The Greek Opportunity

An innovative refugee support system in Greece

By Negar Tayyar and Alan Zulch

© Help Refugees, Moria camp, Lesbos, Greece

The prevailing response crisis

In a recent learning visit spanning the Greek archipelago — from Athens to Lesbos and Thessaloniki — our team saw what is really taking place on the ground. While the number of refugee arrivals-per-month has dropped in the past year, the challenges in responding to existing and new refugees remain. To make matters worse, these “people on the move” (our preferred term) stuck in Greece are left in an intolerable limbo state, lacking agency and unable to predict how their journeys will unfold; they are suffering deeply.

Of course, neither the plight nor the suffering of refugees in Greece is new. In 2015 the world started paying attention to the influx of refugees crossing borders to enter Europe via Greece. Images of people crossing borders via boats and by feet circulated across the globe under the banner of “the refugee crisis.” But, the term refugee crisis is misleading as it implies that refugees are causing the crisis. The way issues are framed matters and influence public perception. Language is important. Framing people who are seeking refuge — because of a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence — as people who are causing the crisis erroneously blames the victim. The term refugee crisis also falls short by failing to emphasize the real challenge: responding creatively to people on the move. Rather than a refugee crisis, what we are witnessing across the globe is a “response crisis” to the largest forced displacement in decades.

The term crisis denotes a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger. It further suggests a time of difficult or important decision-making. Greece has been deeply impacted with 1,015,078 arrivals by boat in 2015 (according to UNHCR data). The number has dropped to 47,955 people in 2018 (as of July 9). Compared to initial reporting, the relative absence of current media coverage around the ongoing crisis in Greece leaves the global public under the impression that challenges in receiving and supporting people on the move has been addressed successfully.

While the situation did appear to be stabilizing in 2017, now in mid-2018 the camps that were once closed are once again reopening; and existing camps that have been open since 2015–2016 are becoming overcrowded with additional tents and containers. According to UNHCR, more than 14,500 “people on the move” reside on the Aegean islands; the majority not being able to leave the islands. Every day up to 100 people arrive, with fifty percent of those arriving being women and children (seven out of 10 are younger than 12 years old). Rather than resolving, the crisis is extending and evolving, albeit now largely out of the public eye.

The face of the crisis has changed, but the crisis remains and is becoming increasingly complex. With borders largely closed to people on the move across Europe, people can no longer cross borders as they could in 2015. Once they arrive at the shore in Greece, they are stuck. The number of people on the move who are not registered is on the rise. Without a registration people on the move are cut off from any formal support. The majority of people are stuck in mid-transit without a predictable timeline for their legal process.

The prevailing understanding (or wish) by international and European stakeholders, including larger international NGOs, is that the humanitarian crisis posed by refugee flows is all but over and host countries must now pivot to respond to an integration challenge. This assessment implies that people on the move have access to the most basic needs and that their health, safety, security, and wellbeing needs are met. However, in our recent travels across Greece visiting multiple refugee camps and organizations serving people on the move, it is plainly evident that the humanitarian crisis is far from over. In fact, the living conditions for refugees are deteriorating due to drastic funding cuts related to the departure of the majority of NGOs from Greece. Indeed, having closely observed the Greek context since 2016, seeing first-hand the current living conditions of people was deeply unsettling. Families live in make-shift camps lacking the most basic needs, including access to electricity or sewage, while tents are being added to overcrowded camps that are already over 80% capacity. Single mothers and their toddlers live on the streets without any access to formal support. Human spirits are downtrodden in the face of the prevailing unknowns. The humanitarian crisis clearly remains.

Lifeline for ‘people on the move’

We have witnessed many different ways of responding to the refugee context since 2015. The refugee support ecosystem in Greece that has evolved since 2015 has been remarkable. Amidst the transient and challenging context, including drastic funding cuts and the departure of the humanitarian organizations, there remains dedicated and steady support by smaller international, local and grassroots organizations. These are mostly young organizations formed by everyday people from a diversity of ethnic and professional backgrounds. Most were launched at the peak of the crisis when the formal sector had not yet responded quickly enough to meet the mounting need. The people who mobilized support and formed organizations to fill critical gaps could not have imagined that three years later their support would still be the lifeline — often the only lifeline — after the larger support groups and multilateral aid organizations pulled out.

This ecosystem of diverse and resilient organizations of different sizes is filling the most critical gaps in the refugee response system. Amidst the ongoing and continuously growing need and always scarce resources, many of these organizations understand that collaboration is crucial. Help Refugees is one key organization that has been instrumental in establishing and maintaining this refugee support ecosystem across Greece. Their team of fierce, young, driven and extremely nimble everyday citizens has been coordinating the work of many organizations on the ground. Further, Help Refugees has created and maintained a reliable funding source in support of refugees in Greece. In the three years since their inception, Help Refugees has already raised over US$16 million. During this time, Help Refugees has been applying its experience in serving and managing at the front lines of this response crisis and has developed creative revenue streams to raise funds for the refugee support system in Greece as well as in ten other countries. While many formal actors have moved to new crises, Help Refugees remains a vital source of support for the local refugee response; in some areas, it is the only source of support. Working from within Greece and the United Kingdom, Help Refugee staff members have been playing a significant role in maintaining, supporting, and coordinating the local and grassroots efforts across Greece.

