Greek social work in the context of the “double crisis”
The “double crisis” and the constant struggle of social workers
At the outset of the financial crisis, the already weakened welfare sector was further undermined by the implementation of a series of strict austerity measures by what came to be known as the Troika of lenders (International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank). Domestic and international elites, in search of a scapegoat, placed the blame for the crisis on the public sector, the welfare state and the working classes (Papatheodorou, 2018).
Therefore, the financial crisis was used as a pretext to promote strict austerity measures and apply neoliberal policies. These, most notably, included drastic cuts in salaries and pensions, deregulation of labour relations and cuts in health and social care. The dominant narrative at the time framed the Greek people as the solely accountable and responsible for the crisis by placing an emphasis on the supposed “laziness and extravagance” endemic in Greek society. A ‘blame the victim’ approach was extensively used in order to justify the implementation of the harsh austerity.
Unsurprisingly, the consequences of austerity were disastrous. Poverty increased up to 48% of the people living in Greece and unemployment, especially among the youngest, soared to 60%. A direct consequence of the harsh economic realities was the rapid increase in suicides and substance misuse; all while access to health care was limited through draconian means testing.
Such bleak reality means social workers have nowadays scarce resources to assist service users, while at the same time, the number of people requiring the support of social services increased due to the collapse of what constituted the pre-crisis of middle class.
Although the melting point of the social conditions came with the financial crisis of 2009-2010 and its subsequent austerity measures, the actual impasse that social workers face in supporting people in poverty was a result of the neoliberal measures that preceded the crisis. In fact, a study revealed that even prior to the financial crisis front-line social services were severely understaffed. There was limited welfare provision—if any—for the poor, lack of services and benefits, while social workers were overworked, with no supervision nor support and had already limited means in helping effectively their users (Papadaki, 2005, Teloni, 2011). Practically, in the front-line social services, social workers were used for “every difficult case in the community” with social work being rendered the “social ambulance” for the social problems providing solely a short-term relief (Teloni, 2011).
At the peak of the financial crisis, another “crisis” started unfolding. In 2015-2016,more than 1,000,000 people sought asylum in Greece. The so called ‘refugee crisis’ triggered a harsh a European wide anti- immigration hysteria which in terms of policy resulted in the increased militarization, a contentious treaty with Turkey that encouraged deportations and the unequal distribution of refugees across Europe. Fortress Europe not only closed its borders to victims of conflict but, more tragically, forced them to opt to unsafe passages. The use of such precarious routes resulted in more than 11,000 dead or missing people in the Aegean Sea (UNHCR, 2018).
Refugees that manage to survive the ordeal of reaching Europe through unsafe routes and falling victims of traffickers, face an ever increasing anti-immigration culture. Tens of thousands of refugees, among them many children, are trapped in militarized reception camps (also known as hot spots). The ones who try to avoid the oppression and indignity of camps remain homeless and without any state support. Both groups experience systematic violation of human and children’s rights, which include the lack of access to numerous vital services, particularly, the ones of health and education.
Despite the growing number of frontline practitioners employed byNGOs, developed during the “refugee crisis”, refugees’ basic needs remain largely unmet. Substantial numbers of refugees have limited or no access to food, clean water, housing, health, and education. The increase in social work employability did not directly lead to an improvement in the lives or the conditions of refugees. The lack of vital resources the (often intentional) increase of bureaucracy has created structural barriers to accessing social services.
Social work practitioners, even when trying to proactively support refugees, have little space for maneuver and at the same time the practitioners face poor labour conditions. There is enough evidence to suggest that refugees routinely experience violations of their human rights and social workers seem unable to respond to this crisis due to a number of institutional, political and structural factors primarily linked to the inadequacies of the social welfare and the development of harsh and punitive policies, that both on national and European level, aim at containing the movement and rights of refugees.
So, where does hope lie?
Nevertheless, there is a silver lining as sources of hope and resistance have become visible during the double crisis. Most of those sources of hope, nevertheless, have been linked to grassroots movements rather than statutory services. Despite the crisis, Greek society did not remain idle or passive to the double humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before their eyes. Between 2011 and 2015, a popular response shaped a vibrant movement that opposed austerity measures (mostly through general strikes and demonstrations). These acts of resistance were also accompanied by hundreds of grassroots welfare initiatives across the country, thus creating an unprecedented solidarity movement. The grassroots solidarity movement re- doubled its efforts when the refugee crisis merged in 2015. These movements seem to have had two levels: one the one hand they focused on providing tangible support to day-to- day issues affecting vulnerable people, while, on the other hand they ephasised on the political struggle against the brutality of the state. A closer examination of these movements suggests that social work can learn some valuable lessons from the movements. For example, social work can inform its practice by these movements so it can to adopt a spirit of trust and solidarity similar to this nurtured by activists providing support at a micro-level (social and material support). It can also learn from the broader struggles for social justice. If social work is to reclaim its social justice and human rights basis then there is an urgent need for the profession to organize alongside service users and broader social movements
In Greece, there have been concrete examples of moving towards this direction, including the Greek Social Work Action Network and the grassroots Union of Social Workers. Front-line social workers struggle daily to seek solutions to the hardships of the desperate refugees and the poor by providing social support, information and advocating for their rights in hostile environments. It is not only vital to respect and support the social workers, but also social work needs to become more active politically, to campaign and claim collectively social rights and to demand social justice. Undoubtedly, the social work intervention at a micro level is valuable. However, without the involvement of the users of social work services in a common struggle for social justice little can be achieved in changing unfair policies. In this sense, it is important to consider an alliance between social movements (including users’ movements) and social workers. Historically, social movements have helped shaped social work and social services. There are examples where social work has drawn it inspiration from campaigns such as the feminist, gay liberation, antiracist and disability movements (Ferguson, 2008).
In the current context of increased xenophobia and racism, it is urgent that we identify new paths of social action. Currently, state social work, which is seen as the “breakwater” of social problems, can only guarantee secure basic social rights. This is due to the extreme neoliberal milieu that has egregiously bureaucratized social work, which should be focusing on individualistic approaches and the neutrality of social workers.
Therefore, hope lies in the core values of social work, a field that is, by definition politically active. Hope lies in the kind of social work that recognizes the oppressive role of the state and, instead of passively adopting top-down toolkits, it chooses to prioritise the needs and rights of the people. Finally, hope lies in collective action, in the alliance between those social movements and collectivities that share a similar vision for a more inclusive and just world.
Ferguson, I., (2008), Reclaiming social work: Challenging Neo-liberalism and promoting social justice. London: Sage
Ioakimidis, V. &Teloni, D-D. (2013). Greek social work and the never-ending crisis of the welfare state. Critical and Radical Social Work, 1(1), 31- 49.
Ioakimids, V. &Teloni, D-D. (2019). Reflections on the development, ideology and practice of anti- racist social work in Greece in Singh G &Masocha S (eds) Anti-Racist Social Work: International Perspectives, MacMillan International
Papatheodorou, Ch. (2018). Poverty and austerity in Greece in times of crisis: The increase of neoliberalism and the shrinkage of the social protection system. In Dimoulas, K. &Kouzis, G. (Eds), Crisis and Social Policy: Dead ends and solutions (pp.45-65).Athens: Topos
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Teloni, D.D., (2020). Anti-Immigration Policy and Social Work: Questions and Challenges by the Radical and Critical Social Work Perspective in Psimmenos I. (ed) Immigration and Immigration Policy, Dionikos, Greece
UNHCR. (2018). Operational Portal, Mediterranean situation. Retrieved from unhcr.org