A journey interrupted: the changing health needs of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece

WHO/Matteo Dembech

The Idomeni tent camp in Greece.

Since 2012 Greece has been on the front line of a large influx of refugees and migrants to the WHO European Region. In the past the country was primarily a transit point for people arriving in the Region, with most continuing on to other countries. Last year, on 18 February 2016, the popular “Balkan route” from Greece through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Serbia officially shut down. Refugees and migrants who had arrived in Greece expecting to stay only briefly found their journeys interrupted. Today, more than 50 000 people wait in tent camps across Greece – stranded.

“Responding to the health needs of refugees and migrants may become a challenge for transit countries, especially when these groups stay for a long and often undefined period of time. In these situations, it is imperative to identify those in the most vulnerable situations,” says Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Health systems cannot act alone, as the health status of refugees and migrants is directly related to their living conditions and access to basic services.”

Last year, WHO/Europe and the Hellenic Ministry of Health identified four priorities to address the changing situation. Vaccination was recognized as one key aspect of the response. WHO provided technical assistance to the Ministry for a series of large-scale immunization campaigns, and donated 26 000 yellow vaccination booklets to ensure proper documentation of administered vaccines.

The medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was authorized to lead some of the immunization campaigns in Greece; these efforts reached more than 10 000 children in 2016. Apostolos Veizis is Director of the Medical Operational Support Unit for MSF in Greece.

“Everything changes when you are dealing with a group of stranded people, rather than people in transit,” he says. “In more than 15 years working in this area, this is the worst situation I have ever seen in Europe.” Read more about his experiences on the front line of the refugee and migrant crisis via the link below .

WHO/Europe’s work on migration and health

Since 2011 WHO/Europe has worked closely with European countries on the front line of large-scale migration. In Greece specifically it has conducted several assessment missions jointly with the Ministry of Health and the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. WHO/Europe supports ministries of health across the Region in strengthening national capacity to improve the public health response to migration, including through enhanced coordination among the multiple actors involved in the response. For this purpose, WHO/Europe is deploying additional staff to the field to provide assistance in several countries, including Greece. In late March 2017 WHO/Europe will participate in a policy dialogue on public health reform in Greece. One of the sessions will focus on strengthening public health through action on refugee and migrant health, not only in Greece but across the Region.

At the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September 2016 the 53 countries in the European Region adopted the first Strategy and action plan on refugee and migrant health in the WHO European Region . This includes actions that Member States and WHO/Europe have agreed to take to improve the European public health response to migration. It also supports Sustainable Development Goal targets related to equitable access to quality health services (target 3.8) and safe, responsible migration and mobility of people (target 10.7).

The current influx of refugees and migrants to the European Region is the result of not only long-standing conflicts and war but also structural and persistent global inequalities. Therefore, the Strategy and action plan builds on the idea that migration to the European Region is not an isolated crisis but an ongoing reality, with short-, medium- and longer-term implications – one that requires a proactive response from the public health sector.