Dimitrios Tsoungas: Tourism hasn’t suffered from instability in the Middle East and flow of migrants

Military and political crises in the Middle East, could not fail to affect Europe as a whole and individual European countries in particular. One of the countries affected by the flow of migrants from the Middle East is Greece. In order to get first-hand information, we interviewed the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Greece in Azerbaijan Dimitrios Tsoungas.

The increase in instability and violence in the Middle East has turned into a flow of refugees to Europe. Greece, perhaps, suffered from this process more than other countries. Is the statistics of migrants kept in Greece? How many migrants have passed through the territory of the country and how many of them are still in the country?

Greece, not perhaps, certainly suffered more than any country in the European Union, because it is the first point of entry for all of those refugees and immigrants coming from Turkey. We don’t have precise statistics because when you have hundreds of thousands of people coming almost every day during the year 2015, it’s not very feasible, it’s not possible to keep statistics, but nevertheless, during 2015 we know that many more than one million refugees and immigrants flew from Turkey on the Greek islands and then on the mainland and, of course, they continued their way to Central and Western Europe. Here, we have to make a distinction, we are talking about refugees and immigrants, they are not the same thing, refugees are those people who are leaving war zones in order to save their lives, immigrants, most of them illegal, are leaving their homes and their countries in order to find better jobs in European countries. So, yes, to answer the first part of the question, more than one million in 2015 and many less in 2016, because of the treaty, because of the agreement which we’ll be talking about later.
Well, according to the latest statistics, in this case we do have statistics, 62 thousand people are blocked in Greece, all over the country, some 16 thousand people are still on the islands which are very close to the coasts of Turkey, and the rest of them are on the mainland and throughout the country, not only in one or two places. Most of them, if not all of them, would like to go mainly to Northern Europe, Germany, Sweden or United Kingdom because they have relatives there, so they would like to move there, but the Balkan route, as you know, is closed, that’s why they have been blocked in Greece and they are still there, 62 thousand people approximately.

What was the reaction of the Greek society to this flow of migrants into the country?

– Yes, that would be a long answer. We are all human beings, when you see boats coming from the sea, full of people, full of human beings including women, many children and even babies, you can not leave them there, you have to take them out. So, this is the way how the Greek society on the islands has reacted from the very beginning and until now. They have saved thousands of lives, I would say, hundreds of thousands of lives. They have received them in the best possible way. A lot of people on the islands, a lot of inhabitants used to do in the past, but do it even now, cooked in their houses and offered food to those immigrants or refugees or whatever you call them. And this is the way that all these people have been received since the very beginning and until now. Perhaps you have heard that some inhabitants of those islands and mainly of Lesbos island, which received the biggest part of those immigrants, were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize of last year, 2016, they didn’t get it, nevertheless, it doesn’t matter, they were nominated for that, but they got a lot of other international awards, and that means that even the international society detected and appreciated their behavior towards those human beings. When you have so many people and those people are in need, they have left their countries, they are desperate, they are discouraged, they are hungry, they don’t have daily things that they need in order to survive, it’s natural that you wait for some tensions. First of all, between them, because there are different nationalities, they are coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, you name it, all over the world, so they have tensions between them, of course, in the camps, but sometimes they create tensions with the locals as well, because when you are hungry and you don’t have anything to eat, you are going to steal, sometimes you are going to kill as well, which, of course, should be avoided. But anyway, there are tensions and in these cases it’s normal on behalf of inhabitants as well, you know, to react in a certain way, but overall, the Greek society has embraced all those people and if you go now to big cities like Athens or Thessaloniki, you won’t see them anymore, since a long time ago. You won’t see them anymore in the streets or concentrated on the squares or wherever, because they have all moved in structures and they have had at least the fundamental requirements in order to survive, food, water, electricity, heating, not all of them unfortunately, because they are so many. Nevertheless, we are doing our best in order to take care of them, the Greeks have never been racists, they have always received the people well and this is why they received all those migrants and refugees as well and they are still doing so.

Despite the fact that Greece is in the financial and economic crisis, the country has to spend a lot of money due to the increased flow of migrants into the country. How does the Greek side find resources for these additional costs? Does the EU help the Greek government with this issue?

