Assistance in a language migrants can understand

A visit to the newly opened Asylum Services office of the Ministry of Citizens’ Protection on Katehaki Street, which the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called a “station” for Greece’s political asylum seekers, reveals an environment far less chaotic than that of the Attica Aliens Bureau on Petrou Ralli Street. One notices the shorter lines, a shaded area where asylum seekers sit on wooden benches while they wait for their ticket number to be called before heading to their interview sessions, and a room in which fingerprints are taken in order to determine if they have previously applied for asylum elsewhere in Europe.

Among the agency’s officers and immigrants – some of whom bear visible signs of physical abuse inflicted while in Greece – wander groups of young people, all of different ethnicities, wearing black sleeveless T-shirts with the word “interpreter” written on the back in Greek and another one or two languages. Below is the logo of METAction, a nongovernmental organization founded in 2009, which, because of the lack of government-funded interpreters, has assumed this role in the new asylum agency.

This dramatic shortage in interpretation agencies, for which Greece has been heavily criticized by international human rights organizations, was the reason METAction was founded.

“The situation outside of Attica is very bad. There weren’t any interpreters, and so the authorities, who were facing pressure to continue with the asylum-related interviews, ended up asking for help from local foreigners,” the founder and vice president of METAction, Laura Pappa, told Kathimerini.

“Corruption grows wherever gaps exists, taking on the form of various networks of lawyers and interpreters who end up exploiting people in need,” Pappa added.

METAction was founded in order to close such gaps. The organization’s interpreters offer their services in 27 languages and dialects in Attica and neighboring regions. The organization has also implemented a series of programs which aim to train and certify interpreters, and make sure that they are prepared for asylum seekers’ interviewers.

In fact, according to Pappa, during the last few months the organization’s interpreters have been working for free because the responsible ministries – for many years it was the Health Ministry and now it is the Labor Ministry – have delayed the transfer of funding from the European Refugee Fund. The handling of these funds is, generally speaking, characterized by misuse.

“Much of the fund’s money doesn’t end up being used, and so many NGOs end up operating without the necessary funding,” Pappa said.

The memorandum era has improved control of expenditure but has also undermined welfare services. In the future, it appears civil society groups will have to work hard to make up for the state’s failure to live up to its responsibilities.

The gaps in the system are what led METAction to expand its efforts beyond those of its interpretation services. Recently it started offering adult accompaniment for migrant minors, who are not supposed to stay in detention centers but often have no alternative.

“The prosecutor had to find a reception venue for minors, and decide who would accompany them. However, social workers often refuse to go, causing children to remain in the detention centers for months,” Pappa said. To address this situation, the organization set up a network of partnered social workers in various parts of the country, whose responsibilities include escorting and updating minors on the potential dangers they may face, including human traffickers. In the last two years, the organization has helped transfer approximately 800 children from detention centers to more suitable facilities.