We’ve been volunteer working in Thessaloniki for just over a week now. I’ve been based in a warehouse on the edge of the city, where Help Refugees runs its operations, and Sarah has been working with an education project in the city centre. It’s an interesting mix of people and organisations, with varying degrees of organisation. The charity Help Refugees, which we volunteered with in Calais last year, owns the warehouse, and is in charge with volunteer coordination, alongside another organisation. Help Refugees also channels funds and volunteers to other NGOs working across the region, a few of which are also based at the warehouse. I’ve been working with the GSD (“Get Shit Done”) team, a construction/DIY workshop making things for some of the camps and for other organisations. At the warehouse there’s a couple of food distribution programmes, and a kitchen that cooks meals for some of the camps. The various organisations there and across the region work independently, but have a loose coordination network to work together and support each other with their areas of focus. “Expertise” might be stretching it, without being unfair to them. Some people are clearly very skilled at what they do, and others are lending a hand in whatever way they can. There’s a lot of enthusiastic energy, not always directed in the best way possible, but you have to remember it’s all voluntary, and run on a shoestring budget, with lots of good will to fill in the gaps.
I’m still trying to get my head round the situation here, but here’s a summary from what I can glean so far. There are around 65,000 irregular migrants living in camps in Greece, scattered all over the country from the islands bordering Turkey, to several large camps on the mainland near Athens and scattered across the north. Most of them are Syrian, but there are many different nationalities among them too. Many of them have been here for a year or two, waiting on appointments for asylum applications and for relocation to somewhere across Europe. Some have “voluntarily” returned to their homes, calculating that the prospects in Europe are not particularly brighter.
In 2016, around 173,000 of the 362,000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean came to Greece. Macedonia closed its border with Greece to refugees in March last year, and people making the journey north suddenly found themselves stuck at the border, and the makeshift camp at Idomeni sprang up, in squalid conditions. The camp was evacuated in May last year, and the residents relocated to military camps across Greece. The Greek military runs all the camps in the country, with the UN providing some services, but there are gaping holes in some of the provisions, from nutritious food to education and psychological trauma counselling. NGO access to the camps varies fairly widely from camp to camp, depending on the individual in charge and the volunteers’ relationships with them.
The EU-Turkey deal stemmed migrant movements from Turkey across the sea into Greece, but only really succeeded in redirecting migrant flows on the longer and far more dangerous route to Italy, often from north Africa. So far in 2017 (as of 12 June), 63,810 people have arrived in Italy compared with 7,731 to Greece. Some people continue to arrive by sea to Greece, and the reception camps on many of the islands remain horribly overcrowded, with authorities seemingly unable to work through the backlog of arrivals. Some people, fed up with waiting, try and smuggle themselves onwards to other European countries to try and be registered elsewhere.
It’s a confusing and frustrating picture. Like with the situation in Calais last year, there seems to be a major breakdown or overloading of national and international bureaucratic systems, which has led to hundreds of thousands of lives being put at risk and put on hold, as people wait without a clear timetable to get on with their lives.
It’s interesting getting a picture of day to day life at the warehouse. It’s a much smaller set-up than the Calais site when we were there in October. Structures don’t seem so well established, but there are a greater number of organisations operating out of the base, and a larger network of distribution and projects going on. It’s difficult trying to meet the needs of a scattered and vulnerable population, especially when the authorities don’t always make it easy for the small NGOs. I’ve heard quite a bit of criticism levelled at some of the larger organisations by people at the warehouse and volunteers at several of the smaller NGOs, voicing frustration at the difficulties they face, and the inability of the larger organisations to meet the needs. It’s hard to know how much is bravado and how much is real, but it’s clear that there are short-comings in the official response, and that the larger organisations — including UNHCR — are unable to respond quickly enough to a changing situation beyond the basics, meaning that education and the social and creative aspects of people’s lives would go forgotten if it weren’t for the smaller independent organisations. Some of the EU funding has been redirected to the Greek government, meaning that several organisations no longer know how long they will continue to operate, and some are withdrawing from the country, leaving a gap in service provision.
Thessaloniki has a history that resonates with the migrant crisis in Europe. It’s been a crossroads of civilisations for millennia, with constant urban activity since before the Romans, through Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It’s a city of mixed cultures, immigration and population movements. It was all across this region that Christians and Muslims moved between Greece and Turkey after the First World War. The city’s Jewish population was almost entirely exterminated by the Nazis under occupation in the Second World War, with over 45,000 people – a fifth of the city – sent to Auschwitz in 1943.
The Greek people seem on balance remarkably open to the refugee arrivals on their shores and in their cities. Several have attributed this to the relatively recent history of refugee movements within Greece, with many having relatives who had made similarly perilous crossings a few generations previously. We went to a photography exhibition in the city at the weekend, a collection of documentary work by two mid-century Greek photographers who had documented life in Greece during World War Two. It was striking to see images and scenes not dissimilar to those of the refugee crisis today. There were children playing barefoot in refugee camps, people queuing to receive food parcels and US aid, a small girl’s joy at receiving a new pair of shoes. I wonder who those people grew up to be.