Greek 'island of the blind'? More like 'island of welfare cheats'
On a Greek island, at least 600 are suspected of falsely claiming to be blind to get disability money. It's part of the rampant fraud that prompted Athens to halt payments to 200,000 last week.
It was known to the Venetians during the heyday of their trading empire as "The Flower of the Levant," but the Greek island of Zakynthos has now earned the mocking soubriquet "the island of the blind."Skip to next paragraph
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In the latest scandal to hit crisis-weary Greeks, the local government suspects that at least 600 people on the picturesque Ionian island managed to have themselves falsely registered as being blind, entitling them to generous monthly checks from the authorities in Athens.
That represents 2 percent of the island’s population of 35,000 – nearly 10 times the average rate of blindness in the rest of Europe, according to the World Health Organization. In reality there is nothing wrong with their sight at all. "Blind" taxi drivers cheerfully ferry tourists around the holiday destination, recreational hunters with purported sight problems regularly take to the hills in pursuit of wild birds and rabbits, and "visually impaired" shopkeepers, taverna owners, and farmers with vineyards and olive groves go about their daily business.
“I’ve seen them playing cards in the bars and driving their cars – it’s ridiculous!” says a local businessman, Spiros Skiadopoulos, who runs a photography college in Athens but maintains a home on the island.
The scandal of the fake blind people on Zakynthos is a sharp reminder of the immense challenges that will be faced by whoever takes the reins in national elections on May 6, vividly illustrating the kind of corruption that has helped push Greece to the brink of economic and social meltdown.
Fraudulent social welfare claims cost Greece 111 million euros ($146 million) last year, according to government statistics. And just last week, Labor ministry officials said they had halted welfare or pension payments to 200,000 people – around 2 percent of Greece’s population – because they were discovered to be based on fraudulent claims.
A mayoral crusade
For their purported disability, the "blind" islanders received monthly payments of at least 350 euros ($462), sometimes much more depending on their age and family status. Those who supposedly needed caregivers received more money.
But with the newly elected mayor of the town of Zakynthos declaring an end to the payments – part of a tough crackdown on such abuses on the island – the defrauders' have been brought up short.
Mayor Stelios Bozikis notified the authorities in Athens of the scam and an investigation has now been launched. All the ‘blind’ people on the island will have to submit to independent tests by ophthalmologists in the capital.