Tensions, Temperatures and Numbers Rise On Greek Island

Image of branded ShelterBox van with tents behind

ShelterBox is working with partner agencies on the island of Lesbos


ShelterBox has witnessed increasing tensions on the island of Lesbos. Active for years across Syria and the Middle East, and now helping to improve conditions in Greek transit camps, it agrees that to prevent further deaths and misery a two-speed solution is needed.

Few have greater insight to the plight of refugee families than humanitarian aid workers. Recent events have brought the refugee crisis into sharp and dreadful focus. Shocking deaths at the hands of people-traffickers, near riots on the Hungarian border, heart-rending images, yet no unified solution from leaders across the EU.

International disaster relief organisation, ShelterBox has been at work providing shelter and equipment to displaced families across the Middle East for over four years
in Syria itself, and in its bordering countries – and now on the Greek island of Lesbos, one of the stepping stones to Europe that is now becoming overwhelmed.

As they work to help the local authorities, the UN, and colleague charities such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to improve shelter and conditions in transit camps, the ShelterBox team is now witnessing a ratcheting up of tensions on the island. The local Mayor’s office recently estimated that there were around 25,000 refugees on the island, with Kara Tepe camp, originally designed for hundreds, now hosting thousands. Numbers rise and fall by the day. But everywhere there are long queues in the unrelenting heat, and always more families arriving in flimsy boats on northern shores. And now their desperation is beginning to show.

Team members Sam Hewett, Jennifer Butte-Dahl and Jack Bailey have had to suspend work numerous times in recent days at Kara Tepe as refugee camp capacity was exceeded, tensions grew, and small protests broke out.  Colleague humanitarian organisations working to improve sanitation facilities and distribute supplies were also forced to evacuate. As the situation has allowed, the ShelterBox team has moved in to Kara Tepe to continue distributing 95 large UN-style tents, as well 800 square metres of shade nets to protect families from the elements while they wait on Lesbos.

ShelterBox has also put up five UN-style tents in Pikpa, a small camp run by local Greek volunteers, which is housing families with young children, the sick, and the disabled. The final tent erected yesterday soon became home to a young Syrian couple with a four week-old baby who had just been discharged from the hospital. Sam says, ‘We are working closely with the United Nations to assess shelter needs across the island and provide assistance where possible, and as the security situation allows.’

Families are on Lesbos, having made the short sea journey from the Turkish coast, awaiting papers that will allow them to continue by ferry to the Greek mainland. But the EU system that says refugees must be processed in the country of their arrival is now being severely tested. Local authorities on Lesbos are unable to effectively manage the rising numbers of arrivals, and the bureaucratic backlog can mean waiting times of over two weeks for some people. So the travelers linger in inadequate transit camps awaiting registration papers, and then try to purchase seats on inconsistent and overbooked ferries to the mainland.

Most are patient, but patience is running out. There have been a number of clashes between refugees and riot police both in Kara Tepe and at the port in the last few days as registration has been suspended.  According to Jen, ‘There is no consistent registration system in place here on Lesbos. The situation changes hourly and key decisions required to safely and effectively process refugees are caught up in political indecision. In the meantime, families wait days in the sun without information or direction on what to do next, and numbers continue to grow. The current situation is unsustainable.’

Chief Executive of ShelterBox, Alison Wallace, says, ‘This crisis undoubtedly needs a two-speed solution. Like many other aid organisations and local governments ShelterBox is urgently dealing with the here and now – providing humanitarian relief for those families who have arrived in Europe escaping fear and persecution.’

‘But our teams have also been active for years at the source of this problem. Conditions in Syria itself, and in countries such as Iraq and Turkey on the flight from ISIS, need vast improvement with a concentrated long-term international effort.’

‘Only when it becomes bearable to stay will these frightened people stop setting out for the hope that may lie over the horizon.’

Two speeds tackling both the course and the source. The course of the refugee trail is Europes immediate dilemma – where to accommodate these people who cannot go home. But tackling the source of the problem will require a long term commitment to global aid, diplomacy, and compassion.    

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