by Mariana Kouprianoff
Refugee camps in Greece are known for the worst reasons: inhumane conditions, with refugees and asylum-seekers having limited to no access to education or medical assistance, forced to live in filthy tents, without electricity, and limited access to water and proper food.
Over the course of 5 years, ad-hoc grassroots organizations started spreading throughout Greece in an attempt to tackle these issues and support refugees in several of these neglected areas. The number of organizations in and around camps increased, focused on providing healthy meals, English lessons, or giving legal support to the population. Many refugees acknowledge how these organizations were vital to help ease the difficulties faced in camps where they often felt unheard, uninformed, and neglected. Often, grassroots even contributed to their integration and well-being, when the structures in place were often denying them any chance to thrive.
In Nea Kavala, the Open Cultural Center, an organization working for the inclusion of refugees and migrants through educational and cultural activities, did a fundraiser earlier this year in order to provide a bus service from the camp to the nearest town of Polykastro. Camp residents from Nea Kavala had to endure a 1h walks to get to pharmacies and shops while no other means of transport were offered.
In Thessaloniki, Mobile Info Team has persistently supported refugees with legal counselling, providing accurate information about asylum procedures in several languages, while organizations such as Project Armonia in Samos ensure vulnerable people have access to healthy and warm meals. Countless others could be mentioned, with their common goal being to ensure these populations are given the dignity, support, and respect they deserve.
These ad-hoc grassroots organizations have been great at identifying needs and mobilizing resources, effectively showing how they’re essential to ensure the well-being of camp populations.
Tightening of regulations causes growing uncertainty for grassroots in Greece
Despite their irrefutable importance, grassroots have been under extreme pressure as a tightening in regulation was introduced in April last year - making it harder for organizations to ensure the needs of refugees are being met. Greek authorities have become increasingly averse to the work of NGOs, with Greek Immigration Minister, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, referring to them as “bloodsuckers”, who are merely taking advantage of a disastrous situation to collect EU funding.
This regulation affects both refugees and volunteer-based organizations, and it will become concerningly harder to improve the conditions of those escaping wars with such barriers in place.
A report from Choose Love, published in February 2021, shows that these legislative changes have already affected many organizations. Among the 70 organizations surveyed, 20 mentioned that due to the new legislation they already “lost access to reception facilities or were faced with increasing difficulties with access” while 40 already anticipated having problems in providing essential services to the population in the camps. The report also notes how this ”will have a negative impact on the services available as civil society provides everything from food to legal support to healthcare” in Greece.
Truth be told, these organizations have been providing essential services to those in need, and they have been truly outstanding alternatives to an otherwise dark reality.
We ask ourselves if people should be forced to live in such conditions for longer. And the answer is a definite no. With increasing pressure on civil society initiatives in Greece and the confirmed threat of new closed camps being built, the European Union is yet again on the verge of causing irreparable damage to people who seek refuge in our continent.
A re-focus on relocation to European cities should be at the top of the European Agenda on Migration: we must ask our local leaders to welcome more refugees and asylum-seekers, instead of neglecting the situation only to perpetuate trauma on vulnerable populations.