1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'The misery is still real'

Helena Kaschel
March 2, 2017

The media has become quieter regarding refugees in Greece, but the situation is still difficult. DW spoke with Jochen Ganter, a physician for Doctors without Borders to find out more.

Griechenland - Elliniko Flüchtlingscamp
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/N. Georgiou

Around 16,000 refugees are stranded on the Greek islands.  Since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect early last year, they have not been allowed to travel to the mainland until their asylum applications are processed.

The Human Rights Organization Pro Asyl has accused the German federal government of delaying the admission of refugees from southern Europe. Germany has committed itself to taking 27,500 refugees until September 2017 from Italy and Greece, as part of a so-called relocation program, but up until now, only 10 percent have come to Germany, according Pro Asyl.

The aid organization Doctors without Borders has also released a statement demanding the German government to deal with the matter more quickly. Although the conditions in some of the refugee camps have improved recently, "people still have to live in tents in overflowing EU-designated areas on the  Greek islands and the Greek mainland. They have inadequate access to sanitary facilities and hardly any private space” the statement said.

Jochen Ganter was from May to February this year a project coordinator from Doctors without Borders in mobile clinics in the Athens refugee camp, Elliniko. The camp consists of an old Olympic arena and an abandoned airport.   

DW: When the media reports on the refugee situation in Greece, it's often about the precarious conditions on the Greek islands. How is the situation different in Athens compared to Lesbos or Samos?

On the mainland, the circumstances differ from camp to camp, especially in regards to accommodation. The vast majority of asylum seekers were provided accommodation from the Greek government in warehouses or former industrial plants, where they had to live in tents within the buildings. The refugee aid organization in the meantime has provided hotels and apartments to those refugees coming as a result of the relocation program or family reunification. This of course cannot be compared to the Greek islands, where a large number of the refugees still live outside in tents. In Elliniko we also have differing situations: in one camp around 400 to 500 people live in tents out in the open. In the old airport, on the other hand, the tents are located inside the building itself. In the clinic in th city center we also take care of people who live in apartments or houses in Athens.

How is the medical treatment of refugees in the capital? What type of illnesses have you dealt with?

In regards to physical ailments, there is a complete spectrum there that we would also expect in Germany. Since many refugees are being accommodated in tents, there are several cases of common cold. We also dealt with many older refugees who suffer from chronic illnesses. When we talk about mental health, it's a completely different story.

Krankenpfleger Jochen Ganter
Jochen Ganter worked for mobile clinics in Athens to provide medical care for refugeesImage: Ärzte Ohne Grenzen

In what way?

The psychological burden on refugees stranded on the Greek islands was underestimated. In addition to the trauma that the people from war-torn countries or on their trip bring with them, there is also a layer of frustration, depression and hopelessness. The refugees know, I am now here, but am not going further. When someone is conscious of the fact that they may have a chance of relocating or of family reunification, not in two weeks but rather in months, that saps a person's energy. Some refugees have spent already almost a year in tents.

Greece has slowly begun to integrate children into the school system but they have no chance at all to settle down or build a future there. Many parents simply want the best for their children and that is often forgotten in the discussions about migrations. This generation will either go back or become an integral part of society, but what do we give them for it? It is really hard, when someone knows children in Germany of the same age and realizes what perspectives they have.

Since the clearing out of the refugee camp in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border in May 2016, media attention has shifted away from the situation. Has this become noticeable in your work?

No. There are many projects worldwide that we know are not in the eyes of the media but the misery is still just as real. One cannot be misled by this as a helper on the ground. At the onset of winter in Greece the media's presence increased, but now it has subsided. That does not distract us from our work.

In January aid organizations sounded the alarm because living conditions on the islands had decreased dramatically. Has the situation now been brought under control?

That depends on the standard being set. Someone who knows about refugee camps in other parts of the world could try and say that the situation is alright. When one bears in mind that we are in Europe, then it is just not in order. Just in Elliniko there are still people living in tents, whether that be inside or outside of buildings. In an emergency situation that would be an adequate reaction. My opinion is that one year later refugees still can't be accommodated in this fashion.

Is it estimated that the situation will calm down when the temperatures increase again?

Of course the cold brings difficulties. But to depend on the weather would be a naive assumption. This is exactly what happened in the last year.  It was originally assumed that the winter wouldn't be so hard and many measures were delayed until it actually snowed in Greece. For the refugees who live in tents, the conditions are bad in all seasons: in winter it is too cold, and in the summer with sometimes temperatures of 35 degrees it is too stuffy. If you set a standard for habitable accommodation of refugees in Europe, you can not rely on the weather report.

Has the situation improved overall in comparison to 2015 and 2016?

It has already changed somewhat. Due to the deal between the EU and Turkey and the closed borders, the number of refugees has stabilized. Those who have arrived have received help and the living situation, apart from the tents out in the open, is altogether better.  Some movement has happened but we can not be satisfied with the situation because it is still far from what we would consider worthy for human beings.

This interview was conducted by Helena Kaschel.