THE REFUGEE/MIGRANT CRISIS

THE REFUGEE/MIGRANT CRISIS
SOME NOTES FROM A FACEBOOK THREAD, AUGUST 2015

How the EU should respond adequately to the surge in the numbers of refugees seeking to enter Europe continues as I write.

The situation has changed and worsened quite dramatically since I wrote “Europe’s Rio Grande” three months ago. The tempo of arrivals has increased. Thousands continue to attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, bolstered by the fact that they are now likely to be picked up and rescued by European ships rather than ignored. Media attention has switched to the separate flow of refugees, mainly from the Middle East, arriving in Greece after the shorter and far less dangerous boat journey via Turkey. There has been dramatic news footage of thousands arriving on Kos and other Greek islands and later of crowds pressing to enter Macedonia and then Serbia en route to Hungary and the prosperous countries beyond . There is now a growing awareness across Europe that the issue is very much a live one – demanding an urgent response. There is little consensus on what to do.

The “thread” began on 22 August in the wake of the suggestion from the German Interior Minister that Germany could receive up to 800,000 refugees in 2015. “A game changer” as a left wing friend posted on Facebook, suggesting that Ireland (and the EU)) would have to get its act and reaction very much together. I have made two contributions, the first signalling what might be expected of Ireland in terms of burden sharing, if this were to become a reality, (45-80,000) the second recalling what was done just over a decade ago when Ireland, almost totally unprepared, was confronted with the unheralded and unexpected arrival of thousands of asylum seekers (45,000 over five years). While many are calling for more to be done for the refugees, few are putting a figure on what Ireland could/should do in terms of taking numbers beyond calling for an increase in the 600 we have already contracted to take.

An issue that clearly has a long way to run.

25/8

(I)

I’m not sure how the Germans came up with 800,000. The ballpark figure for current refugees being bandied about is around five million or around 1% of the EU population. In Germany’s case 1% = 800,000, so perhaps that’s how. A similar calculation would give a figure for Ireland of 45,000 or so. A calculation based on contributions to the EU budget, where Ireland gives roughly 1.8%, would work out at around 80,000 for Ireland.

But these are back-of-envelope figures. What about the already expressed reservations of many of the 2004 intake into the EU of taking more than a handful at best? Does anyone see the UK taking plus or minus half a million? Or the Netherlands 200,000? Only Sweden appears to be taking the notionally “correct quota” at present. Moreover German demographics also are such that Germany requires immigrants young enough to work. This doesn’t apply across the board -e.g. we’re always boasting of having one of the youngest populations in Europe, so we don’t “need” immigrants in the economic sense.

There has been very little joined up thinking by politicians on this across Europe but what is very apparent is growing public resistance in a number of countries to taking in more than a token number of new immigrants. Perhaps an IGC to tackle what Merkel has rightly flagged as THE major issue facing the EU is the way forward, but how quickly and when? Meanwhile the crisis mounts.

22/8
(II)

I see Merkel and Hollande are meeting today, inter alia to discuss the refugee/migrant situation.

We’ll see what if anything emerges from this. As I mentioned earlier an IGC (or at the very least a formal EU summit) could be the next step. Whether there is any possibility of securing EU consensus on burden sharing is very much open to doubt, given the lukewarm and patchy reaction to the Commission’s modest proposals several months ago to share out 50,000, together with the flat rejection by several countries of taking ANY.

I heard one reporter today suggesting that Germany was arm twisting the Central Europeans to accept some – pointing to the billions provided to those countries before and after accession. Even assuming their efforts meet with success, there is likely to be a considerable shortfall in the numbers countries agree to take. Any compulsory burden sharing would require treaty change. Good luck with that!

I’m not sure that the 800,000 figure “Germany expects” is on the mark. It would imply at least a doubling of the current flows in the remaining four months of the year. Certainly the number will be huge but I suspect the 800k figure was in part a trial balloon to wake countries up to the potential dimension of the problem. That Guardian article was interesting in that it made the point I had already flagged – that demographics will require Germany to import millions of immigrants to supplement its aging workforce and that this was true for many other EU states (though not Ireland).

Our attitude may well be determined in part by the common travel area and clearly a Brexit would have consequences here. Some figures to ponder in terms of our capacity to absorb refugees is what happened during the surge in asylum seekers at the beginning of the century. In 1998 we recorded 4626 asylum applications; in 1999 that figure rose to 7724. In 2000 it jumped to 10938, was 10325 in 2001 before peaking at 11634 in 2002. There was a sharp decline to 7900 in 2003, and 4766 in 2004 as new procedures came into force. (Currently the much reduced level of applications is running at double last year’s figure – 1481 to end June as opposed to 1448 for all of 2014).