Humanitarian innovators on Lesbos

The tiny and picturesque island of Lesbos received hundreds of thousands of people on the move in recent years thereby reviving its historical role as a receiving community. Back in the early 20th century, a wave of Greek Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor arrived on the shores of Lesbos. A century later, the island now has about 12,000 people on the move who live in different locations. Lesbos is a 15-minute journey from Turkey by a well-functioning speedboat. However, for most people on the move this journey can take up to eight hours in the often treacherous “dinghy” boats which smugglers notoriously overload. In most cases, the long-hoped sanctuary of Europe becomes yet another unbearable waiting room with unimaginably long waiting periods until the legal process starts, a process whose outcome depends on gender, status and perceived vulnerability. Yet even becoming officially registered upon arrival — a requisite to begin the legal process — is no longer a guarantee. People are increasingly caught in limbo, their suffering compounded by a failure to even be recognized as officially existing.

The majority of such people on the move in Greece live in Moria Camp, which is known as the camp with the most destitute living conditions. When visiting Moria, the inhumane living conditions stick out right away. Currently, there are a dozen young organizations that are offering critical services for people on the move both inside and outside of Moria. The support ranges from the most basic emergency needs, such as sewage and garbage services within the camp, clothing, and hygiene articles to educational programs and legal assistance.

Inspiring approaches to the response crisis

The following three organizations are inspiring models for creatively responding to the needs of people on the move.

One Happy Family

One Happy Family (OHF) is a community center on Lesbos established by a group of Swiss volunteers. Volunteers run OHF, including 70 from the refugee community. It is a perfect example of the incredible impact of engaging people who are receiving support and enabling them to create solutions for themselves. People on the move have been instrumental in setting up space, building new additions and structures as well as running the thirteen activities in the center. These range from a gym and cinema to a women’s space, a café, and a kitchen (serving on average 800 to 1,000 people a day), along with a medical clinic, tailor, etc. One Happy Family offers a holistic support system while operating on a tight monthly budget. The kitchen team offers dignified, nutritious meals, in marked contrast to the food offered in Moria Camp. To bring back a sense of normality and autonomy, OHF created a banking system, including a fake currency called ‘Swiss Drahma’ that enables visitors to pay for services as opposed to ‘receiving’ charity.

Mosaik Support Center for Refugees and Locals

The Mosaik Support Center is a collaborative project by Lesvos Solidarity and Borderline-Europe. Both organizations uphold the value of solidarity, are mostly run by volunteers, and aim to transform the way the public responds to people on the move. The work is grounded in the belief that people on the move need a sense of purpose while living in limbo. Thus, Mosaik serves as a space to learn, engage, and co-create, offering a sanctuary to learn languages and crafts, seek legal support, or just enjoy being in a dignified and protected space for people on the move on Lesbos. The Center embraces the notion of inclusiveness by opening its doors to people with approved asylum claims and local Greeks. The idea is to create a community space and evoke a sense of belonging.

Pikpa Camp

Pikpa Camp is an example of a human-centered and dignified alternative to encampment. Pikpa offers a safe sanctuary for up to 150 vulnerable people on the move on Lesbos, mostly women, and families, but also single men who need specialized accommodation and support. As a holistic shelter, Pikpa offers its residents access to medical services, an alternative kindergarten, psychosocial support, food, and non-food items. Access to food is critical considering that the cash card offered by the government (150 Euro per month per adult) is not sufficient to cover the basic needs. What is striking about Pikpa is that the Pikpa team has successfully managed to create a sense of belonging amongst its residents. People are seen as whole human beings, who can shape their space, cook their food and reclaim a sense of privacy. These three critical aspects of being human are out of reach for people on the move residing in Moria. At the time of publication, Pikpa is at imminent risk of closure (more here).

How philanthropy can boost an alternative refugee response model

All these initiatives share critical qualities, which make them as successful as they are. First and foremost, they apply a human-centered approach and view people on the move as whole human beings with multiple needs, as well as assets. They utilize the skillsets that are available and facilitate a process to continue building on existing skills. Rather than framing people on the move as beneficiaries, these examples enable people to take charge and allow pathways for reclaiming agency. Not only do these examples demonstrate how to provide dignified and demand-driven services, they show how to do so in a resource efficient manner on tight budgets while leveraging local resources. The common thread amongst these three examples is their shared and embodied values: dignity, respect, inclusiveness, and empowerment. In light of the deteriorating context in Europe, these organizations are nevertheless struggling with growing complexities on the ground. The living conditions these organizations have fought to improve over the last few years are decaying due to people increasingly being stuck in limbo, newly arriving people exacerbating already overcrowded conditions, and ongoing funding cuts.

Philanthropy — A responsibility, an opportunity, an invitation

Philanthropy is accustomed to its traditional role of filling gaps in the civic space while investing in innovations across the public sphere. The need for creative responses is only growing, and we know how challenging it is to remain focused on commitments, particularly in light of the mounting crises across the globe. While it would be easy to look elsewhere in this climate, the plight of people on the move demands our humanitarian response. Fortunately for philanthropists, a unique opportunity exists — as exemplified by the highly successful models discussed above. At a time where forced displacement is only bound to increase into the future, it is imperative that we invest — collectively — in a holistic, resource-efficient and highly impactful refugee support system. It is time for a paradigm shift, and as funders, we are being invited to step up and provide critical, innovative and scalable humanitarian support to those facing profound need right now.

Negar Tayyar is the philanthropic advisor to the Global Whole Being Fund (GWBF) and Alan Zulch is an advisor to the GWBF.