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“We refer to the refugees as ‘guests’” – in-depth update on European refugee crisis

Posted on: March 8, 2016 4:38 PM
Photo Credit: United Society
Related Categories: Ecumenical, refugees & migrants, Us (USPG)

Max McClellan, the United Society’s co-ordinator in Greece, writes an in-depth report on how church groups and charities are supporting refugees following their arrival on the Greek islands.

[United Society] From the air it looks like someone has run an orange highlighter pen around the Lesvos 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 Lesvos in small boats from Turkey. January this year saw 36,175 refugees arrive, 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, to provide medical care, warm clothes, food and a place to sleep.

The Anglican Chaplaincy in Greece, supported by the United Society, is funding Lighthouse Refugee Relief (LRR), an NGO set up last year by volunteers from Sweden, Norway and the UK. LRR is one of over 80 NGO and volunteer groups helping on the island. Co-ordination meetings take place near the shoreline.

LRR co-ordinator Henry Hartley said the situation for refugees has been very difficult over winter. Refugees arrive with serious medical conditions brought on by the cold weather. LRR set up a small clinic. 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 alarming, with around 250 in January. Just last week, Marit, an LRR nurse and local resident, was walking with her dogs on the beach when she stumbled on the body of a baby girl. Experiences like this take their toll, and LRR is working with experts in trauma to support people, both refugees and helpers.

LRR’s ‘stage one’ camp is only metres from the sea. Next to the clinic are three large sleeping tents (two with heating), a kitchen, carefully-organised clothes-sorting areas, toilets and hand-washing stations.

Given the extraordinary level of chaos and tragedy, it is surprisingly calm. The pebble paths between tents are carefully groomed, and the tents are neatly labelled with colourful hand-painted signs in Greek. There are even rock gardens with decorative flower pots.

Henry refers to the refugees who arrive as ‘guests’, and says it’s important not to treat people arriving as if they are part of a production line.

Refugees who land at this location are lucky because it is easy to disembark from the small boats, and assistance, including road transport to the refugees’ next destination, is readily available. By contrast, boats that get lost in the dark often come ashore on more inhospitable parts of the coast, such as near the Korakas Lighthouse, where the light beam – in a cruel inversion of its intended purpose – rather than warn people to keep clear, instead attracts the refugees to a dangerous rocky shore.

The Korakas Lighthouse is an hour’s drive away from the nearest village, along a narrow dirt road, which means providing assistance there is difficult. On our journey there we are stuck behind a car that has broken its wheel.

Henry explains that funding from the United Society means there are LRR volunteers at Korakas Lighthouse every evening and through the night. Funding has also been used to buy search lights, tents, sleeping bags and tools, and to cover transport costs to access the site by four-wheel drive.

The Korakas team watches for refugee boats as they arrive from Turkey. When the volunteers spot a boat coming in, they radio official search and rescue vessels who can then either rescue those on board or guide the boat to safer parts of the coastline.

Liz, who has been an LRR volunteer for a month, has returned from her 5pm to 10am night shift at the lighthouse. She is glad to report that no boats arrived in the night, but said preceding days had 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. Volunteers were able to help the refugees to safely disembark and scramble up the rocks, then arrange dry clothing for them and assist with transport to the next point of transit.

The boat now sits stranded on the shore. The LRR team is much too self-effacing to say so, but there can be little doubt they are saving lives.

Refugees arriving on Lesvos eventually find their way to a processing centre on the island where they stay for several days. They are interviewed, finger-printed and given registration papers giving permission to stay temporarily in Greece.

Lesvos is the island receiving the highest number of refugees, but there are also four other islands where refugees land.

On Samos island, Greek organisation Medical Intervention provides healthcare and psychosocial intervention, supported financially by the United Society and the Anglican Church in Greece.

The medical issues for refugees arriving on Samos are numerous. Besides routine maladies and medical conditions, many are suffering from conditions, like scabies, brought on by their arduous journeys and cramped living conditions. Refugees are also provided with soap, blankets and sleeping bags, and there is baby milk for those with young infants.