The point to note here is that, in a five year period, largely flying by the seat of our pants, in terms of people turning up and claiming asylum, Ireland handled around 45,000 new arrivals, all dependent on the state’s resources for support. Not all arrived at once, but all were dealt with, with at times 1000 per month arriving. So methods and procedures have evolved, and there is a body of experience built up, whatever may be thought of the deficiencies in the system, including areas like direct provision.

The unremarked elephant-in-the-room is public opinion throughout Europe, which seems to be intensifying against immigrants as the numbers rise. Jamal Osman was talking with Keelin Shanley this morning and spoke of a sea change in attitude, suggesting there is now growing hatred towards asylum seekers and immigrants in sharp contrast to the attitude when he arrived in Britain in 1999. That description may be too stark but his observations should be borne in mind.

A final thought. There is a less than delicious irony in Hungary’s planned border fence with Serbia to keep refugees out. In 1989 it was Hungary’s decision to open its border with Austria, allowing East Germans “out, ” that accelerated the collapse of the Communist system in Central Europe.
24/8

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FREEDOM’S CHILD by JAX MILLER : a review

FREEDOM’S CHILD JAX MILLER

HARPER COLLINS 2015 357pp

First, I should declare an interest. I know the author. I first met Jax almost three years ago at a session of the Irish Crime Writers’ Group. She read an extract from her then work-in-progress (not “Freedom”, btw). What she read out was exciting, with a masterly use of language, particularly in the dialogue – New York Smart. She had that essential component for a writer, difficult to define, to capture a scene and bring it to life in a few sentences. If successful writing is ninety eight percent perspiration and two per cent inspiration, it struck me then that Jax had that two per cent and more. There was raw talent there.

“Freedom’s Child” is her first book to be published. I read it at a sitting. The last time I did that was with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It’s a riveting story, with a great hook in the opening line “My name is Freedom Oliver and I killed my daughter.” It’s not exactly crime – though there’s plenty in it, including an impressive body count. It’s a thriller, certainly, but essentially it’s the story of a mother , hard done by life and circumstances, looking for her missing daughter.

The daughter (and a son) was given up for adoption at birth by Freedom, who was facing a murder charge in New Jersey for a crime she didn’t commit, killing her husband, a corrupt cop. Eventually acquitted and exonerated she then finds the adoption process to be irreversible. Moreover her in-laws, essentially a criminal gang, are seeking revenge, and she is obliged to enter a witness protection programme. When we meet up with her, eighteen years after the event, she has, not surprisingly, buried herself in booze and drugs in a remote part of Oregon. When she learns simultaneously that her in-laws are gunning for her and know her location, and that her daughter has gone missing from her religious fundamentalist foster parents – the action begins.

And what action! It’s difficult to avoid clichés like “ page turner, riveting, gritty, emotional roller coaster, raw, unputdownable, tough as nails.” It’s all of those. Lee Child is quoted as describing it as “original, compelling and seriously recommended.” It’s all of that. To reveal any more of the plot would be to introduce spoilers. But two examples of her style merit noting. The language is quite superb – one of Jax’s strongpoints from the beginning. It’s the language of the street, not pretty but real and evocative, as in: “The day’s as grey as the cigarette smoke from a whore in Times Square on a frigid January morning.” And secondly there is a short chapter, shot through with black humour and empathic compassion, featuring Freedom’s encounter with a neighbour, a harmless, hopeless, Alzheimer’s sufferer, neglected by her “snot-nosed daughter”, with “ business skirts so tight that they apparently choke off the blood to her conscience.”

For a first novel “Freedom’s Child” is particularly strong, quite the best debut thriller I’ve read since Roger Hobbs’ “Ghostman.” It’s far from perfect, but which novel isn’t. The story is at once too full and too empty; there’s enough plot for two novels and a central episode in the book that is extraneous. The main settings are familiar territory. Some of the characters are caricatures at best, stage props or stereotypes otherwise. But none of this diminishes from a highly readable, racy, pacy story. Freedom herself is well drawn, warts and all; she’s not the most appealing of characters but she’s easy to understand. She’s like the book itself – beautiful it isn’t; compelling it is.
Highly recommended – and not just because I know the author!

