There are many important stories emerging from the refugee crisis in Europe that help portray the complex landscape of the situation. And for every story there seem to be as many logistical challenges to be overcome.
When I visited the Greek island of Lesbos back in August, this was glaringly obvious. The number of people arriving had reached 4,000 per day, and with few ferries available to take people on to Athens, around 20,000 refugees were stranded on an island ill-equipped to meet their needs. In short, efforts were vastly overstretched.
There were only two formal refugee camps, but no management in place. Emily David, emergency protection officer for the International Rescue Committee, said that in 15 years of crisis response work she had never seen a situation quite like it.
“This obviously puts a lot of stress on people and increases security risks and tensions,” she said.
Working within Europe is new territory for humanitarians, and for their donors. As the situation has reached new crisis levels, hurdles such as planning regulations — as well as the subject many want to avoid, a lack of political will — seem to be preventing agencies from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Relief work on the ground
The Syrian refugee camp at Kara Tepe is a dusty site scattered with uniform beige tents and olive trees. On the days I visited, strings of clothes were hanging out to dry in the baking heat.
The camp was established on a former car park, located just a few kilometers from the island’s capital Mytiline. It was initially built to accommodate around 500 people, but is now bursting at the seams and hosting upwards of 3,000 people. Make-shift awnings from billboard ads were draped to provide shade from a punishing sun, under which filthy mattresses were stretched out on the floor; even information boards had been used to sleep on.
Conditions in the camp were truly shocking. Although Médecins Sans Frontières and IRC had established toilets and showers, the facilities remained overcrowded and unsanitary.
I met a father and his family from Afghanistan camping, along with hundreds of others, in a park in the capital city. They said they chose not to stay in the camp for fear of getting sick. Kirpatrick Day, IRC’s emergency field director in Lesbos, said it is one of the more squalid refugee camps he has seen, and a stark contrast to the island’s picturesque harbor. Indeed, it is a jarring and irreconcilable reality.
While relief agencies were working around the clock to to improve the situation, they were constantly met with a knotted web of bureaucratic and political obstacles. Operations were left in disarray when, in the first three months since IRC arrived on the island, it had been coordinating with authorities to gain permission to work in the port where hundreds of tents were pitched on the concrete car park.
“The politics and the sensitivities make this very complicated,” said Day. “It is [a case of] trying to work this out in a way that is conducive not only for refugees but for local communities and local officials, and all their considerations.”
And then there is the issue of the situation being in constant flux.
The first day I visited the camp it was vastly overcrowded, and there was no way for the protection team — made up of social workers and psychologists — to be able to see people in privacy. Huge groups of people, all waiting to get their papers processed to enable them to leave the island, gathered around IRC staff and sheets of paper were filled out and numbers assigned in a system that was still being tweaked. That night, two ferries arrived to take thousands of refugees on to Athens. The next day, the strain on the camp seemed comparably alleviated, giving the protection team time to recalibrate their efforts and work with the most vulnerable population.
One humanitarian shared with me this week that there is still no formal reception center in the north of the island, near the town of Molyvos, where most people first arrive. Last month, there was simply an awning at the back of a residential area near the cliffs.
Volunteers continue to take on a lot of the responsibility for meeting boats as they arrive. Along with nongovernmental organizations, they have been urging authorities to allow a space where they can work from to meet immediate needs such as the organization of clothes and shelter, and begin to help get people the documents — and other information — they urgently need. IRC also plans to set up a rapid response mobile unit to provide skills and capacity for people in remote areas.
There are echoes of frustration among humanitarians as to why these logistical roadblocks remain unresolved, such as a lack of ferries to help take people off the island.
“There are rarely places where you could say overwhelmingly there are things we could fix,” said Day. “But here we could, and we are not, and it’s not for lack of trying.”
Greece may be a gateway to the richest region in the world, but in the midst of its own economic upheaval, response coordination is flailing.
Conversations about logistical challenges and solutions always return back to the bigger picture, with calls for the safe passage for refugees and a change to the European asylum laws that force already vulnerable people to put themselves at further risk.
“For someone to seek refuge in your country should be a compliment of the highest order,” said Day, on an issue that evokes a significant amount of passion.
As debate rages among European leaders about how best to respond, humanitarian intervention remains critical. It falls to the international aid community and voluntary groups to continue to step in and crowdsource ideas and responses to avoid a very modern Greek tragedy.
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Helen Morgan is an editorial associate at Devex. She has a background in human rights, radio and journalism, and has written for a variety of international publications while living and working in Buenos Aires, New York and Shanghai. She is now based in Barcelona and supports editorial content on campaigns and media partnerships at Devex. She is currently studying a master's degree in contemporary migration.
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