From the islands to Athens

After registration on the islands, refugees catch regular passenger ferries to Athens.

In Athens, most refugees are bussed from the port and unceremoniously dropped in squares close to central Athens.

When we visit, there are around 200 people in Victoria Square, including a large number of families with small children. Most are Afghan.

We meet a very large family of around 20 Afghans from Parwan province, close to Kabul. Behzad is travelling with his wife and three children, aged 10, six and four years old. He explains that his family cannot return to Afghanistan where they fear the violence of the Taliban. The family is also increasingly concerned about the increasing power of Daesh (ISIS) in their country.

Behzad and his family arrived on Lesvos three days ago, and now they plan to make their way to Germany. In the evening, they will catch a bus to the Macedonian border where they will likely spend the night waiting in the cold at a bus station. The unpredictable closing of borders means large numbers of refugees can often find themselves stranded when their route into northern Europe is blocked.

For the moment, however, Behzad and his family are enjoying some respite having visited the Salvation Army’s day centre. The children can play and the family is given some new clothing for their cold journey ahead. The day centre gives refugees a safe place to rest and take provisions for their stay in Athens or for their onward journey.

One of the great challenges is providing good information so that refugees can make safe choices and avoid expensive and dangerous smuggling rings. With funding from the United Society, the Salvation Army is soon to benefit from a Dari (Afghan language) interpreter to help improve communication.

Refugees in Athens

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

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.
The Macedonian authorities only allow the passage of certain nationalities through from Greece, namely Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi. This is a practice that Human Rights Watch has labelled as discriminatory because it takes no regard for the individual protection issues that individuals from other war-torn countries may be facing.

Over the past six months, the Greek government has opened former Olympic venues for temporarily housing refugees. One such site is Elliniko, a former hockey stadium where 220 people are currently staying in makeshift open accommodation. The refugees sleep on camp beds and food is distributed by the Salvation Army.

I met a young Palestinian man in a wheelchair who was disabled by a bomb in Palestine. A group of Iranians sit chatting on their beds. Others are cleaning the bathrooms, one of their duties as guests in the centre.

For those in Elliniko not allowed to cross into Macedonia there is a strong sense of hopelessness and there are difficult choices to be made. They have limited time before they become liable for detention for staying illegally, and many do not wish to claim refugee status in Greece because of the limited opportunities that Greece provides to recognised refugees.

Petrou Ralli, a detention centre in southern Athens

The greatest concern at the moment is that if the borders close in the north then Greece won’t cope with the huge numbers of refugees who will be unable to move out of the country.

UNHCR estimates border closures would result in up to 200,000 refugees needing long-term assistance in Greece. This concern is echoed strongly by churches of all denominations in Athens.
Many church groups and organisations are providing practical assistance to refugees in Athens, including accommodation, food, clothes and advice. But their assistance, even combined with the efforts of international NGOs, are simply not enough to deal with large numbers of people.

The re-opening of detention centres for migrants in Athens is an indication that things are changing for the worse.

Petrou Ralli is a detention centre in southern Athens for refugees whose temporary stay papers have expired. They are brought here after being picked up from the street by the police.

Petrou Ralli also deals with migrants who have outstanding issues with their claims for asylum in Greece.

At the entrance, there is queue of people from multiple nations clutching various documents related to their asylum cases; this morning there are Afghans, Pakistanis and Ivorians.

Two men from Côte d’Ivoire, Jean and Eric, stand by the gate waiting to speak with the policeman who will screen them into the centre.

Jean explains he has been living in Greece for five years. His claim for refugee status was successful and now he is helping his friend get through the process.

Eric, his friend, has been in Greece four years but his refugee claim is still not finalised. He has been detained on multiple occasions for over-staying in Greece and fears he will be forced to return to Côte d’Ivoire and face persecution there. (Nearly 450,000 Ivorians fled their country in 2010-2011 in the wake of violent political unrest following a disputed election. Although the security situation in the country has improved, individuals facing specific risks may have claim to refugee status.)

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

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

And 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 help refugees integrate in Greece. The ongoing economic crisis in Greece results in further marginalisation of refugees here.

