[United Society, by Max McClellan] The weather is colder now and NGOs have scaled up their operations on the Greek islands to prepare for winter. The situation on the Macedonian border is now of serious concern with authorities only allowing the passage of certain nationalities (Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan). A backlog of thousands is now present at the border and services are inadequate. There is limited food and accommodation and people have been forced to sleep outside in the cold on the border. Some are returning to Athens after being turned away.
The local authorities, volunteers, church groups and international aid agencies are working hard to protect refugees and migrants, but they are struggling as refugees and migrants continue to arrive in large numbers.
There are many international organisations that are well trained to deal with large scale displacement now working in Greece, why are they struggling to deal with the situation?
On the islands, the large numbers of arrivals have meant many sleep rough in cold wet weather in olive groves waiting for registration. Emergency medical response on the islands is stretched beyond capacity, when capsized boats are rescued with hypothermic survivors – some of whom have lost loved ones – there have been reported shortages of medical transport. Provision of food and clothing on the islands is costly and logistically challenging for the large numbers of arrivals.
In the past I have worked in large refugee camps where the population is mostly stable, such as on the Thai border where Burmese refugees live. What makes the situation in Greece a challenge is the combination of large numbers and the fact that people are on the move - the refugees being assisted today are different from those passing by tomorrow.
Every day the refugees are arriving in a new town or city and the route is not always clear to them. This makes them extremely vulnerable to smugglers, criminals or unscrupulous business people who might take advantage. Groups like the Salvation Army (supported by Us) are working in Victoria Square, a central Athens gathering point for many refugees and migrants, to share information with refugees about where to go next and what to avoid.
It cannot be forgotten that all this is happening in a country struggling to provide for vulnerable members of its own population. For example, the Anglican Church in Athens already runs a soup kitchen that feeds up to 800 local Greeks each day.
What are the church groups in Greece doing?
The Anglican Chaplaincy in Athens, supported by Us, has worked to bring different church groups together to co-ordinate a compassionate and effective ecumenical response for the refugees arriving in Athens and on the Greek Islands.
Church groups are present along the route all through Greece providing non-denominational care to refugees. They are present on the Greek islands, in Athens in local squares and on the border with Macedonia. Groups like the Salvation Army and Evangelical Church of Greece have mobilised volunteer groups to distribute food and essential items like hygiene products, baby kits, sleeping bags and raincoats. Some families connected with local churches have opened their homes to refugees.
Larger organisations, like the humanitarian arm of the Greek Orthodox church, Apostoli, are running large scale programmes and providing food kits, tents, sleeping bags on the Greek Islands and plan to support accommodation assistance to refugee families in Athens. Apostoli are also working on First Aid support and hospitality in the islands.
There is now no shortage of groups actually helping refugees, what’s important now is to figure out which programmes are working well and continue to support those financially. Us, through the Anglican Chaplaincy in Greece, is directing financial support to programmes that have been identified as making the most difference in the lives of the most vulnerable refugees.
What are the figures? How many refugees and migrants have been arriving in Greece? Are they all refugees?
The extraordinary numbers of refugee arrivals in Greece tell an important story. Since the beginning of 2015, 715,704 people have arrived on Greek shores. Just last month, Greek islands were receiving an average of 6,800 people daily. More than 3,000 people have drowned attempting to cross by sea into Greece and Italy this year. Since the death of the young Syrian boy in Turkey, whose photo catalysed global outrage at the plight of refugees, more than 70 children have drowned.
Whole families are fleeing – infants, young children and the very elderly. Forty per cent of arrivals are women and children. This is a clear indication that whole communities are on the move, no longer able to bear war, violence, terrorism, persecution and lack of essential services.
Unscrupulous journalists and politicians make claims that ‘the majority of these people are economic migrants’, but this claim simply doesn’t stand up – it is factually incorrect. According to UNHCR, 92 per cent of people who have arrived by boat in Greece this year are from world’s top 10 refugee producing countries, and the vast majority of these are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s important to remember that someone’s nationality alone doesn’t determine whether or not they are a refugee. What’s important is the persecution they as an individual may face if they were to return to their country – wherever that may be.
Why do refugees come to Europe instead of staying in neighbouring countries?
Although the flow of refugees to Europe has increased dramatically in the past year we mustn’t forget the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have been ongoing for years, even decades in the case of Afghanistan. Many of the refugees arriving in Greece have already been living in refugee camps or informal settlements in the Middle East for several years, but the situation in these camps and settlements has deteriorated; unable to access proper services, to work, receive an education and secure a safe future for their families, refugees have made the difficult choice to move again, this time to Europe in search of safety.
Are refugees likely to keep coming in such large numbers?
As long as the civil war in Syria and violence in Iraq continues it is likely that people will continue to leave these countries, which puts a great deal of pressure on surrounding countries.
Although the arrival of refugees has slowed marginally somewhat in the last week (22 November), this trend does not signal an end to the crisis. There are many reasons to believe that large numbers of refugees will remain in Greece for years to come.
Countries through central Europe are reviewing their border policies and changing entry practices, which contributes to the refugees feeling of helplessness – they know their fate is determined by knee-jerk political decisions.
Volunteer workers describe ominous piles of construction materials on the Macedonian border indicating that a fence is likely to go up soon. Our ecumenical church partners working on the Macedonian border reported two days ago that people were outside sleeping in the cold and there were significant issues in providing enough food.
Will things improve? Will we continue to see crowds of people waiting outside and sleeping in the cold at border crossings? How can refugees travel safely into Europe?
Without strong co-operation between European states the situation is unlikely to improve, but there is some hope. The EU has initiated the so called ‘hotspot’ scheme, which will provide 60,000 places over two years for refugees to resettle from Greece to other European countries. This is one manifestation of the safe passage ideal which has been advocated by many, including the churches.
The hotspot mechanism will involve large numbers of refugees waiting in Greece for resettlement for extended periods and they will need support.
The European relocation scheme has been slow to begin and only 30 people have relocated from Greece to Luxembourg since the programme began on 16 October.
Resettlement processing takes a long time and the recent horrific events in Paris will likely slow this process further as countries review their security screening procedures.
For the church, the concept of safe passage is key. Left without orderly means of finding safety, refugees fall into the arms of smugglers and pay extortionate prices – 1,200 Euros per person – to cross a 15 km stretch of the Aegean Sea. That’s the same price as 20 flights from Istanbul to Athens. Or 15 flights from Istanbul to London.
The refugees are at further risk of trafficking and abuse as they make their way into Europe. The risks are serious. Without proper access to support networks young refugee women are at high risk of sexual servitude and abuse.
There is one account, passed on by our church partners, of an Afghan family which was locked in an apartment for several days in Athens by criminals until they paid a ransom for their release.
Church groups can have a role here in ensuring safe passage. The Salvation Army provides information at the main square for refugees to ensure they are not sold bad deals by smugglers and traffickers. Christian organisations, like the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and the Evangelical Church of Greece, have set up temporary respite centres where families can rest during the day in Athens.
For those who remain in Greece, and there will be many, the church groups in Athens will work to make sure they can stay in Greece in safety and dignity.