Since 2015, Greece has been engulfed in a refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq are coming to the Mediterranean country to escape persecution and war in their homelands.
“It is dramatic and it is the most vulnerable of the vulnerable coming in,” Elias Pavlopoulos, head of Médecins sans Frontières in Greece, said. “There are whole families fleeing war zones in Syria and Iraq. In the last few months our clinics have seen more people who have suffered violence, who are victims of rape, who have been tortured, than ever before.”
Most of these refugees intended to use Greece as only a stepping stone before seeking asylum in wealthier European countries like Germany, Sweden, and Austria, but a 2016 deal shut borders, making it nearly impossible for refugees to legally make it out of the country.
More than 15,000 migrants are now being forced to stay on the Greek islands instead of the mainland until their asylum procedures are completed. These high refugee populations have also caused protests from Greek citizens living on islands like Lesbos, Chios, and Samos who feel like refugee camps are overcrowded and negatively affecting Greek natives.
In 2016 alone, about 173,000 refugees arrived in Greece, many of them girls and women in need of reproductive and maternal health care. The United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) deployed workers and clinics to add to whatever resources the Greek islands already had available. In the last few months of 2016, it has completed over 1,000 consultations.
“At the start of any crisis, it is critical to ensure that women, girls and other vulnerable groups have access to sexual and reproductive health care, including the prevention and treatment of sexual violence, prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and comprehensive obstetrics care,” Felicia Jones, a UNFPA sexual and reproductive health coordinator, said.
Gender-based violence is rarely ever reported, though it is very common, so UNFPA’s treatments were incredibly important. Over the course of one year, 350 migrants or refugees reported falling victim to gender-based violence such as sexual assault, forced marriage, physical abuse, and rape.
UNFPA has already handed the reins over to the Greek government, which means that they left the treatment of the some 48,000 refugees and migrants in the country’s hands. But it did not do so without first providing training, especially because Greek protocols for dealing with rape and gender-based violence were not previously up to most international standards.
The organization has trained medical professionals, mental health professionals, and camp managers on psychological first aid, clinical treatment for rape, and more, in order to help them better care for refugees and migrants who have been victims of gender-based violence. It has also trained police and lawyers to handle such cases with more sensitivity and privacy.
Another important aspect of the training was focused on maternal care, since about four percent of women refugees or migrants are pregnant.
“Being trained in sexual and reproductive health provides me the knowledge to support and better advise the beneficiaries of my programme,” one participant said.
UNFPA left Greece as of December 14th, 2017, so it is now up to the 1,350 people it has trained to help treat refugees and sustain the program.
“The first step has been done,” one medical coordinator said. “Trained staff and protocols exist now in Greece. If these protocols will remain only a theory, without being implemented in the field, then all these trainings and trained staff will be useless.”
Some say that the first step toward anything is always the hardest, but sometimes, perseverance can create its own kind of challenges. Hopefully, Greece maintains the training that these men and women have received, so that more of those fleeing for their lives can recover in a safe and secure environment.
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