May 4, 2021

'Patience is a virtue'

Construction of the new Hotspot Camp on Leros
Construction of the new Hotspot Camp on Leros

We are now more than 4 months into the year and have so far not been able to re-open our community center on Leros to our students, as health regulations still rule this out. This has certainly been frustrating for everybody, especially for the residents who have been stuck in the camp for months now, but also for our volunteers who have been holding out patiently and can’t wait to see the HUB busy and thriving again. However, our small team hasn’t stayed idle in the past months: in January, we finished our winter clothes distribution with a major shoe distribution; each resident received a good pair of winter shoes or sneakers in the perfect size, and all the kids in the camp finally received their overdue Christmas presents – beautiful paint-books and pencils, that were kindly donated to us by the 'Bearwood Action for Refugees' team. Also, our 'After-birth-care-kits for mother & baby' and the clothing packs for the very fast-growing babies in the camp need to be assembled and handed out regularly; and the refugees stuck outside the camp premises and now without monthly cash-card support as their asylum applications have been processed, have to be supplied with hygiene items frequently.

Our team continues to prepare and hand out our special COVID-Kits including face masks, hand sanitizer, and soap every 6 weeks, to allow camp residents to follow safety regulations and protect themselves. Unfortunately, there was another major COVID outbreak on the island at the beginning of April with 4 tragic deaths among the locals, but this time the camp was not affected. Due to the protective measures, camp residents are still very restricted in their movement and can only leave the camp for hospital visits and other urgent matters, so there is actually very little contact with the islanders. As sad as this is, in this particular case it certainly turned out to be an advantage. We were very happy to be able to supply the local hospital with another 700 Covid test kits to support its testing and screening efforts during this difficult period.

Construction works on the new Hotspot camp on Leros are proceeding fast and rumor has it, that the camp will already be finished in July, months earlier than planned. The new camp, with a capacity of 1.800 people, is located close to the old Hotspot camp, but higher up on the hill, overlooking the beautiful bay and Lakki town, but unfortunately very exposed to the summer heat and icy winter winds, which doesn’t make it the best location. Also, it is much further away from Lakki town now, but this has a purpose, as the new camp is planned to be a closed camp with controlled and very short exit policies, to make sure, refugees stay as secluded and invisible as possible. Nobody knows, though, how things will develop once the camp opens.

Shocking reports by NGOs such as ‘Aegean Boat Report’ about ongoing pushbacks at sea keep surfacing, and the very low number of sea arrivals in Greece seems to prove that something bad is going on out there. On Leros, not a single refugee arrived in more than a year, and since most asylum applications have in the meantime been processed, we are left with only 300 residents in the Leros Hotspot  - 10 times less than a year ago!  The ones still in the camp, mostly Syrians and Somalis, are cases with little chance of receiving protection status in Greece, as Turkey is considered safe for them. According to the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016 they are supposed to be returned there, but Turkey currently doesn’t accept any returns from Greece. So these desperate people are again stuck in limbo for an indefinite time.

With few refugees left in the camp and with Ramadan going on for another two weeks, the island seems uncannily quiet. But soon Greece will open for tourism and we can see locals slowly starting to prepare for the season, cleaning, repairing, and painting beach bars, and souvenir shops. Whether the warmer temperatures will also bring more refugees onto the island, needs to be seen yet. Considering the size of the new Hotspot camp, the relevant authorities seem to expect that.

Shoe Distribution
Shoe Distribution
Shoe Distribution
Shoe Distribution
Christmas presents
Christmas presents
Covid-Kits
Covid-Kits
Ramadan Dates Distribution
Ramadan Dates Distribution
Feb 4, 2021

First Athens HUB Update for 2021

ECHOSTEPS UP!
ECHOSTEPS UP!

Dear Generous Supporters of ECHO!

