(SNAFU – situation normal all fucked up)
It is now the middle of October and the weather is still holding fine. But the first heavy rains of the autumn are likely at any time. What then for the hundreds of refugees who are living in the tents inside the Hotspot/Camp? From what we can determine no provision has or is being planned for the coming winter.
The past week has seen the biggest daily arrivals since before the EU/Turkey pact of March 2016, with over 500 this week. Most are from Syria. For some reason the Greek media is giving little publicity to this significant increase. Recent experience tells us that the Turkish government has been fairly effective over the past 7 months in keeping down the refugee numbers crossing to the islands. So is this recent increase a sign of Turkey’s growing impatience with the EU over the granting of visas and a not so subtle hint of what might follow if the EU pulls back on its promise?
At the moment all the new arrivals are being absorbed/packed into the already overcrowded camp.
This week we needed the phone number of the Camp Manager. No problem except that we were warned it might be difficult to make contact as the Camp Manager had only just arrived and was not expected to stay for longer than 3 weeks. It appears that no one is prepared to take on the job on a long term basis so Camp Managers come and go at an extraordinary rate. As one of the NGO bosses here told us, it takes them at least a couple of weeks for the manager to get any kind grasp of what is involved and then they have to brief their successor before leaving.
It is a ridiculous situation that such a strategic position is filled in this way. But sadly when it comes to the care of the refugees it is all too commonplace. There is an endless turnover of key personnel; there is no effective management; there is no planning or development agenda; the priority is day to day maintenance. The consequences are many. Allocation of accommodation in the camp to newly arriving refugees is chaotic. Families with young children can find themselves in tents whilst fit able young adults are housed in cabins. In the past month we have seen the arrival of over 120 new staff to the camp, amongst their number we are told are social workers and psychologists. But they are doing virtually nothing and seem to sit around all day in their orange waist coats drinking coffee. There is just one coordinator who is overwhelmed trying to find ‘placements’ for the new workers. In the meantime there are hundreds of young kids running around unsupervised who are desperately in need of structured activities; there are older children now who have learnt that self harming gets them some attention; and there is the pall of depression which hangs like a thunder cloud over the camp and which this week saw a young Pakistani refugee try and end things by pouring petrol over himself. He survived but is badly burnt.
It is easy to forget that the nearly 2000 people in the Camp is around the same number of students in a large British secondary school. Caring and supporting them is not some sort of unbelievably hard or unreasonable challenge. But here they aren’t even at first base.
Since March 20th the overwhelming majority of arrivals have been held on Samos. Many have now been here for between 5 and 7 months. There is not the constant turmoil of short stays and departures as was the case last year. This ought to have favoured better outcomes for refugees by allowing systems and processes to be put in place – systematic children’s activities including education, language classes, recreational activities, and cooking for example.
But nothing much happens which is systematic and enduring. And much of this is to do with the short term characteristics of the system. It is not just the Camp Management which is continually changing. A 13 year old unaccompanied minor from Pakistan told us yesterday how much he had learnt from the teachers who held classes in the house where he was staying with 9 other youngsters. But he said, they were always changing. One week, two weeks and then they were gone and new ones arrived. He didn’t like it. Same with the lawyers, who are so desperately needed. They too come for similar short periods of time as do many of the other volunteers who come to Samos. It would seem that virtually all the services most valued by the refugees are provided on a short term basis, usually by NGOs which can attract professional volunteers (such as teachers, lawyers and therapists). Good as some of these volunteers are, there is a limit to what they can achieve in a few weeks and most importantly there is no continuity of care and no corresponding accumulation of experience and expertise.
There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs. Not the least is that the state in Greece is broken. It lacks both competency and capacity. There are many examples which illustrate this reality. On October 5th Ekathimerini reported that EU officials have warned Greece that they might have to return 509 million euros from the 1 billion they have been given for refugees this past year, “due to the slow pace at which those funds are being absorbed.” In other words the money is not being spent. The un-named Commission official continued: “There is an increasing sense of a country that cannot bring about results in the refugee crisis or in the economy.” Greece is an easy target, its frailties are well known. But within the EU the intensity by which member states guard their sovereignty especially with respect to migration, defence and border management have made it almost impossible for the EU to control, enforce, and implement key aspects of its refugee policy. So many of these elements such as re-location to relieve the pressure on Greece and Italy are not working as member states refuse to act to fulfil their pledges. Amnesty International recently estimated that at the current rate it will take 18 years to relocate the refugees now in Greece and Italy. Commitments which are given high profile at the time later vanish into thin air. As the Greek deputy foreign minister (Nikos Xydakis) complained at the end of September (Keep Talking Greece 28/9/2016):
“…7,000 refugees could be immediately relocated from Greece to other EU countries, all formalities for this procedure have been met. But it does not happen. Most EU countries take far too few refugees from Greece, some EU countries do not even respond to our requests…..