05/08

THE STOLEN ONES by RICHARD MONTANARI : a review

THE STOLEN ONES

RICHARD MONTANARI

SPHERE 2014 455 pp

Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in the USA and was the first capital of the independent country. It’s well worth a visit, with many historic landmarks, including a superb Irish famine memorial and certainly counts as one of the great American cities. I’ve enjoyed every visit, and have friends there. Yet compared to New York, Chicago or New Orleans (and, indeed others) it features relatively infrequently in fiction, especially crime fiction, with few household names, even though it’s well up there in the murder stats. One of that few is Richard Montanari, an excellent writer of police procedurals He’s now in his sixties and broke into writing in the mid -1990s after a varied career that included a long spell in journalism.

As the name suggests, Montanari is of Italian descent on his father’s side, though, interestingly, his mother was from Estonia. Originally from Cleveland, where his first novels are set, ten years ago he launched a series based in Philadelphia featuring detectives Kevin Byrne ( a veteran cop) and Jessica Balzano (much younger and daughter of a famous Philly cop). Their adventures are set in real time so we see the characters and their families changing and evolving as time passes; Balzano’s daughter, for example, three in the first novel, “The Rosary Girls, ”is now a teenager.

Montanari never disappoints and provides excellent entertainment. “ The Stolen Ones”, published here in 2014, is the seventh in the series, most of which I ‘ve read, and is up to the usual standard. (The eighth, “The Doll Maker” – which I haven’t read – was released earlier this year.) Page turners, certainly, with some well-drawn police characters and some really creepy villains rounded off with clever plots, many with a Catholic religious element, reflecting the makeup of the city’s white blue collar community. The violence, while plentiful, is never gratuitous.

A feature of Montanari’s work is the atmospheric picture of Philadelphia which he weaves. The reader is drawn into the story and feels she knows the gritty environment in which it takes place. Not quite Gothic but getting there. This is no accident. Montanari does considerable research for his books and it shows. In “The Stolen Ones,” central to the action is the network of catacombs under the city, some two hundred years old, up to thirty feet beneath street level and connected by almost three thousand miles of sewers, many navigable by humans. Montanari went there and did that.

Central also to the plot is the Delaware Valley State Hospital, modelled on an actual institution – the Philadelphia State Hospital – a place in the folklore of the city; think Grangegorman in the case of Dublin. Here again Montanari has done his research, not only about the institution and it’s chequered history, but also about lucid dreaming and dream engineering, something central to the plot. Without giving too much away, the story features the investigation of a number of curious but linked murders which eventually point to a perpetrator who has been dead for decades. The how and why are revealed slowly. There’s a link also to Estonia where Montanari again demonstrates the fidelity and thoroughness of his research with up to date and accurate reporting on the minutiae of the structure and organisation of the Estonian police force ( having just written a thriller featuring the Estonian police I can testify to this!).

In a number of frank and interesting interviews with the author on the web he recounts how he came to write, his background, influences on him and his interest in the immigrant experience in the USA, something he will cover in his next book, “Shutter Man,” to be published later this year. He also provides some useful advice to wannabe crime writers – get the pathology of the killer right first and let the plot develop from that.

The book is well worth a read, the author well worth following.

S.F.
28/7/15

GREEK TRAGEDY – OR FARCE ? 1508 LXXVIII

GREEK TRAGEDY – OR FARCE?

It’s been a bruising few months for the Eurozone, and for one Member State in particular. It’s been also, depending on your point of view, an object lesson in Economics, in Realpolitik, in how the Strong can bully the Weak, on the impracticalities of instant solutions to complex problems, and above all on the inadequacies of the Eurozone.

The Greek saga still has some way to run. As I write negotiations on a third bailout are to begin, the Greek Parliament having passed legislation agreeing austerity measures harsher than those rejected in a referendum less than two weeks before. The measures were very much the stick part of the offer/ultimatum from the other Eurozone countries. The carrot the prospect of securing that third bailout of an estimated $90 billion.

Where that money if agreed will come from remains to be seen. Will all Eurozone countries pay, including the four poorer than Greece (the Baltics and Slovakia) and the three with roughly the same income? And what guarantees will be sought to ensure that Greece implements the measures passed – a problem with earlier austerity packages?

Moreover the issue of existing debt write down is still not resolved, lending an air of unreality to the sticking plaster solution currently proposed. Quite simply Greece cannot – ever –repay what it owes – roughly $350 billion. It may hope to repay, or make some gesture by having portion of any third bailout loan earmarked for “debt repayment” – as is being proposed – but that is only to deny the political and economic reality. Adding an extra $90 billion to the amount owing, bringing it to more than twice annual GDP, merely compounds the issue.

