Today marks the end of my official fact-finding visit to Greece which began on 22 April. I would like to thank the Government of Greece for inviting me to undertake a mission to the country and for its full cooperation during the visit.
The primary purpose of my visit to Greece was to obtain first-hand information that would enable me assess the impact, on the capacity of the Government to realize all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, of the country’s economic crisis as well as the austerity measures and structural reform programme agreed between the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) and the Government of the Hellenic Republic, which is aimed at reducing the country’s fiscal deficit.
I have benefitted from discussions with senior Government officials from the ministries of Labour and Social Welfare, Finance, Education, Health, Development, Justice, and Public Order & Citizens’ Protection, as well as the Hellenic Coast Guard. I have also had meetings with members of Parliament (including the main opposition party, Syriza) and representatives of the Bank of Greece, the National Commission for Human Rights, the National Ombudsman, the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece. In addition, I have had very useful discussions with academics and civil society organisations.
Yesterday, I visited a community clinic run by Médecins du Monde in Perama and a homeless support centre in central Athens operated by a local non-governmental organisation. These visits provided me with an invaluable opportunity to witness first-hand the challenges that many Greeks and migrants are facing due to the economic crisis. I also had occasion to speak to some of the people severely affected by the crisis through unemployment, reduced or lack of access to health care and homelessness.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who took time to share information with me.
My findings and recommendations – the latter addressed to the Government and its international partners – will be detailed in a report that I will present to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. Nevertheless, I would like to share some preliminary observations and recommendations with you.
Greece has assumed various international obligations through ratification of a number of core international and regional human rights treaties, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. All of these treaties enjoin the State to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all persons under its jurisdiction without distinction of any kind.
Nevertheless, some of the rights guaranteed in these instruments, particularly socio-economic rights, are under threat or being undermined by the harsh pro-cyclical policies (austerity, labour reforms, liberalization and privatization) that the Government has been constrained to implement since May 2010 in return for a bailout financed by the Troika. I would like to focus on a few of these rights, namely, the rights to work, social security, healthcare and housing, as well as the issues of poverty, inequality and privatisation.
I have also received information about alleged human rights violations in the context of public protests against the austerity measures and about attacks against foreigners which can partly be attributed the current economic and social crisis.
Right to work
Greece is facing a severe economic and social crisis. Since 2009, the Greek economy has shrank by about 25 per cent - the combined effects of an economic recession and radical cuts in Government spending designed to bring the country’s deficit under control. The austerity measures have resulted in an unprecedented rise in unemployment from 6.6 per cent in May 2008 to 27.2 per cent in January 2013 (according to ELSTAT data). In the last two years alone, 633 996 persons have lost their jobs.
Amongst the youth the unemployment rate has reached an unprecedented rate of 59.3 per cent (for people aged up to 24). Thus, the prospects of a significant part of the population to access the job market and secure an adequate standard of living in line with international human rights standards has been compromised. The most highly educated are leaving the country in search of better opportunities, resulting in a brain drain to the highly qualified workforce of Greece which poses a threat to the country’s potential.
The crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women including in terms of access to employment. The rate of unemployment among women, currently estimated at 31.4 per cent, is now 7.5 percentage points higher than that for men. The difference was 6.2 per cent in the second quarter of 2008.
According to the National Ombudsman, there have been an increasing number of complaints relating to unfair dismissal due to pregnancy, indicating increased pressures on women to turn to unpaid work or the informal economy, thereby compounding inequalities.
The economic crisis has also contributed to rising tensions in the informal sector. A significant amount of the estimated 470 000 irregular migrants in Greece work in this sector, many in the agricultural sector, and are, in particular, at risk of being exposed to exploitative labour conditions. These individuals lack protection as they hardly have access to legal redress mechanisms due to fear of being detected by the authorities, detained and ultimately deported. The shooting of 33 migrant workers at a strawberry farm in Manolada as a result of a labour dispute underscores the gravity of the problem.
I welcome the facts that the shooting was swiftly condemned by the authorities and all major political parties, and that the Government has taken measures to protect the victims from, inter alia, deportation while the incident is being addressed. However, I would like to underline that the migrant workers in Manolada have a right to full compensation for the labour exploitation they suffered as well as access to legal and other mechanisms for appropriate redress. The authorities have an obligation to ensure such access.
