At the edge of humanity: refugee healthcare in Greece and the EU

avramopoulos-european-commission-greece

Dimitris Avramopoulos, Member of the EC in charge of Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship visits Athens where he attends the EASO Consultative Forum plenary meeting 2016 and participates in a press event. Date: 28/11/2016 Reference: P-032978/00-03 Location: Athens

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Eleana Strouthou. The writer is a second year medical student at European University Cyprus Nicosia.  Mrs Strouthou is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA).

We were driving in Lesvos, Greece, passing by the people walking towards the port, a 12-hour distance by feet. “Stop there, let’s help the pregnant lady with the three kids”.

By October 2016, Greece has received 1.025.966 refugees and migrants making it by far the most popular entry point in Europe. Approximately 60.910 documented people stayed in Greece after the northern borders were closed and were relocated to government-run refugee camps.

Two years later, throughout Europe there is still little coordinated provision of the incoming populations’ care. NGOs, European and Supranational organizations assist the host countries but it seems to many that more must be achieved. Healthcare in camps is mainly provided by NGOs such as Doctors without Borders, which yield high-quality medical care and organize health projects including mass vaccinations and psychological support groups.

Nevertheless, several humanitarian organizations consider most of the camps unsuitable for people, especially refugees, a psychologically vulnerable group. Sleeping in cold shelters can cause conditions such as hypothermia while hot temperatures may induce heart attacks or tiredness. Overcrowding the camps may also allow infections or common pathogens to spread more easily. Even if the conditions in the camps were ideal, temporal and long-term needs of refugee populations are significantly different and are not treated accordingly.

The systems in countries receiving refugees and migrants are considered well equipped and experienced enough to provide them with high-standard medical care. Yet, due to the ongoing economic recession, the Greek healthcare –especially the public sector– has been suffering from domestic austerity policies for years. Other European countries are also struggling to deal with the refugee crisis while the UN is pressuring EU bodies to establish a broad and solid health plan.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are entitled to the “same treatment as accorded to nationals”. The UNHCR and the WHO are responsible for these rights and they are supporting countries with information and guidance for the refugees’ current health needs. However, in the long-term, focusing and improving existing healthcare structures will be necessary.

The European Commission has invested approximately 5.000.000 for “supporting member states under particular migratory pressure in their response to health-related challenges”, to ensure that both NGOs and national systems can respond to all healthcare issues, both permanent and temporal, not only emergencies. The difference between implementing and planning in these projects however, is that implementation may require years and this will leave countries like Greece relying solely on collapsing healthcare systems.

Plans that focus on both national and international health systems exist and hopefully they will materialize into disease treatment and prevention. Numerous problems have arisen due to this crisis and it will be up to the doctors, the medical students and leaders of today and tomorrow to solve them.

About the author

Eleana Strouthou Greek, 2nd year medical student at the European University Cyprus in Nicosia, Cyprus. She grew up in Athens, Greece and moved to Cyprus for her studies. Having spent the lasts two summers in the northern part of Lesvos and volunteered at the Piraeus refugee camp (now closed) so she has witnessed the refugee crisis from first hand. With parents involved in the Greek public and private healthcare sector, the Greek economic crisis and its effect on healthcare has been one of her major points of interest.

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