Stefan Cramer, Intern at Al-Khair Foundation, takes us through his ‘surreal’ journey to Syrian refugee camps in Greece.
The European Refugee Crisis has evolved significantly throughout 2015. What started as a movement of predominantly Sub-Saharan African peoples from the North African coastline, primarily from the Libyan coast, has now shifted to the movement of Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Iraqis, Iranians, and many other nationalities fleeing civil strife, into Europe through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. Their aim is to reach the sanctuary of northern European countries, namely Germany, Sweden and others.
In response to the humanitarian emergency that is occurring in the Aegean Sea and the Balkans, Al-Khair Foundation dispatched me and Riccardo Bassetti, both Programme Officers, to assess the dynamic situation on the ground to develop an effective response to this developing crisis. Our first location was Budapest, Hungary, where during the previous days over 3,000 refugees were staying in Keleti station. Once we had arrived in Budapest, we travelled to Keleti station and established contact with small NGOs operating in the station, that were distributing basic food provisions and clothes. The following day we provided support to Al-Wafaa Campaign, where Riccardo and I, alongside two American volunteers, distributed food to the refugees arriving at the station. Riccardo and I were then tasked with running the small stall, where we both stayed until 7am. The flow of refugees was constant throughout the time we spent there, with a large proportion of small children and women arriving.
As the crisis continued to transpire, Greece increasingly became highlighted as a country in need of assistance. So after distributing the aid, we decided to travel to Athens where we would assess and monitor the flow of refugees, to examine what the refugees needed the most. During our time in Athens, we travelled to Victoria Square where refugees had gathered to rest before continuing their journey. By this point, we had been joined by another member of Al-Khair Foundation, Reza Malik. Reza, Riccardo and I talked to refugees, journalists and photo-journalists to figure out what problems the refugees were encountering and where was assistance most needed. Hundreds of refugees travelled through this square, and the demographic was extremely varied, with many different nationalities, genders and age groups. It truly represented the multiplicity and complexity of this crisis. From these discussions and engagements, the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey, was an area of concern with minimal support, with both NGOs and the government struggling to deal with the massive influx of refugees. But before travelling to Lesbos, we met two German medical students who were willing to volunteer their time to provide help in Lesbos.
We left Athens and travelled to Lesbos. We established contact with a local NGO cluster named The Village of All Together. This organisation of local people run the Pikpa refugee camp in an old summer school, where they house the most vulnerable and deal with medical emergencies. They also have an extensive network of contacts that they use to distribute aid across the island, mainly to two refugee camps, Karatepe and Moria.
The refugees embark from the Turkish coast, and land on the northern coastline of the island, mainly in Molivos and Skala Sikaminias, where they walk 60km+ to two refugee camps further south. These were where the refugees registered, Karatepe for Syrian refugees and Moria for all other nationalities. The registration process, however, was laborious and could take days to complete. Therefore, some refugees were forced to wait in these camps until this process was finally sorted. The facilities, by the time we had arrived, were still not adequate with toilets and showers being in a disgraceful state. From here they move to the main port of Mytilini, where they purchase tickets to board a ferry to the Greek mainland, either Athens or Thessaloniki, and from there they would continue their journey north through the Balkans. When we arrived in Lesbos, the crisis became immediately apparent. In Mytilini, the area was filled with refugees trying to purchase tickets for the ferry. There were people sleeping on the side of the road, attempting to find shelter away from the heat of the day. Many were clearly exhausted and were anxious to continue their journey. We met a large family from Aleppo, another from Damascus and refugees from Iraq. The port itself was completely full of refugees, large families staying in small tents and other drying their clothes, all waiting to be transferred. Once again these people were not supported in any capacity.
Karatepe refugee camp was run by the UNHCR and IRC, with the Coast Guard providing support. The conditions were poor when we arrived, with the toilet and wash facilities being of primary concern. However, Moria was in a much worse situation. There were no NGOs operating in Moria when we were there. Based in an old prison, Moria had an inner and outer area. The inner area was run strictly by the government and was under tight security, and we were not allowed to enter. The outer area had three shops that sold basic provisions, food and water, amongst other essential items. The conditions in this camp were dire as there was no proper support structure to supply these refugees with the aid they so desperately needed. These people were neglected and had built improvised shelters from the heat. Having walked such a long distance from the north, they were exhausted.
We travelled to the north of the island and the roads were lined with refugees walking to their destinations. A constant stream of refugees were walking and this accurate along the entire road, even pregnant women and children being forced to make this journey. Along our journey, Riccardo, Reza, the German volunteers and I constantly distributed water bottles and fruit to these refugees. Arriving at the coastline, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of lifejackets and destroyed dinghies strewn along the beach, a very surreal sight indeed. This phrase can almost represent the entire journey. The mass influx of peoples on such a scale that has not been seen since the Second World War. Everyone that we met were friendly and kind, but were all starting what is an extremely long and dangerous journey.
As the Syrian Civil War once again escalates, the flow of refugees will continue as the violence and repression intensifies. These people are denied basic rights and access to basic necessities such as food and water. From my experience, much more needs to be done by the international community to assist the plight of these people. Especially with the onset of winter, this situation will only get worse when the condition becomes wetter and much colder. Al-Khair Foundation wishes to alleviate the suffering of these people, and in light of experiences from across the organisation, will be providing programmes that will supply these people with the services and goods that they need.
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