I am writing to you from Athens, which is still on lockdown for many months and continues to do so. Unfortunately, the daily COVID-19 infection rate is still on the rise. The capacity of the Greek healthcare system is under enormous pressure to deal with severe cases. Especially in the urban areas, middle and high schools remain closed, as do all adult education and community centers. Despite these restrictions to do our work to offer integration services to refugees and other vulnerable groups, our dedicated team of teachers and volunteers has not sat idle. Our teaching staff continues with distance learning, with teachers and students meeting daily in virtual classrooms, powering through textbooks, correcting homework, and in some cases also preparing for exams in May! To students who cannot afford unlimited access to the Internet, we provide extra data to follow our Zoom sessions. We also lend laptops to students who have no other means to follow online classes. We try to be as inclusive and supportive as possible, hoping that our students will not miss out and follow the curriculum uninterrupted.

More exciting news: We are starting to recruit for a professional IT- program in collaboration with the Social Hackers Academy who will run computer literacy and certified ECDL classes in our computer lab. Recruitment of suitable candidates is starting this month with tests and interviews. We hope to be able to launch classes in our HUB by March, depending on the government's safety policy. Being trained in computer skills raises our students' employability, which is our ultimate goal at the Athens HUB.

Despite the pandemic, our team is on the lookout to maximize impact and use our resources to the fullest. Since the HUB is closed to students, our volunteers decided to use our facilities to support STEPS – a streetworkers' aid organization that, amongst other services distribute hot meals to the rising homeless population in Athens. Since the Greek government does not offer recognized refugees any accommodation support, the condition of people living in the streets is deteriorating. Sponsored by generous donors, our volunteers shop for groceries and prepare nutritious meals in the HUB kitchen several times per month for 50 to 70 people each session. Furthermore, we managed to distribute pandemic prevention equipment such as face masks, disinfectants, and gloves to homeless people through STEPS. Just imagine being homeless...and then imagine being homeless in a pandemic...where there is no 'stay home – stay safe' option.

Our volunteers also used the HUB spaces and resources to make small holiday gifts (a notebook, spices, and homemade cookies) for our students before closing the HUB for the Christmas break. Our volunteers were committed to making a kind gesture towards our students, to lighten the mood in these challenging times and remind them that ECHO is looking out for them.

Thank you again for choosing our project amongst so many other important issues to support.

In Solidarity

Gabriella and The ECHO100PLUS Team

ECHOSTEPS UP!
ECHOSTEPS UP!
Jan 5, 2021

Good riddance 2020!

COVID-Kits Distribution outside Hotspot camp
COVID-Kits Distribution outside Hotspot camp

Dear friends, 

Our last report left you in August when our team had just finished a major summer clothes distribution and we had finally received the green light from the camp authorities to re-open the HUB for educational activities. Needless to mention, with all safety regulations in place such as distancing rules, the number of students we could accommodate in our classrooms was much lower than back in March when we had to close the HUB for the first time because of COVID-19. But there were also other reasons for low attendance.

To open the country for summer tourism - the backbone of the Greek economy - the government introduced safety regulations to contain the spread of the virus. Overall, the measures proved successful; infection rates remained relatively low over the summer, particularly on the islands. However, it quickly became apparent that refugees were excluded from the freedom of movement that tourists enjoyed. In March, all camps in the country were put under lockdown, meaning no resident was supposed to leave the camp premises other than for urgent matters such as doctors or hospital visits, errands for medication, etc. But throughout the summer while the country was opening up for tourists, the lockdown of camps was repeatedly extended. This effectively turned all refugee camps in the country into “closed” prison-like facilities and revealed an ulterior motive. 

The pandemic provided the perfect excuse: the new safety regulations laid the foundations for a new policy, which sees arriving refugees held in closed facilities until their asylum applications are processed - a procedure that should, in the future, take no longer than 12 weeks. The necessary precondition for such speedy procedures, however, is a substantial reduction of refugee arrivals. For this, the EU either needs to negotiate a new deal with Turkey – the last one was unilaterally suspended by Turkey in March 2020 – or it needs to find other ways to prevent refugees from coming; ways that have de facto already become common practice. 

Since March, multiple reports have surfaced telling of mass push-backs at sea, and even forced returns of people that had already reached the islands. This has resulted in only 9,687 refugees arriving in Greece by sea in 2020 (of which, less than 1,500 arrived after March!), an 84% drop from 2019. To further enforce the country’s anti-refugee policy, thousands of people residing in camps, apartments for vulnerable people (ESTIA), and hotel rooms under the Temporary Shelter and Protection Program (Filoxenia) were notified they would be expelled from their accommodation when they had already been granted asylum. These forced expulsions are consistent with a government policy that expects refugees to ‘stand on their own feet and fend for themselves’ within one month of protection status being granted. After a month, there is no more accommodation, no access to food support, and no EU-funded cash assistance.

