ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration

by Echo100plus
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
ECHO HUB Leros: Prepare Refugees for Integration
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
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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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Since our last published report, our volunteers sadly had to be evacuated from Leros and, like the rest of the world, the team and students went into lockdown and the HUB was closed. It seems, this was the best thing we could have done as luckily no one got sick, and our team was able to return to their homes safely. It was a difficult time for everyone but especially due to the fact that we had to halt all of our on the ground operations and couldn’t assist others going through this distressing time.

In order to prevent a complete lapse in education and activities, we transitioned all of our English, Greek, French and German language classes online. Students were able to join Facebook groups and have daily lessons with their teacher. We offered shared exercises, live sessions and Q&As. We reached as many students as possible, and had teachers from every corner of the world speaking to their students on a daily basis. Language groups were well attended, and we even had extracurriculars such as exercise videos (some prepared by one of our students), photography classes, yoga and relaxation, drawing and many more. It was important for us to maintain contact with our students and volunteers throughout this hard time to ensure we didn’t lose momentum. Furthermore, we wanted to offer a means of distraction and help tackle potential mental health issues during these distressing circumstances.

We wanted to give a sense that even though we were apart we were very much together in all of this. It was the perfect time for many of our volunteers to showcase their skills and share them with our larger community. The response from our students was very positive and we were happy to demonstrate our dedication through our online channels.

During the lockdown we were able to raise funds for safety equipment and products that were lacking on the island.  This included items such as masks, soap, hand sanitizer and additional PPE. The local team distributed these items in the hotspot to residents, to local care providers, and to other actors on Leros. We were very happy to be able to offer these much needed supplies for peace of mind and added safety.

Towards the end of June, a small team was able return to Leros and started sorting through our clothes warehouse, primarily replacing winter supplies with summer stock. Due to the lockdown, the residents of the hotspot and other housing facilities had not received clothes for months and were not at all equipped for the harsh Greek summer. Once the team had fully prepped the stock we were able to start our summer clothes distribution on the 20th of July. It ran until August 6th and in total served 984 residents on Leros. This included 257 babies and children (under the age of 16) and 34 unaccompanied minors. Due to the ongoing threat of the Corona virus, we were extremely prudent with the distribution, prioritizing the safety and health of both staff and beneficiaries.

For this reason, we moved it from the usual site of the HUB boutique, to the HUB garden. Here we were able to spread items out in the open air, all team members wore masks throughout and we invited residents to come in very small groups. These groups were all driven to and from camp in our vans to ensure people were on time, didn’t have to walk in the summer sun and acted in compliance with the first reception’s restriction rules.

On the 12th of August we were finally able to open the HUB again for activities and lessons. Our team gave then HUB a much-needed lick of paint and dusting after having been closed for so many months. We followed government guidelines on social distancing in classrooms and centers. This meant that we had limited numbers of students in classrooms, with desks 1.5m apart, mandatory mask wearing, and other such safety practices. With great energy and enthusiasm, we welcomed students back for English lessons and limited activities. Within a short period, we were able to add German classes and other extracurriculars such as photography, creative writing, music and outdoor activities including the very well attended and loved football session. We are pleased to see that during this time many of our old students had moved on to either the mainland or other countries. As a result, we are thrilled to welcome new students and register them for classes and activities.

Exciting times lie ahead for the ECHO HUB Leros as a new team, new students and a new schedule learn to navigate the new normal of living through a pandemic.

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Volunteer team leaving Leros
Volunteer team leaving Leros

Dear Friends,

We hope you are all well and safe in these challenging times.

Over the past months, events had been overturning at a pace hard to keep up with! Now, that we are all restricted to our home offices, we finally have a moment to reflect recent events, plan our future, and most importantly, update you on the situation in Greece in general and on our operations on Leros in detail.

