Volunteers Don't Want To Abandon Refugees In Greece: 'How Can I When People Are Drowning?'

With the government doing little to address the crisis, NGOs have stepped in to fill the gap.

LESBOS, Greece -- When refugees and migrants arrived on the shores of the island of Lesbos earlier this year, exhausted from a hazardous trip across the Mediterranean, there was no aid in sight. They had to walk from the beach to the island’s refugee reception center, some 25 miles away. They spent the nights in public spaces or makeshift camps. Food and medical aid were scarce.  

The situation on Lesbos was no exception. “It’s total chaos,” Vincent Cochetel, Europe director for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, said in August of the crisis on Greece's islands. “On most of the islands, there is no reception capacity, people are not sleeping under any form of roof. … In terms of water, in terms of sanitation, in terms of food assistance, it's totally inadequate."

Since the start of the year, nearly 430,000 migrants and refugees have arrived on Lesbos, half of the total of number of arrivals for Greece. In the month of November alone, more than 86,700 people arrived on the island. 

The situation on Lesbos has changed dramatically in the past six months. The arrival process and shelter of migrants and refugees is now much better organized. People who are just arriving on the island no longer get lost in the streets like they did before.

The changes are largely thanks to the efforts of local residents and volunteers from around the world. 

The absence of the Greek government in the refugee accommodation process is striking. Lesbos residents say the management of the refugee influx has been handed over completely to nongovernmental organizations, and that the government only plays a role during registration procedures for refugees. Also conspicuously absent is the church, despite the important role it plays in the community.

“The church is nowhere to be found," says Varvara Gkigkilini, publisher of local newspaper Politika. "They own so many empty houses and they haven't opened a single one of them even for one family to stay there. They haven't organized a single meal distribution."

Volunteers help refugees in Greece.
Volunteers help refugees in Greece.

The first NGOs arrived on Lesbos in July, and there are now over a hundred working on the island. A unique system of self-organizing and cooperation has been established. Once a boat reaches the island’s shores, usually landing on the northern part of the island, the refugees are led to the first camp, or “Stage 1." This stage consists of a number of spots on the beach set up by organizations and local volunteers, where interpreters help refugees and they can receive dry clothes and food, as well as medical care. 

Then the refugees are transferred to “Stage 2,” an assembly point a few miles away. Some refugees walk there, but the more vulnerable groups are picked up by UNHCR vans.

Katerina Kitidi of UNHCR explains that at this point, people can rest and get medical treatment, along with a first briefing about their rights and the asylum-seeking procedures. People can spend the night there if they arrive late.

The refugees are then registered and assigned to Moria or Kara Tepe, two temporary accommodation camps on the island. Kara Tepe only houses Syrian families. Everyone else is accommodated at Moria.

Stavros Myrogiannis, who’s in charge of Kara Tepe, explains that the system is meant to operate like a pyramid, so that “the guest travelers,” as he calls them, are served quickly and without tensions.

“For us these people are not the poor, persecuted, down-and-out refugees. We consider them guest travelers," he said. "These people want to continue on their journey. What they have in mind is to be registered quickly, stay for a day at most until they settle their tickets, rest for a while and be on their way.”

Myrogiannis says 600 to 700 people are registered daily at Kara Tepe, while up to 2,000 people can be put up in the premises if necessary. Refugees have their pictures taken and are fingerprinted. They usually stay between one and two days, but there’s no time limit for how long they can stay.

Myrogiannis says that while the system functions well now, that wasn't the case before. “We were caught a little off guard at first,” he admits. “The numbers were so overwhelming that, despite everyone's great efforts, [the number of refugees] could not be managed.

“There was a lot of tension at the time,” Maria Kittaki, coordinator of the interpreters of NGO METAction, recalls of the first months after the number of arrivals had started rising. “Imagine that at the port there were three people with three computers to register 3,000 people.”

“If the NGOs weren't here, we would be in trouble,” Gkigkilini, the Politika publisher, says. But she also points at difficulties that have emerged. There's a good side and a bad side, she says. The good side: the efforts of volunteers, countless donations and solidarity that have saved so many lives. People have taken refugees into their homes and neglected their jobs to help the endless stream of people arriving. The bad side is the exploitation of refugees and the rise of nationalism.

“There are organizations that do important work but others come only to justify their money,” she explains. 

Stratis Kambanas, another volunteer who was very active in the summer months helping refugees, is more outspoken. He says the presence of the NGOs has revealed some troubling traits of the community, that the NGOs sometimes fight over jurisdiction and that he is bothered by what he sees as profiteering off the crisis.

“The NGOs are here because no locals came to help at the time,” Kambanas says. He explains that local resident have formed NGOs themselves but are hardly supervised. “Ninety nine point nine percent of them do things in order to have some gain in the future, take advantage of the situation,” Kambanas claims.  

Many on the island are worried about the months ahead, when winter brings large waves and snowfall. The NGOs say they are well-prepared for the conditions, but it won't be easy. “When the first rains started I was furious because there weren't even protective covers for the people,” Gkigkilini says. 

The locals are also worried about the environment. They say tons of plastic waste is left on the island and in its waters each day, and nobody knows how to handle it. While volunteers make great efforts to reduce the bulk of waste, collecting discarded life jackets on the beaches and in the waters, it seems to be insufficient. 

Finally, they note that amid the urgency of the crisis, there's little time left to think about how the situation affects residents psychologically. “I catch myself looking constantly at the sea,"Apostolis Paraskevopoulos, a resident and volunteer on the island, confesses. "When I sleep at night I am always alert in case I hear someone screaming. I haven't slept well in ages. I can admit it, I am a mess, people tell me to leave. But how can I, when people are drowning?”

“You hear a helicopter and you know that people are drowning,” Varvara Gkigkilini echoes. “You should see a rescue operation carried out on a day with very strong winds while looking for babies at sea. We are in a state of shock here. The island is in a state of emergency and nobody does anything about it.”

This story was originally published on HuffPost Greece. It was translated into English and edited for a global audience.

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