Update on Lesbos in Chatham House Event

On July 27 Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) hosted a research event titled: The Refugee Crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean: What Can We Learn from Lesbos?

The event was chaired by Hammed Hakimi, Research Associate Europe/Asia Programmes, Chatham House.

Fotini Rantsiou, Field Advisor, Solidarity Now; Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2009-14) shares here her update.


By Fotini Rantsiou

Current Situation and Some Lessons from Lesvos

During 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, the Greek islands of the Eastern Aegean were the main entry point for refugees and migrants crossing from Turkey making their way to Central and Northern Europe. Following the closure of the Balkan route, the flows reduced considerably while with the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement, asylum seekers no longer transit, but remain stranded in Greece. Those that arrived before 19 March –prior to the implementation of the deal- had to move to the mainland, while new arrivals –post 19-March- remain on the islands. They only move to the mainland when they have an interview related to their asylum application (virtually everyone has expressed interest in asylum), serious medical conditions or other vulnerability foreseen in the law. The challenge before the EU-Turkey statement was reception capacity, post-statement it is also integration.

There are currently around 50,000 refugees and migrants from this wave in the mainland and 8,000 in the islands. Lesvos is still receiving 58% of the total arrivals. The refugee crisis which is a European policy crisis at heart, has come at a time of extreme hardship in Greece in the midst of the worst economic crisis in time of peace. The response was possible without major incidents due to the resilience and generosity of the majority of Greek people that facilitated a million people to transit safely and remain in the country for as long as they need to. Shortcomings and failures indeed have taken place, but these were the result of overwhelmed systems, inexperience and perhaps ineptitude, but not bad faith towards the refugees from the side of the Greek government. Greece has saved the face of Europe in this crisis by responding according to humanitarian and solidarity principles while racist rhetoric is abundant in our continent.

EU policies have put Greece in the corner: the relocation scheme has been applied to just over 2,000 people and the EU-Turkey deal implementation overwhelmed the asylum system (asylum is a prerequisite to stay in Greece, for relocation and family reunification).

Under the deal, so far no refugee has been returned to Turkey that had an asylum application rejected (the ones returned had not applied for asylum). Even so (or because of that), the Greek government under EU pressure hastily passed a law recently to replace the independent committees with judges.

Accommodation has to be different now that people are not in transit but staying for several months at least. The government is planning to move all refugees out of tent camps by the onset of winter (October-November). This seems like an ambitious plan but should be supported. In Kara Tepe camp in Lesvos wooden structures are supposed to be put in place.


[On the Sea, the drawing of Hameed, a young refugee, while in NGO Agalia in Lesbos. The boat filled with water; I was scared. I was never that scared in my life]

Shelter for unaccompanied minors is a particular challenge: 690 new children were identified during the pre-registration in the mainland and others are still under protective police custody for lack of shelters on the islands (over a hundred in Moria, Lesvos alone). The education of refugee children is on top of the agenda at the moment. In Lesvos (and several camps in the mainland) informal Greek, Arabic, English and German language and other informal classes are held. The plan is for the refugees to join the national curriculum in September so knowledge of Greek at least is needed. The University of Athens is organizing a summer school in Olympia to introduce potential students to Greek language, history, human rights and English. Many of the refugees are waiting for family reunification which may take a year and others don’t have anywhere to go and will end up remaining in Greece. Indeed, they want to stay, despite the difficulties, because they feel they have been welcome in the country.

Mental health of refugees, frontline workers (humanitarian and government) and local population is becoming an issue. Humanitarian and other –local- responders, are faced with the fatigue of a year of this crisis, with little respite. Little support is given to these workers. While refugees were on the move, there was little time for such issues to surface, but now, with idle time and uncertainty for the future, the needs are increasing. They do have access to basic mental health attention, at least in some places, including Lesvos.

