Video: International Migrants Day

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At this time of year, our thoughts turn to family and home, but for many this just isn’t possible.

At ShelterBox, we don’t just help people whose homes have been damaged or lost in natural disasters, but those who have had to leave their homes due to conflict.

While many people leave their homes to escape the threat of terror and violence, such as those fleeing from Boko Haram in Nigeria or Islamic State in the Middle East, the way to safety is often just as perilous.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of people fleeing war and violence in 2015 is set break a record high, with almost a million people having crossed the Mediterranean Sea to escape conflict in Syria and elsewhere.

While we may not be able to help these families return to their homes and communities as we can after a flood or earthquake strikes, we can make sure that people who are migrating to safer parts of the world have some respite along the way.

This video shows our recent work in Greece, providing emergency shelter for people who had made the journey across the sea to the island of Lesbos. Many families only stayed in our tents for a few nights, but it meant that they were able to rest somewhere safe, warm and dry, before continuing their journey on to other parts of Europe.

Your support helps us to keep helping families in need, wherever they are in the world.

Refugee Crisis In Europe – The Suffering On Lesbos Makes Headlines Again

Refugees disembark an inflatable boat on the shores of Lesbos, a man carries two children to shore

 

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.

Respite From The Road In Greece

 

Image of UN spec tents as supplied by ShelterBox and small camping tents brought by refugees

As thousands of people continue to make the journey to Europe from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, ShelterBox is providing much-needed shelter on the Greek island of Lesbos – a halfway point for many weary travellers.

Earlier this month, a ShelterBox Response Team, made up of Sam Hewett (UK), Jennifer Butte-Dahl (US) and Jack Bailey (UK) travelled to the island to set up 100 tents in the Kara Tepe camp near the main port of Mytilene.

In contrast to many refugee camps, where people sometimes stay for years on end, the people passing through Lesbos and other Greek islands do not stay for long. This is just a temporary stop after long truck rides and dangerous sea crossings before continuing on to other European countries. Most families are only there for a few nights at a time, before they receive the necessary paperwork to resume their journeys, but the number of people arriving is so high that many local resources have been overwhelmed.

Response Team member Sam Hewett describes the unique situation in which the team was working: ‘On the first day I was nervous – normally you get everything in a camp set up before the intended occupants move in, and undertake tent construction like a production line. You ensure that essential services such as water and sanitation have been installed and you draw up a list of households who will move into each tent to prioritise the vulnerable.

‘But in this case, we were putting up our tents in and around people’s tiny camping tents. We couldn’t draw up a beneficiary list because groups of people arrived every half an hour or so – many with small children, pregnant women or disabled family members, while others departed each day.’

One of the households we helped was the Jejou family from Mosul in Iraq. They told the team that they left Mosul in August because of the threat posed by Daesh (Islamic State) and for the future of their children.

 

6 smiling Iraqi children in from of a tent supplied by ShelterBox

Children from the Jejou family, who travelled to Greece from Mosul, Iraq. (Credit Jennifer Butte-Dahl/ShelterBox)

 

One family member said: ‘We have suffered a lot and lost everything. We are Christians, and Christians are all being killed by Daesh in Iraq. Churches are being destroyed and Daesh kidnapped some of our relatives. Two children in our extended family were killed by missiles.’

They carried on to explain that they travelled to Greece with five other families. There were 40 people in total and they all went in one boat. The motor died in the middle of the sea, but thankfully they managed to fix it and continue.

The experience of the journey has made a big impact on the family’s three children. The parents told us: ‘They’ve lost their manners. Every day we move to a new place, meet new people. They are learning bad habits. Their days have no structure and there is no controlled environment. The children want to get back to school and we want them back in school as well.’

However, in the short time that the family were on the island of Lesbos, they were able to have a brief rest in a secure environment, thanks to ShelterBox.

They said: ‘The tent is big – we can put our luggage inside to keep it safe and the whole family can live in this tent. This tent provides shelter for us and it is a safe space.’