The impact of these severe policies started to show in the second half of the year. On one hand, it led to massive homelessness among the refugee population with many people stuck on the streets of Athens or on the islands, unprotected from the virus. On the other, it left camp residents confused, desperate, and, understandably, not too motivated to attend educational programs. By the time we were finally able to re-open the HUB, many of our former students had left, others had been forced to leave the island, and some, fearing expulsion from the island, did not dare to leave the camp to come to class. Consequently, HUB attendance was at a historical low, especially in the classes that required regular attendance such as Languages or IT; sports and arts & crafts (activities that require less commitment) remained popular. However, by the end of August, we had at least managed to regain some of the positive community spirit with fewer, yet very committed students. 

Unfortunately, this changed again in mid-September, when a pregnant woman in the camp developed severe COVID symptoms and had to be air-lifted to a hospital on Crete. Her immediate contacts were put in a separate quarantine area and further cases were detected among them. The entire camp was put under strict quarantine which meant we had to suspend all activities and close the HUB for the second time in the year. Our team immediately switched to emergency response and supplied every camp resident with a COVID-Kit containing a three-week supply of disposable masks, hand-sanitizers, and soaps. Luckily, the quick reaction of the camp authorities had prevented the worst and the virus spread no further among the camp residents with the majority of cases taking a mild course.

It was clear that with COVID and the strict regulations in place, the situation would not improve, so we decided to reduce our offer of activities at the HUB, focusing on the preparation of hygiene and clothes distributions instead. This way, we could at least supply the camp residents with the most necessary items before the winter. The team went through thousands of boxes in our storage facility, re-sorting, and re-counting items, giving inappropriate clothes away to locals in need. As the Hotspot camp stayed locked-down, we were never able to reopen our HUB Boutique, but ran emergency distributions outside the Hotspot camp, catering separately to children, women, and men. As temperatures were starting to drop, it was a race against time to have everybody in warm winter clothes, and our final distribution in December was to give a warm blanket to everybody and prepare enough COVID-Kits in case of another surge of the virus. 2020 has been a tough year and although our mission was compromised by the difficult circumstances, we still managed to achieve a lot for our beneficiaries which would not have been possible without the flexibility, courage, and commitment of our volunteer team. 

We now need to wait and see what the new year will bring. Work on the new “closed” camp (or rather detention center) started in November. It will be located behind the current Hotspot, even further away from town. There are plans to provide the camp with facilities such as a mini-market, a coffee shop, some children’s day-care facilities - some basics that should keep people content while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. Refugees will be kept in isolation until they leave the island, be it forward to the mainland or backward to Turkey. But with Turkey currently refusing to take back refugees from the Greek islands and with no new deal in sight, we wonder how this plan will work out. We feel that our future operations will depend less on Corona, and more on political decisions. Will the EU continue to tolerate push-backs at sea thereby controlling the number of arrivals on the islands? Will authorities manage to process asylum applications as quickly as they plan? Will NGOs be able to continue their work?  The past year has already given us a taste of the Greek government’s approach towards NGOs. Because of the introduction of such tough regulations, many have had no choice but to give up and cease operations. Clearly, witnesses on the ground are not welcome. The government's final blow was the introduction of a “Confidentiality Law”, which obliges workers and civil servants, as well as NGOs and their volunteers, to stay silent about what they witness in the camps, be it related to operations or residents. In short, it is not going to be easy and there are a lot of open questions. However, one thing is clear: as long as we are granted access to our beneficiaries, we are determined to stay on the island and continue to help.





Kids Clothes Distribution at the Hotspot
Kids Clothes Distribution at the Hotspot
Clothes Distribution at the Hotspot
Clothes Distribution at the Hotspot
Women's Day Activity
Women's Day Activity
English Class at the HUB
English Class at the HUB
Volleyball in the HUB garden
Volleyball in the HUB garden
 
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