One of the new features of this response was the contribution of international volunteers that initially quickly and flexibly filled the gaps the government and NGOs had left. This contribution was remarkable but is not without problems. Volunteers are supposed to fill a genuine gap, not obstruct the response, or try to replace those that have the primary responsibility (government). They are expected to be self-less and not create businesses for themselves in the form of NGOs.

I don’t want to generalize because there are many foreign volunteers that show respect and do real work, without whom this response wouldn’t be possible. But, many are very young, do not have technical skills needed for the work they do (rescuing or working with children), understanding of humanitarian and ‘do no harm’ principles, do not know the political issues behind decisions (and don’t care to know) and consider the response in Greece a field to experiment and learn. Often they behave as if the refugees are under the occupation of Greece. We discovered that volunteers can also be racist and exclusionist, often behaving arrogantly towards the host community and in particular those who do not speak English (including locals and authorities).

At the same time, there are new NGOs that rely on volunteers and do fantastic work which comes from their heart and channel most of their funding to refugees.

ECHO funding, which is significant, channeled through NGOs, means administrative costs are high and the response is not in the hands of the government. This model is appropriate for failed states and complex emergencies, not a European country with a functioning administration (similar problems we faced in the Philippines). The government is thus weakened in its humanitarian response (though the Ministry of Migration Policy). After all these months, it is only now that IOM and NRC are providing seconded staff (some IRC to the municipality started a few months back).

The implementing partner model (where a large NGO contracts a smaller one to implement) is costly and time consuming. Large NGOs keep rosters which are meant to speed up recruitments in sudden onset emergencies. In this case it presents some new challenges: many of those on the rosters are non-EU nationals, the NGOs are not (or were not in the beginning) registered in the country. The human capital exists in Greece and is largely unemployed. It is much easier, faster and cheaper to recruit locally and support the local economy and our youth. We are not in a conflict situation where internationals are needed to protect local staff and keep the response neutral.

Legal assistance is fast becoming the new niche of interest for international assistance. As the asylum processing is implemented at the moment, there is fast tracking in the islands in implementation of the EU-Turkey statement (which means that only the question of whether Turkey is a safe third country for return is examined) while in the mainland the regular process is applied. Legal assistance and representation at the second level of appeal is foreseen (following nearly universal initial rejection, except in vulnerable cases). What is needed are Greek lawyers who know the law and can represent. Paralegal work (identification of potential clients, drafting of the presentation of their cases) can be done by field staff or volunteers who speak Greek (as the transcript of the initial interview is in Greek) with the help of interpreters of the languages of the refugees. Foreign lawyers or volunteers create an additional layer of translation.

‘Support’ is needed in the form of funding for lawyers who can do the job without burden to the refugee. So far only Syrians have been processed through the two levels in Lesvos and Pakistanis started early July with North Africans more recently. These cases are considered weak for asylum as the persons themselves say they are in Europe for economic reasons. This in turn puts lawyers off, who do not want to take cases they know they will loose. If these cases are rejected, they will be returned to Turkey where they risk falling prey to trafficking or cheap or unregistered labour.

The EU support agencies (EASO and FRONTEX) operating inside the hotspots are at times showing little trust in Greek authorities. In particular EASO bypasses the Greek Asylum Service (refuse to allow GAS hand first level decisions on asylum, which in theory are the prerogative of the GAS, who also decides on the outcome). Volunteers who don’t know the system contribute to this by informing one another that EASO is the decision maker without needing to go through the GAS. In fact at the second level of the asylum process, which is the more important one, EASO has no involvement. GAS is in need of translators, case staff, equipment, to process faster. Asylum processing by nationality not date of arrival creates frustrations and misunderstandings among nationalities.

FRONTEX varies in its behavior but a few times ugly episodes have taken place at sea during rescue operations. The fact that different EU nationalities use different uniforms, including weapons is creating suspicion among the local population.

The closure of the Balkan route has led to a proliferation of smuggling, returning the northern border of Greece to the obscurity of early 2015. Forging of documents is very profitable business in the islands and the mainland and refugees are arrested daily trying to hide in trucks travelling from Lesvos to Piraeus or at the airport trying to use false travel documents.

