When Language Equals Life…
When Language Equals Life: Call to action from GFR to Greek Ministry and UNHCR to ensure provision of interpreting services for asylum seekers and refugees in hospitals in Athens.
For years, members of the Greek Forum of Refugees have supported refugees in not only understanding and protecting their rights, but specifically accessing legal, medical, and social services in Athens and throughout Greece. Interpreting and cultural mediation have always been key components to our work since 2010.
However, in recent months, GFR has responded to an unprecedented and increasingly urgent need for interpreters in hospitals. GFR Community Workers who work full time interpreting and liaising with staff and authorities in Open Reception Centers have been also serving as the sole interpreters via telephone to communicate for refugees. GFR members respond daily to calls from doctors, nurses, and social workers to interpret everything from medical history to pharmaceutical instructions. This complete reliance on the GFR and other non-profits to provide essential interpreting is not because of contracts or official protocol, but it is ad hoc and voluntary—there is no evident, comprehensive or clear procedure for providing language services to non-Greek speakers accessing medical care in hospitals. While GFR is committed to continuing to assist in this effort, it is imperative to emphasize that this is a systematic failure and needs to be addressed at a higher administrative level. Greek hospitals do not subscribe to any legal obligations of providing language services to non-native patients, and it is beyond the capacity and resources of local non-profits and volunteers to wholly address this problem.
It should not be necessary to make clear the critical importance of communication in providing healthcare, especially to vulnerable people and children affected by trauma, but recent experiences of GFR team members have proven that language has become a matter of life and death for refugees in Greek hospitals. Just yesterday, on a visit to a family whose son is receiving care at the Agia Sofia Children’s Hospital in central Athens, one GFR team member encountered two other Afghan children, one unaccompanied, who were in critical care. The doctor was desperately relieved to have someone present to interpret, and explained that the unaccompanied boy in particular was in a dangerous condition, and the lack of understanding of his medical history and current symptoms prevented clear and effective diagnosis and treatment. Similar cases occur every day for the dedicated Community Workers and volunteers who are constantly at the ready, phone in hand, knowing they are the only source of understanding and default case managers for both refugees and hospital staff.
The current situation for vulnerable refugees in Greek hospitals is untenable and dangerous. Although there have been temporary, formal interpreting services offered by NGOs in the past, the programs ended once funding was depleted. While change is needed at a structural level, the immediate, dire circumstances call for resources beyond GFR’s and other local non-profits’ capacities. Thus, the Greek Forum of Refugees calls upon Greek authorities and UNHCR to take action to provide asylum seekers and refugees who receive medical care in public and private Greek hospitals with regular and reliable interpreting services. As an organization, we are willing to help coordinate necessary efforts in response to this immediate need, but we urge those in positions of power to take notice and heed our call to protect the lives of those who have sought safety in Greece.