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Group visits Greece to observe refugees' plight

by
12 February 2016

Max McClellan describes what he found when he visited Greece with a group from Us.

us/max mcclellan

New arrivals: refugees arrive on Greek shores, helped by Lighthouse volunteers

New arrivals: refugees arrive on Greek shores, helped by Lighthouse volunteers

FROM the air, it looks as if someone has run an orange highlighter pen around the Lesbos coastline, such is the density of life jackets that litter the coast from refugees who have arrived from Turkey. Since the beginning of 2015, more than half-a-million refugees have arrived on Lesbos in small boats from Turkey. This January alone, 36,175 refugees arrived in in the middle of winter, compared with 742 in January last year.

On the island there are now established processes for taking care of refugees once they arrive. Typically, volunteer groups meet refugees on the shore, often at night, and provide them with initial medical care, warm clothes, food, transport, and a place to sleep. The Anglican Chaplaincy in Greece, supported by Us., is funding Lighthouse Refugee Relief, a volunteer NGO set up by members from Sweden, Norway, and the UK. The organisation was formed in August 2015 under the guidance of “Pappa” Christoforous, an Orthodox priest from Norway who has lived in Greece for 15 years.

Fr Christoforous acknowledges that his belief that “God will provide” sometimes runs counter to the bureaucracy of the larger aid organisations. We don’t all see eye to eye on “blanket rationing”, he laughs. None the less, Fr Christoforous works closely with the larger aid groups, and manages a temporary accommodation site where UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders operate.

Co-operation has significantly improved between volunteer and NGO groups, Fr Christoforous says. There are more than 80 NGO and volunteer groups on the island.

 

LIGHTHOUSE’s programme co-ordinator, Henry Hartley, says that the situation has been very different over the winter. Now people are arriving with serious medical issues brought on by rough weather and cold. Because many of the arrivals need immediate medical assistance, Lighthouse has set up a small medical clinic, staffed by a volunteer doctor and nurses, including a nurse from Marit, Lesbos. Instructions on the walls remind volunteers how to treat half-drowned or hypothermic patients.

The number of deaths in the Aegean Sea so far this year is already about 250, and the drownings have become commonplace. Last week, Marit was walking with her dogs when she stumbled on the body of a baby girl washed up on the beach.

Lighthouse’s “stage one” camp, metres from the sea, is a response to the needs of the refugees. Besides the medical clinic, there are three large sleeping-tents (two with heating), a kitchen, clothes-sorting areas, lavatories, and hand-washing stations.

Refugees who land at the “stage one” camp are lucky to arrive at this part of the coast: it is easy to disembark the small boats here, and assistance, including road transport, is readily available. Those boats that get lost in the dark will often arrive at far more inhospitable parts of the coastline: Korakas lighthouse.

The lighthouse is an hour’s drive away from the nearest village, along a narrow dirt road. On our journey there, we are stuck behind a car that has broken its wheel. Henry explains that Lighthouse volunteers staff the Korakas lighthouse every evening, and through the night. They have been enabled to do so thanks to funds from the Anglican Church and Us., which have been used to buy searchlights, tents, sleeping bags, and tools, and to cover transport costs to access the site by four-wheel drive.

Lighthouse’s Korakas team also play a crucial part in watching for refugee boats as they come in from Turkey. The rotating volunteer force of about 20 covers a night-time lookout post that scans the horizon every 15 minutes.

 

ONCE the volunteers identify a boat coming towards the lighthouse, they radio official search-and-rescue vessels, and the crews are able either to rescue those on board or to guide the boat to safer parts of the coastline.

Liz, who has been a volunteer with Lighthouse for a month, has returned from her 5 p.m.-10 a.m. shift at the lighthouse. She is glad to report that no boats at the lighthouse arrived last night, but that the preceding days have been cold, and busy with arrivals. Three days ago, a wooden boat, which was not spotted early enough, arrived at Korakas packed with 146 people.

Lighthouse’s team were on hand to assist the refugees to disembark safely and scramble up the rocks, and arrange dry clothing for them, helping with transport to the next point of transit. Lighthouse is now hoping to maintain and expand the assistance it is providing with further funding by the Anglican Church and other donors.

Refugees who arrive on Lesbos eventually make their way to a processing centre on the island, where they stay for several days before being interviewed, fingerprinted, and receiving registration papers that allow them to stay temporarily in Greece.

After registration on the islands, refugees catch regular passenger ferries to Athens. On arrival in Athens, most refugees are bused from the port and dropped in squares close to central Athens. Today, there are about 200 people in Victoria Square, including many families with small children. Most are Afghan.

 

WE MEET a large family of about 20 Afghans from Parwan province, close to Kabul. Behzad is travelling with his wife and three children of ten, six, and four years old. The family arrived on Lesbos three days ago, and now plan to make their way through Macedonia towards Germany. They will catch a bus in the evening to the Macedonian border, where they will probably spend a night in the cold waiting at a bus station. Unpredictable border closures and openings are leaving many refugees stranded along the route into Europe.

But, for now, Behzad and his family can find some respite, and they visit the Salvation Army’s day centre, where the children play and the family can choose some new clothing for their cold journey ahead.

For Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees, their stay in Athens is typically short. They will sometimes hang around Victoria Square for a day, waiting for a bus to the Macedonian border; others may make a short one- or two-night stay in accommodation set up for vulnerable refugees and families by church groups and NGOs.

For refugees and migrants who can no longer cross the border into Macedonia, accommodation in Athens can be difficult to find, especially as more and more refugees become “stuck” here. Over the past six months, the Greek government has commissioned a series of former Olympics venues to temporarily house refugees. One such site is Elliniko, a former hockey stadium, where 220 people are currently staying in a makeshift open accommodation centre.

For those in Elliniko who cannot not cross the border at Macedonia, there is a strong sense of hopelessness, and there are difficult choices to be made. They have limited time before they are liable for detention for an illegal stay, and many do not wish to claim refugee status in Greece because of the limited opportunities that Greece provides to recognised refugees.

 

THE greatest concern at the moment is that, if the borders close in the north, Greece will not be able to cope with the huge numbers of refugees who will be unable to move out of the country. UNHCR estimates that such border closures would result in an extra 60,000-200,000 refugees needing long-term assistance in Greece.

The domestic system for asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece is notoriously defective, and rates of refugee recognition are worryingly low in Greece. For example, in 2014, as an Eritrean, your chances of being recognised as a refugee in Greece were 48 per cent, roughly half the 89-per-cent average in Europe. As a Syrian, your chances of being accepted were 60 per cent, compared with a 95 per cent average success rate in Europe.

The authorities are still struggling with a backlog of 23,000 asylum appeals, and the appeal committee that reviews the claims of rejected asylum-seekers has not functioned since September.

Being recognised as a refugee in Greece is by no means the end of the struggle. For several years, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has reported on the absence of measures to assist recognised refugees to integrate in Greece. This, combined with the continuous impact of the economic crisis, results in the social and economic exclusion of refugees here.

Eric, a recognised refugee, explained that, in his five years in Greece, he had never had a job. “I have nothing,” he said. “I live in a crowded bunkhouse with many others. No one has a job. There is nothing here for us.”

 

Max McClellan is Us. co-ordinator in Greece.

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