– Well. This is a very difficult and complicated question. Yes, Greece is getting through this economic crisis, nevertheless, we have to find some financial sources in order to take care of those people and we need a lot of money, but we are not alone in this endeavour, we are helped by the EU, we are helped by the international community like UN, for example, United Nations have some, let’s say, institutions based in Greece and through those institutions some money is channeled to local and foreign NGOs which are active on the spots. Of course, in this case, there is a question mark, because there are some NGOs, mostly foreign NGOs and some people working with these NGOs, we really don’t know their role, why they are there and what they are actually doing, that’s why the Greek government has decided to start an investigation in order to find out the role of these NGOs, because some of them are motivating the refugees and migrants to create tensions. Yes, we get money from the European Union, but not a lot of it and not in the right time sometimes, if I am not wrong, 800 million euros have been channeled by the European Union but most of them have been given to those NGOs and less has been given to the Greek government. Nevertheless, we do find some financial resources, either from local or from international institutions and we are trying to make lives of those people as good as possible.

We know that there are not only refugees, but also economic migrants among migrants staying in Greece, is there any statistics on this issue? What percentage of migrants is refugees from, for example, Syria and Iraq and what percentage is economic migrants?

– As I told you before, there is a distinction between migrants and refugees, as far as 2015 is concerned, when I said that we received more than one million migrants, most of them were refugees from Syria, because of the ongoing war in Syria, even at that time, but mainly in 2016 and until now, it is very difficult to distinguish which of them are refugees and which are immigrants for many reasons, I will tell you some of them:
1. When they come with the boats, they know that they are immigrants and they throw their passports to the sea, when they arrive in the coast of the Greek islands they don’t have papers, identity cards or whatever. So, they claim that they are also refugees and it is very difficult to distinguish if they are refugees or no.
2. They know very well that if they come as refugees, they are entitled to seek political asylum and most of them do, that’s why the whole process of issuing or denying political asylum is very slow, out of those 62 thousand immigrants and refugees blocked in Greece, almost fifty five thousand people have asked for political asylum. Can you imagine? All those cases should go through the relevant process, so it takes much and much time. No, there are no statistics, what we know is that there were no specific numbers and figures, but during 2015 when we had the biggest flow of Syrians coming, most of them were single young men and that was a little bit strange. Who remained there in order to defend their country? A lot of families came and this is normal, because they should flee to save their lives. Unfortunately, there are no statistics, perhaps, half of them are non-refugees, there are illegal immigrants, who are coming from the Middle East, Eurasia and Northern Africa. I mentioned some countries before. They are coming from everywhere, although the whole European continent is getting through the Economic Crisis, not only Greece, nevertheless, it is still attractive for them and as far as the broader area is concerned, it is the safest place for those people. That’s why they are trying to reach those countries, going through Greece, of course. So, during 2015 most of refugees came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, which are war zones, but all the other countries aren’t in a war.

Greece is a tourism country and the tourism industry brings quite sizable income to the country. How has the crisis with the migrants affected the Greek tourism industry?

Surprisingly it did not affect at all. I will give you some figures which go back to 2013, although the Syrian crisis was ongoing. So in 2013, we set the target to receive 17 million tourists and we got 18, in 2014 we set the target at 18 million tourists and we got 24. 24! 6 millions more. In 2015 we set the target at 24 and we got 26. In 2016 we set the target at 26 and we got 27.5, this year we set the target at 27.5 and according to our data up to now, according to prereservations, we are going to surpass 28 or 29 million tourists, so it goes up. As you said at the very beginning there is instability in the broader area, there is instability in Turkey and Egypt which are also touristic countries, so this is in favor of Greece because, anyway many tourists would come to Greece as it is a touristic country, but moreover, now that those countries are unsafe, tourists are coming to Greece instead of going there. So, the crisis did not affect at all, i would say, it affected our tourism but in a better way. As far as those islands which are very close to the Turkish coasts, they are very beautiful islands, yes , they were affected,for example Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros. Lesbos was affected badly. Those five islands received the biggest share of refugees. Yes, they were affected a lot, untill two years ago they had a lot of internal tourists, a lot of Greeks would go there to spend their summer vacation and a lot of foreign tourists as well. But now, you can see on the television some images of refugees and immigrants still being there, creating tensions, as i said before, they set fire to the camps to make their case more visible in the international community and that creates a certain fear to tourists, locals as well as foreigners, so those islands have been affected, but anyway, in every other part of Greece tourism is going up, but for those islands the figures are a little bit down. Otherwise, it would go up again. So, from this point of view, they have been affected. You mentioned that the tourism is very important for Greece, yes, it is one of our heaviest industries, it covers 15 % of our GDP every year, which is huge.

