European Union, Reporting, World

Refugees in Greece. Traumas of Babel

The second instalment of Michal Pavlásek's ‘Stories from the Babel Archipelago’, this time about the work of social and community centres in Greece.

*This article is part of a five-part series, available to read here.

Over the last decade many social and community centres have been created or expanded in response to Greece’s economic crisis. Today unemployment in the country remains at 25%, rising to over 50% among young people. Meanwhile as a result of austerity measures, pensions have been halved, and salaries in state jobs have been cut by 40%. Then on top of it all there is the infamous refugee crisis.

Alongside squats and various grassroots welfare clinics, community centres provide help for people in a variety of difficult situations, those who were suddenly unable to pay rent and support their children, or, in the case of many refugees, who lived in camps with unsatisfactory conditions. Many of the latter have now become ‘clients’ at solidarity reception centres.

Janis has been working as a psychotherapist in the Clinical Psychology Centre, Babel, which has been open for ten years. Originally the centre focused on asylum seekers but, gradually, they had to respond to new developments and the centre has also become a daycare centre for various kinds of migrants.

Image: Michal Pavlásek. All rights reserved. 

Most of the recently founded camps are open ones. Detention centres on the islands, meanwhile, remain closed. People are unlikely to reach the Greek mainland from these spaces and are essentially waiting for deportation in line with the EU’s with Turkey which was finalised in March 2016. “Here we try to understand peoples’ needs and what their mental situation is after they were confronted with something that they did not expect. Living for two years in camps”, explains Janis.

Babel’s individual approach towards each newcomer creates trust. “This is what they have most lacked”, Janis continues. Nonetheless, he explains, it is difficult to establish this kind of relationship, as many refugees have never experienced psychological and psychiatric assistance before. In Babel, they try to go beyond the idea of refugees as a weak group of endangered people, unable to act and make decisions by themselves.

“Some might think it is humiliating to automatically send people to a psychologist… and I can understand that. I think it comes from our sensitivity to the fact that people are suffering and we are not able to do anything about it,” Janis voices his own doubts while emphasizing that the integration of people waiting for asylum in Greece needs to become a public issue.

Image: Michal Pavlásek. All rights reserved. 

The situation in Germany is a useful point of contrast. Mental health care through psychotherapy aimed at the control of PTSD (stress, anxiety, depressions and traumas) is an important part of integration activities there. Greece, on the other hand, suffers from a lack of professionals, and for this reason, an increasing number of pilot programmes aim to educate the refugees as equivalent psycho-social consultants who can help other asylum seekers or persons granted asylum though group therapy. “The problem is that most of them live in isolation in camps, out of society, so they hardly ever meet local people,” says Janis.

A crash against the wall

The closure of the Balkan migration route was a big shock for migrants and refugees. When a fence was built at the Greek-Macedonian border, it was a real crash against the wall for many. They did not expect their journey would end here. They know that it is very difficult for them to find a job in Greece.

“But even here people can find work” continues Janis, “it’s great when they show what they can do. Nonetheless we have many problems with conditions and wages, and the newcomers are, of course, more in danger of possible exploitation, which began in the 1990s and has been growing ever since. Greece was always like this, using immigrants as seasonal workers without any labour rights.” His colleague, Katarina, a psychologist, adds “I think it has ruined the life of many people here.”

Image: Michal Pavlásek. All rights reserved. 

Refugees find it difficult to accept the idea that they will stay forever. It is a situation that opens up ample space for depression. Another factor in such depression can be the traumatizing experiences which they experienced in the country they fled, or which they faced on their difficult journey to Europe.

It might sound surprising but in the experts’ opinion it is single men who are the most endangered group, as organizations and community centres pay the least attention to them. These are considered people who are not affected by such problems, or who can solve them on their own.

Image: Michal Pavlásek. All rights reserved. 

Refugees in Greece are stuck in various situations. Some wait for their asylum claim to be processed, some have been included in the European system of relocation (migration quotas). Others have not been registered, do not have any status, and still believe they might find smugglers who will take them from Greece to elsewhere in Europe. In time, though, this illusion fades.

The word Babel refers to Babylon from the Old Testament. After thinking for a while Janis answers my question as to whether the name means something for him personally: “It is quite a pessimistic story, about the failure of communication. I hope we will not come to an end like this.”

* Part 3 of ‘Stories from the Babel Archipelago’ will be published next week.

** This text was first published in Czech on Deník Referendum. It was written with the support of Strategy AV21, the research programme Effective Public Policies and Contemporary Society – Mobility. 


Michal Pavlásek
Michal Pavlásek is a social anthropologist, university teacher, freelance journalist and documentarist, Turkish coffee lover, researcher at the Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Co-founder of Anthropictures, a flexible association of social scientists providing independent field research. His research focuses on migration and multiculturalism.