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29 May 2017

BWI Women Conducts Solidarity Mission in Greece

Seventeen women trade union leaders and activists representing BWI affiliates throughout Europe including Switzerland, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Macedonia, Cyprus, Albania, and France conducted a two-day mission to Greece to provide solidarity to the Greek people who despite facing enormous economic challenges are providing much needed support and solidarity to refugees and migrants who have landed on their shores.

According to Rita Schiavi, Chair of the BWI European Regional Women’s Committee and the main proponent of the mission, “As the BWI and EFBWW grapple with what should be our role in addressing the influx of refugees and migrants into Europe, it is important that we have a first-hand look at what is happening in Greece, a country that is on the front-lines and what the Greek government and its people are doing to assist and support migrants and refugees.”

In the past two years, more than 1.3 million migrants and refugee travelled through Greece and currently there are 62,000 refugees still residing in Greece mainly in the nearly 60 refugee camps in both the mainland and the islands. Although the numbers have recently dwindled due to the closing of the Balkan corridor and the 2016 agreement between EU and Turkey, at the height of crossings across the Mediterranean thousands landed on the shores of the Greek Islands including Lesbos, where at one point 5,000 migrants and refugees arrived in over-capsized boats and dinghies.

In recounting the actions of the residents of Lesbos who rescued and welcomed thousands of migrants and refugees seeking peace and safety, Lena Kougea, a Greek activist who gave a briefing to the delegation stated, “It is important to maintain the legacy and spirit of the what happened in Lesbos. It should not be forgotten.”

After the briefing, Gail Cartmail, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union of United Kingdom noted the political context of the situation in Greece. “We were told that it was the same Greek coastguards who saved thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015 who previously did not intervene to rescue people at sea. The critical change was that they were given different orders by the Greek government. In our efforts as trade unions to address the issue of migrants and refugees focused on rights, solidarity, and humanity we need to keep in mind the need to influence such political choices, which are a matter of life or death."

The delegation had an opportunity to visit the Diavata refugee camp, a military-operated refugee camp that opened in February, 2016. At its height the camp housed more than 2,500 refugees; however, currently only 300 are residing in the camp awaiting integration into Greek society or being place in other countries. In the dialogue with the delegation, the camp administrative staff outlined the operations of the camp and the challenges they faced in servicing the refugees at the camp such as lack of sufficient resources for the administrators.

The group also visited the Thessaloniki Social Solidarity Clinic operated by more than 200 volunteers providing much needed health care, dental care, and medicine to those who have no access to public health care. The clinic which has been in operation since 2012 operates as a collective.

According to Zamaney Menso, “It is important to point out that since the clinic is independent from the government and accepts no grants from foundations or international institutions it is truly sustainable.”

The mission also ate at the social kitchen operated by a community center that provides support for migrants and refugees. Every Friday, volunteers offers free or discounted (pay-as-you can) lunch to all in need. The visits to both the solidarity clinic and social kitchen proved to be inspirational to many of the mission participants.

“Despite the challenges and difficulties the Greek people are currently facing, it is truly inspirational to witness and meet those who are providing much needed services and assistance to all including all those in need including migrants and refugees,” stated Ivana Dimitrova of SGIP of Macedonia.

The importance of the mission was not lost on Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of BWI who stated, “Ensuring rights for migrants and refugees as they enter the labour market is and will continue to be a priority for BWI. What we witnessed in Greece and the efforts of the Greek people to not only address the hardships put forth by the Troika but also actions of every day Greeks in showing humanity and solidarity to migrants and refugees is significant. At the social kitchen, I saw the slogan of People to the Power and this is a clear message for us to take toward our 4th World Congress.”