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Under Austerity, Greeks Feel Unfolding Social and Humanitarian Crisis

December 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
By the end of 2013, economists estimate Greece's recession will reach levels worse than the Great Depression in the U.S. With huge budget cuts, Greeks have been left with a small safety net even as they struggle to access basic needs. Jeffrey Brown reports how austerity measures have torn apart the social fabric of Greece.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For nearly two decades, Stelios Karagilanis, a father of two, headed a family-owned construction company. Today, his business closed, he is forced to accept free medical care and food from an aid clinic.

STELIOS KARAGILANIS (through translator): We never imagined it. We were never wanting for work, and we had a very dignified lifestyle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it hard to have to come here?

STELIOS KARAGILANIS (through translator): It is very, very difficult. We are not used to this way of life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karagilanis and others we met in Athens recently put faces to grim statistics: a stunning 26 percent unemployment rate, 58 percent for young people like George Georgopoulos, a college graduate who’s decided he must leave the country for now.

GEORGE GEORGOPOULOS,Greece: I hope to move abroad for a master’s degree. I was thinking about it even before crisis. It was my dream. But now I have to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Greece’s economy is entering its sixth year of recession and has shrunk by a fifth in just the last three years, paralyzing businessmen like shipbuilder Vassilis Halkitis, who had to lay off half his workers.

VASSILIS HALKITIS,Greece (through translator): We’re talking to a major client about building six new ships of 60 meters in length. However, the client is holding back on the contract until he is convinced that Greece will not go bankrupt.

JEFFREY BROWN: For individuals, it all adds up to a reduced standard of living and an uncertain future. For Greece as a whole, it means that and more.

The headlines are about finance ministers, debt deals, austerity measures. But it’s become clear that the problem here in Greece now goes well beyond just the economy. As a recent European commission report put, it after years of weak growth, the crisis is now having severe social consequences.

Look up and you still see the ancient Acropolis, a symbol of a glorious past. And some parts of the city bustle with holiday energy, but not far away, closed-up storefronts, and further below the surface, this, a health clinic set up by the Greek branch of the international aid group Doctors of the World to serve the country’s newly poor.

Dr. Nikitas Kanakis is its director.

DR. NIKITAS KANAKIS, Doctors of the World: It’s the beginning of a humanitarian crisis, even if it sounds as a strong word, because we have the pictures of Africa when we talk about humanitarian crises. This is the reality. We see more and more Greeks to come here, a humanitarian organization, to find the basics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kanakis’ group, in fact, had to cut back some of its work in Africa because of the needs at home.

Here in Perama, unemployment tops 50 percent, as the shrinking economy has crippled much of the local shipping industry. At the same time, the deeply indebted Greek government has made dramatic budget cuts, including to health benefits. The combination has left many here without access to private or public care. And that’s meant a stunning rise in disease.

DR. NIKITAS KANAKIS: We see two things. The one is diseases that we have forgotten in Greece, like tuberculosis. It’s back. Also, we see people with chronic disease that cannot find any help. Think of a diabetic patient that he needs to take his insulin every day. Where will he find his medicine?

JEFFREY BROWN: Economists, of course, speak of a different kind of necessary medicine, the kind a deeply indebted nation must take, the price for living and consuming well beyond its means for far too long.

GIKAS HARDOUVELIS, Eurobank: The medicine is necessary. It was, though, delivered very abruptly.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a government economic adviser, Gikas Hardouvelis helped negotiate some of the budget cuts and austerity measures that Greece agreed to in order to get international bailouts. Now, with the private Eurobank, he says the swift fall, however necessary, is bringing pain at historic levels.

GIKAS HARDOUVELIS: By the end of 2013, Greece would have a worse depression than the Great Depression in the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: Worse than the Great Depression?

GIKAS HARDOUVELIS: Yes. This — and this depression is affecting everyone. I would say the middle class is carrying the burden. And it is carrying the burden because the state sector is unable to distribute the burden in an equal way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that has Hardouvelis worried about a further consequence, the tearing of the social fabric.

GIKAS HARDOUVELIS: They simply lost their living standard and they’re trying to find a scapegoat for it. It’s very important in this period for Greeks to see the positive side of things, and not eat each other up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not eat each other up. The scapegoating, so far, has centered on immigrants from Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere. By boat or across the Turkish border, Greece has functioned for years as an easy-to-enter gateway into the rest of Europe and one that by all accounts has made a mess of its immigration system.

Many migrants are illegal, largely tolerated in good times, but increasingly for Greeks, no more.

MAN (through translator): I don’t have a problem with immigrants in general, but I have a problem with those who come here and don’t find work and they resort to crime.

JEFFREY BROWN: And has this been getting worse?

MAN: Every day, it’s getting worse, much worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: This man said he opposes violence against immigrants. But others clearly feel differently, and the anti-immigrant sentiment helps explain the rise of the Golden Dawn Party, which won 18 seats in parliament in the last election and has seen its popularity grow further in more recent polls to third among all parties.

Golden Dawn describes itself as Greek nationalists. But with its swastika-like symbol, its rhetoric and street tactics, it’s widely seen as neo-Nazi. And its supporters have become more brazen in carrying out physical attacks on migrants, including this one caught on camera in a market in Rafina in August.

Underneath the joy of a recent Sunday service at the FaithApostolicChurch in central Athens, the poisonous atmosphere has shocked parishioners, mostly from Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.

Reverend Jimoh Adebayo says members of his congregation have been beaten by Golden Dawn sympathizers, while the police seem to look the other way.

REV. JIMOH ADEBAYO, FaithApostolicChurch: Some have been stabbed, I mean, literally attacked, physically manhandled. And they have come to me to show me their wounds. And some of them have reported it to the police and the police say they will investigate.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do they?

REV. JIMOH ADEBAYO: Well, it is a big question mark.

JEFFREY BROWN: Abigail Linus, who earns some money as a nanny, plays and sings in the church choir.

ABIGAIL LINUS, Greece: You have to be afraid. When you hear things going around in the whole of Greece, in the country of Ellada, you have to very, very scared to go out.

JEFFREY BROWN: The question for many here now, how deep are these angry, even violent currents in the society?

Yannis Lagoudakos, a former mayor of Perama who’s planning to reenter politics, predicts things will get much worse.

YANNIS LAGOUDAKOS, former mayor of Perama, Greece (through translator): There is an anger against the national government which hasn’t yet expressed itself, and it’s building up like water behind a dam, waiting to break out. They’re going to start smashing shop windows and grabbing things, and ultimately I wouldn’t put it past the Greek society to storm parliament.

JEFFREY BROWN: Others, though, insist the majority of Greeks will continue to show great patience amid the austerity, frustrated by their politicians and angry at what’s seen as the haughtiness of richer European partners such as Germany, but understanding that things have to change.

Economist Hardouvelis says Greeks just need to believe that what’s happening now really is leading toward a better future.

GIKAS HARDOUVELIS: Once the recession stops, once the depression stops, and once people start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, then things will turn around.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that a hope, or is this a forecast?

GIKAS HARDOUVELIS: I think that, in a year and a half, we will see stability. And the big question is whether the political system will be able to accommodate that time period.

JEFFREY BROWN: A year and a half more — at best. Small comfort for Stelios Karagilanis and his family, facing the onset of winter — it’s too expensive to turn on the heat, he told us — and a Christmas unlike any he’d ever imagined.