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Having spent several days in Athens recently, I echo the view of colleagues in the sector that there is too little visibility across Europe on the crushing social impact of the austerity measures, and that things are getting worse. For the future it is clear that reforms are needed to ensure more sustainable health and social welfare system which is less dependent on EU funding. However, there must be real concern that the gap between reductions in state funding, combined with ending of EU support, means that essential social services will close and that progress made, for example, on the closure of psychiatric hospitals with the consequent need for community support is in serious jeopardy. The problem is that time is in short supply. (John Halloran, Chief Executive, ESN)

ESN Vice Chair Christian Fillet and Chief Executive John Halloran recently spent three days in Athens meeting with representatives of central and local government and visiting local services agencies in order to better understand the impact of the crisis on local social services, to reconnect with ESN members, and to look at how best to support colleagues in Greece for the future.

John Halloran gives his perspective: 

"Despite the crisis, the Greeks welcomed us with the warmth for which they are famed, and were happy to discuss the challenges they face. With high levels of unemployment, increased taxation, rising prices and cuts (circa 60%) in government funding of social welfare programmes, such challenges are great, and the future looks bleak. The public sector cannot hire new personnel to replace those leaving through early retirement (which is accelerated by fear of worsening pension schemes).

"Following the scandals of mental health services both in Leros and 20 years later at Dromokaiteio hospital in Athens, the government has embarked on a programme of psychiatric hospital closures, which risks being derailed by underfunding. We visited a centre for child and adolescent social psychiatry to learn that this was the only such service in Athens and that there was no budget to buy basic assessment materials. For the future there is a need for a stronger network of integrated child mental health service networks involving schools, social services and other stakeholders.

"There have been a number of reforms to local government, reducing the number of authorities and investing in improving their capacity to take on developed service responsibilities. This is an on-going challenge involving, amongst others, the Hellenic Agency for Local Development and Local Government and KEDE, the Central Union of Municipalities and Communities, with which ESN is working closely as part of our network. The colleagues from the Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity too are confident that the crisis can be overcome only if both the central and local government work closer together and former political excesses are blunted. We also met the Secretary-General of the Ministry, Ms Christina Papanikolaou, who believes that there are no short-term miracle solutions for the crisis, is aware that sharing experiences with and learning from other European countries is the way forward."

ESN resolves to continue to collaborate with Greece and to show solidarity in this time of crisis, ahead of Greece's EU Presidency in January 2014.

Facts and figures
According to Eurostat, 3.5 million people (or 31% of the total population) are living near or below the poverty line. One in four Greeks are unemployed, with youth unemployment close to 58% as of October 2012, while 21% of those who have a job have an income of less than 470 euros per month. A third of Greeks claim that they are not able to pay rent or mortgage, as money earned is primarily spent on vaccinations and clothing. In such circumstances, the role of social welfare services has focused on providing minimum standards of living through daily soup dispensation, monthly packages with basic foods and milk and blankets for the children.