Suspect Device

Writing by Patrick Keddie

Migrants in Greece (Part 2/3) – A Rapidly Deteriorating Health and Social Crisis

“This is my castle!” says Khaled Abdulrahim, 33, pointing to his home – an abandoned train carriage under a bridge near to Athens’ Larissa Station.  Nearly 50 men, mainly from North Africa, live in the carriages or in makeshift shelters propped against the soot-grimed brickwork.

The ground under the bridge is strewn with used syringes, plastic bottles and discarded clothes, shoes and blankets.  The regular screech and rumble of trains heading in and out of Larissa station on the adjacent line makes sleep difficult.  Some have lived there for three years, many a few months, and some just a few days.

Abdulrahim is from South Sudan.  Before finding the community under the bridge, he slept in a park.  He says “We are refugees – we have no money, no water, nothing.”  He is forced to rummage through bins, finding small pieces of metal to sell in order to get enough to eat.  The migrants under the bridge are frequently subjected to harassment and attack from the police or local gangs and Abdulrahim expresses disgust at a society that he perceives as racist – “we are human beings, we are flesh and blood – but here, these people look at us like animals.”

Many migrants across Greece live in similarly harsh conditions.  Places in homeless shelters are extremely limited; so many migrants – both adult and children – are forced to sleep on the streets, in abandoned and dilapidated buildings, or in public parks where they are more vulnerable to illness or physical attack.  These poor living conditions, alongside a lack of nutrition, limited access to healthcare and welfare services decimated by the financial crisis, are contributing to a worsening health crisis amongst migrants in Greece.

The Worsening Health Crisis

Nancy Retinioti, a social worker at Medecins du Monde’s (MdM) Sapfous Street health clinic in Athens, says that many of the problems suffered by migrants are related to living out in the open or in crowded, abandoned buildings exposed to damp and cold.  Tuberculosis is common but Retinioti stresses that such diseases are “often not carried from their countries, they are contracted here because of the conditions.”

Many refugees suffer from psychological problems, especially depression and stress disorders, and drug abuse is a growing issue; there are people openly injecting heroin in broad daylight in the street outside the centre.  The rate of HIV transmission among drug users is increasing.

MdM have four health clinics in Greece and around 150-200 people use the Sapfous Street health clinic in central Athens every day, where they can access primary medical care, alongside psychological and social welfare services.  Around 20% of the patients are children and most come from Africa and Asia but around 13% are Greek.  They have seen a marked increase in retired Greek people using the centre as their incomes have dwindled in the financial crisis and they are often unable to afford basic medicine.

The Greek authorities provide very little support to migrants, although, unlike many NGOs and charities, MdM does receive some funding from the Greek government – around 25% in total.  However, there are severe shortages and delays with the funds.

In theory, migrants who have applied for asylum and received a temporary residence card should be able to access treatment at public hospitals, though undocumented migrants are not entitled to access any health or social services under Greek law.  However, Retinioti explains that in practice this is not always the case as documented migrants will often be turned away at hospital pharmacies and that even children often struggle to access public health services.  If migrants can’t speak Greek then hospital staff often tell them to come back later with a translator, even if it’s an emergency.

Retinioti is believes that, although the situation has worsened under Greece’s crisis, the migrant health crisis existed before the financial crash, insisting that “In previous years we had the same difficulties.  We are supporting these people to get their rights – even if the financial crisis exists.”  She insists that action can be taken to improve the system, even in a terrible economic climate, through shifting priorities from treatment to prevention “instead of saying that we don’t have money so we cannot do anything.”

In response to the health crisis, the Greek government announced plans in early April to turn former military camps into detention centres to hold migrants – whether they have applied for asylum or not – for indefinite periods “if they pose a risk to public health”.  Yet, the language is more akin to dealing with vermin rather than treating people and Amnesty International has condemned the proposed measures, claiming they will fuel the stigmatization of migrants in Greece.

Help Amidst the Hardship in Greece

MdM’s Sapfous Street clinic also houses a refugee centre, offering accommodation to 70 vulnerable migrants for a short period, providing legal help, Greek lessons and children’s services, alongside medical care.