The main lesson learnt from Lesvos and Greece in general is that ‘small is beautiful’. The camp of Kara Tepe which takes up to 800 people comfortably is well managed and provides services. Greece being a small country with half the population in Athens needs such infrastructure. This is what is being implemented, although slow, by the government. Small camps scattered around the country means that the small communities in the mainland or the islands and neighbourhoods of Athens and Thessaloniki can support and that land issues are easier to overcome. The flipside of this is that costs are higher (increased transportation costs, logistics challenges) and coordination more difficult.

It should be considered a mistake to mix registration, asylum processing, accommodation, temporary detention and unaccompanied minors under police custody in one camp (eg Moria). Tensions run high and whatever their starting point end up in fist fights between nationalities. The response is all the more challenging because of the number of nationalities, languages and cultures of the refugees and migrants.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey revealed the fragmentation of the armed forces in the neighbouring country, which was a relief to many in Greece who understood it is not the overwhelming force we thought it to be for decades. On the other hand concerns are rising on how rogue elements or even the new status quo might externalize the internal crisis. It remains to be seen how the ensuing situation will affect Greece and the islands of the Eastern Aegean, so far though there is an increase in the flows, attributed to a break down in discipline in the Turkish coast guard after the arrest of its head.

The arrival of eight Turkish officers in Alexandroupolis seeking asylum and the mass arrests, lay offs and restriction on travel in the armed and public services of Turkey are adding more question marks on the concept of ‘safe third country’ but also show a face of Turkey which to Greeks is not new, but seem to shock other Europeans that had convinced themselves Turkey was a democratic country. Many fear that, while refugees from the countries that formed the majority of the flows up to now, know the Balkan route is closed and do not try the travel, it may be Turkish citizens (including Kurds) who might try the crossing. And given the defiant mood of the leadership in Turkey, using Syrian refugees already hosted in Turkey (whether in camp or outside) to put pressure on Greece and the EU, cannot be excluded.

In conclusion I would like to say that 60,000 refugees stranded in Greece are not too many to integrate. 25 years ago we integrated a million from Eastern Europe, mainly Albania and the former Soviet Union. The complications are due to the diversity of political actors with a say in the situation, the fact that most of those people didn’t come to Greece with the intention of staying and that if the principles of international protection are to be respected a number of those asylum applicants will have to be rejected.

More Information

Refugee Highway (Chronis Pechlivanidis)

Janus’ Legacy: Refugee Passage to Europe (Dimitris Papageorgiou)

Agora (Giorgos Avgeropoulos)


Who is Fotini?

Fotini has worked in the international humanitarian and human rights field since 1998, in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa, with the UN Misison in Guatemala, UNRWA, the EU and OCHA. Since August 2015 she has been a volunteer and humanitarian advisor in the refugee crisis in Lesvos, Greece. Since August 2015. She has volunteered on the beaches at the first response and immediate needs assessment, transporting vulnerable people before buses were put in place, providing assistance such as water, triaging and first aid. Fotini has written a number of articles related to the refugee situation in Lesvos in Irin News, the Forced Migration Review, as well as in Efimerida Syntakton and Kathimerini (Greek daily newspapers). From October 2015 to February 2016 she was a field advisor for Solidarity Now in Lesvos. She co-organised a round table with the Overseas Development Institute in London in December 2015. In March 2016 she led a UNICEF assessment in the camps in the north of Greece (including Idomeni) providing recommendations for UNICEF’s involvement in the response. During this year in Lesvos, Fotini has provided inputs to researchers from universities, think tanks, NGO collectives and media.  In June-July 2016 she volunteered with a grassroots group in the Moria registration centre, supporting in protection monitoring, vulnerability referrals and paralegal work in relation to the asylum application process.

e-mail: fotinirantsiou@yahoo.com

One thought on “Update on Lesbos in Chatham House Event

  1. Pingback: 19 – 21 September – Tension in the Moria hot-spot. | Transitory Lives

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