Port of Call
Peace Boat Visits Doctors of the World - Greece , Jun 20, 2018
The Ocean Dream arrives to the port of Piraeus.
The mass migration of people crossing the Mediterranean into Europe from the Middle East region and Africa, or "refugee crisis" as it is often called, has been a dominant political issue in Europe for the past few years. Though the issue now gets less media attention than it did when the first mass waves of people began crossing in 2015, it still plays a major role in the social and political landscape of the region. It has particularly impacted the three biggest entry points to Europe for people crossing the sea: Spain, Italy, and Greece. Though it is difficult to accurately track the numbers of people entering Europe this way, it is estimated that roughly one million people entered Greece in 2015 alone, with 30,000 to 40,000 arriving in the years since. About 20% of arrivals are minors, many of whom travel unaccompanied. Roughly three million people have died or are missing since the peak began in 2015.

The Peace Boat study tour in a locker room of MdM's night shelter.
Greece has had a particularly tumultuous past several years, because in addition to the challenges brought about by the refugee crisis, Greece was also greatly impacted by the 2008 financial crisis, and the attendant Greek debt crisis of 2009. Pensions in Greece are currently one-third of what they were previously, which is especially damaging to the society as many families depend on the pension of only one family member. In 2017, it was estimated that 40% of the Greek population now live on less than 10,000 euros per year, and the official unemployment rate is now between 30 and 40 per cent. It is likely these estimates are conservative. These changes have put great strain on Greek society, especially as the government has made big cuts in public spending to assistance programmes. The Greek national healthcare system is struggling to provide care to its citizens and the influx of newcomers. Though the crises have harkened dark times for many, a number of organizations have risen to the challenges they present, in hopes of making life safer and brighter for those who need assistance.

Peace Boat participants listen to a talk about MdM's night shelter through a Peace Boat interpreter.
One such organization that is working to address these concerns is Médecins du Monde (MdM) - Grce, or "Doctors of the World - Greece" in English. MdM is a network of 15 delegations around the world providing vital medical care to people in need, guided by the philosophy that "every human being has a right to humanitarian assistance, irrespective of their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ideology or political persuasion." MdM maintains nine facilities across Greece: seven polyclinics, one accommodation centre for unaccompanied minors, and one night shelter for the homeless, all of which offer their services to both Greeks and foreigners. The polyclinics, open five days a week and staffed mostly by volunteers, provide free primary medical care. The night shelter and the accommodation centre, both of which are in Athens, offer refuge to people without a place to sleep. Beneficiaries of the night shelter can have a shower, watch TV, rest, and sleep before departing in the morning. Though food is not included in the package, the shelter provides food as often as it can, when it is made available to it through donations. Through the accommodation centre, MdM provides safe housing and living for homeless unaccompanied minors and supportive psycho-social services. The night shelter is for adults and accommodates 55, and the accommodation centre has a capacity of 32.

A bedroom in the Athens night shelter maintained by MdM.
Peace Boat's relationship with Médecins du Monde - Greece began in 2015, when the numbers of people trying to cross the sea into Europe began to dramatically increase. Peace Boat felt it would be inappropriate to sail through the Mediterranean without helping address the growing crisis in its waters. Peace Boat has supported MdM through onboard auctions with donations from participants and invited staff members as guest educators onboard, but the 98th Global Voyage was the first time for participants to visit MdM facilities in Athens through an in-port study programme. They visited the night shelter for homeless, where they listened to talks by MdM staff. Anastasios Yfantis, Operations Director, gave an overview of the situation in Greece. Stathis Poularakis, Advocacy Officer, spoke about the work that MdM - Greece are doing. Panagiotis Douros, Mental Health Coordinator, told the participants about the mental health issues faced by those using the services, having suffered trauma from their difficult experiences. Participants heard a short testimony from a beneficiary of the night shelter who has used the facility in recent months. The beneficiary spoke of how he had held his job for two years before losing it, and later lost his house as a result. He was homeless for one month, which he spent sleeping in streets, parks, the airport, bus stops, and other such places. This was a dangerous and highly precarious time in his life, not only because of the economic stress, but because of the dangers of theft and personal safety safety on the streets. Though the current crisis of homelessness is going to take a massive, structural effort to resolve, with their shelters, MdM aims to minimize the risks the beneficiaries would otherwise face without accommodation.

The Peace Boat study tour in a bedroom of the night shelter.
The MdM facilities do a great deal to address the Greek social problems of homelessness and the shortage of adequate medical care, but of course, the issues remain pervasive. The polyclinic visited by the Peace Boat study tour services an average of 150 patients a day - a great deal more than usual for a clinic of its size. The clinic isn't able to provide the full range of medical services, and must refer serious cases to the national healthcare system, through a process than can be time-consuming, as beneficiaries who don't yet have a Greek social security number must sometimes secure one before they can receive the treatment they need through the public system. Organizations like MdM offer a beacon of hope in these troubled times, but will not be able to solve the crises on their own, in the absence of a large-scale, organized movement.