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May 30, 2012

Warnings of Humanitarian Crisis in Greek Port Town

by Henry Ridgwell

PERAMA, Greece - Aid workers say the Greek economic crash is causing a humanitarian crisis in one impoverished suburb of the port city of Piraeus. 

Most of the residents of Perama are unemployed and many are unable to afford basic healthcare or provisions. 

Bankrupt

The rusting hull of a super-yacht sits on Perama dockside, a project started and abandoned four years ago when the shipbuilding company went bankrupt.

The shipyard is eerily quiet, the first hint of the disaster unfolding in this hillside town.

Shipbuilding and maintenance, the industrial lifeblood of Perama, are all but dead. 

Panayiotis Karagiannakis, the president of the dock-workers' union, says these days the situation here at the shipyard is tragic.  Unemployment has reached 90 percent.  Nothing has been done to modernize the facilities to adapt to the needs of the industry.

In 2010 the main dockyard operations in Piraeus, one of Europe's busiest ports, were sold to the Chinese company Cosco. But Karagiannakis says the workers do not blame the Chinese.

"Our problem is not that China implements a shipping policy, but the fact that Greece, the Greek government does not do the same," he said.  "We have the ability, owning such a vast fleet, to support this industry and promote it.  This is not happening because we lack the political will, he added."

Health care

In the maze of streets leading up from the port lies an emergency health clinic.

It is run by the Greek branch of Doctors of the World, an aid agency more used to war zones and famines.  Doctor Meropi Manteou volunteers at the center.

She says the greatest problem concerns children.  Children who cannot get access to vaccinations and who cannot receive medical care.  The second biggest problem here is patients who recently lost their health care insurance.  They receive prescriptions, but they cannot afford them anymore.

A debate erupts between patients over who is to blame for Perama's plight.

Human tragedy

One middle-aged lady says she has been unemployed since 2008.  She says she is searching for work like a dog, but cannot find anything.  She says she would even clean toilets.  She says she would do it for her grandchildren, who she says are starving.

In their tiny house, Spiridoula Firlemi tries to care for her three-month-old son. The ceiling is caving in.  Her husband, a plumber, has had no decent work for three years.

She says now the electricity bill has come, it is more than $1,500.  She says they will cut it off and maybe she will get electricity from a neighbor, because she cannot leave the baby in the cold.

This is a community that feels abandoned, with no work and no hope.  Aid agency Doctors of the World warns this is the start of a humanitarian crisis, within the borders of the European Union.