The tale of two Athens hotels, the 5-star and the refugee camp.

Religion, Migration, Power and Money was the title of last month’s Athens Democracy Forum. The conference was sponsored by some Big Names, it attracted important people to come and speak, including the President of Greece, op-ed columnists at the New York Times, the Mayor of Athens, a top British QC and the European Commissioner for migration, among others. And they all had one thing in common: they were all grey-haired white men[1].

At this beautifully organised three-day conference, it was the white men who sat at the front, often in reserved seating. It was they who chaired the panels, spoke from the elevated position of the stage, who were first in the lunch queues. They held the power. They talked about religion, power, money and migration from positions of privilege where their dominance went unchallenged. The system that almost exclusively enables white men to rise to the top has to change. It has to change so that those who hold power more accurately reflects the rest of society.

During this conference in Athens, I was honoured to be invited to visit a refugee camp in a disused hotel. I was in the city to learn about power, money, religion and migration so this seemed apt. I can safely say that I learned more from listening to the refugees explaining how they cooperated, self-organised, worked together democratically and collaboratively than I did at the conference about those very issues.  The problems they faced were real. They were immediate. They were about religion, migration, power and money.

Image of the author at the refugee camp
Millicent at the disused Athens airport, now a refugee camp

Ironically, the Athens Democracy Forum was hosted in the luxurious five-star splendour of the Hotel Grande Bretagne. City Plaza, the first refugee camp I visited, is also based in a hotel, a disused hotel, and the residents are technically squatters. They are survivors of the worst atrocities perpetrated by religion, power and money. They are migrants, refugees from war and desperation – predominantly from Afghanistan, but also from Syria and other war-torn areas. They survive on the outskirts of Europe on donations of food, clothes and medicine and at the mercy of attackers from the far right. They operate a 24-hour guard rota to protect themselves. They organise it democratically and cooperatively.

Anyone wanting an insight into religion, power, money and migration need look no further than this camp. Anyone wanting to see democracy in action could look to it too. The refugees work together to solve problems, cook food together for each other and support each other. Going from one hotel to the other, as I did, highlighted the appalling gap between those who are victims of our world in crisis and those who talk about it.

The Athens Democracy Forum was well-intended but it missed an opportunity to truly harness the power of great thinkers to provide practical solutions to the issues it addressed. The inequality of active participants, in terms of gender, disability, race and religion, undermined the excellent presentations and discussions that did take place. As a woman, I was simply an observer.

I would love to participate in the conference again, but only with a true representation of democratic values visible on the stage and in conversations. I would like to see equality being modelled in the fair representation of speakers, audience and topics. Democracy, as I understand it, is intended to be collaborative and inclusive, but in this exclusive club I did not feel part of the conversation, nor did I feel able to participate. This is not how we will solve the issues of inequality that are raised by religion, power, money and migration. The refugee camp at City Plaza, on the other hand, demonstrated that in the world out there people are organising themselves to address these issues.

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[1] For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that there was one all-women panel. The title of this was, I kid you not, “The Attraction of the Big Man”. One other panel had a woman on it, there was a panel with a man who was not white. Other women did also speak, but did not feel as prominent.

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Published by Millicent Scott

Millicent is The Democratic Society's Director of Operations. She has spent over a decade working on increasing citizens’ engagement with policy making and bringing people into democratic processes. Before joining DemSoc in 2015 she had worked for the Scottish Government, Scottish Civic Forum, European Parliament, the Association for Citizenship Teaching (England) and the Financial Times. In 2015 she also stood for the UK Parliament herself. “I want to change the way politics is done. I want to enable and inspire more people to engage in decision-making and I want to see a parliament that’s more representative of the people. I believe in working together for a fairer society.”