Approximately ONE MILLION people have crossed Greece in search for shelter from oppression and war, or – more simply – for safety and dignified life in Europe. How good is our cradle of civilisation at managing the situation, given its own crisis? Ewa Kozdraj of the For Earth Association (Stowarzyszenie dla Ziemi) offers her Greek visit impressions.
We have been hearing of “the migration crisis” and “the refugee crisis” for the past eighteen months, although as a country we have not experienced it in the slightest. While our former government had committed to receiving 2,000 and later on 7,000 refugees, the current cabinet refused the number, making a public statement that in the name of protecting the society and Polish borders, we will ultimately not receive anyone (even as part of so-called “humanitarian corridors” proposed by Caritas and approved by Polish bishops during the 373rd Plenary Session of the Polish Episcopal Conference); approximately ONE MILLION people have crossed Greece in search for shelter from oppression and war, or – more simply – for safety and dignified life in Europe.
In the course of previous study visits, non-governmental organisations had the opportunity of learning more about the current situation in Germany and Norway, as well as the shocking circumstances in Hungary, altogether different from those in other countries. In October, a group of representatives of a number of non-governmental organisations from various locations in Poland were allowed a glimpse of the Greek situation, and the work of Athens-based organisations, institutions, and informal groups.
Meetings were diverse in nature. The positions, beliefs, and activities of a number of entities were presented, including work engaged in by the Athens City Hall to assist refugees, activities of Greek non-governmental organisations (AITIMA, ARSIS, Greek Forum of Migrants, PRAKSIS, METAdrasi), efforts by international organisations (Doctors of the World, Greece), by the Greek Ombudsman, and by anarchist groups.
The Greek Phenomenon
Greece has a population of just under 11 million. Its continental slice apart, the country has approximately 2,500 islands, 165 of which inhabited. The unemployment rate has reached 27%. In the 1990s, approximately one million Muslims came to Greece from Albania; their integration was fully successful, requiring no dedicated integration programmes. Today, Greece has a population of 50,000-60,000 individuals, plus an additional 15,000 newcomers to islands. Athens itself has an estimated population of 8,000-10,000 refugees and migrants.
Had I just read these statistics, I would have been convinced that Greeks are against such an influx of people, the social mood far from friendly. Yet such is the Greek phenomenon: the Athens City Hall assisted by a number of foreign funds through to an anarchist group, financially fully independent and running a hotel for 400 residents (!), anywhere we went we found amazing empathy, understanding, and extensive support offered by a nation helping newcomers in need in a volunteer – or simply human – effort. Having asked Vice-President of Athens, Mr. Lefteris Papagiannakis, “Do you fear refugee-related terrorism?” we received an answer: “We are not afraid of terrorism, we are helping refugees.”
Twenty Thousand Slots
Solidarity Cities was one of the initiatives presented, launched as part of the EuroCities European network of co-operating cities (which Gdańsk is a part of) and an attempt at co-operation between local governments for relocation purposes. Barcelona was the first to agree to receive 100 persons, Amsterdam following closely behind. The Greeks are co-operating with many international organisations, e.g. the Belgian Mobile School. European networking is strong as well, ECRE and PICUM taking the lead. According to City Hall estimates, approximately 30,000 persons will in all probability remain in Greece. The authority’s priority is to secure accommodation for individuals included in the relocation programme – according to the law, one cannot apply for the programme without a place of residence. In co-operation with local organisations, the UNHCR has secured 20,000 places of residence in Athens, in Thessaloniki, and on Crete.
Europe cannot handle the relocation of 66,400 persons from Greece. Had Europe shown solidarity with Greece, the number of persons received by individual countries as part of the relocation programme would have been unnoticeable, the many profoundly bitter comments by our hosts an obvious confirmation. Today, around three thousand newcomers arrive in Greece EACH MONTH. In Poland (a country with a population over 38 million – just a reminder), until recently the debate concerned a process of receiving seven thousand… until recently…
Non-Governmental Organisations, Informal Groups and Their Role
AITIMA offers free-of-charge legal assistance and consultations to vulnerable groups, including refugees, minorities, and newcomer communities; they organise research and training work, etc. The organisation’s team comprises persons with many years of experience in working with refugees, experts in human rights. One of the projects currently managed focuses on persons resident in closed facilities, including children.
