By Albin Hillert*
Following the EU-Turkey refugee agreement, effective 20 March 2016, the Greek islands are again a changed place. Where refugees have arrived in great numbers in the past years, and where they have engaged a whole community of local, national and international aid workers and volunteers, the situation is now dramatically different.
In mid-April, the World Council of Churches (WCC) visited the islands of Samos and Chios, meeting with aid workers of the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and Apostoli, the humanitarian arm of the Church of Greece, to learn about their new realities and the refugee situation on the Greek islands.
Churches as early responders
Fotis Vlachos, IOCC-Apostoli coordinator of the refugee response program, describes the situation, “Right now, we are in a very sensitive period. Greece hosts an estimated 50,000+ refugees, and we don’t know what will happen. We don’t know if the EU-Turkey agreement will hold, and anything could happen in the near future.”
Vlachos explains how the EU authorities have adopted a very strict approach, essentially saying ‘before we know who the refugee is, they must be held in camps, so-called hotspots, for identification and registration’. From our discussion, however, it becomes clear that many of these hotspots really function as detention centres for an indefinite period of time.
“When the refugees started arriving in the Greek Islands”, says Foteini Koutsotheodorou, project officer in Samos, “local churches and parishioners were the first responders. They offered food, clothing and other support to the refugees.”
Alexandros Briasoulis, project officer in Chios, adds, “in Chios too, the local churches offered early help when refugees arrived at the shore”. “But the church also has their daily struggles in helping Greeks living in poverty following the financial difficulties the country is in”, he adds.
The EU-Turkey agreement – A dramatic change in conditions
“Since the EU-Turkey agreement came into effect, however, almost all volunteer workers and non-governmental organizations have left the islands in protest against the harsh treatment of refugees”, says Koutsotheodorou. “Before, the refugees could be seen in the streets here in Samos, and in the port. Now they are all locked inside the hotspot.”
She stresses, however, that the IOCC-Apostoli’s relations with the authorities are good, and that they still have access to the hotspots to offer some help and support to the refugees, although the situation is not without complications.
When asked about the volunteers who have stayed, Koutsotheodorou explains that “volunteer workers can still enter the hotspots, but have to be very careful that their safety is guaranteed”.
Vlachos comments, “it changes from day to day. If you arrive at the hotspot on a day when there have been tensions inside, you will not be let in. If you arrive on a calm day, the police officers who run the camp will tell you that you can enter.”
“Once in the past few weeks, refugees even protested so strongly against their living conditions that they broke out of the hotspot here in Samos”, Koutsotheodorou says, “but the thing is, that what they then did was to go to the local stores to buy food, play with their kids in the open space, and when night came, they went back to the hotspot to rest and sleep”.
Witnessing the Samos hotspot
As WCC staff we are not allowed to enter the Samos hotspot during our visit, but we are granted permission to take photos from outside, as long as the photos show no faces. We are informed that the situation is sensitive, and that riots can appear if the refugees interact with what they believe are journalists, as many of them want to share their stories, and show the world the difficulties of the place they are in.
While observing outside the hotspot, we meet other volunteer workers who have stayed on the island to support refugees in different ways. Swedish volunteer Jan Henrik Swahn, says, “We have been preparing and distributing free sandwiches to refugees for months, but now that the hotspot has been established, it is all closed, and we do not know what we can do.”
“It seems that the EU has decided refugees must be kept behind bars, with no freedom of movement. Until there is a decision on where they should be resettled, they cannot be moved from the camp”, Swahn says.
Irish volunteer worker Jenny Graham shares a similar story. “Having a closed camp like this is a disgrace”, she says. “But still, if the refugees are inside these camps, then that’s where I need to be”, she states.
IOCC-Apostoli - Current and future challenges
“One of the challenges for us now”, says Vlachos, “is to convince refugees that their best option is to apply for asylum here in Greece. This will allow them a chance to start a new life as soon as possible.”
“At the same time, the realities we see suggest that even after they apply for asylum, the refugees will be stuck in these camps for possibly 1-3 months before they can be resettled”, he adds.
“One of the problems in staying too long in the hotspot”, says Vlachos, “is that they have not been built for long-term hosting, but basically for a few days’ survival as the registration process takes place”. “When you stay in the hotspot for several weeks, or even months, the food is experienced as insufficient, and lack of information becomes a source of frustration”, he says.
In Chios, the situation is even further developed, explains Alexandros Briasoulis. Here, there is currently a closed hotspot, the Vial Camp, and an open refugee camp, the Souda Camp, where refugees can move freely. When the Vial Camp was established, it became so overcrowded that the local police officers had to open the gates, and they simply do not have the capacity to keep all refugees in one place.
Moreover, “in Chios, the local community is also insisting that there be no closed camps on the island at all”, says Briasoulis. “Many local families in Chios came as refugees themselves from Turkey only two or three generations ago”, he explains, and adds, “support for refugees’ right to movement is therefore very strong.”
“The problem now is that nobody knows what will happen”, Briasoulis says. “The refugees get very little information, and aid workers have little information to give.”
Vlachos comments, however, that “it is clear to us that the long-term approach and presence of the IOCC and Apostoli on the islands is working, and that some of the support we can offer is getting through. The question now is about the needs of the refugees, and the way they are modified following the political development”.
“At the end of the day, the problem will not be here in the Greek islands and the refugee camps, but in what happens after, when refugees have been resettled and we need to receive them into society”, he concludes.
*Albin Hillert is a communications consultant, writer and photographer based in Umeå, Sweden.