In March 2016 the EU and Turkey signed an agreement on refugees, according to which Ankara has made a commitment on the readmission of refugees from Greece. Did this agreement help defuse the situation in Greece?

– It helped a little bit, but not so much, because it is not implemented to full extent. If we look back at last year’s figures, according to our data, in this case we do have data, no more than 1,500 people were sent back to Turkey from Greece. There are reasons for that and the first reason is that there are so many refugees and immigrants and all those processes are going very slowly. After this agreement, it is true that the flow of refugees and immigrants from Turkey to Greece decreased dramatically, for sure, but after the attempted coup in Turkey on the 15th of July last year, it started increasing a little bit. That means that the Turkish authorities can control the flow of refugees and immigrants successfully, if they want to. It can be controlled, it is controlled to a certain degree successfully, but not to that point as it was agreed, anyway, it is still ongoing, it is not stopped.

Mr. Ambassador, how do you assess the current state of the Azerbaijani-Greek relations?

– Well, you will not find any ambassador who would be satisfied with the bilateral relations between his country and the host country. No, we are very ambitious and we would like to develop our bilateral ties and relations as much as possible. Nevertheless, our bilateral relations are very good indeed, I wouldn’t say excellent because there is always ample room for further development, so I would say very good. It started back in 2013, when the Azerbaijani government selected TAP, the south gas corridor in order to deliver Azerbaijani gas to Europe through Greece. So that was the peak time, the booming of the relations and I am very happy because that was about the time when I came to Azerbaijan as an Ambassador, so that was the honeymoon of our relations and ever since those relations have been getting better and better slowly but on a solid, constant basis in all possible fields, that was the meaning, that was the message that I got from President Aliyev when I presented my credentials to him and that was the message that I was carrying from Greece as well. We should develop our bilateral relations in all possible fields. As far as the embassy is concerned, we have been very active for all those years in the cultural field, organizing cultural events, musical events, poetry events, Greek film festivals. We have more plans for this year as well, you are going to hear about them at a later stage from the press. Last year we had the official visit of our Minister of Foreign Affairs to Azerbaijan from the 2nd to the 4th of February. We had the 4th Joint Intergovernmental Committee in Athens, later in May. We had, at a lower scale, but still very important visits between two countries and we are expecting more throughout this year. So, yes, I would describe these relations as very good.

In 2013, the Azerbaijani company SOCAR won the tender for the acquisition of 66% stake in Greek DESFA gas distribution network. But then the European Commission intervened in the case, considering this transaction to be inconsistent with antitrust rules. The solution was found by selling 17% stake to another company. But then the Greek government submitted a bill to parliament’s agenda for calculating gas tariffs including the calculation retroactively. What ultimately led to the abandonment by SOCAR from the transaction. Do you think that such actions by the EC and the Greek government can alienate the country from large investors?

– Not at all, let me explain. When you have an issue, you have to negotiate. You have two parties, the Greek side and the Azerbaijani side. So, they started negotiating, for all those years, of course, there has been a delay caused by the requirements of the European Commission. If you remember, it was the time when the European Commission changed, we had European Elections and the European Commission changed. So, EC started studying all over again, not only this case, but all the other cases and that was the reason for the delay. If the agreement between these two sides had been concluded before, during the previous European Commission, it would have been concluded successfully and it would not have delayed, nevertheless, the new European Commission presented and submitted these requirements and then, you are right, during the negotiations the Greek government came out with some more requirements, proposals and calculations, but this is a part of any negotiations. I was not involved in these negotiations, but I am sure that SOCAR also came with some more proposals or counter-proposals. I have spoken with people from SOCAR here, I was reassured that the negotiations were being conducted in a very friendly way. The sides presented and submitted their proposals, but finally they didn’t agree, they decided to stop the negotiations and not to conclude the agreement, it’s normal. There will be a new tender and as far as people from SOCAR told me, they will be candidates for the new tender again. But no, that doesn’t prevent any other investments in Greece, I will give you some examples. We have a lot of sheikhs and emirs coming from the Gulf countries, investing in real estate or tourism. Russian tycoons take part in privatization tenders in Greece or invest in real estate or touristic resorts. Very recently, a week ago, a small but very important part of our railways was privatized and bought by Italian railways, so it doesn’t prevent at all, as I said at the very beginning, if you have an issue to negotiate, you negotiate, you might conclude successfully or you might not. In this case it was not successful, we will go on.

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