The Greek island of Lesbos has become a focus on the refugee trail again, as wet weather, illness and lack of shelter make conditions miserable for families arriving from Turkey. ShelterBox is considering a return to Lesbos, but is finding barriers to helping its refugees.
In September disaster relief agency ShelterBox left the island of Lesbos – one of the Greek entry points for refugees fleeing the Middle East – after weeks of providing shelter and shade in respite camps, and generally improving conditions on an island overwhelmed.
Now Lesbos is one of the refugee hotspots making headlines again, as journalists, broadcasters, medics and politicians highlight the continuing suffering playing out on European soil.
Last week broadcaster and writer Lliana Bird quoted a doctor on Lesbos saying,‘There are thousands of children here and their feet are literally rotting, they can’t keep dry, they have high fevers and they’re standing in the pouring rain for days on end. You have one month guys, and then all these people will be dead.’ Lliana noted that, ‘There is very little visible support or help from large charities or governments.’
Now UK Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Opposition’s refugee taskforce,has written to David Cameron urging him to offer ‘immediate’ humanitarian aid to Lesbos after witnessing shocking scenes first-hand. After a visit she reported that there were just two ambulances serving the whole island, doctors working twenty hours a day, children sleeping amidst the rubbish, and fears among aid workers over an outbreak of cholera.
The UK Government has offered to resettle 20,000 refugees from over five years and has offered £100 million in aid. But Yvette Cooper has asked the Prime Minister for the Department for International Development to intervene on Lesbos rather than rely on volunteers and charities. Today UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening has announced a £5 million funding package for a group of humanitarian organisations to fund the distribution of sleeping bags, towels, rain wear, hygiene kits, nappies, food and clean water for refugees in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia.
Former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, now President of the New York based International Rescue Committee, had also visited Lesbos in September where he said he found ‘appalling neglect’.
ShelterBox has been hard at work on the refugee trail for over three years, providing shelter in refugee camps and for displaced families in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan and deep into Syria itself. Right now ShelterBox is providing aid in Syria through its in-country partners, and a team returned in October to Kurdistan to evaluate and improve long-standing provision.
But CEO Alison Wallace explains that the refugee crisis, particularly in Europe, is fraught with challenges and frustrations for aid agencies like ShelterBox. ‘The humanitarian need is obvious, and reports like those in the press make heart-breaking reading. But providing help to refugees within Europe is far from straightforward.’
‘On Lesbos the provision has grown ad hoc, and at times our response teams were caught up in the havoc caused by unmanageable numbers and slow registration procedures. Even now Greece’s government and the UN are finding it hard to identify land where respite camps can be legally placed.’
ShelterBox has access to many more of the large UN-style tents that it had already deployed in camps such as Kara Tepe near the island’s capital and main port of Mytilene. But Moria camp was already beyond capacity, and the lack of co-ordinated organisation could have exposed both ShelterBox teams and their beneficiaries to harm.
Alison adds, ‘With winter months approaching, shelter and warmth will be as important to refugee families as medicine, food and clean water. But all are hampered by a lack of local resources, a lack of available land. There is also decreasing political will, with many European countries exercising strict border controls.’
‘ShelterBox keeps the situation under daily review, and wherever we find an unmet need and a government willing to let us operate within their country, we will do all we can to respond.’
ShelterBox is preparing to mobilise a response team to evaluate need on Lesbos in the coming weeks, and is in touch with colleague agencies and local and government organisations on the island.