New Internationalist

Why are NGOs so reluctant to help Greece?

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As the island of Lesvos is overwhelmed with immigrants, the world of aid looks on. Beulah Devaney reports.

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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.

Comments on Why are NGOs so reluctant to help Greece?

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  1. #1 Serena 22 Jul 15

    The nonsense and hypocrisy of Oxfam's evasion of any responsibility for helping to relieve the dreadful suffering of the Mediterranean Crisis is highlighted by the ironic fact that Oxfam was itself founded specifically to aid people in Greece and Belgium.

    http://www.oxfam.org.uk/what-we-do/about-us/history-of-oxfam

  2. #2 Beulah 22 Jul 15

    @Serena - I did not know that about the history of Oxfam and it is pretty shameful. But at the same time at least they were willing to offer reasons for their lack of presence. Rather than refusing to engage at all like most of the other NGOs I spoke to.

  3. #3 Simon Rawicz 22 Jul 15

    The previous NGO infrastructure concerning some NGO's involved in Immigration and Trafficking revealed numerous flaws concerning state sponsored abuse whereby in many cases, victims were used to gain funding, opportunity and to further serve in masquerading the lies told by some who sought to use this sector as an opportunity.

    In 2009/2010 myself and others exposed how the NGO ACTUP ΔΡΑΣΕ HELLAS was one such NGO along with ΚΕΕΛΠΝΟ who allowed criminals masquerading as Doctors to gain funding for Trafficking whereby they amended their statute intentionally to be able to further gain funds non associated with the core ACTUP values.

    The President of the NGO (Kostadis Kaburakis) and another member of the Board of Directors illegally pretended to be Doctors to abuse their positions whilst working for ΚΕΕΛΠΝΟ whilst the partner of the President Chrysoula Botsi whilst working at ΚΕΕΛΠΝΟ helped cover this up as they then infiltrated Hospitals for highly sensitive HIV/Aids data.

    From when the NGO was taken over by these people, they provided false documentation to gain access to projects, state and EU funds whilst illegally gaining medical results from Andreas Syggros and a non secure phone line to which they had access to the names of people who called in with HIV. Coincidentally the recent cases whereby the women were exposed in the press for having HIV/Aids is no surprise when you see all who was connected to the case.

    The President of this NGO through connections was made the Head of Trafficking despite having no education, no experience and no background, and despite being found guilty of defrauding the state, abusing his position and illegally pretending to be a Doctor set about abusing and threatening those who stood up to expose the lie.

    The sector to which this NGO is a party to within the HIV community all knew of this and covered it up whilst working alongside them and still do.

    ΚΕΕΛΠΝΟ in an attempt to cover up these facts tried to deny us information relative to our enquiries and then gave Kostadis Kaburakis an extended contract after we'd provided details to his involvement in malpractice and state corruption for nearly 20 years, now the details are in the hands of ΖΔΟΕ, ΥΔΑΣ and the Courts as numerous Penal cases against them await justice.

    WHilst running the NGO, I and others were privvy to seeing how they had immigrants and victims of trafficking locked up like animals, with no regular access to food or water, and on one occasion had no access to water for nearly a month whilst the Directors enjoyed a lifestyle which was paid for on the back of the funding given to them for supposedly helping this sector.

    If these are the conditions to which victims of trafficking and immigrants here are subject to, then is it any wonder the problems have become so dire.

    The great work and desperate plight of many NGO's and people who do want to help and give their time to aiding within this sector now suffer the lack of support and aid due to those who deliberately set out to cash in on the misfortune of those who fall victim to what can only be described as state sponsored corruption, because if people like this are employed and allowed to run programs on Trafficking, have illegal access to medical results, then it's no wonder so many fall victim to persecution, manipulation and worse at the hands of those claiming to be of assistance.

    Since, investigations have been launched into a number of other NGO's who's details shall no doubt reveal more horror stories committed by the people who live off their misfortune.

    For more information :

    https://fckdupathens.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/lies-cover-ups-and-censoring-the-truth-welcome-to-the-greek-hivaids-sector/

    https://fckdupathens.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/corruption-malpractice-and-over-a-decade-of-lies-welcome-to-the-greek-actup/

  4. #4 Shirley Henderson 24 Jul 15

    I felt heartfelt gladness when I read the article about the Greek island Lesvos. I also felt disbelief at the actions of others.
    There are truly kind people in our world.
    While large organisation's stand back and remain inactive, these people struggle to try and meet the needs of the refuges.
    While other large country's do nothing to help and inhumanly make decisions to send the refuges back, back to the chaos and brutality they have exhausted themselves fleeing from. How unjust!! have all the rule books on human rights been thrown out? The people of Lesvos are seeing like it is and helping, these refuges are not responsible for the state there country's are in, the country's who are standing by while this huge crisis unfolds are, having been responsible for destabilizing, this area of our world, they offer nothing. Surely they can be brought to book?