The EU Commission said in March this year that we needed 400 officers from the Asylum Agency EASO. To date only 26 officers have come to the islands. We need extremely more support from the EU countries in tackling the refugee crisis in Greece. I expect that the Europeans will now show solidarity and not only make promises, but also act.”
We can see nothing which suggests a resurgence of European solidarity in the near future. So on the frontier islands such as Samos we will continue to hear the announcements that promise some improvements – getting the kids into school, moving the most vulnerable from the islands to better specialist provision on the mainland, more resources for unaccompanied minors and so on – but then nothing happens. As the Samos Municipality noted in its statement following this week’s meeting with 5 government ministers in Athens (October 11th) to discuss the refugee situation on Samos:
“It is obvious that the municipality of Samos welcomes any initiative to address these issues [!!!!] and we will work with all the relevant authorities to solve it. However, for these efforts to be effective they must be developed in a framework of absolute transparency and compliance with the law and not stay at the stage of promises and simple drawings on paper, as before…..
[T]he problem will not be solved by mere promises nor with announcements of their “desirability”.They require a plan, a process and operation…The time for words, after all, has long since passed. Action is needed now and indeed already by yesterday.”(My Samos Blog, 11.10.2016)
Little wonder then that refugees and activists on Samos take no notice of official statements of intent, while despite the flow of reports from NGOs and think tanks which endlessly detail and report on the awful conditions in the Hotspots compounded by the inappropriate actions of the police nothing changes. And as far as we can see nothing fundamental will change until and unless the authorities and NGOs start listening to and engaging with refugees. But for that to happen the system is going to have change its entire approach to the refugees and see them in completely new ways as competent human beings.
Nobody in authority here listens to refugees; nobody here asks them what they need or how they could be involved to make life more bearable. There has been no attempt to create any forum where refugees can get their voices heard. There are many groups here who speak passionately on behalf of the refugees but which have no direct input or engagement with the refugees. Time and again refugees have pointed to the wide gulf between themselves and those who are paid to help them. There are no office hours for refugees and their problems yet ‘wait, come back tomorrow, we close at 5pm’, are all familiar responses to the refugees. Many of the refugees in the camp are acute observers of what goes on around them. Many have little else to do all day but look and watch. They see the hundreds of new people coming to work in the camp but doing nothing. They see the offices where refugees are never invited inside but conduct their business from the door way. They see the money spent on the ephemera – the vests and uniforms, the fancy engraved doors of the MSF office, the handsome vehicles, the flags; they can’t avoid seeing the refugee professionals in the bars, cafés and restaurants. They know that some of these senior staff pay over 1000 euros rent for their accommodation, and have cleaners and subsidised food. The vast majority of the refugees have nothing, not one cent after being here for 6 to 7 months. That is why so many stay in the camp and rarely venture into the town. That is why we no longer see advertising signs in Arabic outside the shops; that is why you won’t see piles of sleeping bags for sale outside the tourist shops like last year. These refugees have little or no money after being stuck on Samos for so many months.
There is no transparency when it comes to funding whether to state agencies or NGOs on Samos. We have no clear idea of what money comes in, how it is distributed or spent. But the 90 plus hire cars we have seen parked outside the Camp fences would alone suggest that the funding is significant. What is clear though is that the refugees are not the principal beneficiaries. There is for example no provision to pay for the ferry fares to Athens when the refugees do get papers to leave the island. There is no help given to help refugees find jobs or find houses and rooms to rent when they decide, as many now do, to stay on Samos to complete their paperwork. Many realise that Athens is not the place to be if you have no contacts there or a place to stay. But there are no systems through which they communicate any of their needs or demands.
So each day rolls into the next and SNAFU remains the reality.