Things already started to get bumpy in Mid-February, when the Greek Government began to implement the new asylum policies they had previously announced last autumn. These policies aim squarely on deterrence and deportation and previsioned fast-track asylum procedures to decongest the affected Aegean island camps that, at this point, already accommodated more than 42.000 asylum seekers instead of the designated 6,000. Among the first steps to be taken to facilitate the new procedures, Hotspot camps were to be replaced by "closed" detention centres, a plan that was not only vehemently opposed by Human Rights organizations, but also by the local population, who did not want their islands to become prison-sites. When the commissioned construction firms started to arrive on Lesvos and Chios, they were received with fierce protests by the locals, which riot police cut off with equally aggressive response and the situation quickly escalated. Enraged locals, who had enough of the strain of the ever-rising refugee population and the lack of support from governing bodies such as the EU, started to direct their frustration against asylum seekers and NGOs.

Amid this already tense situation, on February 27th, Turkey announced to no longer stop refugees from reaching Europe by land or by sea. Instantly, thousands of refugees started to move to the sea-shores and to the borders towards Greece and Bulgaria in the hope to be able to cross. The Greek Government immediately activated an emergency decree contained in the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement with the consequence that those arriving in Greece after March 1st, 2020 were to be detained in closed facilities with their right to apply for asylum suspended. Boat arrivals were to be transferred to the mainland, from where they should be deported to their country of origin or Turkey as quickly as possible. 

But by the time this became public, the land border in the Evros region in Northern Greece had already turned into a battlefield with Greek and Turkish army violently pushing refugees from one side to the other. Thousands of tear-gassed and beaten people ended up in the no-man's zone between the borders. When 1,180 asylum seekers had arrived on the Aegean islands after March 1st, the response was no less hostile. Refugees were threatened, and within days, numerous NGO facilities on Lesvos, Chios and Samos were attacked and set ablaze by agitated locals; individual volunteers and asylum workers experienced unprecedented threats. At this point, quite a few NGOs on the islands had to cease their operations and started to evacuate their teams.                                                                            

How did all this impact our operations on Leros?

The already present 3.200 asylum seekers on Leros were increased by another 252, arriving in the first days of March. The new arrivals were immediately put in detention on the Port Police premises right next to the ECHO HUB, a space unfit for the purpose, as it neither has roofed shelters, nor sanitary facilities. Luckily the over-whelmed Port police accepted our help for which we released emergency funds, and our team was allowed to supply the detainees with the basics. Our volunteers prepared and delivered formula milk bottles and baby food for the 28 children under the age of 3yrs; men, women and children were supplied with essential hygiene packs including everything from underwear, wipes/soaps, pampers, sanitary pads, etc. The 253 detainees (in the meantime, a baby had been born!) were moved to a camp on the mainland three weeks later. So far, they have not been able to apply for asylum.

All this was going on while COVID-19 started to spread all over Europe silently and more and more cases also became apparent in Greece, a country whose health system has been driven into the ground by the still ongoing financial crisis. Following the lead of other European countries, the Greek Government decided to shut all public schools, universities and educational centres on March 10th. By the 11th this included the private sectors, and on the March 12th, they shut down all asylum offices and procedures for the months to come. As a consequence, we had to close both our HUBs in Athens and on Leros and in a race against time, we started to evacuate our volunteers to get them home before the country was going to shut down completely. Luckily all of them have made it back home safely and healthily.

Since then, our concerns indeed continue to lie with our beneficiaries on the island. Should the virus contaminate camp residents, consequences will undoubtedly be disastrous, as neither camp infrastructure nor Leros' small hospital is prepared and can respond efficiently. All our efforts have, therefore, focused on assessing urgent needs and sourcing materials to help where we can.

