Greece's Warehouse of Lost Souls

Over 1 million refugees passed through Greece in search of sanctuary in 2015. The EU-Turkey deal, signed on 20th March 2016, has left an estimated 57,000 people stranded in the Eurozone’s most crisis-stricken member state. Today, they are living in 30 makeshift camps and detention centres across the country. 48% of them are children.

In most of the camps, the Greek army provides food, while the government is responsible for the provision of medical care. Our NGO partners report that the majority of the camps do not have electricity or hot water. As MSF reported in May:

“It is not hard to see why people do not want to come to the government-run camps… Near the Albanian border, in Ioannina City, the Katsikas military-run camp hosts asylum seekers who spend their days in the heat and freeze at night. They sleep in tents without mattresses and have nothing but sheets to keep warm on the cold, hard, and rocky ground.

A Greek army truck comes twice a day to distribute food and water, and people spend their days avoiding snakes and scorpions. They rely on camp fires to provide heat and to sterilize water in order to prevent their children from suffering from diarrhea.”

I feel anxious and uneasy as we approach the camp at Katsikas. Although I have visited countless emergency response projects in Sub Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East, this is different. This is my home country.

We arrive at Katsikas, in 37 degree heat, with a car bursting with donations from the people of Corfu following an appeal by my mother and a friend of hers. Like many, they have felt impotent to help in the face of such a crisis. But they have responded by collecting clothing, shoes, toys, cooking pots and school equipment and bringing them to the camps on the mainland. They have spent days collecting and sorting through the donations. Our sitting room at home, has in recent months, doubled up as a sorting depot. This is my mother’s second visit to Katsikas in six weeks.

The camp itself is set on a disused airfield, 15 minutes outside the Byzantine city of Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, Greece’s North Western province. Epirus, has few resources and its mountainous, rugged terrain makes agriculture difficult. According to a 2001 census, it has the lowest population of Greece’s 13 provinces. Tourists are drawn here by the region’s natural beauty and rich wildlife which includes, bears, wolves and lynxes. Lovely for tourists: Less lovely for those living outdoors, in tented communities.

The village of Katsikas itself, has a population of 2,500 people. At its peak in May 2016, the refugee camp here housed 1,500 people.

On arrival, we are redirected to a rented warehouse, a ramshackled building that also houses an improvised pharmacy, about 2km from the camp. Here we met with Berta De La Dehesa, an actress from Madrid who has been volunteering at Katsikas since March. She helps to coordinate the camp’s logistics.

Berta told us that they have been overwhelmed with donations of clothing, predominantly from their supporters in Spain, but also from Greeks who have been very supportive of the refugee community, offering not only donations but simple comforts like showers in their homes when the camp was first set up. The warehouse is full. With the exception of a large bag of shoes, some school equipment and a bag of clothing, we shut the boot of our car without unpacking the donations, agreeing that we will instead take them on to another camp tomorrow.

But there are two things that they now urgently need. Shoes. And money to buy bread. €67.50, or €0.13, per person, per day to be precise. Although they initially had assistance from the UNHCR and OXFAM, now they are on their own.

Despite being classified by the UNHCR in a recent evaluation as one of the better camps, Katsikas is bleak. The ground is littered with sharp, jagged stones. Volunteers tell us that the terrain is so rough that they need a new pair of shoes every week. Electricity is sourced illegally from overhead pylons. It is boiling hot during the day. At night the temperatures plummet. It is also prone to heavy rainfall. On the day we visit, it hails.

Katsikas was classed by the UNHCR recently as one of the better of Greece’s 30 camps. Seeing the conditions here, I cannot help wondering what the circumstances are like in the lower scoring camps. All the while I keep thinking: “This is Europe. This is Greece.” A few miles away holiday-makers are reveling in the sunshine. Enjoying grilled octopus for lunch. Building sand castles on the beach. Is this really the best we can do?

In April when Alternate Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas visited the camp, he noted that Greece had been asked to accommodate more than 50,000 refugees very rapidly, after countries to the north closed their borders, and that some camps, including Katsikas, had more problems than others. He said:

“Our goal is to very quickly overhaul the existing hospitality centres so they reach at least a medium standard.”

But it is clear that the conditions in the camp, 3 months later, remain inadequate. There is nothing hospitable about this place. The NGOs working here are doing the best they can to support the primary needs of the refugees.

The volunteers have travelled thousands of kilometres, at their own expense, to support these efforts. The response of civil society has been inspiring. The Greek government are doing the best they can, to respond to the refugee crisis. But they are themselves, a nation in crisis, seemingly with little external support despite the European Commission’s pledge that it would support Greece with €83m, in April this year.

Today, the camp is home to 537 people, mostly from Syria. Half of them are children. The plan is that they will attend school from September. But how children will be subsumed into local schools is not clear, beyond assertions that they will be taught in Greek, with local children.

There are numerous complications associated with this, not least that this Arabic speaking community do not speak Greek. Nor do they particularly wish to. Most of them want to get to Northern Europe. Nor is it clear how local schools will be supported to accept their newest pupils without additional funding or support. Unlike refugee communities we have visited previously in Jordan, children will not attend school in shifts or be segregated. No-one we have spoken to has been able to answers basic questions about how the process will work.

Although the Greek army is officially responsible for the camp at Katsikas, it has been supported by the Spanish charitable organisation, “Olvidados” meaning “The Forsaken”, who were invited to work in the camp, in March. Olvidados were soon joined by volunteers from the Swedish NGO “Lighhouse” and AIRE, another Spanish NGO. These organisations are determined to make life bearable for the refugees here.

Whilst Olvidados and AIRE attend to basic needs such as the provision of water, food and clothing (to date, Olvidados have provided 44 tonnes of food to the camp), Lighthouse’s aim is to “turn Katsikas camp into a lively community for the people staying here. Apart from providing them with supplies and material (they) have created a community centre with an information point (including wifi), a child friendly space and a female friendly space”.

Since April, Lighthouse Relief have been providing children with language lessons in Arabic, Kurdish, English and German as well as mathematics and science in purpose built tents (the refugees helped to construct the tents). They also provide English, French, Spanish and computer lessons to adults.

Medecin du Monde are also present and responsible for the primary healthcare of the camp, but in reality, simple cases such as fevers are usually referred to hospitals in Ioannina.

Currently, a team of 70 volunteers run the camp.

Katsikas’s Yazidi community, an Iraqi ethnic and religious minority who have been violently persecuted by ISIS, of 250 left two weeks ago, saying that they did not feel safe after graffiti mentioning ISIS was seen in the camp. Their aim was to travel to Patras, some 250km south of Ioannina where there is a Yazidi only camp, but there was no space for them. Instead, Katsikas’s former inhabitants have set up an independent camp on the outskirts of Ioannina.

Olvidados are providing them with basic support but no-one is able to provide detailed information on what will happen to them in the long term. This situation is not uncommon. Refugees have freedom of movement within Greece’s borders. The numbers of people in the camps changes almost daily, as people set off to alternative camps in search of friends or family.

Nobody seems to have a long-term plan, or a clear picture of what will happen to the refugees as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. Many are swiftly losing hope that they will be able to join their relatives in other European Nations. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras description of his country as a “warehouse of lost souls” last February seems bitterly true here.

All the refugees can do is await decisions about their asylum applications. And for the time being, that means relying on the goodwill of volunteers and the donations they are able to inspire.

Prospero World's Refugee Fund to accept tax efficient donations to support a number of outstanding interventions, including Olvidados in Katiskas. If you would like to donate, you may do so here

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