by Sofia Economopoulos
Contractor for the State Department & SolidarityNow Volunteer
According to Amnesty International’s 2016 Refugee’s Welcome Survey, Greece ranks among the top ten countries surveyed that said that they think their government should do more to help those fleeing war, and 3rd when asked if they would personally accept people fleeing war and persecution into their homes. Paradoxically, a Pew study found that 63 percent of Greeks think diversity makes Greece a worse place to live, an opinion echoed by fellow EU members, Italy (53%), Hungary (41%) and Poland (40%). In another Pew study, an overwhelming majority of Greeks believe that immigrants are a burden to the country because they “steal jobs and social benefits” and also are to blame for most criminal activity. So where is the disconnect?
There are many. Like most societies worldwide, the conflicting data is a prime example of theory rather than practice logic, and Greek history has illustrated that migrant/refugee populations have been reticently received and that the fear of the “other,” whose origins are a mystery, and are not white or Christian, is still quite prevalent. Factor in the never-ending financial crisis, which is wreaking its 8th consecutive year of financial havoc in Greece, and you have an irate, and mistrusting local populace. It must be said that the migrant crisis has affected tourism in the islands close to the Turkish sea border (Lesvos, Kos, and Samos, among others) which in turn is making it more difficult for the locals to make money in order to keep up with the never-ending flow of taxes that are constantly being created and/or raised. However, there has been no solid evidence that the migrants have “stolen” jobs that were to have gone to Greeks. One obvious reason is that there have currently been more business closures rather than openings due to the crisis. Nor is there evidence that the refugees are bringing diseases, and causing religious conflict. Right-wing extremist groups all over Europe and the US have seen the migrant crisis as a golden opportunity to propagate their xenophobic rhetoric, and in Greece’s case, to an audience of angry and desperate people, reeling from the financial crisis. To add insult to injury, Greece is not a volunteer-driven society, so local initiatives are hard pressed for staff and helpers, and government services to refugee populations are limited and poorly organized.
While it’s been painfully obvious that no country has been “ready” to deal with the migrant crisis, among the world’s richest economies, only Germany has accepted the challenge, with a strong government push and a willingness from civil society organizations to work side by side in hosting, integrating, and helping refugees. Oxfam found that while the world’s richest economies (US, UK, France, Germany, China and Japan) have only taken in 2.1 million refugees, Germany has taken in the largest number, 736,000. Among the efforts the German government has made to humanely host the never-ending flows of migrants, German civil society have come up with quite a few initiatives beneficial for their new guests: two websites for refugees, one for legal refugees to match with Germans and Austrians who want to offer a room in their apartment (https://www.refugees-welcome.net/), another which matches refugees with job opportunities based on their skill set (https://www.workeer.de/), as well as an initiative to create an IT programming school for migrants, which will operate through laptop donations and volunteers.
Acknowledging that each country faces a crisis differently, it begs the question of how Greek society can adapt to meet the needs of the present, instead of ignoring it and hoping it will go away? A basic starting point would be a competent, and well-executed government strategy that concentrates on initially hosting refugees (shelter, food, medical services), as well as integrating refugees whose applications are approved into society by offering Greek language and culture classes, which would help prevent a cultural divide seen particularly in Western Europe. It should be noted that this government strategy must have a strong focus on properly supporting, and accepting support from civil society organizations whose ideas and know-how are crucial in finding sustainable solutions to the current issues.
“Currently however, the Greek government has instituted no such plans, and NGOs and civil society organizations such as SolidarityNow have had to step up to the plate. For its part, SolidarityNow has made concerted efforts to respond to the humanitarian crisis by offering asylum services through its Solidarity Centers, creating a refugee hosting program called “Home for Hope,” as well as awarding grants to other active organizations in the crisis. SolidarityNow has made an important first step: now it is up to fellow Greeks to follow its example and demand more from their government, and from themselves.”