Thousands of people, many of whom are fleeing conflict from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are arriving in Greece each day with few belongings and no form of shelter. While this is just a temporary stop for many, the sheer number of people arriving has caused a strain on several Greek islands, especially those like Lesbos, which lies only three miles away from the Turkish mainland.
ShelterBox response team member Rachel Harvey (UK) has recently returned from Greece, where she and fellow teammate Amber Cottrell-Jury (NZ) visited to make assessments on how ShelterBox could help alleviate the growing crisis. Here she tells us about the situation on Lesbos and how ShelterBox is working to make sure that while people are on the island, they have somewhere safe to shelter and rest.
‘The beautiful Greek holiday island of Lesbos in is not, perhaps, the most obvious destination for a ShelterBox response team. Nor is the situation in the eastern Aegean a typical humanitarian crisis.
‘Seasoned aid workers, veterans of the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the refugee camps of Jordan, describe the situation in Greece as one of the most complex and confounding they have witnessed. Few thought they would ever be working inside the European Union (EU), spending long days in dusty, hot, emergency reception camps and evenings in air-conditioned tourist cafés. The juxtapositions are stark and uncomfortable.
‘Everyday hundreds, sometimes as many as two thousand, people arrive on Lesbos’ northern beaches. The journey across the water from Turkey usually takes around an hour and a half, depending on conditions at sea. The flimsy rubber dinghies are invariably over crowded and the majority of passengers can’t swim.
‘The experience is terrifying. Another trauma added to the layers that many of the displaced have accumulated through war in Syria or South Sudan, insecurity in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
‘One man told me: “It was a nightmare. I don’t know how we got through that trip.”
‘Whatever the semantics of their legal status, migrants or refugees, those arriving in Greece’s eastern islands have one thing in common – a desire to escape the past and seek new lives in Europe. Greece is rarely their destination of choice. It is simply the gateway to the EU. But in order to continue their journeys, arrivals in Lesbos must first go through a process to determine their identity and claim of asylum. That may take a few days or a few weeks. In the meantime they need somewhere safe to stay.
‘Aid organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Rescue Committee, the UN refugee Agency and now ShelterBox are working in support of the local municipality on Lesbos to try to improve conditions in the overcrowded camps. Over time, fresh water taps and open air showers have been fitted, latrines have been upgraded, rubbish collections organised and health clinics provided.
‘Things are slowly improving but it’s a challenge to assess properly the needs of a population that is constantly changing as people come and go. The numbers fluctuate. One day there seem to be children everywhere. The next they and their families are gone, having received the precious document that allows them to travel on to Athens for the next stage of processing.
‘The local Civilian Protection Force has generously provided some tents for the Kara Tepe camp, which sits on a hillside a few miles outside the main port of Mytelene. Part olive grove, part motorbike training ground, it is hardly an ideal site for an emergency camp. The heat, dust, constant use, and sheer number of people have taken a heavy toll on the tents that were never designed for this scenario. Pieces of ripped canvas flap in the breeze, the acrid smell of soiled groundsheets fills the nostrils and frayed guy ropes are held down with heavy boulders or tied around the branches of the olive trees, doubling as handy washing lines.
‘This is where ShelterBox can make a difference. Working alongside the local government and partner agencies, we are planning to replace and supplement the existing tents with robust family sized alternatives. Over the next couple of months, thousands of people will benefit from the protection they offer.
‘Each individual person or family may only spend a few nights in the new tents. But those few nights will now at least provide a chance for proper rest and recovery after weeks, sometimes months, of precarious travel in search of a better, but still uncertain future.’
A second ShelterBox response team, made up of Sam Hewett (UK) and Jennifer Butte-Dahl, have now arrived in Greece to oversee the distribution of 100 tents, which are due to arrive shortly. On Lesbos, 70 tents will be used to create a new site to ease pressure on the existing reception camps. In addition to this, the team will also look at ways to support neighbouring islands too.