‘Refugee Diaries’: Finding Hope in a Hopeless Place

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Olivia Long of Help Refugees writes about the living conditions in refugee camps across Europe, where adults, families and lone children are forced to sleep in freezing temperatures, without access to basic essentials and facilities. She also describes some of the vital work volunteer groups and charities are doing on the frontline of the crisis; offering protection, support and kindness which has long been missing from EU governments. This forms the second entry of our ‘Refugee Diaries’ series.

I’ve been finding it very difficult to get out of my bed in London this week. The air has been cold enough to see my breath when I wake up, and the last thing I want to do is remove myself from the cocoon I’ve been sleeping in, take off my pajamas and venture into the cold, grey bustle of the city.

In the end, I always manage it, though. Because the next steps – jumping into a hot shower, making a steaming cup of coffee and bundling myself into my thick, warm winter coat – are really not so bad. 

For a person waking up in a tent on the island of Lesvos, mornings are different. They’ve likely had very little sleep, owing to the constant noise of the camp outside and the freezing temperatures. They may have struggled to drift off as they tried to find space between other people’s feet and stacks of dry food, or perhaps there was rainwater leaking through a seam in the fragile, plastic wall. 

Two children sit together, looking out across Moria camp in Lesvos, Greece.
[Image: Marieke Oderkerken for Movement on the Ground]

Unlike me, someone living in Lesvos’ infamous Moria camp has to wait in line to shower. By the end of 2019 there were a staggering 900 residents for every one shower unit. Shockingly, toilets were the same. International guidelines state a maximum of 20 people per toilet facility, but in Moria and the surrounding “Olive Grove” the number is now eight times this. The story is the same across the Aegean Islands, and those forced to endure these squalid conditions have very little choice but to stay where they are. A lack of political will on the part of European governments and a lack of a safe, stable home to which to return leave these people in a state of limbo. They can’t move forward, and they certainly can’t move backward.

As the number of civilians displaced by conflict, persecution and climate change continues to rise in Afghanistan, Syria, DRC, Iraq, Somalia and numerous other countries, so too do the number of people arriving to join this state of limbo on the shores of Greece. The number of new arrivals almost doubled in 2019. The vast majority of these people landed in Lesvos, which now is now hosting over 19,000 people in a camp made for 2,500. In Samos the situation is not much better: as of the first week of January this year, the camp is eleven times overcapacity. 

By the end of 2019 there were a staggering 900 residents for every one shower unit. Shockingly, toilets were the same.

In Moria, most people live in donated tents or makeshift shelters of wood and sheets of plastic. The “official” accommodation in ISO-boxes, provided by the Greek state and given to families and the most vulnerable people, is completely overcapacity, as is the section set aside for unaccompanied minors. There are far, far more people than the camp’s facilities are designed for, which has led to a population overspill into the surrounding area: the Olive Grove. 

Examples of the refugee accommodation provided in Lesvos
[Image: Abdulazez Dukhan for Help Refugees]

The conditions in Moria, as well as in camps in the rest of Greece and other places in Southern Europe, such as Bosnia and Serbia, are entirely unfit for human existence. No-one would agree that a child deserves to live alone in a broken tent, relying on the kindness of strangers and exposed to all manner of dangers without a safety net. No-one with a basic understanding of what the individuals in these camps have been through could say that they do not deserve the chance to start a new life somewhere safe and secure. Why, then, do we continue to abandon people to these conditions? How can anyone justify leaving another human being in these conditions? How have we been able to simply continue our lives as normal, while they suffer the consequences of political decisions made by governments we have voted for and institutions we allow to represent us?

…a person waking up in a tent on the island of Lesvos [is] likely [to have] had very little sleep, owing to the constant noise of the camp outside and the freezing temperatures.

