Thursday, 2 July 2009

Who pays the ferryman?

From the first of July Greece also now has to follow European law which bans smoking in public buildings, and that means bars and restaurants. Of all countries in Europe Greece has the most smokers in Europe, but it also is a country that tries to evade following European regulations — and tries to duck its own laws too.

So, I am very curious about what will happen when the anti-smoking law comes into effect. July 1 is a curious choice for the date because it’s the time of the year when life, like eating and drinking, is mostly lived outside. When the cold chases the people inside I am sure everybody will have forgotten about this new law.

I’m sure it will be true here on Lesvos — unless the restaurant owner is a heavy anti smoker. Mostly in Greece, people are not fanatically anti- smoking. It tends to be your own business whether you smoke or not, like if you eat sardines or not. And who will police the smoking ban? Here in the north of the island in the winter there are hardly any police officers to do it.

However there are tax collectors. And they are not popular at all, especially as they like to make sure on the busiest Sundays that bars and restaurants don’t employ ‘black’ workers, or that their billing system is correct. While big businesses have the power to elude paying taxes, the tax men control only the ‘small people’. No wonder Greeks are not happy with their tax regime, and regard the avoidance of sending even a dime to Athens as a national sport.

Last week about 600 inhabitants of the island of Limnos (just north of here) ran amuck when tax controllers visited. Limnos feels abandoned by the Greek government. No minister helps with developing the island, or its poor health service, or the growing number of people without work, or the bad air and sea connections with the mainland. Thanks to a very selfish policy of the ferry companies, connections are poor and expensive — air travel too. Last winter the island went for weeks without a single ferry.

When spring came, a large group of islanders tried to get to Athens to protest, but the regular ferry boat Theofilos ran into a harbour wall and could not leave for several days. Only a few people got on a plane to make their point in the capital.

Last week a big group of island people forced this same boat Theofilos to stay in the harbour and wait for three tax controllers who were ‘kindly asked’ to leave the island.

Now people on Limnos have been slighted as ‘tax evaders’, but I feel sure if you take a good look at who really evades paying tax in Greece, the inhabitants of Limnos would not be in the top hundred.

The truth is Athens gets ever less and less popular on the islands. People are especially angry at a government order that the islands have to build camps to house refugees for 6 – 12 months. The government wants them to stay here on Lesvos and other islands near Turkey (where most of them, from Afghanistan and Iraq originally, sail from in tiny boats and rafts) rather than letting them move to mainland towns, especially Athens and Patras (a port close to Italy), where they have become difficult to control.

On Lesvos it is suggested a new refugee camp be built on an old military base, at Achladeri, Petra or Mystegna. But Lesvos is not happy at all with this demand. How will it be for the tourists, on holidays being exposed to the misery and poverty of refugees being penned up or trying desperately to escape the camps? And our local police don’t want to become prison warders.

The refugee problem becomes bigger and bigger in Greece and last week fifty refugees were transported from a camp on Samos to Mytlini, so that a UN inspector on an official visit wouldn’t see, and then comment, on the conditions in the overpopulated camps which the government has done nothing to improve.

I assume that from now on there will be a protracted battle, for years probably, over where the new camps should be built. It will be just like the row over where to build new electricity plants or waste treatment facilities. Rumours about a waste treatment plant planned for Mandamados are very strong. It will take years to build, so meanwhile garbage will be dumped, as ever, on wide open spaces.

Life on a island is beset by anarchy: one for itself and God for all (Dutch expression). From Athens you only receive money, no rules...

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

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