  5. #5 Mark Andrews 28 Jul 15

    Re: ’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.’

    Eric Kempson didn't exactly help with the situation. He did not ask the UNHCR at all, what he did instead was to scream his wrath straight into the young ladies face who was there as a representative of the UNHCR and it is little wonder she and her companion left the site at Kara Tepe so quickly after facing this barrage of verbal abuse by Eric Kempson.

    Help has been offered too by certain people and NGO's but again Eric Kempson has been no help whatsoever. Initially he put out the call for help on Lesvos several weeks ago but when this help was offered Eric Kempson just would not respond to any questions at all leaving those individuals and the NGO's completely in the dark with no information to go on at all to render such assistance.

    Then there is the fact that Eric Kempson is constantly criticising everyone who is willing to help. He has verbally attacked in the most vile language imaginable the towns people of Molyvos and has made many threats against them even though as a british expat he is a guest in their town.

    Not stopping there he has constantly slandered the reputation of the UNHCR on Youtube as well as attacking on the same channel/video sharing platform many of the charities and NGO's who might have been interested in helping with this situation.

    At the end of the day Eric Kempson is nothing but a refugee sightseer wandering around all day with his video camera criticising everyone and everything. He hardly ever lifts a finger to provide any real proper help himself to the refugees, he just films everything on his camera and doesn't do a lot else.

    More praise I believe should be offered to the residents of Molyvos and Lesvos who with very limited resources of their own to share around ARE doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances.

    I'm sure more could also be achieved if Eric Kempson stopped full stop using every opportunity to verbally ridicule and attack everyone else.

    If you watch all of the videos on his Youtube channel you'll see for yourself exactly what I mean.

    Again I want to strongly make the case that help has been offered to Eric Kempson and more importantly for the refugees but Mr Kempson certainly hasn't helped by being so obstructive and rude so many times.

  6. #6 Mark Andrews 28 Jul 15

    Video proof of Eric Kempson insulting UNHCR staff on the island of Lesvos, Greece:

    http://www.tubechop.com/watch/6508354

    Is it any wonder they did not stick around and left very shortly afterwards?

    If Eric Kempson learned how to control his anger I am sure more could be accomplished on behalf of the refugees. Certainly his very bad behaviour isn't helping the situation.

  7. #7 sumathi yellow 28 Jul 15

    they are so helpless and people are suffering.

  8. #8 Mark Andrews 30 Jul 15

    Yet another video of Eric Kempson slamming the reputation of the UNHCR and other aid agencies. This is exactly what I was referring to above in my previous comments posted here.

    On this video, Eric Kempson is heard rapidly losing his rag as he rants on and on incessantly. Of course the UNHCR is an easy target for Eric Kempson but he must realize that the UNHCR have many other priorities all around the world dealing with countless humanitarian relief situations - they cannot just drop everything to help all of the refugees on Lesvos alone.

    Yes of course it is sad what is going on on Lesvos and certainly more needs to be done but causing division and ridiculing many of the leading aid agencies is not going to help the refugees at all. Shouting at people will never get the best results out of anyone and this is exactly what Eric Kempson fails to recognize.

    You can watch his Youtube video here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bvZWmNgNng

  9. #9 Mark Andrews 31 Jul 15

    If you watch this video all the way through Eric Kempson (sigh again) is starting to sound seriously demented. I really think in all seriousness that he needs to see a psychiatrist.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XanoHtr1NR4

    From the 9 minute mark on the video below, Eric Kempson yet again is absolutely raging at these the towns people of Molyvos behind their backs. Fact is they cannot be forced to help if they don't want to do so and Eric Kempson should just respect this fact, this right of theirs, this choice of theirs. You cannot force people to do anything if they don't want to.

    I just find this constant barrage of insults against everybody all the time quite upsetting, I think it is offensive speech and especially so posting these rants online non-stop. It is Eric Kempson with the media attention upon him who is doing so much damage potentially to the residents of Molyvos businesses - no one else.

    If it's not the towns people of Molyvos he is attacking constantly, it's the UNHCR. If it's not the UNHCR, it's the major aid agencies he's having a stinking go at. If it's not the aid agencies, it's someone else to rage at. I seriously believe the man is losing the plot rapidly and he probably needs psychiatric help to help control his anger problems.