ARSIS (Association for the Social Support of Youth) is an organisation specialising in helping young people in difficult and/or threat circumstances, and in advocacy for their rights. The entity operates in Athens, Thessaloniki, Volos, Alexandroupoli, Kozani, and Tirana. Apart from the centre for assistance to young people, they manage four shelters for unaccompanied children and families seeking protection. All shelters – in a simile to the assistance centre – offer legal, psychological, and social aid; education and cultural events are organised. While without teaching facility status, the organisation does offer e.g. language courses. Moreover, it co-operates with local schools (nine out of ten schoolmasters are open to co-operation).
The Greek Forum of Migrants is based at the Georgian Centre. They offer Greek language classes, among others. They focus on self-organisation and activation, developing co-operation and solidarity in the community of immigrants working in Greece, protecting their rights, improving policies concerning arrival, and engaging in activities to combat racism, xenophobia, and promotion of multi-culture and democratic coexistence values. The organisation is an umbrella institution: it brings together representatives of migrant communities and organisations operated “by” and “for” migrants.
Goals of PRAXIS (Programs of Development, Social Support and Medical Cooperation) include the design, application, and implementation of humanitarian programmes and medical interventions: the elimination of social and economic exclusion of vulnerable social groups, and protecting their personal and social rights. The institution operates the Praxis Policlinic in Athens and Thessaloniki, where there is no need to produce ID to receive assistance and be offered aid by a variety of specialists. There is also a Day Care Centre for the Homeless, where people can take a shower, wash clothes, and have tea (Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki). Moreover, PRAXIS runs a library with film screenings and a centre for unaccompanied refugee children (Athens, Patras). The organisation operates a total of 15 centres, two of which for women and girls only. It also provides first aid at island camps (Chios, Lesbos, Kos) and along the border with Macedonia.
METAdrasi (Action for Migration and Development) employs 100 persons, and is assisted by 300 volunteers, including 100 lawyers. The organisation offers support by trained interpreters (33 languages and dialects) to secure communication with migrants and provide them with legal aid. It also escorts unaccompanied children from border area custody centres to appropriate facilities throughout Greece. METAdrais’s work includes two innovative solutions implemented in Greece for the first time: curatorship and children placement with foster families (30 children have been placed with new families already, 300 other families awaiting young newcomers). The organisation secures accommodation for 700 unaccompanied children, a growing number of whom are arriving in Greece.
The international organisation Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) is implementing the basic healthcare programme at refugee centres on the continent and islands – such as mobile medical aid facilities on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Tilos. Assisted by medical staff (general physician, dermatologist, orthopaedist, neurologist, paediatrician, psychiatrist, dentist), administrative employees and interpreters, they visit individual centres and provide services as required. The organisation also runs Open Policlinics in Athens, Thessaloniki, Kavala, and Patras. Every morning, 200-300 persons in need of medical assistance queue up at the Policlinic door (35-45% are Greek nationals: such is the result of the economic crisis, which has been affecting the country since 2008).
We also visited the Plaza Hotel, a hotel operated by anarchists for 400 persons, who usually stay there for an average period of two weeks to six months. The hotel is financed from public fundraising campaigns only. They co-operate with a group of around 100 volunteers. There is a common kitchen and kindergarten – you can join the facilities and chip in to help at any time. Hotel residents include Afghans, Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Ethiopians. There are separate teams responsible for medical, media, and financial issues. The centre co-operates with other informal initiatives in Athens, including other squats (such as Notara). It has also been managing joint projects with physicians. Anarchists do not work with non-governmental organisations, with the exception of isolated projects – such as the MSF for purposes of medical supplies. Should the need for legal aid arise, the centre will provide addresses of appropriate organisations, but does not stand in as an intermediary in making contact.
Refugees in Greece stay on 5 islands (Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos, and Leros). They are perceived differently on each respective island. Representatives of the Greek Ombudsman are present on each island to offer assistance.
Greece: the cradle of civilisation, culture, and science. Left to its own devices. Admiring the ancient monuments of Athens and watching the amazingly gargantuan work of volunteer lawyers and physicians, and of regular people on the continent and islands alike, I felt deeply ashamed… but my real low came during a meeting with a lawyer of the Médecins du Monde, Spyros Rizakos. At one point, someone said, “while at your place in Hungary…” Moved to our very souls, we corrected our host, “But we have come from Poland!”
Text: Ewa Kozdraj, based on own notes and those by Natalia Gebert
The visit to Athens took place on October 16th through 21st 2016. The series of study visits (Berlin, Budapest, Stavanger, Athens, Ottawa) has been organised by Fundacja Ocalenie in co-operation with the Stefan Batory Foundation. The entire endeavour is financed from EEA grants as part of the Citizens for Democracy programme.