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Karin, safeguarding a human approach to the humanitarian crisis in camp Moria, Greece

Written by: Sophie Zwaal
Photos by: Tessa Kraan

People fleeing from war and violence are entitled to a safe haven. But in various parts of the world, such as the Greek refugee camps, the protection of refugees is under pressure, not only due to the poor conditions in the camps, but also because of the threat of the coronavirus and the increasing violence perpetrated by right-wing extremist groups. Justice and Peace supports the Boat Refugee Foundation in the development of their safety policy and training. Field coordinator Karin Arendsen: “the only solution is to evacuate people.” 

Dutch-registered organisation Stichting Bootvluchteling (so forth, Boat Refugee Foundation) are one of the organisations in the Greek islands putting their safety on the line to safeguard this right. Their work on the Lesbos began in 2015 when the Boat Refugee Foundation started providing emergency aid on the beaches of the Greek island, where refugees arrived in rickety boats from Turkey.

Over the years their work evolved, with volunteers now mainly committed to structural medical and psychosocial help in the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos. So far, they have offered humanitarian aid to thousands of vulnerable people on the run. As a field coordinator, Karin Arendsen is committed to the logistics and safety of their missions in Camp Moria and she focuses on collaboration with other NGOs.

Volunteers and refugees in camp Moria fear for the coming weeks. When the COVID-19 virus reaches them, they feel it will lead to a humanitarian . The Boat Refugee Foundation is fighting for a humane treatment of these refugees, who literally have nowhere to go: “It is unbelievable that we in Europe have allowed this to continue for so long.”

Lesbos is located in the far east of Greece, closely bordering Turkey.

Camp Moria

Karen has seen the inhumanity at camp Moria with her own eyes. The camp at Lesbos, which was built for only 3000 refugees, currently houses over 22,000 people who have fled from war and violence.

In camp Moria, there is a shortage of everything you can think of. A large part of the residents sleep in small tents with the whole family, without a working sewer, adequate sanitary facilities or enough food. The employees and volunteers of the Boat Refugee Foundation do everything they can to provide refugees with enough care, but unfortunately the capacity is never sufficient.

As a field coordinator, Karin Arendsen is committed to the logistics and safety of their missions in Camp Moria and she focuses on collaboration with other NGOs. Justice and Peace supports the Boat Refugee Foundation in the development of their safety policy and training.

Since 2015, camp Moria has been the official registration camp for all refugees applying for asylum in Lesbos.  These refugees mainly come from Syria and Afghanistan and have made the crossing from Turkey to Greece.  Ever since the Refugee Deal between the EU and Turkey was made in 2016, these refugees have been trapped in Greece, where they are unable to continue traveling. Refugees have sometimes lived in camp Moria for years, pending their asylum decision, which is a slow process. Because the camp is overcrowded and there are not enough facilities, the refugees live in miserable conditions, while more and more refugees from Turkey are coming in.
In camp Moria, the Boat Refugee Foundation has a medical mission, with its own medical clinic, and a psychosocial mission. For example, the camp has a school for young children and the community center provides mental health lessons and language lessons. Refugees from the camp also teach and work as a translator. This means there is a lot of cooperation throughout the camp, between volunteers from abroad and people who live in Moria.

“In our medical clinic, we can help two hundred people a day. That seems like a lot, but there are thousands of people in the camp who need our help every day. It often happens that we get people with psychological problems in our clinic who we cannot help due to capacity problems. We have to send those people back into the dark night with pain in our hearts.”

Photo: At the medical clinic of the Boat Refugee Foundation. Photo by Tessa Kraan.

An inhumanity stemming from policy

“As soon as refugees arrive at the camp, the endless wait for their asylum procedure begins. The inhuman conditions and lack of information make it difficult to retain hope in the future. Extreme despair and loneliness are the results. All these people were first looking for a better life. But many residents of the camp now experience even more trauma, and they rightly wonder why the camp is so hellish and degrading. We know why: to deter people from coming to Europe and thus guarding the borders. The because politicians don’t want it. ”

The work of Karin and her colleagues on Lesbos is an ongoing struggle against European policy. “The inhumanity in Moria is the result of policy, not some natural disaster that cannot be remedied. It can change, but it doesn’t happen. It’s not “we can’t“, but rather, “we don’t want to.” It is unbelievable that camp Moria is an official EU refugee camp. Europe leaves these people to their own devices.”

