The Importance of a Healthy and Safe Environment for Refugee Populations: A Case Study in Northern Greece

The following is our first Guest Blog from Caitlin Scarpelli about her time abroad. 

Where you live matters. We all know that. But when people must flee their homes because of persecution or conflict, they often do not get a choice in where they want to live. They do not get a choice if the country they end up in speaks their language. They do not get a choice if their kids can attend school. They do not get a choice if they live in healthy and sanitary conditions. Often, their entire autonomy is stripped from them.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 1 in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. In addition, they are typically displaced from their normal lives for 20 years. Often, they never find a permanent settlement and may be subject to deplorable living conditions for a large chunk of that time. In recent years, a “crisis” of displaced people has been shown in the news, especially in Europe. However, displacement has always been present, but not often shown, as it mainly affects the global south. The UNHCR recorded the most displaced people from conflict in history in 2016. Weather disasters also increase displacement numbers. As climate change is predicted to increase both disaster intensity and frequency, human displacement is sure to be an important and concerning topic for the future of humanity and human rights.

Earlier this summer, I participated in the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights, a workshop program designed for students to engage in the topics of human rights, global conflict, humanitarian aid, and peace building. I had the opportunity to study human migration, humanitarian law and refugee policies with some of the leading experts in those fields. Then, I deepened the connection of policies to people through service learning in Greek refugee camps and community organizations. Through this program, I was able to hear firsthand the experiences which refugees and asylum-seekers have had during their journeys to safety.

During these journeys, they travelled from their home countries and many ended up in Turkey. A majority of asylum-seekers chose to pass from Turkey to Greek islands via overcrowded boats. This method is extremely risky, and as the news has often shown, these boats can capsize, plunging the passengers into the rough sea. 

Image Source: BBC

Image Source: BBC

Once the asylum-seekers landed on the Greek islands, they often had lost all their belongings during the journey, whether that was as a debt to a smuggler or simply because of the rough travel. During the Consortium, I met Ayesha Keller, co-founder of Together for Better Days, a nonprofit organization that worked both on the Greek island Lesvos and the mainland. She recalled how no one ever had shoes once they came off the boats. In addition, many passengers developed hypothermia.

When Keller first arrived on Lesvos, she was shocked by the condition of Moria, the refugee camp there. Because people did not want to stay on the island too long, no one bothered to clean it up. Trash covered the ground and people would huddle around fires fueled by burning waste for warmth. With no safe way for the smoke to be filtered, people would breathe it in.

Image Source: The Wall Street Journal

Image Source: The Wall Street Journal

Through determination and dedication, her organization helped to clean up the camp and make it more welcoming to the asylum-seekers who arrived there. They even built a sign at the entrance to the camp reading “Welcome” in over a dozen languages and “Safe Passage” in the same languages on the other side.

Once refugees moved on from the islands, they would go to the mainland and then predominantly move to Europe through the Balkan route after typically spending time in another camp. During peak passage, about 10,000 people each day would pass through towns in northern Greece which normally housed around 2,000 people. These towns could not support the new population pressures. However, this crisis was small in comparison to when the Balkan route’s countries closed their borders in early 2016. These closing borders left tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece. In addition, around the same time, the European Union made a deal with Turkey to stop allowing refugees to cross over into Greece. Any refugees who tried to cross the border would be immediately sent back, increasing violence along border lines.

In Idomeni, Greece, near the Macedonian (FYROM) border, a makeshift camp was created because people were bombarded by the news of the closing borders. They had nowhere to go. They set up camp in empty parking lots, along train tracks, or in field.

Image Source: BBC

Image Source: BBC

Image Source: NBC News

Image Source: NBC News

When I went to Kilkis, a town in northern Greece, I heard the testimony of a refugee who had lived near Idomeni in Cherso camp. His testimony for Cherso could be applied to many other camps, not only in Greece but also other parts of the world, especially the global south. He referred to Cherso as “the miserable place.” Sanitation was terrible, with only 4 or 5 toilets for over 2,000 people. Since they had nowhere else to play, children would play in the sewage that spread all over the ground. The tents, which provided them “homes,” were cold and flooded in the winter months. They had no beds, so they slept on the grass, even when it was soaked. The camp was also set up in a field where there was no protection from the sun during the summer. However, they could rarely go into the tent either, as the inside was about 122 ºF. He explained how, because of the conditions, “diseases were getting worse and worse,” especially for children and the elderly. In addition, many residents got depression because there was nothing to do during the day, they could barely communicate with volunteers or government workers, and the conditions were difficult. Health care was extremely limited as well. Overall, he said they “felt like animals in camp.”

As residents in northern Greece saw what was happening, they knew they needed to help out because they understood the area and that international organizations would be slow to accomplish things. An organization called Omnes, which means “all,” was dedicated to closing some of the camps and setting families up in apartment living in local Greek communities instead. By working with the Greek government, they were able to resettle 601 people in apartment living while they waited for their relocation decision, which Omnes lawyers also helped with. These apartments gave refugees privacy, autonomy, and safe living conditions. In addition, the housing project helped integrate refugees into the Greek community and likewise helped the Greek community become more accepting of refugees. Omnes is also working on providing refugees with sustainable jobs on organic farms. All of the products are produced without chemicals. Some of the products are shown below, including olive oil, herbs, flour, and body products.

Image Source: Caitlin S.

Image Source: Caitlin S.

Other refugee camps are now closing because of funding issues with the government, including Elpida Home, which I was able to visit during my trip. Elpida was dedicated to creating a community built by the residents and providing better living conditions for families. Elpida was set up in an abandoned warehouse, supplying residents with protection from the elements, private rooms, safe spaces and learning environments for children, and better food. The residents from Elpida are transitioning into apartment living as well.

While the number of displaced people from war and conflict is increasing, the international relief response to them should not remain in crisis mode. For those who flee danger, the places they go to should not also be dangerous for them. People deserve places that support their dignity and autonomy, not ones that make them feel like animals. People deserve the choice in where they live, even if they are fleeing their normal homes. Where they live matters. As organizations in northern Greece show, there are sustainable, healthy and safe ways to assist those who are in need of places to live.

– Caitlin Scarpelli

 

If you would like to learn more about or support organizations mentioned in this article, please see the following links:

Together for Better Days: https://www.facebook.com/betterdays.ngo/

Omnes: https://www.facebook.com/omneskilkis/

 

Other organizations:

Psychosocial support: Médicins du Monde: http://www.medecinsdumonde.org/fr

Medical assistance: Kitrinos: https://www.facebook.com/Teamkitrinos/

Legal assistance: Advocates Abroad: https://advocatesabroad.org/