By Megan Rowling
Is it possible that a European country could find itself mired in a humanitarian crisis in the 21st century?
Nikitas Kanakis, president of Doctors of the World Greece, fears so. He warns that the beginnings of such an emergency are already underway in Greece, where ordinary people are struggling to cope with austerity measures imposed by the government and its creditors to help pay back the southern European nation's massive debts.
"We consider the situation as the beginning of a humanitarian problem... we have seen more and more people asking for things they didn't ask for before - food items, doctors and medicines - and there are more and more homeless people," he says. "In a short period of time, we have seen a very big increase in the number of people coming to us for help."
Doctors of the World runs a number of health clinics around the country, and Kanakis says the proportion of Greeks coming to the medical aid group's facilities rose from about 10 percent in 2010, when the majority were foreign immigrants, to 35-40 percent by the end of last year. He believes the figure could go up to 60 percent this year.
Kanakis says that what's primarily a medical organisation has found itself turning into a wider relief group, with more and more people requesting food aid and shelter. His staff do their best to help the homeless find a place to stay, but there aren't enough shelters, especially in Athens, he says.
"We are seeing new people homeless... who have lost everything. They are in a critical situation and they need a job," he explains.
Doctors of the World, the main international aid group operating in Greece, and the country's smaller non-governmental organisations working on social problems, doubt whether they will be able to meet soaring basic needs.
Last year, Doctors of the World helped some 30,000 people, an increase of 20 percent on the previous year, and the number is expected to rise another 15-20 percent in 2012, Kanakis says.
His organisation - more accustomed to sending aid for those affected by disasters and conflicts overseas - is even in the odd position of considering whether to ask for international help. But this would be a politically sensitive move, and one the group would not embark on without being sure it would be widely understood.
It is likely to be on the agenda for discussion at a meeting of Doctors of the World's 14 international branches in Athens this week.
And it isn't just Greece the top officials of the network - known in some countries as Medecins du Monde - are worried about.
PUBLIC HEALTH SYSTEMS UNDER PRESSURE
On Thursday, they will hold a press conference to draw attention to "a crisis affecting public health systems across Europe" due to worsening difficulties in accessing healthcare, growing inequalities and reduced spending on public health and social care.
In a statement to announce the gathering, issued on Tuesday, Doctors of the World said financial measures taken in cash-strapped Greece and Spain are having "disastrous consequences both for the individual and for society", adding that they are "socially unjust and economically inefficient".
"For financial reasons more and more Europeans are giving up on seeking healthcare," it said. "The fundamental right to access healthcare is not being upheld, and this is affecting the entire population, amongst them poor migrants."
The group also presented some figures for 2011 collected at its clinics in Amsterdam, Brussels, London, Munich and Nice:
- 34 percent of patients perceived their state of health as poor or very poor, despite an average age of 35
- in cases where doctors deemed treatment necessary, just over 46 percent received none
- 79 percent of pregnant women when asked if they received antenatal care said they did not
Aid groups and health professionals are warning that the clampdown on public spending across Europe will have a particularly severe impact on foreign migrants without official papers.
According to a recent article in the Lancet, the Spanish government is planning to remove medical cards from immigrants. As a result, from Sept. 1, half a million people there will be entitled only to emergency medical care and assistance with pregnancy and childbirth, the medical journal reported.
"This is a humanitarian problem for public health,” it quoted Marciano Sánchez Bayle, a paediatrician and spokesperson for the Spanish Federation of Associations for the Defence of Public Health (FADSP), as saying.
Doctors of the World is calling on EU governments to provide healthcare and protection from deportation for seriously ill foreigners who cannot access adequate healthcare in their country of origin.
Older people are also of concern to humanitarian groups, with Kanakis saying elderly Greeks are struggling to afford basic medicines. The Lancet reports that, under Spain's new measures, only retirees receiving the minimum pension will continue to get free drugs, and some could end up having to choose between buying food or medicine.
Kanakis points out that, when talking about the start of a humanitarian crisis in some European locations like Athens, it can't be compared to the severe hunger emergency that gripped much of the Horn of Africa last year. For now, it's more akin to the pockets of dire deprivation seen in some Latin American cities, he says.
But he is worried about how things could develop if, as some economic commentators have predicted, Greece abandons the euro and returns to the drachma later this year.
"I think things will be worse in two to three months (anyway), but they will be even worse if we leave the euro," the dentist warns.
Is a humanitarian crisis emerging in southern Europe?
By Megan Rowling