Leaving Greece: the Dignity Dilemma

When we first arrived in Greece in April 2016 there were about 50,000 refugees in Greece. Even though many have moved on to other EU countries, there are now about double that.

Over the last 3+ years, we have worked on 7 camps in Greece and over 700 volunteers from over 40 countries have offered 10s of thousands of refugees essential ‘aid with dignity’.

For the last 20 months we been supporting Katsikas refugee camp. It currently has about 1,200 residents from 30+ countries, and like all the other refugee camps in Greece, it is overcrowded and the conditions are tough. The people there can barely afford the most basic essentials of life, few are able to work and many children do not attend school.

Lives are on hold, in very difficult circumstances and people are frustrated. Not only that, the number of refugees arriving from Turkey has risen sharply over the summer and there is a very real possibility that some of the 4 million plus refugees there now will soon make the journey to Greece. Added to that, the new government has come to power on the back of anti-refugee rhetoric and we have already started to see the sorry results of that.

So why are we leaving?

Donors want to donate emergency aid to emergencies

During the last 20 months at Katsikas camp, we have freely distributed about £95,000 fruit and veg (thanks to Help Refugees) and £145,000 other food (our biggest sellers were oil, milk, yoghurt, eggs and sugar). Thanks to Carry the Future we also distributed 180,000 nappies/ diapers and 50,000 sanitary pads. This was all bought locally in Greece and distributed using points in a dignified and friendly way.

Our free shop model guaranteed that the shop was always well-stocked with enough volunteers to serve everyone with dignity. Katsikas cost about 3,000 euros per week for the food, pampers and sanitary pads that we distributed plus we had other operational expenses like transport and legal costs.

Sadly after 20 months, it has become increasingly difficult to make a case for an organisation like ours so dependent on individual donations for such a costly service that does not empower people to rebuild their lives. Which brings us on to the next reason…

The lack of Greek government interest in integration

We attempted to introduce a new project in July 2018 to help residents gain some independence and integrate with Greek society by incubating independent and viable businesses. It would also introduce some normality into daily life.

Our plan was to move from emergency aid (food and sanitary wear) to integration aid (business activities and employment) that gives people a chance to rebuild their lives and become independent.

We offered loans and grants to run things like tiny shops, cafes, teaching and food production. These are all valuable things that people on the camp need. Any successful activities would be given the support to register and become established as a Greek business.

Unfortunately, the repressive response of the Greek authorities made that project impossible. They demanded that anyone running one of those activities needed to pay punitive tax rates and adhere to impossibly bureaucratic processes from the moment they set up.

As a result, the police threatened vulnerable people with exorbitant fines and imprisonment unless they shut down their activities immediately.

We must respect the law but always argued that the key to sustainable support for refugees was investment in projects that promote integration and independence.

We knew that many of activities we helped set up would fail, people would move on from the camp at short notice and very few of them would produce a profit. It needed patience. These are resourceful people and with the right sort of start-up support, they would either be successful or acquire new skills to be successful.

And one of the most important benefits of this project was giving people who were bored and frustrated, something to do and a sense of purpose.

The Greek authorities’ response clearly shows that they do not want refugees to integrate.

The failing Greek government policy of interning people in camps

A refugee camp is no place for people to live. It crushes the spirit, creates second-class citizens and ghettoises a group that has much to offer.

We know that our mini-market increased food security and ensured that the women and children had the essential sanitary wear that they need. It also freed up their scarce resources for other essentials such as communicating with family, travelling to the asylum service, medicines, clothing and the very occasional tiny treat.

And we have always believed that distributing food through the minimarket is a vehicle for offering something more important – a bit of normality, the opportunity to be treated like an individual and, critically, a tangible way for people who care to stand shoulder to shoulder with refugees at a difficult time in their lives.

We need to bear witness to their plight.

But refugee camps should be a short-term solution to a sudden increase in numbers. They need to be given somewhere to live and enough to eat. But they also need help to quickly move on and rebuild their lives.

It is clear now that the Greek government has decided to keep people in camps rather invest in their potential. The longer we continue to provide emergency aid on refugee camps, the more we legitimise this inhumane policy.

The lack of Greek government support for small NGOs

When we first arrived in Greece, there were many small volunteer-based NGOs. Most were doing great work but then the government insisted all organisations registered with the Ministry of Migration to operate on the camps. Fair enough but many were not able to do that so had to leave. It was a costly and very time-consuming process.

We did get approval but even after we registered, we had to deal with a capricious and uncaring Greek state.

We have had to deal with pointless demands, costly bureaucracy, police harassment and threats of eviction from the camp for no reason. When our volunteers arrange to come and help they need to know we will be operating. When our funders donate, they need to know the money will be spent as they were promised.

This hostile environment means it is impossible to make these guarantees and our presence too precarious to continue.

It was not an easy decision to leave

The free shop at Katsikas opened every single day on time, we ran daily children’s activities, distributed tens of thousands of items of clothing, had English conversation classes, funded key celebrations, ran a café, created a community garden, gave two amputees new prosthetic legs and opened a cinema. We have done much, much more on the other six camps where we worked.

Critically, we stood shoulder to shoulder with people who are living with terrible hardship and did what we could to help.

This is all thanks to our belief in putting dignity first, hardworking, caring volunteers and generous donors. Together we made a difference.

It has been our privilege to serve all the people on the camp and we hope that they will soon get the opportunity to move on with their lives.

Winding up at Katsikas

We donated a great deal of furniture, office equipment, tools, learning resources and food to our trusted friends at Second Tree and Soup and Socks who we know will use them all for the benefit of refugees in the area. Both are volunteer organisations who work away from the refugee camp on projects that are all about gaining more independence.

We have handed the keys for the building we worked in to the site management service ASB and they have promised to use it for the benefit of the community.

We will now be concentrating on our Dignity Centre projects in Cyprus where we do not operate on a refugee camp and where we know we can help rebuild people’s lives.

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