Greece's modern slavery: lessons from Manolada

A shooting in a small agricultural town in the Peloponese demonstrates the stark dangers of the anti-immigration rhetoric gaining ground in Greece.

On Tuesday 16 April, Commissioner Nils Muižnieks of the Council of Europe, made the following announcement: "The commissioner is seriously concerned by the increase in racist and other hate crimes in Greece, which primarily targets migrants and poses a serious threat to the rule of law and democracy", it said. "The Greek authorities [need] to be highly vigilant and use all available means to combat all forms of hate speech and hate crime and to end impunity for these crimes", including imposing "effective penalties or prohibition, if necessary" on political groups advocating hate crimes, "including parties such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn".

The Greek government, responding with its usual reality-denial, issued an announcement, that could be summed up with in this phrase:

Racist attitudes remain a marginal phenomenon in Greek society ... Its culture of hospitality and openness remains strong and vivid.

Unfortunately for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his minister of citizen protection Nikos Dendias, reality insists on being all around us, and what transpired in a small agrictultural town in the Peloponese only two days later stands testament to that. The following account was given, according to the Greek anti-racism organisation UARFT, by Liedou, a Bangladeshi worker at the strawberry plantations of Manolada in the Peloponnese. There, three modern cotton-plantation-style enforcers, fired upon 200 immigrant workers with shotguns and a pistol, when they demanded six months of unpaid wages. Liedou told UARFT:

We were told we would be paid at one o’clock. Then they told us we should come by later, at five and then finally they told us to go as another group would work and not us. Then three guys [Liedou has named the perpetrators] started shooting straight at us, injuring about 20. 

The shocking video of the aftermath leaves no doubt as to what transpired.

The three foremen fled the scene but were arrested this morning, while the owner of the farm and a fifth person that provided them with shelter for a night were arrested yesterday.

Manolada has been in the center of such controversies before. In 2008, two journalists from the daily newspaper Eleftherotypia broke the story when they visited the area to investigate a strike the workers had staged over inhumane working conditions. Dina Daskalopoulou, who investigated along with Makis Nodaros, told the New Statesman:

I went there initially to investigate allegations of inhumane working conditions. When I visited the strawberry fields, and started talking to the immigrant workers about how much they worked, how much money were they getting etc. I realised these people were in fact victims of trafficking. Asking them the standard questions Amnesty International suggests, they fulfilled nine out of ten criteria that classified them as victims of trafficking.

When the owners picked up on our presence and what we were doing, they ganged up around us, started pushing us and yelling at us. I didn’t go in prepared for that, and we paid for it as immediately after I started receiving menacing phone calls, my car was followed and my colleague was threatened as well. I had to go to a nearby town and meet my contacts there in order to investigate. When the report was published, there was much controversy. I was called “an enemy of the Greeks”, an “anti-Christian” and much more.

The police, despite having full knowledge of the incidents there on, did nothing. No district attorney took action,  nothing, even when I was getting anonymous calls telling me “2000 euros are enough to have you killed around here".

Daskalopoulou explained that the plantation owners later paid local newspapers to run articles against them, in order to defame them. They can afford that, as their strawberries are a valuable and exportable good, with 70 per cent of it leaving the country for markets abroad. Efforts to boycott these operations are already in place, under the name Blood Strawberries (#bloodstrawberries on Twitter).

“Ancient and modern Greece have much in common. Like slaves for instance”, a humorous tweet went a few hours after the incident hit the news. But there is nothing funny about this story. What we are witnessing in Greece is the annihilation of workers and human rights, all finding justification in the hate speech the Golden Dawn and senior members of the government, like the aforementioned Samaras and Dendias, unleash on a regular basis and the promise of ever-elusive "growth".

Dendias, whose ministry has failed to tackle the problem despite knowing full well what is going on after the public beating of an Egyptian immigrant in the middle of the town, released the following statement: "We can’t tolerate hundreds, or even maybe thousands of people, being taken advantage of financially in our democracy, or allow for them to live under inhumane conditions. Even more so, they’re attempted murder."

But we all know his promises are empty, and frankly, they come too late. The farmers of Manolada, praised many a times for their entrepreneurial spirit from government and media alike, have enjoyed this impunity for years. Nodaros’ report speaks of shacks in which the workers are forced to live and pay rent for to their bosses, illegal supermarkets among them selling expired products at two and three times their price, and a shocking tolerance from the authorities who have done nothing to stop this despite the 150 plus cases on file against them. Does it make much difference that the ministry promised that none of the immigrants, most of them without green cards, wouldn't be deported? The mechanism that allows for this exploitation will simply replace them with other hands, in some other farm, maybe somewhere else in Greece. Even if they get legal papers, they will still face the danger of being beaten in the streets, knowing full well the Greek police won't do anything for them.

Political parties have condemned the attack in its aftermath. Even the Golden Dawn, albeit with a twist: they spoke against the owners who hired immigrants instead of Greeks. Not mentioning of course that those “illegal immigrants”, those “invaders” as they often call them, were paid five euros per day for their work (when they were actually paid) to be exploited, tortured and shot at. Some might say that the Golden Dawn has nothing to do with the incident, and they might be right. Not directly. But as the party fans the flames of hate, casting immigrants as second-rate humans, and the Greek state tolerates it, we will see Manoladas everywhere. We'll get to see their vision of Greeks and immigrants being paid scraps for hard manual labour come true. And soon, not just immigrants being shot at.

 

A migrant worker at Manolada's strawberry fields, photographed in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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