Hundreds of others, just like the Jejou family, have been able to rest in somewhere safe and comfortable thanks to ShelterBox. An item as simple as a tent is not only providing shelter, but much-needed security, in the midst of many harrowing journeys.

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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Seeking Shade And Sanctuary In Kara Tepe Camp On Lesbos

A man lies on a Shelterbox  blanket , cover by a Shelterbox ground mat

ShelterBox Kit Originating In Syria Arrives On Lesbos With New Arrivals

As ShelterBox starts putting up large UN style tents in a camp on Lesbos there is a rush for the shade they provide. Also a surprise for our team as well-travelled ShelterBox kit appears, probably having originated in Syria

As a ShelterBox team begins putting up the first of one hundred large UN-style tents on the Greek island of Lesbos, they have seen what instant relief they are bringing to weary families in search of shade from the daytime sun.

ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Sam Hewett is at work in the Kara Tepe transit on Lesbos with Response Volunteer Jennifer Butte-Dahl. They are working with international and local volunteers, as well as people living on the site, to put the tents up.

Sam says, ‘About 150 people moved in straight away. None of them had shelter before moving into any of the tents. People started using the limited shade around the tents the moment they were erected, regardless of whether they were going to move in. We had just finished putting one up, and soon found a child lying in the shadow created by the tent.’

 

And there was a completely unexpected delivery of ShelterBox aid too! Sam and his colleague noticed some ShelterBox-branded groundsheets and blankets in the shade of a tree, in the care of two men. Sam says, ‘They were most likely distributed in northern Syria before the recipients travelled to Turkey and gave them to the two men.’

For more than four years now ShelterBox aid has been distributed across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and into the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Displaced families and refugees have moved on during this time, and no doubt some of them have now joined the search for asylum in European countries. It is perhaps not so surprising to see ShelterBox aid on the move with its original beneficiaries, but this one sighting indicates how long a journey these people have been on.

Forty ShelterBox tents will be used at Kara Tepe camp, and Sam and Jennifer are in discussions with officials from the local municipality, and with other aid agencies including the UN and Red Cross, about where best to position a further sixty that have already arrived on the island. There are several existing sites that need improving, and there is also the possibility of creating new facilities on the north of the island, near beaches where most people arrive after journeying by sea from the Turkish coast.

There are reports of up to 10,000 new arrivals on Lesbos over last three days.  Others cite boats arriving from Turkey at the rate of one every 1.5 hours.

 

The decision on who gets time in the relative comfort of the new tents is a difficult one. The ShelterBox team is working with a Greek volunteer network and Syrian camp residents who help with translating. They are prioritising children, the elderly, and anyone who is ill. People are staying  anything from a few days up to a week, awaiting papers to allow them to continue their journeys by ferry to the Greek mainland.

You can help by donating here: PLEASE DONATE

ShelterBox Responds To Growing Humanitarian Crisis In Greece

Young Syrian refugee on the Greek island of Lesbos

A family shelters in cramped conditions on the island of Lesbos (Rachel Harvey/ShelterBox)

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 Kara Tepe camp on Lesbos. (Rachel Harvey/ShelterBox)

The Kara Tepe camp on Lesbos. (Rachel Harvey/ShelterBox)

 

‘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.

ShelterBox Provides Tents For Migrant Crisis in Greece

Young Syrian refugee on the Greek island of Lesbos

Kara Tepe Camp on a hillside outside the main port of Mytilene. ©Rachel Harvey, ShelterBox

 

As Greece buckles under its own economic pressures, it is also under stress from a growing external pressure. Every day boatloads of migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan arrive from Turkey on islands such as Lesbos. ShelterBox is sending tents to help in overwhelmed transit camps.

It is a short three mile sea journey from the coast of Turkey to the island of Lesbos. But this proximity has made it a stepping stone on a journey of despair. Some days as many as 2,000 migrants arrive in small vessels on the island’s northern beaches. Most are fleeing war in Syria and Afghanistan, with hopes of heading further into Western Europe.

