services provided in Mineo from 1st October to 31 December 2013, through the co-financing of Italy’s European Refugee Fund. The Commission is currently investigating this and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has informed the Commission that it is in the process of seeking further information from the Italian authorities. Like Italy, Greece too has an obligation to notify the Commission of any detection of irregularities (including fraud) and recover EU funding unduly paid. According to the Commission and OLAF “it will continue to enquire with relevant Member States on…misuse of EU funds reported by the media or the public and take action accordingly.” It is our hope that the EU stands by this promise and considers our Petition as a report of misuse of EU funds by Greece and that the Commission takes action as requested.