Right to Social Security
The austerity programme is being implemented in the context of a social protection system characterized by protection gaps and which, in its current form, is not able to absorb the shock of unemployment, reductions of salaries and tax increases. Instead of strengthening the social safety net and making it more comprehensive, priority appears to have been accorded to fiscal consolidation at the expense of the welfare of the people in Greece.
On the basis of the memorandum signed between the Troika and the Government massive cuts to pensions and other welfare benefits have been made while taxes have been increased. Consecutive cuts have reduced pensions up to 60 per cent (for higher pensions) and between 25-30 per cent for lower ones.
Law 4093 introduced in January 2013 has reduced the total pension income in excess of €1000 per month by 5-15 %, and abolished Christmas and Easter benefits. The retirement age has been increased from 65 to 67 years. The payment of a means-tested rent subsidy was wholly suspended in 2010. In February 2011, a clause was added to the eligibility conditions for large family benefits, requiring 10 years of permanent and continuous residence in Greece which has the effect of excluding large numbers of immigrants.
To date, Greece remains the only country in the Eurozone where a comprehensive social assistance scheme serving as a social safety net of last resort is missing. Unemployment benefits expire after 12 months resulting in the loss of health insurance cover. Due to the rise in long term unemployment, only about 160 000 persons receive these benefits.
I welcome the information that the Government and the Troika have agreed to introduce pilot programmes to extend unemployment benefits. However these payments are limited to 200 euro per month and are significantly below the poverty line. The Minimum Income Guarantee Scheme is limited to two pilot areas. Given the magnitude of the crisis, the funding for both schemes, at €55 million, is inadequate.
Right to housing
According to information availed to me, there has been an estimated 25 per cent increase in the country’s homeless population since 2009. Their total number is estimated to be at least 20 000. A new form of homelessness has emerged of relatively well educated people who find themselves in this situation due to financial problems and inability to afford rent. Adequate housing is not only a right guaranteed in the Greek Constitution and the international human rights treaties ratified by Greece; it is also an important guarantor of human dignity.
It is my view that the Government should invest more into the prevention of homelessness in order to protect financially stressed individuals from losing their homes and, ultimately, their dignity. In this regard, I call upon the Government to establish a comprehensive social housing programme that can help ensure that the right to adequate housing is guaranteed for all without discrimination of any kind.
It should be mentioned that Greece has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the European Union. The legal limitations on repossession by the banks as well rescheduling of mortgage payments have helped ease the pressure on home owners.
Right to health
According to the Centre for Health Management and Evaluation at the University of Athens, overall public health expenditure in Greece fell from €16.1 billion in 2009 to €12.4 billion in 2012. Reductions in the incomes of higher income groups have constrained many to make use of the public health care system, thus putting additional pressure on it. This pressure is reflected in, inter alia, an increase in waiting times both for hospitalizations and for outpatient and emergency visits.
I would like to acknowledge the efforts of the Ministry of Health to increase the efficiency of the public health services through, inter alia, measures to combat over-prescription of medication, reduction of prices for medicines and addressing the huge imbalances in the doctor/nurse ratio in the country.
Nevertheless, I am concerned that the public health system has become increasingly inaccessible, in particular for poor citizens and marginalized groups, due to increased fees and co-payments, closure of hospitals and health care centres and more and more people losing public health insurance cover, mainly due to prolonged unemployment.
While emergency health care is provided to all persons, user fees have been increased. For example, in 2011 fees were increased from €3 to €5 in outpatient departments of public hospitals and health centres. Law 4093/2012 introduced a €25 fee for admission to a public hospital from 2014 onward and a €1 fee for each prescription issued by the national healthcare system.
According to information available to me, non-resident foreigners and irregular migrants are required to pay higher fees. If this information is correct, the requirement may constitute a breach of the principle of non-discrimination that is enshrined in the human rights treaties ratified by Greece.
I would like to underscore that while initially focused on vulnerable sectors of the population; such as migrants, community clinics such as the one that I visited yesterday are attending to an increasing number of Greek citizens (including former high income earners) who have lost their jobs and therefore cannot afford the cost of healthcare and medicines.