One of the main emotions driving the grassroots effort across Europe is anger. Its cousins: outrage, disappointment, and guilt also play a huge part. These feelings can be paralysing, and it’s often hard to know where to even begin to offer help to those who have endured things we can barely imagine and will likely never experience. The incredible grassroots groups that have formed across Europe over the last five years, though, are evidence of the fact that it is possible to turn these feelings into something powerfully productive. 

Working day and night to alleviate conditions for those displaced, these groups address an astonishing variety of needs: they do everything from distributing sleeping bags to providing legal support, to conducting search and rescue for those in peril along the Aegean coastline. The organisation I work for fundraises to give grants and longer-term funding to these groups and projects to allow them to continue filling the gaps in protection and support left by European governments and larger, international NGOs. 

Recent political developments, such as the decision by the UK Parliament to block family reunification for child refugees in Europe after Brexit and Austria’s introduction of preventive detention, as well as continued refusal on the part of several European governments to recognise Afghanistan as an unsafe country for return (and the new willingness on the part of others to recognise Syria as a safe country for return), have contributed to a rise in right-wing populism across Europe and an incredibly hostile social and political environment which makes the work of these projects all the more essential. 

One of our long-term partner organisations Watershed, for example, has been supporting people living in Moria by installing a new shower and toilet blocks, and repairing those already in place. The Greek government – helped by EU funding – does fit WASH facilities in all official camps (or “reception centres”), however in almost every camp the facilities provided offer insufficient relief for the ever-growing number of residents. Watershed – as well as other partners such as Movement on the Ground and Refugee 4 Refugees – also provides general maintenance services, which can include anything from unblocking a flooded drain next to a community space to fixing a lock on the shelter belonging to a woman living alone, to organising community litter collection and garbage disposal. 

voluntary groups… do everything from distributing sleeping bags, to providing legal support, to conducting search and rescue for those in peril along the Aegean coastline.

Other groups in Greece, such as We Are One in Samos and Orange House in Athens, run programmes for women. The journey from a place of danger to a place of safety can hold particular difficulties for women and girls, so safe, comfortable spaces designated specifically for them, in which they can relax for the first time in months, are essential. Projects like these focus on empowerment and growth, offering language, vocational and skills-development courses as well the opportunity to learn from and support one another. Different groups tailor their support to psychosocial needs for all ages, or to the requirements of unaccompanied minors, the majority of whom have traveled from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and Pakistan. Other grassroots organisations in Greece offer medical care, dry food packs to allow people to cook for themselves and even, in the case of Free Movement Skateboarding, classes teaching young girls and boys to skate. All these organisations have been set up by volunteers and funded, in large part, by public donations.

Why, then, do we continue to abandon people to these conditions?

Girl on a skateboard during a Free Movement Skateboarding class, Greece
[Image: Demetrios Ioannou for Free Movement Skateboarding]

Further along the migration route, our partner organisations distribute daily essentials such as hygiene items and warm clothing to people living in camps and on the streets in Bosnia and Serbia. Attitudes towards refugees in Balkan countries, fresh from war themselves, have harshened in recent months, thanks to harsh press coverage and unfounded rumours. The criminalisation of volunteers by the Bosnian government and the increasing militarisation of borders have not helped matters. Croatian border police, for example, have recently been taking and burning the clothes and backpacks of people found attempting to cross from Bosnia, and Hungarian border police continue to use extreme violence as a deterrent. In Calais this winter, police have been destroying tents on a daily basis, removing the only shelter people have against the driving rain and freezing temperatures that so often befall northern France.

In spite of this, volunteers continue to arrive across Greece, the Balkans, northern France and elsewhere. Every day, people from all walks of life get up and go out and do the work of governments. They offer support, protection, friendship; they offer hope. They remind us that all is not lost, and that we do have the power to change things. However big or small, everyone has the power to do something to help.

Help Refugees provides funding, support, and volunteers to more than 120 projects across the world. You can sign up to make either a one-off or monthly donation here.

Written by
Olivia Long