The past four months in Greece have been marked by momentous shifts for asylum seekers and refugees, from ongoing COVID-19 restrictions to increased insecurity and uncertainty on the Aegean Islands. As we mark the five year anniversary of the founding of Lighthouse Relief, we take stock of these changes, and all that we have been able to achieve thanks to your support. Today, it is more important than ever to continue providing support to people seeking asylum in Greece.
When we last shared an update with you, we had paused our primary operations on Lesvos, with a small team of our long term volunteers remaining on the north shore to support new arrivals with essential items, in coordination with our partners. In Ritsona Camp, we were supporting youth through an online space, while also planning ways to restart our activities in a safe way.
Since then, much has changed for us and for our teams in Greece. We invite you to take a look at how our programmes have evolved since then - how we have navigated the challenges of the past months, as well as difficult decisions with which we have grappled.
Ritsona Camp: A Digital Space & Restarting Activities
Ritsona Camp, mainland Greece, is now home to almost 3,000 people - more than four times its population in 2017. Thanks to your support through the years, in 2019, we reached 55 percent of the camp’s residents through our Youth Engagement and Child Friendly spaces.
After over four months of quarantine, our physical spaces in camp were in urgent need of rebuilding and restructuring - from new flooring and weatherproofing, to walkways and electrical work. Our Ritsona team worked directly with the community from the start to revamp our spaces, building a new roof and fence completely from scratch.
Despite the past months being a difficult time for Ritsona, we were moved and grateful to see the youth coming together - rebuilding these spaces not only for their peers, but also for the youngest generations of camp residents: “several youth told me this week they wanted to be part of rebuilding Lighthouse because it is a place for everyone, and we should all work together to get it open as soon as possible,” our YES Manager shared.
While rebuilding the space, the YES also adopted new strategies to make sure that our programming remained safe and socially distant, integrating more seating areas to accommodate the growing number of youth in the space since the recent expansion. As lockdown measures began to ease in Greece in the late summer, our team was thrilled to be able to relaunch our in-person activities in Ritsona Camp in early August.
When we launched our in-person activities in the Child Friendly Space, we also made significant changes to ensure that our programming would be COVID-19 safe. We focused on the age group of 3-4 years old, as they have no other formal or non-formal educational activity available to them, and they cannot go to Greek schools - at this crucial development phase, children need opportunities to play and learn in a safe space. In order to make sure our spaces are hygienic, our CFS team started cleaning and sanitising the spaces three times a day, also sanitising any toys used, and distributing hand sanitiser to our young visitors. Our reopening of the CFS would not have been possible without your support these past months!
Another exciting development in the past months has been the launching of our formalised Resident Volunteer Programme (RVP). Our Resident Volunteers have played a critical role in our psychosocial support activities in Ritsona Camp for the past two years, and this August, we launched a formalised version of the programme to offer in-depth training and skills-building.
In early September, we were disheartened when Ritsona was placed under a lockdown due to Coronavirus cases in the camp. However, we took this as an opportunity to further clean, decorate and weatherproof our spaces in the camp while providing as much remote psychosocial support as possible. Our Resident Volunteer Facilitator has been finding innovative ways to provide psychosocial support and training to our Resident Volunteers remotely. Through pre-recorded videos, skills practice and online resources, she has been offering training on coping skills building, including tools such as self-compassion, gratitude, and journaling.
This week, we have been able to re-start our programming in the CFS, offering activities to Ritsona Camp’s young residents aged 3 and 4. We have also reopened parts of the YES, holding an in-person English workshop outdoors, with masks mandatory! Thanks to your support, we were able to ensure that all activities were carried out in strict compliance with hygiene and sanitation guidelines.
Lesvos: A Difficult Decision for Our Lesvos Team Amidst Increasing Insecurity
In the past few months, we have witnessed a series of upheavals on Lesvos, impacting the security and human rights of asylum seekers and refugees. In order to demonstrate the impact of your support, we would like to share with you some of the challenges that we have faced on the island since June, and some of the ways in which we have responded.
Unfortunately, the process for people arriving to Lesvos has undergone significant changes, becoming increasingly militarised. Since May, upon arrival, people are taken to a quarantine camp located in the north of Lesvos - an extremely low-resource setting to which only the authorities and the UNHCR have access. In addition, and as recent news reports confirm, the illegal practice of pushbacks has significantly increased in the Aegean Sea - this has made it nearly impossible for people to seek asylum, a right to which they’re entitled by international law, and has greatly reduced the numbers of arrivals to Lesvos.
Thanks to your generosity and steadfast support, we were able to find ways to continue providing support to vulnerable people on Lesvos over the summer despite these challenges. We focused on the distribution of non-food items, such as clothing, hygiene items, and baby items, to people in the quarantine camp, through another orgnaisation on the north shore. Our Logistics Officer also further expanded our provision of clothing and other essential items to other organisations serving asylum seekers in the south of Lesvos.
In early September, we witnessed asylum seekers pushed into an even more precarious position, when fires devastated Moria Camp, where over 12,000 refugees and asylum seekers were residing. The day after the fires, we immediately supported our partners in the south of the island with urgently needed items, such as bottles of water, baby food, and dry food.
However, despite our efforts to continue providing support to asylum seekers on Lesvos, it is clear that with the changes described above, the role of NGOs like ours in the context of arrivals has become extremely limited. Though we have continued to help in any way we could, it is no longer possible for us to provide the same dignified emergency response that we committed to in September of 2015, five years ago. After much deliberation and painful discussions, we recently made the decision to formally cease our Emergency Response operations and to withdraw from Skala Sikamineas, the tiny fishing village that is the base of our operations. To learn more about this decision, we invite you to visit us online here.
In the short-term, we have focused on distributing needed items from our warehouse in the north to other organisations across the island, particularly in this time of acute need on Lesvos. We also worked to transfer some of our remaining stock of clothes and NFIs to the community-run warehouse in Ritsona Camp, from where it can be redistributed. In the long term, we are identifying the biggest needs both on Lesvos and on the mainland of Greece, to see how we can respond to the short-term and the long-term impacts of the fire, which are vast and multi-faceted. We look forward to sharing the next steps for our Emergency Response operations with you in the future.
The Immeasurable Impact of Your Support
We want to conclude with a wholehearted thank you for your support - not only in the past months, but since we launched this project years ago. It is thanks to your support that we have been able to provide a dignified emergency response on Lesvos for the past five years. You have also enabled us to continue providing psychosocial support in Ritsona Camp, where it is more needed than ever.
As we look forward to our next endeavours, we are humbled by your compassion, solidarity, and support - for this and so much more, thank you.
The CFS Team in Ritsona Camp
Interactive Storytelling in the CFS
The YES team & youth working on reconstruction
Water & baby food delivered after Moria fires
In-person English classes relaunched in the YES