Greece (MNN) — Mounting debt and rising unemployment are scaring many here. Adding to the fears of economic collapse is a refugee crisis that has no end in sight.
Despite austerity measures designed to dig the nation out of debt, Greece has become known as a friendly country in which to enter the European Union.
Once in the EU, refugees have more freedom of travel than they have had since leaving their homes–or at least that used to be the case back when refugees from wartorn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria were being welcomed by EU countries, says AMG International President and CEO Tasos Ioannidis. But as the flood of migrants grew, the funding to care for the people grew short. Violence, like the sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, or the attacks Nov. 13 in Paris, have been associated with Muslim refugees and have given opponents of the migration ammunition to shut off the flow of potential immigrants.
Despite the cold reception migrants are receiving in the EU, they keep coming. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates the number of refugees attempting to reach the EU will reach one million by mid-March. But countries that were receptive to travelers of all stripes in December are now setting guidelines.
The EU is sending back refugees that are not from an area considered a war zone. As the first EU country to receive the refugees, Greece is being made the scapegoat for the problems of other EU nations, says Ioannidis.
Now a Tennessee resident, Ioannidis spent his formative years in Greece. He has watched his home country going through lot of turmoil in the past several years. “Greece has been in a financial crisis since 2009. It is a crisis driven by excessive debt. As the world economy went through a downturn in 2009, the situation in Greece came to a breaking point. They asked for help from the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the European Union, and the European Central Bank,” Ioannidis explains. “It was the first country to go into a memorandum of understanding with creditors to restructure it’s debt and put policies in place to make the debt burden sustainable. Unfortunately, the implementation of the measures always lacked. While other countries went through similar experiences, they were able to exit from the memorandum of understanding pretty quickly.”
That hasn’t been the case for Greece, now in its seventh year of the memorandum of understanding.
“The situation is pretty dire over there, economically,” Ioannidis continues. The overall unemployment is high at about 26%. The youth unemployment is even more disturbing, exceeding 50%.
Now, border closures around Greece are threatening to create a bottleneck of refugees in the country, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi. He said his organization, with the Greek government, need to plan for the possibility of a few thousand migrants who are stuck in Greece.
“We need to work, especially, on massive resettlement from Middle Eastern countries,” Grandi said.
On Wednesday in Athens, refugees were sitting in parks or wandering the city. Many of them had been to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia border crossing, but were sent back. A man named Sayed said he, his wife, and three children were among those herded into a camp, then turned back. Only Syrians and Iraqis with passports were allowed through, he told the UNHCR. With a fence erected between Greece and Macedonia, the bottleneck for refugees is not likely to change.
The closed borders hinder commerce into and out of the country, Ioannidis says. With its current economic woes, Ioannidis fears what will happen to the thousands of homeless people landing on Greece’s shores.
AMG strives to help as many refugees as possible. Staff give water, food and medical treatment to those who need it. There is a group stationed at the border with Macedonia. They really need prayers there, says Ioannidis.
“Another consequence of the economic crisis is: the public healthcare system has continued to collapse,” Ioannidis adds. “People need medical care, and St. Luke’s [the hospital sponsored by AMG] is exceptional. Through the care we offer there, we can give a clear expression of the love of Christ.”
As they work to show Christ’s love, Ioannidis says AMG staff need support from the Church.
“Whatever ministry they work in, working with people who are hurting and suffering is just draining. So they need a lot of prayer,” he says. “You are dealing day after day with people who need your help. It is hard, but with God’s help we have continued to work there.”