As a first step, we managed to install more water-outlets to give people at least the possibility to wash their hands. - So far, the c 1,200 people living outside the official camp, just had a single water-outlet. To improve overall hygiene conditions, we organized and supplied the camp with 10 additional trash containers and arranged with the municipality to service them on a daily base. Another priority was to provide camp staff - doctor's team, First Reception and police staff - with protective gear, as they are currently the only ones going in and out of the camp: Facial masks, gloves, overalls, goggles and some medical supplies have been handed over to all of them about one month ago. Currently, we are busy supplying all the camp residents with the most critical protective items. Two weeks ago, we distributed a soap supply for each individual, as we received a very generous soap donation from the Greek Papoutsanis soap company. Hand-sanitizer and facial masks will follow in the next days.

In regards to our educational programmes, we are restricted, as due to COVID-19, the Hub is locked down and, our beneficiaries are not allowed to leave the camp for the time being. In order to stay in touch with our beneficiaries during this time, our teachers and volunteers have shifted Hub classes to online platforms, and we are happy to say, that quite a few residents are taking advantage of the opportunity to continue their studies.

We hope that all this will not last too long, as it is incredibly frustrating not to be able to do more for the residents in these difficult times! We thank you for your ongoing support and promise to be back as soon as circumstances allow us.

Be safe and be well, The Echo Team

New arrivals on Leros in March
New arrivals on Leros in March
Team preparing Baby packs
Team preparing Baby packs
Soap distribution in the Leros Hotspot camp
Soap distribution in the Leros Hotspot camp
Protective gear for Hotspot's medical team
Protective gear for Hotspot's medical team
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In the last year, the number of refugees arriving in Greece has dramatically increased. Reports show that 1,224 boats have arrived on the Aegean islands just this fall. In the past week alone, 44 boats arrived, increasing the current population of refugees on Leros to 3,120, half of whom, including 550 children, are now homeless. In addition to homelessness, the refugees also suffer from inadequate and contaminated food and water supply, lack of sanitary facilities, unhygienic living conditions, clothing shortages, boredom, and limited mental and physical health care. The winter months have been severe; spurring a variety of illnesses and leaving the local hospital overwhelmed and overworked. Echo HUB Leros fights to ameliorate a number of these issues.

 

With the help of the Aegean Solidarity Network—Team UK, RENEW, Aide et Espoire, APOGO—and many generous Greek citizens and volunteers, Echo Hub was able to lead the drive in purchasing and distributing over a thousand blankets to the homeless residents suffering in the freezing temperatures with no shelter or warmth. Still, despite our best efforts, many residents are living on the streets facing winter temperatures with no respite.

 

With the now expanded “Hub Boutique”, a clothing provider operating on a points system, we provide clothes four days of weeks to the hundreds of residents who came with nothing but the clothes on their back. Due to the high influx of people already mentioned we have had to add extra boutique shifts to ensure that everyone receives some form of warm clothing, this inevitably has led to our clothes recourses running low, and we have increased our clothing collection from private donors and clothes distributors in Greece, as well as buying the vitals with funds raised from volunteers.

 

As well as the above, to try and create more pleasant and liveable conditions for the residents we have started a new clean – up programme. After realising that the trash removal of the Hot – Spot area hadn’t expanded to the new living squats we devised a cleaning programme with our volunteers and residents every Sunday to try and reduce the overwhelming levels of garbage that were bringing only filth, sickness and animals. This has already made a huge difference both for hygiene and general spirit, but more must be done.

 

Despite the diversion of resources, Echo HUB Leros maintains the core enrichment programs developed over the years to help the residents adapt and transition. We continue to welcome new registrations; our language programs have full enrolment and we plan to meet the needs of our students by adding more ABC English classes. Our daily art and sports sessions remain extremely popular and a new garden project is now underway to transform and update the outside area so we can use it to its best ability.

 

These challenging months could not have been done without our volunteers hard work and resilience and our donors continuous unrelenting support. Thank you! 

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Echo100plus

Location: Vienna - Austria
Website:
Project Leader:
Gabriella Dixon
Vienna, Vienna Austria
$307,214 raised of $350,000 goal
 
1,027 donations
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