Syed Zoha Ali Shadid, 47, has been living at MdM’s refugee centre for a year.  He was born in East Pakistan (before it became Bangladesh) and lived in Germany for several years.  He is eager to talk and he smiles readily, exposing missing front teeth.  He has purple marks on his forehead which he claims were inflicted by electric shock torture in Pakistan.  He has diabetes, high blood pressure, angina and black spots over his legs.  “I lived in a park for a year and I was so ill” he says, “When they found me in the park I said ‘give me poison, I want to die’.  If nobody had found me, maybe after two more days I would have died.”

When Shadid came to the centre he was suicidal and had tried to drown himself in the river but was pulled out by a passer-by.  Now he has received medical treatment and psychological help at MdM and is thriving after a year at the centre.

Khtibi Holm Nabi, 24, from Afghanistan has been living at MdM’s shelter for over a year.   “When I was in Afghanistan, my house was caught in a war zone” he says, “from one side was the Taliban and the other the state army.  One night a rocket hit the house.”  Nabi’s upper left arm was severely damaged in the blast; the flesh is almost pared down to the bone.  He can’t lift heavy things and is unable to work.  He is also unable to claim disability benefit as the doctors stated that he has 65% damage to the arm and he has been informed that the required threshold to qualify for support is 67% damage.

Like most migrants, Nabi was shocked at the life he has had to endure in Greece; “When I was in Afghanistan I thought that Greece is a European country and everything is much better there, but now I think it is worse than Afghanistan” he tells us, “I don’t have any income, not one euro.  And now I’ve stayed more than a year at the shelter I will have to leave, I don’t know where to go or what to do.  It is a very difficult situation.  Maybe I will go to live in a park.”

“It is a problem for the EU in general – there should be more solidarity”

Many migrants in Athens rely on food hand-outs by charities and church groups simply to survive.  Bowls of spaghetti and lentils in tomato sauce are dished out by a large group of busy volunteers five days a week at the Caritas Refugee Centre’s soup kitchen.  Men, women and children queue up the centre’s poorly lit, narrow staircase and out on the street in a dingy area near to Omonia Square, downtown Athens.

The centre, which has around 80 volunteers of several nationalities, also hands out clothes and blankets donated by locals, holds Greek and English lessons and administers vaccinations to children.  Aglaia Koustautakopoulis, the centre’s social worker, says that the people that come to the centre face a desperate plight, “They often live in abandoned houses without electricity, without water, without food – Greece doesn’t offer them anything.”

Around 90% of the service users are male and an estimated 60% are sleeping rough on the streets.  Roughly 70% come from Africa and the remainder are overwhelmingly Asian, although Greek people suffering from the fallout of the financial crisis are attending in increasing numbers.

Mohammad Arian, 23, from Afghanistan, has been in Greece for five years and has been coming to the centre every day for the past year to get food and clothing.  His is thin and agitated and looks ten years older than his age. “I left Afghanistan because of the war” he tells us.  “I finished school and I had no job, there were suicide bombings every day and you don’t believe that tomorrow you will be alive.  But I suffer here also – there are no jobs, no laws, no rights.”  He says he will try to leave Greece and go to Germany or the UK.

Youssef Awis, 28, left his home in Mogadishu, Somalia because he felt his life was in danger.  He’s been in Greece for five years and has been coming to the Caritas centre every day for two years.  “I don’t have anything, I come here for food” he says –“I want to leave Greece – we don’t have shelter, we sleep on the street and get no help from the Greek government.”

On the day we visited, the centre fed 330 adults and 52 children – a typical number according to Nikos Voutsinos, the 66 year-old President of the centre; “The numbers have increased since the summer, previously we were feeding 210-215 and not so many children.”

Voutsinos claims that funding is a huge problem for the centre.  “We used to get funding from the ministry of foreign affairs but nothing for two years now” he says, “the only good thing is that the Greek people have become more sensitive, there is more solidarity.  If you get poorer, you give more!  Since the financial crisis we have increased our volunteers.”

Voutsinos bemoans the lack of government policy on immigration and the limited access to asylum.  He describes Greek politicians as “useless” and as an ex-economist believes that the austerity programme imposed on Greece is making the suffering worse.  But he is also critical of the EU’s failure to help Greece cope with the migrants; “Why doesn’t Europe accept that it is their frontier?  It is a problem for the EU in general – there should be more solidarity.”

[All photography by David Shaw; for full photo story on migrants in Greece see here]


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This entry was posted on May 15, 2012 by in Migrants in Greece and tagged , .
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