For these families any sense of relief at finally setting foot on European soil is soon crushed by a stark reality. Transit camps on Lesbos and its neighbouring Aegean islands are now overwhelmed, many becoming squalid. Greece, absorbed with its own problems, is ill-equipped to deal with this influx. Its government is nearly broke, local services – where they exist – are struggling, and one person in every four is unemployed.   

Lesbos, third largest of the Greek islands, is still a popular tourist destination. It has only 86,000 residents. But although up to 3,000 holidaymakers a month fly into Mytilene Airport, that traffic is now eclipsed by seaborne migrant arrivals that exceeded 107,000 last month. The UN says that more migrants landed on the island in June than in the whole of the previous year.

Disgarded lifejackets in a bin on the island of Lesbos

Disgarded lifejackets in a bin on the island of Lesbos

On Lesbos, as on nearby Kos, residents and tourists are doing what they can to help, many providing clothing or food. But occasionally tempers run high. Last week migrants on Kos clashed with police in the long, hot queues to obtain registration papers. Migration from Turkey into Greece is now on a larger scale than to the southern Italian islands from Tunisia, or to mainland Spain from Morocco at the mouth of the Mediterranean. It is only the closeness of the Aegean islands to Turkey’s coast that has prevented multiple sea tragedies, most making it to shore on flimsy rubber dinghies provided by people-traffickers, with instructions to  slash them on arrival so they can’t be used again.  

International disaster relief charity ShelterBox has had a team on Lesbos island over recent weeks assessing needs and talking to local officials about how it can help. Now, later this week, a second team will return to oversee the distribution of 100 tents across the islands, with 70 of these allocated to Lesbos. Here they will be allocated to create a new site, and to ease pressures on the existing camps. But ShelterBox is also looking to neighbouring islands.

Response team volunteer Rachel Harvey was part of the original ShelterBox team, and gives this eyewitness reaction. The situation on Lesbos is unlike most other humanitarian crises in that the population needing help is transitory, only staying for as long as it takes to get the necessary papers allowing onward travel.’

More than 107,000 migrants arrived on Lesbos ls June, more than the previous 12 months put together

More than 107,000 migrants arrived on Lesbos ls June, more than the previous 12 months put together

 

‘Hundreds of people, sometimes thousands, arrive on the island in overfull dinghies every day. They are exhausted, often traumatised by recent experiences, and frequently confused about what to do next. Very few want to remain in Greece – Lesbos is simply the geographic gateway to the EU. But while they wait they need somewhere safe to stay. The authorities on Lesbos are doing what they can, but by its own admission the local municipality is ill-equipped to manage a crisis on this scale.’

 

‘Conditions in the two main reception camps have improved – thanks to the efforts of international agencies working with local officials. But the existing tents, provided by Lesbos’s Civilian Protection Force, weren’t designed for constant use over a period of months, and have fallen into disrepair. Ground sheets are soiled, guy ropes knotted and frayed, fly sheets torn.  Some people arrive too late to get a space inside even these meagre shelters, and end up sleeping out in the open. People are visibly shocked by the situation in which they find themselves. One asked me for more bin bags so that he could try to collect some of the festering rubbish that keeps piling up in the corners of the overcrowded camp.’

 

This week ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Sam Hewett and Response Team member Jennifer Butte-Dahl are travelling to Lesbos to work alongside local government and UN refugee experts overseeing aid across the Greek islands.

ShelterBox CEO Alison Wallace says, ‘What a desperate situation, both for the travel-weary migrant families, and for their reluctant hosts. Even if systems were in good shape, it is hard to see how Greek officials could process the numbers that keep arriving every day, and provide shelter and basic provisions for an unforeseeable number of people. Whatever pressures or fears have brought them to these shores, and wherever they are bound next, we will make sure as many as possible get some respite in our tents and from our colleague charities.’