    Shouting like this all the time is NOT going to help anyone.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XanoHtr1NR4

  10. #10 Beulah 05 Aug 15

    Re. comments about Eric Kempson's response to UNHCR volunteers. Yes his response is passionate and exasperated but I watched that video before writing this article and I would not have included comments from him if I believed he had acted abusively. At one point he clearly stops another volunteer from shouting at the UNHCR rep who had been helping them. And, to be honest, the man had just spent two days cleaning up human feces with his fellow volunteers and his frustration is understandable. I don't know about the other allegations but in this specific case I do not believe he was being ’abusive’.

  11. #11 Beulah 05 Aug 15

    Re. comments about Eric Kempson's response to UNHCR volunteers. Yes his response is passionate and exasperated but I watched that video before writing this article and I would not have included comments from him if I believed he had acted abusively. At one point he clearly stops another volunteer from shouting at the UNHCR rep who had been helping them. And, to be honest, the man had just spent two days cleaning up human feces with his fellow volunteers and his frustration is understandable. I don't know about the other allegations but in this specific case I do not believe he was being ’abusive’.

  12. #12 Beulah 05 Aug 15

    Re. comments about Eric Kempson's response to UNHCR volunteers. Yes his response is passionate and exasperated but I watched that video before writing this article and I would not have included comments from him if I believed he had acted abusively. At one point he clearly stops another volunteer from shouting at the UNHCR rep who had been helping them. And, to be honest, the man had just spent two days cleaning up human feces with his fellow volunteers and his frustration is understandable. I don't know about the other allegations but in this specific case I do not believe he was being ’abusive’.

  13. #13 Beulah 05 Aug 15

    Re. comments about Eric Kempson's response to UNHCR volunteers. Yes his response is passionate and exasperated but I watched that video before writing this article and I would not have included comments from him if I believed he had acted abusively. At one point he clearly stops another volunteer from shouting at the UNHCR rep who had been helping them. And, to be honest, the man had just spent two days cleaning up human feces with his fellow volunteers and his frustration is understandable. I don't know about the other allegations but in this specific case I do not believe he was being abusive.

  14. #14 sheba gray 08 Aug 15

    Mark Andrews Social media is certainly a great platform for slanderous bullies like you. You do not know Eric or seen his dedication to refugees. Everyday he sets aside many hours starting at 5am to physically help refugees. I have seen him so please stop making up stories. He does get upset with the lack of support being offered which is true and when I was in Lesvos I met the UNHCR representative who did not even seem to know what was going on only 50 miles away and I, a tourist, had to tell him. Your anger at Eric seems more out of place than his anger towards the lack of aid that refugees are receiving and totally misdirected. Eric and others have witnessed threats to refugees by the right wing fascists, Golden Dawn, who are residents in Molyvos, which includes holding guns to refugees faces and expat or not he has a right to be angry at these people. He also often gives a lot of credit to police and coastguards as well as other residents. So please direct your anger at the people and governments that are causing the real problem rather than slagging of someone that clearly does help.

  15. #15 Gail McEwen 09 Nov 15

    Mark Andrews, how dare you criticize Eric Kempson, hes a hero to many, and yes does on occasions show his frustration towards NGOs and the lack of assistance they are giving on Lesvos. I have following him for months, and hes out at all times, in all weather doing what these organisations should be doing. Shame on them all and shame on you. NGOs are funded to do the work him and all the volunteers are doing for free. I have for a period of time questioned the lack of assistance not only on Lesvos but other border crossing points through Europe of NGOs, it seems the only time they are around is when the press is there.

  16. #16 Naheed Shah 09 Nov 15

    The accounts of the lack of adequate response have been given by a number of independent volunteers from a variety of aid giving groups. Hence, I would say that there is veracity in what Eric Kempson is trying to tell the world. Volunteers from every area along the refugees transit route have something similar to report. Again lending credence to these claims. Eric Kempson may be colourful in his language at times and if that detracts from his message than that's a shame. There are many other video clips made by Eric Kempson where he reports on what is happening and where he doesn't swear about the situation in either types of clip the message is clear. There needs to be sustained, methodical, resource led, meaningful aid distributed along the refugee transit routes. A collaborative response would be ideal. The UNHCR says its remit is to provide aid it should do it properly then. Same goes for the the other agencies. If they are running campaigns directly linked to garnering funds for refugees than they should provide it. It doesn't help when you look at the UNHCR website and see pictures in a post relating to one of their successful interventions when looking at it you realise that you saw the same one a few posts ago but applied to another context. It really makes you question them. Yes the EU needs to step up so does the rest of the World. All I can say is that these token gestures are killing people.

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