 Strategy to keep hope

Yet Karin and the volunteers know how to keep and give hope. Camp Moria is a place where inhumanity dominates, but at the same time, it is a place where humanity, resilience and innovation can be seen. “Every refugee has their own strategy to keep hope. Being meaningful to others helps for many people in the camp. Many refugees help us as a volunteer, for example as a teacher or as an interpreter in our clinics. It is amazing to witness how people regain self-esteem by using their talents in the camp.”

“Our team consists largely of volunteers staying in Moria. I admire all these colleagues who, despite the situation they are in and the trauma they carry, still find the strength to get back to work every day. It shows such a deep resilience. It is an honor to be able to work with them. We are pleased that with our missions, we can also generate work for people in Moria in this way.”

Photo by Tessa Kraan.

The impact of the COVID-19

The greatest ordeal facing camp Moria right now is the threat of COVID-19. “Everyone is holding their breath, because when COVID-19 enters the camp, a humanitarian disaster is about to happen. There is enormous fear. Due to the lack of running water and sanitation, people cannot protect themselves in any way. In addition, many residents are extremely vulnerable due to their poor health. A coronavirus outbreak in the camp can therefore result in many deaths.”

And although at a time when help is so urgently needed, the medical team of the Boat Refugee Foundation on Lesbos has been halved due to the (travel) limitations. The psychosocial mission has temporarily come to a halt, and the remaining volunteers in the medical clinic sometimes face serious restrictions on their freedom of movement due to the tense security situation on the island. “The organisation is now constantly making strategic choices: who and what is needed here to continue the work under these circumstances as well as possible? We all hope that we can get back to work as soon as we can.”

 “It is vital that people now let their voices be heard.”

Currently, the Boat Refugee Foundation is taking various measures to minimise the chances of COVID-19 spreading in the camp. All patients are now first seen at a central triage point just outside the camp, while only patients without coronavirus symptoms are referred to the clinic in the camp. “But the only solution is to evacuate people. Right now, this is still possible. In 2016, Europe promised to take refugees in, but that agreement has never been fulfilled. Europe must take its responsibility. Initiatives like #SOSMoria help to highlight this disaster and stimulate discussion. It is vital that people now let their voices be heard.”

 A mission that concerns us all

Defending the rights and safety of refugees is a mission that concerns us all, according to Karen, and that we can all play a part close to home: “When refugees arrive in the Netherlands, they often have no social circle. Newcomers can be very lonely. You can help these people by supporting them in their new life regarding sports, living, work and hobbies. I would like all newcomers in the Netherlands to have a close and informal network of people with whom they can go out, who familiarize them with the Dutch system and with whom they can share their fears or worries. Look at all the people around you: there is a good chance someone in your neighbourhood is a newcomer.

It is tempting to stay in our own circle of like-minded people. But right now, it is important to get out of that circle every now and then.”

Safety training for aid workers and volunteers
The safety of refugees and volunteers in camp Moria has long been under pressure. In recent months, right-wing extremist groups have taken matters into their own hands. They have blocked roads to the camp, and have used violence aimed at aid workers and volunteers. Justice and Peace has therefore been asked by the Boat Refugee Foundation to provide safety trainings for their volunteers. Tessa de Ryck, Security Training Coordinator at Justice and Peace: “People who are committed to safeguarding human rights often encounter resistance, unfortunately also in Europe, such as in the case of the Boat Refugee Foundation. We support them by improving their safety policy through training and guidance. We do this from a holistic approach so that all aspects of safety and risk, such as digital, physical, legal-administrative and psychological, are included.”

“In our work, we are quickly inclined to want to continue our assistance. But we must also focus on our own safety. This safety training offers us tools to guarantee that safety.”

(Karin, Boat Refugee Foundation)