Image by Samos-Kids / © Rob Timmerman / MOTG
March 2020 was most likely the most challenging time to work as a volunteer in the refugee camps on the Greek islands. Reports in the news about:
escalating protests by residents of the Greek islands over the construction of new refugee camps
the escalating situation on the Turkish-Greek land border
the violent attacks by right-wing extremists on refugees and NGO staff, for instance on Lesbos
devastating fires in NGO facilities
the emerging Corona pandemic
made the situation very complex and, at first sight, dangerous. I had started planning my volunteer assignment for "Movement on the ground" (MOTG) on Samos in January 2020 and of course I had never expected the situation to deteriorate to such an extent. In order to encourage others to become involved as volunteers on the Aegean islands despite the difficult situation, I would like to share my experiences here. I would also like to show how important the work of NGOs and volunteers on the Aegean Islands is, especially in these difficult times. And I would like to show how large the amount of tasks is that is taken on by NGOs and which should actually be carried out and financed by the EU. After all, the establishment of the camps on the islands is by no means a coincidental development but was planned and wanted by the EU.
As time as a volunteer can be very strenuous physically and mentally, good preparation is essential. Good preparation can help you to find the right place and a suitable task for you at a very early stage. This can help you to cope with stressful situations later on. I came to MOTG through "Indigo Volunteers". This is a London-based organisation that places interested in people with NGOs. It's a kind of job agency for volunteers that is financed through donations. A first telephone call with a coordinator from MOTG gave me a great sense of security. She gave me a good overview of the situation and answered all my questions. After I had decided to go to Samos for MOTG I got more documents with tips and instructions for my work as a volunteer. This was very helpful and probably also distinguishes the good from the bad NGOs.
Another important point is to research information in advance to be well prepared. Questions that one should ask oneself are for example: What is the situation in the country, on the island, in the city where I will be going? What is the current political situation in the country I am going to and in the countries from which refugees are coming (e.g. Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan)? What is the current situation in the camp where I will work?
In my case, at the end of February/beginning of March, the research was quite laborious due to the many events and incidents that took place at that time. But it was also very helpful because it allowed me to assess whether dangers were relevant for me and whether they could be dealt with in an emergency. The riots of right-wing radicals on Samos, for example, were not as bad as on Lesbos (but there were also isolated attacks on Samos). The situation in the camp on Samos was very bad but stable at the end of February, as in the months before. And the escalating protests of the Greek islanders slowly subsided in early March.
I got information via MOTG, for example. They provided a check-list to exclude a corona infection and information on how to deal with stressful situations during and after the assignment. Facebook pages of other NGOs (e.g. Samos Volunteers) as well as English language pages of Greek media also provide plenty of good resources.
Because of this good preparation, I never had the feeling that I had overlooked or misjudged a risk until the day of my departure. But what kept my mind occupied then was why it is that in Europe in 2020 it was necessary to ask the questions mentioned above. All this because the EU and its member states are not able or willing to prevent or end this inhumane situation on the Greek islands.
The situation on Samos in March 2020
Due to the corona situation, many NGOs on Samos were only able to work to a very limited extent at the beginning of March. In the second week of March, the schools in Greece were closed and with it a large part of the services offered to the people in the camp. There were no more lessons and activities for children. In the camp, or rather the unofficial part called "Jungle", this could immediately be felt like a tense atmosphere - especially among the children.
The sanitary conditions are catastrophic
With MOTG I was mainly concerned with waste disposal and the supply of disinfectant dispensers in the camp during my time on Samos. Especially when it comes to waste disposal, one becomes aware of the dramatic situation in the camps. Far too often we came across "wild" toilets during clean-ups, because the number of available toilets is far too small. In addition, the existing toilets are often very dirty, as they are used by many hundreds or thousands of people. To see a little girl looking for a clean toilet in the morning and desperately opening the next stall's door, hoping that this toilet is finally a clean one, breaks your heart. I have often asked myself the question of how the politicians in charge can allow such a thing!
What many people cannot imagine is that the garbage disposal in the Jungle of Samos is completely carried out by volunteers and residents, with the help of donations. I was often asked why the refugees cannot dispose of their garbage themselves. This question can be answered by anyone who knows what the streets look like when the garbage collection is on strike in, say, Germany.
What happens if garbage is not removed I could experience myself in the camp of Samos. The garbage attracts rats, because of torn garbage bags there are broken glass pieces and razor blades everywhere and the water of the few reservoirs runs down the hill, through the garbage heaps. And then there are the "wild" toilets. It is in this highly toxic environment where the children play, sometimes barefoot.
Corona is a deadly danger for the people in the camps.
It is often reported that an outbreak of the coronavirus in the camps on the Aegean islands would have very serious consequences and result in many deaths. I am not a doctor or an epidemiologist. I can state, however, that almost none of the proposed measures to contain the spread of the virus can be implemented in the camp on Samos. Social distancing is absolutely not possible. For almost all things in daily life, people have to wait in long queues, for example for food distributions. Doctors without borders (MSF) have set up water points, but these are by no means sufficient for the necessary hand hygiene. Because the people there live in unheated tents, many have pre-existing illnesses and children do not receive the necessary vaccinations against other diseases.
Almost 7000 people live in the camp on Samos, about 6000 of them in the Jungle, outside the official EU hotspot camp. The only supply that people in the Jungle officially get is very poor plastic-sealed food and bottled water. Any other supply is exclusively provided by NGOs, volunteers and donations. Toilets, water tanks and taps, hand disinfection dispensers, garbage bags and garbage collection would not exist in the Jungle without NGOs.
Volunteers and NGOs show how European solidarity works
The support for refugees outside the camp, for example a small laundry service, a restaurant for people who cannot queue for hours for food and many other services are based on donations and the work of volunteers. It is very good to see how people get involved for other people and how the inhabitants of the camp are being involved in order to meet them on an equal footing and to help them to live there with some basic dignity. On the other hand it makes me very sad and angry that in the year 2020 it is not possible in Europe to accommodate and treat refugees with dignity. And that hundreds and thousands of volunteers and donations will be needed to provide the people in the camps with the most basic needs. There is no doubt that the EU and the governments of the member states could immediately dissolve the camps and distribute the people among the EU countries. So many volunteers from different European countries show every day on the Greek islands how European solidarity can work! Why does it not work at the government level?
We no longer want to watch the situation deteriorate more and more and become increasingly life-threatening for the people in the camps and call out from Samos, Chios, Lesbos and all the other camps: "Europe must act!"
About the author: Christian lives in Pforzheim and works as an engineer. He has been working on site with refugees for several years and is involved in the local Seebrücke Action Group and the Antiracist Network Baden-Württemberg. After the situation in the camps on the Aegean islands had become increasingly critical, he decided to work with Movement on the Ground on Samos in early 2020. "Especially in rich Germany we have a damn responsibility to stand up for a dignified and humane treatment of refugees. We have to address these serious and sensitive issues over and over again", says Christian. He is also a member of Europe Must Act - Germany. You can also find more information in Christian's blog: chris4motg.blogspot.com