One solution would be to write off permanently a large proportion of the debt. This would involve Greece’s partners writing off monies already lent ( in Ireland’s case around $400 million). Whether that will prove palatable remains to be seen. A write-off has been tried once before, in 2012 . There is talk of finessing somehow the terms of “repayment” by lengthening the period allowed or giving extended holidays from interest – “Extend and pretend.”. ( Ireland got some finessing of its bailout terms but our case was simple compared to that of Greece.) This has also been tried before. And the sum owing would remain. A malign scenario would be a Greek exit from the Eurozone, possibly temporarily, with a devalued Drachma and more short term grief for the Greek people. That would presumably also involve some debt restructuring and write off. Some choice!

The fundamental flaw in the Eurozone from the start was its political nature – a monetary union not underpinned by a fiscal union and with insufficient fiscal controls and sanctions. Eurozone members were theoretically limited to annual national budget deficits of 3% of GDP. When Germany and France became first to break this limit in 2005 and were not punished it became clear that political considerations were paramount and that a softly softly approach would apply.

All was fine as long as economies were expanding. The lower interest rates which Germany enjoyed were suddenly available to other countries. Cheap credit led to a surge in government and private borrowing and spending in countries like Ireland and Greece. Germany benefitted from the Euro’s exchange rate, more favourable than the old Deutschmark. Then came the international financial crisis and recession , which began in the USA and spread rapidly to the EU in 2008.

The peripheral PIGS, which had benefitted greatly from cheap money, were hit hardest (and with them the Baltics, particularly Latvia). All four eventually required bailouts, though for different reasons. In Ireland a property bubble collapsed in 2008, ending a boom period during which the revenues the bubble generated had paid for tax cuts and generous increases in welfare benefits. The banks which had financed the boom collapsed and required state recapitalisation. The consequential yawning budget deficit precipitated a downward fiscal and economic spiral which ended when Ireland could no longer borrow money internationally. In November 2010 Ireland secured an €85 billion rescue package from the EU, the ECB and the IMF (the Troika).

The package required spending cuts and tax increases to restore the tax base, but, once adhered to, the harsh medicine worked and Ireland exited the Troika programme after three years. While a legacy of austerity remains, and the recovery is far from complete, the Irish economy has picked up dramatically over the past eighteen months, with all indicators positive. Another PIG, Portugal, has also exited its Troika programme.

Greece was different. Its economy, which grew strongly before 2007, was heavily dependent on tourism and shipping – industries sensitive to economic downturn. Economic growth and the cheap credit available from Europe saw government expenditure grow sharply during the decade, outstripping tax revenue, the money financing public sector jobs, welfare benefits, pensions and military expenditure,. Tax evasion, traditionally a scourge – put simply the well-off didn’t pay tax, and much of the economy was cash based – remained chronic. The National Debt, historically high, mounted, pushing, then exceeding 100% of GDP. Official statistics, always doubtful, were massaged to cover. Government revenue actually fell by 15% in 2009. Borrowing costs rose.

Revelations that the previous government had falsified the figures, disguising the true extent of annual borrowing, proved the final straw for international lenders. The vital factor of investor confidence was lost. The Greek government , like Ireland’s later, proved unable to borrow internationally and, in April 2010, was forced to seek EU and IMF assistance. A loan of €110 billion was agreed, contingent on the introduction of severe austerity measures. These were greeted with widespread street protests throughout Greece, including several fatalities, with banners and slogans proclaiming the Greeks were not like the Irish.

A year later delays in implementing reforms, together with a worsening recession, saw the Troika agree to an easing of the bailout terms. Nothing worked and in March 2012, a second bailout, this time of €130 billion, was agreed, contingent on further austerity measures. The bailout was accompanied by the largest sovereign debt restructuring in history with Greece’s debts reduced by €100 billion. Private bondholders were “burned” – losing over 50% of their holdings. More street protests followed.

Since then there has been political and social turmoil over the further austerity measures needed to ensure tranches of the second bailout were paid. This culminated in the government’s overthrow last January and its replacement by the far left Syriza government with a mandate to reject austerity and the second bailout. Ironically, Syriza’s success came just as the Greek economy seemed to be turning the corner. Since January Syriza has postured and refused to engage in serious negotiations even as Greece’s economy worsened. Its intransigence has exasperated and alienated its Eurozone partners. Trust and sympathy has been lost. Eventually as the money ran out, Syriza ran out of wiggle room and, at the last moment, folded when its bluff was called.

Some may feel schadenfreude at Syriza’s come-uppance. A cynic might observe that only a party as left wing as Syriza can now deliver Greece. But without sorting out or side-lining somehow the debt mess there will be no definitive solution. Hard pounding, Gentlemen.

19/07