Poverty and inequality
Greece has the highest rate of persons below the poverty line in the Eurozone. Approximately 21.3 per cent of its population earn less than 60 per cent of the median income, which defines the conventional poverty line. Adjusted by inflation and using 2009 as the fixed poverty threshold more than one out of three persons (38.0 per cent) had already fallen below the poverty line by 2012. Among the unemployed, the poverty rate is nearly 59.28 per cent.
Child poverty is a matter of concern. The poverty rate among children (0-17 years old) is estimated at 43.88 per cent (based on inflation adjusted 2009 thresholds).
According to academic research on poverty levels, 10.37 per cent of all Greeks live in extreme poverty. These poverty levels are contributing to increasing inequality and need to be addressed.
Attacks on foreigners
I am concerned about reports of a significant increase of attacks against foreigners by extremist groups which I have received. It appears that the economic crisis has magnified a problem that has existed for several years. Just two days ago, the UNHCR, the National Commission for Human Rights and a coalition of 30 non-governmental organizations documented 154 incidents of racist violence in 2012, of which 151 were committed against refugees and migrants and 3 against European citizens by members of extremist groups. The majority of reported incidents concern physical attacks against foreigners. In at least one case, the victim died after he was severely beaten.
Similar violations have been documented in reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.
I am concerned that such instances of racist/xenophobic violence continue to be referred to by some as “isolated incidents”. It is important that there is acknowledgment that cumulatively these “isolated incidents” constitute a disturbing pattern of violence that requires robust action. In particular, there is a need for the authorities to send a strong message of intolerance of such criminal actions by strengthening the legal and institutional framework for combating them. In this regard, I welcome the establishment of 70 anti-racist police units throughout the country and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor responsible for the coordination and proper investigation of racist crimes by the prosecuting authorities as an important step to combat such incidents. These measures should ensure that those responsible for such crimes are held to account.
This morning, I received information on race-based violence from the Ministry of Public Order and Citizenship Protection, for which I thank the ministry. I will analyse this information and incorporate it, as appropriate, in my final report.
One of the key demands of the Troika is that the Government undertake privatizations to raise funds (€50 billion) to reduce the public debt and ostensibly to attract long-term private investment for the benefit of the population. I am concerned that among the enterprises targeted for privatization are public utilities which provide essential public services such as water and sanitation and energy. Given the dismal record of privatization elsewhere and the likelihood of an increase in or introduction of high user fees for the basic services offered by these entities by the new private sector actors with potential negative impacts on the enjoyment of basic rights, the privatization process should be undertaken cautiously and with sensitivity to the rights of the population.
Another concern is the possibility that the assets in question will be bought up by established local interests and foreign investors to the detriment of the majority of the population who, due to the loss of income occasioned by the crisis, cannot afford to bid for the purchase of these assets. In this regard, I urge the Government to consider establishing an empowerment fund to enable Greek citizens to purchase these assets, preferably through cooperatives.
The ostensible aim of the austerity measures and adjustment is to reduce the fiscal deficit, reduce labour costs and make the economy competitive. However, the available evidence indicates that these excessively rigid measures have resulted in the contraction of the economy as well as significant social costs to the population (including high unemployment, homelessness, poverty and inequality).
I call upon the Government and the Troika to adopt a human rights-based approach to the design and implementation of the fiscal consolidation and reform policies in Greece to ensure that these policies are consistent with the obligations for the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights that the country has assumed through ratification of core international human rights instruments.
Reduction of unemployment, poverty alleviation and closing the gaps in the welfare safety net should be included as measurable targets and monitored in the context of the on-going adjustment programme.
Development cannot be sustainable if human rights are not sufficiently taken into account. Ensuring the full participation of all segments of society in decision-making processes, enhancing efforts to reduce inequality, and respecting, promoting and protecting all human rights are critical to sustainable development.
There are viable alternatives to rigid austerity. One such alternative is to increase public spending on productive investments to boost employment as well as domestic consumption. This can, in turn, lead to higher domestic resource mobilisation in ways that do not hurt the poorest and to economic growth.