Jul 21, 2015
As the island of Lesvos is overwhelmed with immigrants, the world of aid looks on. Beulah Devaney reports.
Stefanie Eisenschenk under a Creative Commons Licence
‘She was in her 60s,’ Eric Kempson explains. ‘Her son had died in a house fire, he was a schoolteacher, and she had his wife with her, her elderly husband, and a baby. So I put them in my car and drove down to the refugee centre at Moira. Then I went back for the husband because there hadn’t been room for him in the car. And he told me the story again. “My son was a schoolteacher; he was killed in a house fire”.’
Kempson is a woodcarver living in the Molvos region of Lesvos, a Greek island currently inundated by refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. He has lived there since 1999 and explains that the island has always been a popular destination for refugees, ‘but they used to be young Afghan men; now they’re women and children, old people, mainly from Syria’.
Lesvos’ immigration problem cannot be overstated. A recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that Greece has more seaborne immigrants than any other EU country, with 68,000 new arrivals in the first half of 2015. On 9 July, a BBC report found that 15,000 of those immigrants entered Greece through Lesvos, with over 1,600 arrivals in one day.
Lesvos’ popularity is due to its location in the northeastern Aegean Sea, a relatively short sea voyage from Turkey. The UNHCR reports that 90% of the immigrants arriving in Greece have travelled through Turkey from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Once they arrive on Lesvos, the refugees must undertake a 40-kilometre walk across the island to Moira, the site of Lesvos’ only reception centre.
Here, the new arrivals receive papers that will allow them to stay in Greece for 1-6 months. They are also given shelter and food, although the centre is stretched so thin that the shelter is often a tent on an abandoned racetrack and the food is provided by the locals.
Lesvos has a population of only 86,000 and residents report feeling overwhelmed by the situation. Kempson is one of many locals who regularly travel up to the north of Lesvos to help those refugees who cannot undertake the 40-kilometre journey. He tries to prioritize the sick and the elderly but, after completing the deadly Mediterranean crossing, hardly anyone is in good shape.
There is a palpable anger among the residents of Lesvos.
This isn’t directed towards the refugees, whose presence on the island has done a certain amount of damage to its tourism trade, but towards the NGOs in charge of monitoring the island.
Giorgos Tirikos-Ergas is a co-founder of Angalia, a small Lesvos-based NGO that was founded to support the growing number of refugees.
‘I knew that things had got really bad when I realized that all the great, international NGOs were monitoring us,’ he explains, ‘but we [the island residents] were still the ones responsible for dealing with this mess.’
Kempson pulls even fewer punches when detailing the support that international aid agencies have offered: ‘The UNHCR disgust me,’ he growls. ‘They have watched people suffer and suffer and suffer and they have turned it into a publicity stunt.’
The UNHCR* has released numerous reports on the rising number of immigrants in Lesvos, but unfortunately, its concern does not appear to take the form of physical help.
Kempson works closely with the local Facebook group Help for refugees in Molyvos and he recounts a day spent cleaning out toilets at the Kara Tepe refugee camp.
The toilets had not been cleaned for two months and volunteers were doing what they could with wheelie bins and bleach. Kempson found UNHCR representatives taking selfies in front of the toilets; when asked if they were going to help with the cleaning, the representatives left.
One Syrian refugee has likened the smell of the camp to the smell of the dead bodies he saw in Syria, but there is still no official UNHCR presence and the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) rapid response team took weeks to arrive.
A recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that Greece has more seaborne immigrants than any other EU country, with 68,000 new arrivals in the first half of 2015
Kempson’s anger at these organizations is palpable, but it would be easier to understand the UNHCR’s actions if its numerous reports, appeals and press conferences had had a positive impact on the support being offered to Lesvos.
Some international NGOs do have a presence on the island: MSF recently offered a bus to ferry vulnerable refugees down to Mytilene (close to the refugee centre) and Amnesty International has released a report on the crisis which urged the European Union (EU) to rethink its current refugee relocation strategy.
These exceptions notwithstanding, international NGOs appear to have followed UNHCR’s example and taken on the role of passive observers.
Of 12 international refugee NGOs I contacted for this article, only 8 responded: 4 issued blanket denials of responsibility and 3 stated, off the record, that they weren’t interested in helping Greece.
Oxfam alone agreed to be quoted, saying that ‘while we understand that many in Greece are in difficulty, the sort of financial support these people need is not within Oxfam’s remit. Therefore we do not currently have plans to operate in Greece.’ The ‘financial support’ mentioned here is currently being offered in Italy by Oxfam Italia.
Over 60% of the refugees on Lesvos come from Syria: a country embroiled in a civil war that has displaced over 7.6 million people, according to the United Nations.
Many NGOs have, understandably, concentrated their efforts on Syria, with further work being done in other source countries such as Iraq and Somalia. However, since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, refugees have been migrating through Turkey towards Greece, and with the temporary axing of Italy’s Mediterranean search and rescue programme, the plunging Greek economy and the Syrian war entering its fifth year, it is unsurprising that the crisis has got worse.
Rather than adapt to this rapidly evolving crisis, the NGOs prefer to lay responsibility at the EU’s door: ‘The EU continues to bear collective responsibility for the welfare of migrants seeking entry and asylum in the EU via Greece,’ says Oxfam. ‘The EU must show solidarity for all people left more vulnerable by the Greek crisis, both Greek citizens in need of assistance and the migrants pushed to their borders by conflict, rights abuses and inequality.’
This seems to be the prevailing attitude. It is a form of bureaucratic buck-passing that does not account for the fact that the EU has failed to support the refugees of Lesvos and was recently called on by the UN to do more. Holding back and waiting for government intervention seems counterintuitive for a set of organizations that are, in theory, non-partisan. Still, despite this escalation of need in European countries bordering the Mediterranean, NGOs are still happy to use Greece’s EU membership as a reason to avoid offering aid.
Greece’s geography may be working against the citizens of Lesvos as well, but it is also acting as a screen for the difficulty many NGOs have when it comes to categorizing Greece.
‘Due to donor pressure they [NGOs] are increasingly forced to respond with a discrete project with x number of deliverable outcomes. They reach out to us, too, in this way – “your $50 will buy mosquito nets for a family of four”,’ writes Dinyar Godrej on NGOs’ antics.
NGOs working in Greece could quantify the help they offer, but the fact remains that for many potential donors, Greece is not a country in need. The general view appears to be that yes, refugees are living in tents, with limited medical assistance, reliant on Greek citizens for food, but at least they’re not in Syria any more.
This thinking is flawed and ignores issues around human trafficking, hygiene, post-traumatic stress and various other risk factors.
For now, it appears that the people of Lesvos are on their own. The island’s geography has made it a prime destination for refugees crossing the Mediterranean and Greece’s membership of the EU allows international NGOs to justify withholding aid.
Residents are left in the precarious position of attempting to support thousands of refugees while maintaining the island’s struggling infrastructure. Meanwhile, international observers are left wondering: how bad do conditions in Lesvos need to be before refugee aid agencies stop hiding behind the EU and start rolling up their sleeves?
*The UNHCR were asked to comment but declined.
For more information, read our December issue on NGOs.