Jean, a recognised refugee, explains that during his five years in Greece he has never held a job. ‘I have nothing,’ he says, ‘I live in a crowded bunkhouse with many others. No one has a job. There is nothing here for us.’

Inside Petrou Ralli detention centre

Petrou Ralli is also a detention centre and is currently holding 160 foreign men whose papers in Greece have expired.

In the face of the refugee crisis, the Greek authorities have returned to a previously fraught policy of detention for some migrants.

While the media headlines have focussed on the extraordinary numbers of people flowing through Greece, the increasing use of detention in Greece is relatively hidden, but is becoming a serious concern.

In early 2015, under a new government policy, migrants were released from detention due to the squalid conditions in the centres and because there had been a number of deaths due to suicide and mismanaged medical care.

Civil society and legal advocates, who welcomed the changed policy, are now worried to see migrants being detained again.

While it is true that not all those travelling by boat to Greece have a refugee profile, it is critical that these people have access to fair procedures to assess why they might fear returning home. And, of course, regardless of which country people come from, they must be treated with dignity.

The cells at Petrou Ralli are filled with a mix of nationalities; many are from Morrocco and Algeria, but we also meet Iranians and a man from Myanmar.

The place resembles a prison in most respects, with the migrants greeting us through thick bars. If the weather is good the inhabitants are permitted to exercise outside in a concrete basketball court.
Outside in the exercise area is Mohammad, a tall Iranian man, whose shoes are tied together with plastic bags. Other men are playing football.

Mohammad says his mother is in Canada and his wife is in Germany. Legal assistance is known to be scarce in the detention centres. We are with a lawyer from the Greek Ecumenical Refugee Programme who explains to Mohammad about his options for possible family reunification.

Dhanu, from Myanmar, explains that the food in the detention centre is poor. He shows us his long
fingernails, which he is unable to cut in the centre.

The lawyer explains that even if an individual hopes to obtain refugee status in Greece, they are unlikely to apply from the detention centre because this is likely to result in them being held for longer at the centre. Instead, most are waiting for the legal time limit they can be detained (18 months, though in practice often six months) to expire, then, once outside, they will claim asylum. Others are considering whether it might be safe enough for them to return home voluntarily.

Rami, a young man from the Magreb, is waiting to appeal a refusal of his claim for refugee status. He fears returning to his country because, as someone who is gay, he is at risk of persecution. Rami says food in the centre is poor and often cold. He pulls up his shirt to show me the scares on his back caused by other detainees beating him.

Despite the difficult conditions in Petrou Ralli, the lawyer says conditions are much better than a year ago, when many centres were closed due to inhumane conditions.

But food remains an issue. Church groups know that food in the centres is too little and substandard; a problem UNHCR has confirmed. In response the Anglican Chaplaincy in Greece, with the support of the United Society, has started a programme to provide one extra hot meal a week to occupants in two detention centres in Athens.

Apostoli, the humanitarian arm of the Greek Orthodox Church

The huge numbers of refugees, combined with the shifting policies and procedures, has been a challenge for groups trying set up support programmes. For example, temporary accommodation might open up in Athens, holding thousands, requiring the quick mobilisation of NGO and volunteer assistance, before being shut down just as suddenly. For those wanting to fund programmes it has been difficult to identify which organisations to support.

As a central figure in the ecumenical church community Fr Malcolm Bradshaw, the Senior Anglican Chaplain in Greece, has been instrumental in bringing together a large group of churches in Athens who assisting refugees.

Fr Malcolm has identified the work of Apostoli, the humanitarian arm of the Greek Orthodox Church, as worthy of considerable funding.

In Athens, Apostoli is providing food and hygiene kits at temporary accommodation sites for refugees. And on the islands of Chios, Samos and Kos, it is providing tents, sleeping bags, food, warm clothing and hygiene kits. Apostoli also works with local authorities to improve the structures which house refugees on the islands.

Vassi Lentari, Apostoli’s director of programmes, says it is Apostoli’s close connection with communities that makes their work effective. They have good relationships with municipalities, police authorities and local churches, which means they have a greater flexibility to respond when procedures change.

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